Introducing the “mistorical,” and The Uses and Limits of History in Romance
First I want to formally introduce our newest tag at Dear Author: mistorical. Now tags don’t generally get such an officious welcome, but this one, in particular, might be a wee bit controversial, as it means, quite literally, “mistaken historical.” In other words, it’s the tag we’re now going to be using to describe all manner of historically inauthentic and inaccurate books on the blog – a catchall term that can be used for books of any time period or any type of mistaken, misused, mythologized, missing, or otherwise inaccurately portrayed historicism.
Why have such a tag? Because for many readers (myself included), the historical authenticity and accuracy of a book labeled “Historical Romance” is an important element of its construction. This was certainly the case in DA January’s review of Phoenix Sullivan’s Spoil of War, in which the author explicitly defended the historical representations of her book:
As an indie author (or whatever term will eventually come to define us) by choice and a content editor by trade, I absolutely own any copyediting errors in the book. However, the two specifically pointed out are not errors. “Fagging courage” is correct; one of the definitions of the verb fag is to weary or exhaust. And “prob” is more akin to “pushing futiley at” than the word “probe” is. I’m happy to review comma errors that may have been made — with the understanding that commas can be a rather “gray” area when it comes to style and pacing.
I’m also not here to go point by point through the research, but I will mention that “Ryan” is the anglicized version of the many variants of a name that is ancient Gaelic in origin (Rian, Rion, Riain, etc), much like the name Arthur itself is an anglicized version of any of several variants from Roman or Welsh origin.
The question of historicity dogged the comment thread, with Maili responding to Sullivan’s defense of Ryan:
Rían, Ríon and Ríain aren’t variants of one name nor do they have anything in common, except for one thing–this prefix: rí.
‘Rí’ on its own does mean ‘king’ (or in contemporary sense, ruler), but it doesn’t mean it’s just that when used as a prefix. Please, Irish – certainly old Irish – is a lot more complex than that. As a prefix, it implies anything that suggests high position or influence.
As it stands, there is nothing so far that can confirm the meaning of Ryan is ‘little king’. Four reasons: a) the supposed etymology of Ryan/little king doesn’t fit in with the traditional Irish naming system – same with the (Scottish) Gaelic naming system, b) some say that in Irish, it’s grammatically incorrect, c) it doesn’t fit geographically, and d) every intensive search so far had failed to make a solid connection between Ryan and ‘little king’ and/or ‘Rí’. Any decent Irish or Gaelic name etymologist can and will tell you all this.
As Sunita and Dhympna, a medieval historian, have detailed, the historical representations in the book are anything but historically sound, which cuts quite harshly against the author’s own defense of the book on those grounds.
Which raises the question of what the uses and limits of history are in fiction, and especially in the way readers evaluate fictional stories that depend, in their worldbuilding, on recognizable moments from the past.
Anyone who has conversed with me for longer than two minutes knows I’m pretty enthusiastically adamant that “historical Romance” should take history seriously, and that books we describe as wallpaper or historically inspired, or historical fantasy, or the like should have another label. Because as Dhympna’s analysis of Sullivan’s Spoil of War demonstrates, historical accuracy, even in a book set in the 5th century, is hardly impossible. Further, a sense of historical authenticity — that is, the larger atmospheric context that makes the world building believable — is obtainable for an era in which we have a decent amount of historical data and analysis available. And this may be naïve of me, but any time I hear an author say something like “I love history,” or “I love researching history,” or “I think historical research is so fascinating,” that raises my expectation for the historicity of their book. Because, like Sullivan’s defense of her novel, I read that as a kind of credentialing, albeit more casual than the inclusion of an author’s note or footnotes or bibliography or the like.
All that said, I do not think that historicity can save a bad story (and again, see Sunita’s review of Spoil of War for an example of this), or that its lack can ruin a masterful one. An example of the latter can be found in the long discussion pursuant to my review of Julie Anne Long’s What I Did For A Duke. Each reader determines what constitutes a masterful story, however, and readers can, indeed, be fatally distracted by what we perceive to be too many errors, historical or otherwise. By the same token, we can be mistaken about what is and isn’t accurate or authentic in a book, creating frustration for authors and indirectly, perhaps, perpetuating inauthentic but widely accepted elements.
One of the more perplexing issues for me around historical accuracy, though, is exemplified by the nature of the Regency Romance and the extent to which accuracy seems to be partially defined by genre progenitors like Jane Austen or foremothers like Georgette Heyer. In fact, the extent to which books like Heyer’s are now viewed as historical sources themselves demonstrates how muddy the concept of “historical accuracy” can be for a period like the Regency, which has much more significance and endurance in the genre than it does generally. As Maili pointed out on Twitter recently, much of the historical critique of Regency Romance deals with cultural and social faux pas rather than larger political or economic issues. It almost seems as if there’s a specific type of history readers of Regency Romance expect from the subgenre. I often feel confused by discussions about Regency accuracy, because I’m not well-versed in Heyer, and I don’t read Austen as genre Romance. So my question, as someone who does not have expert knowledge of the Regency, is how much of that alleged accuracy is derived from Heyer and Austen, and how much from a thorough knowledge of general historical sources?
One particular difficulty with Heyer seems to be the extent to which the author herself has become an icon and a beacon, which was very much in evidence throughout the Smart Bitches thread on The Grand Sophy, with author Anne Stuart objecting to Sarah’s frustration with the book’s stereotypical slur on “Jewish moneylenders:”
I saw the grade and thought, are you fucking crazy? In general I glaze over racism etc. in older books (and remember, this book is 61 years old, came out before GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT (the first major movie to tackle anti-semitism).
Then again, I adore Heyer so much that I simply ignore the appalling classism (the adopted son in THESE OLD SHADES—horrors!) etc. Either you adore Heyer or you don’t.
However, I am sorry that it was personally painful. I do think 1950 was long enough in the past to overlook the casual racism.
Given the contrast in tone between discussion of Phoenix Sullivan’s book and Heyer’s Grand Sophy, the question of historicity is pointed: how much does “real” history count, and does the author’s own history count? One author intercepts discussion of the book to defend her own research credentials against claims of offensive characterization, while in another context readers use “historical accuracy” to defend an offensive characterization. Sullivan goes so far as to suggest that readers who disagree with her portrayals in Spoil of War “demand anachronistic thinking from characters.” Which seems to be similar to what some readers are saying about those who take issue with the portrayal of Jewish characters in Heyer’s novels.
So what’s the difference? Is there a difference?
I think there’s a crucial difference, but will leave it to others to measure the validity of my distinction: In one instance, readers are being asked to accept the alleged historical accuracy of an author’s portrayal, offensive or not. In the other instance, readers are being asked to dismiss aspects of a portrayal that may or may not be historically accurate (or if accurate, certainly not universal). It’s especially ironic when you consider the fact that Heyer’s portrayal is probably more accurately reflective of both her time and the time of her books.
And yet the sheer depth and breadth of reader investment in Heyer’s books adds another layer to the dilemma of historicism, because in some cases it seems Heyer is not only being invoked as an author, but as a historical authority herself, for her own books and those derived from her body of work. Heyer seems to be both source and author, which shapes not only what is seen as “true” in her books and those influenced by her work, but also what is deemed appropriate in terms of reader response. That is, it seems that Heyer’s influence is influencing not only what we read in Regency Romance, but how we should be reading it, as well. Which for me diverges substantially from the notion and relevance of historical accuracy in the Romance genre as a whole.
So what if we remove the author from the analysis? At this point, is that even possible, especially with Regency Romance? And if it’s possible, will it make it easier or harder to assess the historical validity of a story?