“Oh, that’s Wallpaper History!” I’m sure you’ve heard this exzclamation—and I’m sure it wasn’t meant as compliment. Every Historical Romance novel has to have involved some degree of research. And the opinion of the degree necessary varies from reader to reader.
This reader appreciates a well-researched book. I love to read an author who has so thoroughly researched her era and her location that she imbues the story with the essence of her research and uses it to inform the story and move it forward. So yes, okay, I mean Loretta Chase. But I also mean Jo Beverley and Mary Balogh, among others.
In her Fresh Meat post for Loretta Chase’s Silk is for Seduction, Cheryl Sneed highlights one of those moments when a deep understanding of the time and place is essential to the story. In this quote, Marcelline Noirot explains to the Duke of Clevedon what is perfectly obvious to all of us, but would not be to a 19th-century duke.
“That’s all you think about. Your business.”
“It’s my life, you great thickhead! This—” she swept her hand to indicate the shop—“This is how I earn my living. Can you not grasp this simple concept? Earning a living?”
“This is how I feed and clothe and house and educate my daughter,” she raged on. “This is how I provide for my sisters. What must I do to make you understand? How can you be so blind, so willfully obtuse, so—”
“You’ll make me run mad,” he said.
I love an author who has done enough research to get the picky details right, who understands the era and knows in the depths of her soul that a title is not inherited through the female line (except in very specific cases) and knows that you never call a duke Lord Lastname. One who knows the history of her era well enough not to put a Regency hero on a train. This author also understands the cadence of the speech of the era and the social requirements. Her characters are in perfect sync with the era and the flow of the story is never interrupted by even small errors. This author can also seamlessly integrate history into a story. I’ll put Jo Beverley in this group, too, as well as Lisa Kleypas and Connie Brockway.
In Jo Beverley’s A Most Unsuitable Man, part of the plot revolves around papers belonging to a Malloren family connection:
“He asked if there were documents at Cheynings relating to Betty Crowley. You know – my great-great-grandmother?”
“One of Charles the Second’s many mistresses, and thus source of the royal blood supposed to run in Trayce veins? I believe the dowager might have mentioned her once or twice.”
Ash laughed, for his grandmother made sure to mention the “royal connection” as she called it, as often as possible, though heaven knew, descendents from the Merry Monarch’s liaisons weren’t rare.
I also love an author who uses Wallpaper History well. “What?” you ask. “Wallpaper History. Surely not.” Surely yes. Wallpaper history is the barest background of the era. Enough to identify the time and location. An empire waist dress, a barouche, breeches and Hessians—hey—Beau Brummell, too! These all work as wallpaper and handily define our setting. There does not have to be a lot of depth to the history in the stories, just enough to ground us and correct enough not to pull us out of the plot. When you’re using Wallpaper History, the trick is to tell a really good story. I can think of a couple of authors who do this to perfection.
Julia Quinn does not give us a huge amount of historical background. But she doesn’t need to. Her books are well-written, engaging and fun. It is obvious she understands her period and her characters capture our imagination. Amanda Quick is also a wonderful practitioner of Wallpaper History. And in much the same way as Quinn. Indeed, her characters might even be a little off-kilter for her period, but they are so much fun that we tend not to notice.
In The Viscount Who Loved Me, Julia Quinn displays the perfect use of Wallpaper History, using a description of the hero’s routine and duties to set the stage for the book.
And so in between Anthony’s rounds of parties and horse races, he’d sent his brothers to Eton and Oxford, gone to a mind-numbing number of piano recitals given by his sisters (no easy feat; three out of four of them were tone deaf), and kept a close and watchful eye on the family finances. With seven brothers and sisters, he saw it as his duty to make sure there was enough money to secure all their futures.
Occasionally, I love an author who just plain gets it wrong. But it has to be an extraordinary author. My author in this category is Carla Kelly, who holds correct titles and rules of inheritance in disdain and still manages to write a book that begs to be reread.
In Carla Kelly’s Miss Milton Speaks Her Mind, one of my favorite Traditional Regencies, Lord Denby, a marquis, offers to make an American relative his heir.
Dale perched himself on the railing. “Jane, he has offered to make me his heir, if I will repudiate my adoption and remain here in England. What do you think of that?”
“I think it would be a mistake for you,” she said.
He sighed. “And so I told him. I am an American, and I would miss my country and my family.“ He shrugged. “Why would I want to be a marquis, own extensive land, be richer than Croesus, and sit in the House of Lords? Not when I can have mud and mosquitoes and Indian alarms, no indeed!”
As if. And yet, I love this book because of the characters and the charm of the writing.
On occasion, unfortunately, you get neither a good story nor a good use of history. In a recently released Regency Historical, the heroine’s friend is trying to avoid marriage to the man her mother has picked for her. When the heroine asks her what she’s going to do, the friend replies,
“Thumb my nose at him. I’ve been meeting with a group of feminist women and we are currently reading Mary Wollstonecraft’s book A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in which she argues women are regarded inferior to men because of their lack of education. Even though Wollstonecraft has been dead now seventeen years, her ideas still provide endless fodder for discussion, and we currently are debating her beliefs on marriage.”
Yeah, yeah. We can see that the author knows about bluestockings and Mary Wollstonecraft and even (thanks for sharing) how long she’s been dead. But does she really think a girl chat about marriage would sound like this? I’m pretty sure readers don’t want research shoved down our throats
As you see, I have my limits, another of which I noted in a previous rant on this very site. But I think I’m pretty open-minded. I love a good story and I’ll be happy to take it seasoned with history in a variety of ways.
What are your limits?
Myretta is the co-founder and current manager of The Republic of Pemberley, a pretty big Jane Austen web site. She is also a writer of Historical Romance. You can find her at her website, www.myrettarobens.com and on Twitter @Myretta.