Pride and Humility: A Historical Fiction Author’s Views on the Merits of Fictional License in Historical Romance

Do all authors start out as ego-centric snobs? I did. After reading every piece of Regency/Victorian/Edwardian literature I could find, from Dickens and Eliot to the lesser-knowns like George Meredith and Silas Hocking, I got to a point where I felt my favorite tropes had been exhausted. So I started a book that I hoped would include them all: love-hate relationships, misunderstandings, arranged marriage, inheritance, women’s equality, platonic-love-turned-romantic, rags to riches . . . . But they weren’t going to be Historical Romances. Oh, no! I was literary. I was well-read and well-educated. The books I wrote would be historical masterpieces, thoroughly researched to within an inch of their little lives. Oh, and they weren’t little, either. Great big 500 page tome’s, they were. And they were, or so I hoped, Literary Fiction. At least they were Historical Fiction. Weren’t they? I made sure I was writing about things that actually happened, even if the characters were invented (the Married Women’s Property Act of 1888 and all the greed-driven finagling that went on between guardians and their naive wards, the opening of the Tube, the development of the automobile).

I used my books not just to convey historical events, but also to paint an accurate picture (accurate, at least to my mind) of the manners and mannerisms, the etiquette and cultural norms of the age, the philosophies and belief systems, the rules written and unwritten, the and, even, the tolerated if unusual. It was this last that got me into trouble. In some fields, or so I’ve learned is the case in nearly every sphere I have worked in (from the literary to the too-oft politically charged world of historical preservation) everyone is an expert, and everyone else is not. To all of this I added my own experiences (for some conflicts are timeless) and veiled them behind the garb of bustles and corsets and the backdrop of ballrooms and dining rooms and unwed and newlywed bedrooms.

And, of course, and despite my painstaking study, my immersive self-education . . . it proved not to be enough.

Here is the lesson: history is an illusion. If you don’t believe this, try having a civil discussion on the Civil War, it’s origins and repercussions. Is there a right view at this point? Or is it all, a hundred and forty years later, merely an invention of modern understanding? Yes, the truth is there somewhere, but I defy you to present one person who has it all exactly accurate in their heads, from who dealt the first blow to who bears the blame of it now. The point being, not that there is not truth out there, but that no two people are likely to grasp it similarly.

O.K. That’s an extreme example, but it’s true that the past is something of an illusion. We barely can grasp our presence with the accuracy it requires.

So, after writing the three books, which I had originally planned to be five, I gave up on my attempts at Historical Fiction. Not because they weren’t good. And certainly not because people wouldn’t read them. Those books made me a lot of money, after all. But more because it just felt like too much work to craft a book the way I thought I was crafting it, only to find out that it was something else entirely. And I see now that I could have told the stories more concisely, but . . . they are what I wanted them to be at the time. I did the best I could. But plotting such large books is a real challenge.

And then, for some reason I can’t really explain, I got it into my head to write a political conspiracy. It started out as a modern piece. It was full of conspiracy theories and dark warnings about where we were headed politically, both in our country and across the civilized world.

But then my viewpoint and perspective changed. I was writing a dystopian saga. It felt smarter than me, challenging in a way that was less exhilarating than it was terrifying.

And then came COVID and the “pop-up apocalypse” as my eldest child so aptly (and accidentally) dubbed it. 2020 was hard for most of us. It was certainly so for me. I kept having this nagging feeling that I needed to sit down and write. I made myself busy decoupaging walls, painting furniture, writing letters, reupholstering furniture . . . . And then the universe said “SIT DOWN AND WRITE, DAMN IT!” I didn’t listen until finally I fell down the back steps and broke my foot and was relegated to the sofa for the next ten weeks. Finally I started writing.

And then I suffered a devastating loss.

And then I started bing-watching James Acaster. (I will always be grateful to you, James, for being a true companion during that really difficult time.) I followed that up with true crime documentaries. Because it was ugly and horrid, but within a few short hours, the mystery would be solved and justice fulfilled.

And then Emma was released.

I watched it once, and then again. At first I was like . . . who is this scruffy Mr. Knightly? And now, five times through it, I’ve watched everything Johnny Flynn is in. But this is about Historical Romance and not my celebrity crushes.

While Emma is certainly literature, it is so much more than that. It is PRETTY! It is light-hearted! It is funny and charming and whimsical . . . it is a romantic confectionery such as I had forgot existed (and yes, I’ve seen EVERY Emma ever made)!

I should also mention here . . . BRIDGERTON!

Before I saw it, I literally said to a friend, “This represents everything I’ve ever and always hated about Historical Romance! It is NOT historically accurate, not in its casting, not in its characterizations, not in the language or the mores or the etiquette or subject matter.

And then I watched it.

And here’s the thing I have come to. Firstly, we NEED more beauty and love and hope (and yes, sex) in our lives! We need this return to art for art’s sake and beautiful language and yummy costumes (even if we don’t wear them ourselves–but oh. . .can I, please?) We need tidy plots with happy endings and the suggestion (if not the promise, impossible to make) of future happiness and stories that continue in bliss and companionable contentment off-stage. But do you know what we need more than that? We need to stop idealizing what was wrong with the past and nobleize and normalize what should be the ideal in our own society: diversity, equality, justice, love on equitable terms, fairness for all, righteous anger (don’t we all feel something of that right now?), and encouragement that the fight is worth it! These are things that truly accurate Historical Fiction cannot deliver. At least it is rarely accomplished if all the prejudices and inequalities are to be treated with the accuracy that we understand to be the norm. But that’s just it. If my books and others like them go off the tracks a little bit to make a necessary point to the modern-day reader, isn’t that all the better? Some themes, as I said earlier, some conflicts are true no matter what the year and the era.

So I will be less judgmental in the future and less rigid when it comes to my own expectations. I’ve recently started a new series that I think will be as fun to read as it is proving to be to write. I haven’t tossed all the rules out the window, but I’m definitely handling them in a more tongue-in-cheek fashion.

I think we are all over this “pop-up apocalypse”. Thank heaven Absinthe Moon and its sister volumes are not truly dystopian but end on a note of enlightenment and hope and empowerment (I just read that this is actually part of a new genre called SolarPunk). At least they will when I’ve finished them . . . and that is closer than you might think.

So yes, read and watch those cheesy HistRoms! Do it to enjoy a more genteel time and place, but do it, too, with the hope that what is good and noble in those can be ours again in this life, as well.

Or just because it’s fun. That’s enough of a reason, isn’t it?