Historical Romance Deal Breaker #3: Anachronistic Behavior and Historical Inaccuracies

Blast From the Past: Susana is traveling in Scotland this week and she thought some of you might enjoy revisiting some of her previous posts on Susana’s Parlour.

Decades of reading historical romances have led me to develop strong opinions of what defines a truly satisfying story, so the other day I set about making a list of characteristics that turn a potential five-star read into a one- or two-star. Admittedly, there are some skillful authors who manage to successfully incorporate one or more of these scenarios in their books; however, I have run across quite a few more who in my opinion haven’t quite managed it.

These are what I call “deal breakers”—characteristics that make a book a wall-banger. Not surprisingly, many involve character, particularly, the character of the hero and heroine. They have to be likable. They have to be three-dimensional, i.e., well-drawn-out characters with flaws, not fairy princesses. And they have to be able to fall in love, convincingly, the head-over-heels kind of love.

Overview of Susana’s Historical Romance Deal Breakers

  1. Reluctant Heroes
  2. Adultery
  3. Anachronistic Behavior and Historical Inaccuracies
  4. Cliffhanger Endings
  5. Unattractive or Drop-Dead Gorgeous Heroines
  6. Heroes With Mistresses or Who Sleep With Servants
  7. Drop-Dead Gorgeous Heroes
  8. Promiscuous Heroines
  9. Contrived Endings
  10. Waifs and Silly Heroines
  11. Long Separations
  12. Excessively Cruel Heroes and Heroines
  13. Breaking the Rules: Why Some Authors Get Away With It

Deal breaker #3 is: anachronistic behavior and historical inaccuracies.

So many of the newer historical authors seem to be turning out what I consider contemporary stories in historical settings, and it seems as though many readers don’t care. The curvy girl on the cover wears a beautiful gown, and the novel is full of balls and handsome dukes, and if the girl sneaks out to the garden and engages in steamy sex with someone, reviewers praise it to the heavens for being “hot.” Am I the only one who questions the assumption that a gently-born young woman would be allowed to accompany a gentleman on the terrace for more than five minutes without her chaperone coming to look for her?

While I have to acknowledge that readers new to this genre may not recognize these problems, too many indications of the author’s ignorance of the time period can ruin a book for those of us who know better. And it may well be that the author doesn’t care. If all she is looking for are a few extra dollars and some temporary éclat, the ease of self-publishing can give her the platform, and her devoted friends and family can shower her work with favorable reviews until she moves on with her life.

Unfortunately, it’s not just the self-published stories that feature egregious historical inaccuracies. It seems as though the editors—if they still exist—are also unfamiliar with the time periods of the books they handle. Either that or they are so over-worked they hope the readers will be too engrossed in the story to balk at a few “minor” issues. And it’s true: I find I can ignore a problem or two in an otherwise wonderful read. However, if there are too many, or if the entire plot is dependent upon some unlikely scenario, that’s when the book ceases to be a pleasurable experience and becomes a wall-banger for me.

Here are some anachronisms and historical inaccuracies I have encountered just within the past five months in books considered historical romances (not erotica*), all involving young, innocent heroines:

  • The heroine is allowed to leave her home and walk around London without any sort of chaperone, in some cases even going to call on a single gentleman alone.
  • The heroine attends a house party hosted by a gentleman known for his scandalous house parties—which is enough in itself to ruin her reputation—but she is so loosely chaperoned that she and her lover can easily sneak into each other’s rooms at night.
  • In a medieval, the hero and heroine cannot marry because their siblings are married to each other, which by church law makes them siblings as well. So they run off and pretend to be married. Really? While our 21st century wisdom tells us this law is ridiculous, these characters lived with medieval cultural and religious mores; the guilt over time would eventually take its toll, even if their deception were never uncovered. NOT a satisfactory HEA.
  • The heroine attends a ball and inadvertently has sex with a stranger in a library so dark they cannot see each other’s faces.
  • The heroine’s father wants her to marry an old lecher and tells her to allow him whatever liberties he wants.
  • The heroine is allowed to remain alone in the family home with no supervision.
  • The heroine is allowed to host her brother’s scandalous house parties.
  • The heroine goes shopping for a gown to wear at a ball that very evening. (I suppose she dropped in at Harrod’s to look through the dresses on the rack?)
  • Waffles are served for breakfast.
  • The heroine is allowed to entertain gentleman callers and ride in a closed carriage with a gentleman with no supervision.
  • The hero is a male prostitute in a brothel where aristocrats bring their daughters to be “breached” prior to the wedding night. (!!!)
  • The author doesn’t understand British titles and refers to a young girl as Lady Davenport instead of Lady Camilla. (HINT: before writing a historical novel set in England, read up on the proper use of titles. It’s really not something you can just guess at.)
  • An illegitimate son is the heir to his legitimate half-brother’s title and estate.
  • A man is allowed to marry his father’s or brother’s widow, or a woman is allowed to marry her deceased sister’s widower.

What anachronisms and historical inaccuracies make a book a wall-banger for you?

 

7 thoughts on “Historical Romance Deal Breaker #3: Anachronistic Behavior and Historical Inaccuracies

  1. Wow, some of these I’ve never even heard of it a book! Like “The hero is a male prostitute in a brothel where aristocrats bring their daughters to be “breached” prior to the wedding night. (!!!)” That is like not even heard of during that time! And then there are some of them that I’ve touched upon before, but passed on it. I guess it’s that thing were the author wanted something to happen so they did a “little” tweaking to the story.
    But one thing that does bother me is when the heroine uses contemporary language. Or is overtly out spoken, I find it alright between the hero/ine but towards a larger group of people and in society, then it’s just not quite correct.

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    • Yes, the language bothers me too. I think it’s really necessary to have read a great deal in the genre first before attempting to write in it. Especially for those of us brought up outside of the UK.

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  2. I think I agree with you that these things raise some serious eyebrows – 99 times out of 100. I’ve been criticized a time or two for my medieval trilogy, especially The Loyal Heart, because it’s so anachronistic. However, I did that deliberately. I was going for the vibe of the movie A Knight’s Tale. I tried to make it super obvious that that’s what I was doing too. It was a style choice, but I still get eviscerated for it now and then. ;) But what I was trying to do seems very, very different than the examples you mentioned. Those do sound more like ignorance of history than deliberate choices. It’s a shame too.

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    • I think anyone who attempts to write in this genre needs to be (1) widely read in it, and (2) constantly studying the time period. Since Treasuring Theresa was published, I’ve spent a lot of time reading up on things to make sure I don’t make a ton of mistakes. They do happen in spite of that, but I’ve run across lots of books lately where it seems the authors don’t really care about historical details…and nor do many of their readers, I’m sorry to say!

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  3. Titles and correct address are often incorrect even when penned by established (old hand) historical romance novelists. No servant nor lower status persons in the Georgian/Regency eras respectively addressed a titled lady as Lady Georgina to their face. Only close friends and family had that privilege, the upper privilege being use of first name: Georgina. However, in private (servants’ quarters) staff might/often refer to her ladyship as the Lady Georgina in order to save confusion betwixt other titled ladies in residence at that time. In the official capacity of announcing her ladyship within another abode, a butler/valet/manservant would either present her ladyship’s card to a recipient or announce her presence as Lady Georgina Fitzpatrick,

    The thing that bugs me most is the way in which authors lack understanding of English society, English & French etiquette, and the fact that Marquis was in use in England up until the second Napoleonic era when French influence (Marquis) was dropped in favour of Marquess, Basically, any thing French orientated became a dirty word. Chaperones (women for young ladies) were much in evidence within the gentry of Georgian/Regency (middle classes) but in the aristocracy nurses/tutors et al were often seconded to carry out the role of chaperone, and not all tutors were “women”. The aristocracy were given to appearance of strict adherence to moral structures for their legitimate offspring but there was as much hanky-panky at grand gatherings as there was in the back streets within the realm of gutter/theatre wenches: and not all due to hell-rakes. In the years Earlier in 1644 – 1685 Charles II much was made of as the “merry monarch” and yet, pornographic novels and images were imported into England during Cromwell’s time (1655) from France & Italy. Child prostitution was rife alongside bawdy houses of note and continued right through to the Victorian era, when child prostitution was swept under the carpet and hidden from view but no less prevalent There are a lot rose-tinted ideals of historical nuance and presentation, and too often novelists fail to research the vital details (minor), which make the difference between credible reading and utter fantasy! . . .

    . .

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    • If I recall correctly, Barbara Cartland always used Marquis. But a few others do too; I’m not sure why.

      I don’t really expect all of the readers to know every detail of the period, but I would think the authors would be more careful to do their homework, since there will be plenty of readers who will catch them. I’ve had to do a lot more study of the period since writing Treasuring Theresa, since I don’t want my stories to be riddled with mistakes like that. Although some WILL slip by.

      Thanks for stopping by, Francine!

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  4. All of the above, plus language will throw me out of the story and make me quite reading. BTW, not only was the medieval’s HEA not good, neither were her facts. They could have married. There is a reason I don’t read a lot of even famous authors. Wonderful post, Susana!! I tweeted.

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