You’ve probably heard about the fuss our publisher, Total-E-Bound caused with its Clandestine Classics collection. Marie-Claire has blogged about it here. There was certainly some outrage generated, mostly I think because of that veneration of the respectability of the past I mentioned in an earlier post today.

For me, the works brought up a continuing issue for writers of historical novels.  How true to the times do you make them?  I should make a disclaimer here. I am a bit of a pedant. My degree has a major in Middle English. I could, if I really set my mind to it, write a novel set in England in 1340 in the language of the time. But would I? Of course not. Almost no one could or would read it.

When I compose a historical work do I describe the myriad illnesses that left most people dead or disfigured?  Do I mention that teeth were usually decayed or that a woman of thirty would look older than one of fifty now? Or that the smell of unwashed bodies and clothes would make a modern person sick.

I don’t, because to do this would not serve my purpose and my purpose is what drives my work. I want to entertain. I try not to deliberately lie about conditions but I can do a marvellous ostrich impersonation when necessary…head in the sand, bum up, ignore what I don’t want to see. Makes it a bit hard to write, but oh well.

Here though, is the killer. I hate blatant historical inaccuracy. People wearing white wedding dresses in the seventeenth century. The white wedding gown came about when Queen Victoria wore one for her marriage to Albert and the fashion caught on. Likewise the big church wedding is of fairly recent date. In the Middle Ages weddings took place at the church door, not inside.

I also get a bit annoyed at Scotsmen wearing a modern kilt in the sixteen hundreds. The garment we see in Scotland today was developed towards the end of the Seventeenth or beginning of the Eighteenth Century, prior to that the great plaid was worn.

Other things I am not so sure about. I would never write about a time period that had anything to do with slavery because slavery is, of course, utterly morally reprehensible. To us, anyone who supported slavery or owned slaves is repugnant and yet at one time otherwise good people thought it was right to own slaves. The Bible even gives instructions on how to treat them!

I couldn’t write convincingly about a hero or heroine who owned other human beings, so I avoid contexts that include them. Some people manage it, but I can’t.

I twitch a little when heroines in historical novels espouse very feminist views…but then I remember Mary Wollstonecraft.  I know there were women all through history who have argued for equality. It can’t have been easy in a world where the word hysteria was derived from the Latin for womb—we get the word hysterectomy from the same source. Or where the Church actually held an enquiry to decide if women were human beings or beasts. They decided on human beings, not for any noble reason but because if women were animals then men were guilty of bestiality and they couldn’t have that!

 I like some accuracy and I do my research. In A Boudoir for Three I researched the sex salons of Paris at the time. They did exist and the activities that happened there surprised me. Amazing what a lot of bored, moneyed people who believed their birth placed them above morality will do.

 When it all boils down to it, I guess what you will overlook and what irks you depends on your perspective. I like to think I am open minded and a bit fluid. Others may see me as sloppy or hypercritical.

What about you? What will you accept in a historical and what makes your blood boil?

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