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Why Accuracy in Historical M/M Romance Matters (to Joan/SarahF)

Since my review of Bonnie Dee‘s m/m historical romance Jungle Heat, there has been considerable discussion in Romancelandia about historical accuracy. The ones I noticed were at Katiebabs’ blog, Kalen Hughes at History Hoydens, and Courtney Milan’s blog. I thought the conversations were interesting specifically in light of writing and reading historical gay romance. So, today we have my opinion piece on why (and what type of) historical accuracy matters *to me* in m/m romance specifically. And tomorrow we’ve got interviews by some of the leading m/m historical romance authors, to see what they have to say about the issue.

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First off: I do not want perfect historical accuracy in my historical romances. I care very little about the historical provenance of champagne flutes and while the wrong underwear might make me roll my eyes, it won't stop me from reading unless it's a symptom of a much larger problem with historical inaccuracies. Although I love accurate historical detail, if something has to give to serve the story, that's fine and I get it, really.

But romances to me are about the way people THINK and that is as historically contingent as how they dress.

Case in point: I'm a scholar of eighteenth-century literature, and specifically of the Romantic-era novel (end of the eighteenth century), because that was the century that people most started thinking like we do nowadays about love and marriage and class and, in small part, race, but also about freedom and democracy and civil rights. And I love that time of change. I love figuring out WHY people started thinking that way and how they got to that point. The eighteenth century is the century that produced the US Declaration of Independence and Constitution, the abolitionist movement, proto-feminism, and the primacy of companionate marriage. Before the eighteenth century, people literally did not think like we do about their own identity, their relationships with others, or their society. Traveling back in time to before the eighteenth century, even in Europe, would be like someone who has never traveled beyond rural Arkansas going to urban Japan. This is why I don't read medieval romance (except Laura Kinsale's For My Lady's Heart). Because it's almost impossible to get the way they THINK right in a way that would make SENSE to a modern reader. Medieval Europe was as foreign a country to the modern USA (or Europe) as the hunter-gatherer desert Khoi San culture is, or deeply religious Saudi Arabia.

More particularly: starting with the Renaissance but culminating in the Enlightenment philosophies of the 18th century, the way people thought about their status and worth as individuals changed in ways that would be unrecognizable to pre-Renaissance people. These Enlightenment philosophies privileged the individual over the institution (most obviously, the individual over the Church) and reason over dogma (ditto for the Church). Only the 18th century could have made the idea of marrying for love the dominant narrative. For reasons both social (rise of middle class, literacy, leisure time, disposable income) and technological (paper, printing, book binding), only the 18th century could have invented and popularized the novel. And, most importantly, only the 18th Century could have focused that novel on the feminine and the domestic, on the ways in which two people negotiate their love, form a relationship, and become the ideal social unit. We think about love and relationships the way we do today because of the 18th century and, in unavoidably connected ways, we read the romance novels we read today because of the 18th century roots of the novel.

This all goes double for the way homosexuality has been viewed in Western culture through the centuries. That very word, “homosexuality,” as we understand it nowadays as an identity, would be a historical anachronism anytime before the 20th century, some might even say anytime before the middle of the 20th century, depending on how you read history. Our modern understanding of homosexuality as an identity, as something people ARE, rather than as a series of acts that people do, is less than a century old.

Which is not to say that you can't write a historical romance with characters who think about their sexuality as an identity. Alex Beecroft does an amazing job with that: her characters know that they're different, know that they're not attracted to the opposite sex, know that it's an integral part of who they are. But they don't think to themselves "I'm gay" or discuss their homosexuality with others. The closest they come is thinking that they’re “inverts” or “sodomites.” But, still, writing about a man in the eighteenth century, who is what we would now consider gay, fall in love with another man entails detailing how he comes to realize that he CAN fall in love with his sexual partner. And that type of historically-specific internal conflict can be fascinating to read and can show us exactly how far we’ve come in our societal understanding of homosexuality.

And isn’t that what it’s all about? Why bother writing historical m/m romance if you’re not going to show how far we’ve come as a society to accept two people–any two people–who love each other? Why bother writing historical m/m romance if you’re going to ignore how HUGE and BRAVE a mental and emotional leap it was for GLBT people to fall in love and to pursue that love, despite everything society told them about how wrong their actions were, but more importantly, how impossible their emotions were.

Absolute historical accuracy–whether we’re talking about things or thinking–is impossible, impractical, and even undesirable, because we are always writing and reading from our own historical moment. But if historical fiction is written (in part) to reflect our own feelings about a contentious issue at a potentially safer distance, as Courtney Milan suggests in her blog post, then surely the very fact that the way we think about homosexuality has changed so much over the past 200 years is precisely the point? Historical accuracy about precisely when someone could consider themselves to BE “a homosexual” (rather than just doing homosexual things) is therefore a vitally important political act. "Imagine how homosexuality will be viewed in another 100 years," historically accurate novels say, "if we have come so far in the past 100 years." More importantly, to have historical m/m romance claim the same narrative as m/f romance, a narrative that is inextricably intertwined in the political, social, and civil rights of the individual to choose their own destiny, makes writing m/m romance a political act, and writing accurate m/m historical romance vitally important.

But if we want to take it down from the political level back to the level of the story, back to the ROMANCE part of HISTORICAL ROMANCE (to use Kalen Hughes’ terminology), then for historical m/m romance in particular, the historical accuracy is of paramount importance to HOW the romance progresses. It’s not like an anachronistic champagne flute or a red silk nightie when only white cotton (linen?) was used. The historical accuracy of the way people thought about themselves, about love, about sex, about IF they could fall in love and WHO they could fall in love with, the etymology of the terminology they used to imagine their relationships, is vital to the progress of their relationship because the very WORDS we use define how we think and how we see and interact with our world. So why write m/m HISTORICAL romance if you’re not going to play around with that?
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Tomorrow we’ll have author interviews with Josh Lanyon, Charlie Cochrane, Lee Rowan, Erastes, and Alex Beecroft, and Kate Rothwell and Bonnie Dee. Stay tuned!

Sarah F. is a literary critic, a college professor, and an avid reader of romance -- and is thrilled that these are no longer mutually exclusive. Her academic specialization is Romantic-era British women novelists, especially Jane Austen, but she is contributing to the exciting re-visioning of academic criticism of popular romance fiction. Sarah is a contributor to the academic blog about romance, Teach Me Tonight, the winner of the 2008-2009 RWA Academic Research Grant, and the founder and President of the International Association of the Study of Popular Romance (IASPR). Sarah mainly reviews BDSM romance and gay male romance and hopes to be able to beat her TBR pile into submission when she has time to think. Sarah teaches at Fayetteville State University, NC.

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