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

Literally 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 instead of a pleasurable diversion. 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.

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?

*Disclaimer: This series of “deal breakers” is meant to refer to books labeled historical romances, and not to erotica, which is a completely separate sub-genre and has an entirely different purpose.

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

  1. The titles get me every time! I’m reading one now that is otherwise very good, but keeps referring to a young lady as Lady Clary instead of Lady Constance…and I keep thinking Constance’s mother is in the scene 😉 Or I’ve found books where a duke is addressed as “my lord” instead of “your grace”, and then it happens over and over in the story. Yikes! I could go on, but I won’t. There are still authors out there that get it right, and those are the books I read 🙂

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  2. It’s not just the misuse of English titles – it’s the use of “fall” instead of “autumn”, “sidewalk” instead of “pavement”, or when people talk about going “somplace else” rather than “somewhere else”… I’ve been violently disagreed with about the relevance or otherwise of americanisms, but I maintain that if you’re setting a book in the UK, then you need to use UK terminology. I find it hard to believe that experienced authors don’t know better – so is it down to the editors?

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  3. I certainly agree, Coz. I’ve read a great deal of historicals set in England, especially Regencies, and I have a pretty good handle on the way people spoke, but I still find mistakes slipping through from time to time, which is why I’m glad I have two wonderful critique partners who can usually find them, and an editor who appreciates the importance of historical accuracy.

    But it’s not just the language, or the titles. It’s the behavior of the characters. In so many books I’ve read lately, the heroines act like modern Americans in historical dress. Sometimes the heroes too. And the plots. . . it’s like these authors really don’t understand the period at all!

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