Sep 20 2011 4:00pm

Lovingly Researched or Wallpaper? Pick Your Historical Poison

Silk is for Seduction by Loretta Chase

“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?”

“I’m not—”

“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.

A Most Unsuitable Man by Jo Beverley

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.

The Viscount Who Loved Me by Julia QuinnI 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.

Miss Milton Speaks Her Mind by Carla Kelly

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.

Subscribe to this conversation (must be logged in):
1. Janga
I'm no purist. Julia Quinn and a number of others who are referred to with great disdain by some as writers of "wallpaper historicals" are autobuys for me because I love their characters and their voices. Of course, I also love the books of the historically accurate Chase and Company for the same reason. I can forgive Carla Kelly a lot because her books give me so much. The historicals I avoid are those with characters who behave like 21st-century people in costume.

I also recognize that some things the purists find unforgiveable don't bother me because of my own ignorance on some subjects. I'm sure that the grammatical errors and confused words that make me cringe never register with many readers.
2. JacquiC
I am no purist either, but some things really pull me out of the story. Modern turns of phrase often do. And concepts that seem more modern than the era of the book. I'm no historian, though, so I'm not always right about that. And that Mary Wollstonecraft quotation seems wrong on a number of levels. Quite apart from anything else, the term "feminist" would not have been used in the Regency period. My limited research to confirm this suspicion indicates that it did not start being used until the late 19th century. However, as you say, sometimes the history is secondary to the story and the voice of the author, which probably leads to the forgiveness of a great number of historical sins!
Heloise Larou
3. Heloise
Personally, I don't think it's research that makes the difference between wallpaper history and what, for lack of a better word, I'd call "deep" history - you can have everything historically correct down to the last detail and still end up with wallpaper if the period remains nothing but the (mostly exchangable) background in front of which your story unfolds without having any meaningful connection to it. In contrast, for a "deep" historical novel (romance or otherwise) the historical period needs to inform your story in a way that makes it essential to it, which is even achievable if you don't get all the details right as long as you manage to adhere to the spirit of the period you're writing about.
Admittedly, that's not a very precise distinction, but I think in that sense all of your examples (all of which, not to be mistaken, I consider delightful reads) are wallpaper history; while one of the few examples of "deep" history in the romance genre I could think of would be Laura Kinsale's Flowers From the Storm.
Louise Partain
4. Louise321
Of course I love the weaving of the fabric of history around the characters because I love history (a bow to Ms. Chase here) and I read Two Nerdy History Girls because well because of things like the fashions of 1817 and the dueling bird pistols and Henry VIII's armor with a head of horns and things I'll never see in Chase's and Holloway's books yet are informed by them.

But I do not like a period piece that is so mannered it doesn't have a firm heart of a story. Nor do I, like JacquiC, care for modern language or themes stridently insisted upon in a historic setting. What I do like, however, is a Heroine who is struggling against the prejudices of the day and not having her status rescued by her hero or some implausible plot line (A Most Unsuitable Man falls into this classification , Madeline Hunter's Seducer Series with its refusal to provide totally cloudless HEAs for all its characters and a stunning lot of Lisa Kleypas' period writing when I think about it does also -- those Hathaways).
Myretta Robens
5. Myretta
@janga @JacquiC As you can probably tell by my preferences, I'm not a purist, either and I am also pulled out of a story by things like modernisms unless I am thoroughly engaged by the characters. I guess it all depends on the author, doesn't it? :-) And, yeah, that Wollstonecraft quote is just wrong.
Myretta Robens
6. Myretta
@Heloise. I did not mean my post to imply that the difference between wallpaper and deep history in romance novels is whether or not there was research and I hope that isn't how it read. It is obvious to me that there has been research in any good novel, regardless of how it's put to use. I think you are saying the same thing I was: that it is the use to which the research is put in informing the book that makes a difference. And, whether it's deep history or wallpaper history, if it's done well, it works.

I would disagree, however, that Flowers from the Storm makes greater use of deep history than most of Loretta Chase's novels. The difference I see is in authorial voice and tone.
Darlene Marshall
7. DarleneMarshall
I like reading history and I like reading romance. I like it best when they go together. I'm not a fan of "wallpaper" history, but for a really good read I'll put up with a great deal. Carla Kelly fills that niche for me, and I'm sorry she's said she'll no longer be writing Regency era novels.
8. Lev Raphael
I get thrown out of a book when the dialogue or attitudes seem too 2011 and the book is supposedly set in a much different period. I think solid research is crucial to steep yourself in the period and I love books that truly make me feel I'm there, however the author achieves it. In my own first historical, I went beyond secondary research on The Gilded Age and read books from 1900-1905 in various genres to get deeper in tune with the voices of that time. I fell so much in love that I decided to write the book in a period voice, and it turns Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth upside down:

Kathie Wilson
9. KittyinVA
I was an English major, and am a lover of history. So when I read "a group of Feminist women..." my stomach clenches. Using words unknown in the century you are writing about is so prevalent by (poor) authors, and so jarring that, like Lev above, I throw the book out. I'm a language snob, I guess, but it drives me crazy. How many books have we read where someone talks about their "ego", a word Freud/Jung brought into usage in the early 1900's? Authors of historicals should read books written in the era of their story so that they can get an understanding of the language used at the time. It also gives them an authentic look at morals and practices. But it shouldn't be entirely up to the author: where are editors these days? When was the last time you picked up a book that didn't have misspelled words - at least one or two? I get a bit, er, TENSE, when I pay $18.00 for a hardback that looks to have been edited by a seven year old! But that's a rant for another post!
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