One of the perennial hot topics for writers of contemporary romance is what to do about “safe sex.” Their characters can’t plead ignorance any longer, not living in the modern world, and for heroes and heroines blithely to hop into bed without any sort of protection against AIDS and other venereal diseases makes them seem irresponsible at best. Yet a love scene that includes the ritual foil packet or questions about having been tested hits the “ick-factor” for many readers. Romances are fantasies, they protest, and fantasies feature great sex over the safe kind.
Historical romance often seems to side-step this question. Certainly in the glory days of Rosemary Rodgers and Kathleen Woodiwiss, characters were so busy getting busy that no one had either time or inclination. But as more and more sex creeps into books, the absence of any mention of protection against pregnancy or disease becomes more noticeable, too. In the Good Old Days (like five years ago), at least the hero and heroine would abstain until it was likely they’d marry, so that any baby resulting from their love-making would be wanted, and legitimate. But now, with the sex scenes often beginning on page one, that’s no longer a given. Add to that the vast worldly experience of most historical heroes, and you do marvel at how seldom pregnancy or the pox is ever mentioned.
I have to admit that in this, I’m no holier than anyone else. I’ve never introduced a condom into a love scene in a historical romance, nor have I had any characters overly concerned about the pox, either. For the most part, my heroes worry about not impregnating the heroines, and my heroines in turn do carefully consider the consequences before they leap, though I do recall one particular unhappy scene that included withdrawal –– the only birth control that many people in the past ever did employ, and a lousy one at that.
Still, condoms? Nope.
But in the historical novel I just finished (The King’s Favorite: A Novel of Nell Gwyn & King Charles II), I couldn’t avoid the pox and all its tragic consequences. That’s the price of writing about real people, because real people don’t tend to behave as admirably, or at least as obediently, as fictional ones do. Real lives are messy, and when one of my main characters was John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, matters became real messy, real fast, which is what you’d expect of a man who died of a combination of alcoholism and the pox at 33.
All of which leads me to recommend a fascinating small book: The Humble Little Condom: A History by Aine Collier. Though Ms. Collier is a Professor of English at the University of Maryland, this is no dry scholarly text, but a fascinating history, full of illustrations. I don’t know what’s more entertaining: the 20th century posters and advertisements which seem so often to be directed at soldiers, or all the earlier history that I didn’t know.
For example, in the relentless way of disease, Vasco de Gama’s Portuguese sailors were the first to infect the 15th century Japanese, but soon after Dutch traders arrived to do a brisk business in protective sheaths of fine leather. Nor had I any idea that, inspired by Thomas Malthus, early 19th century proponents of population control offered “receipts” for fashioning condoms from animal intestines, procured from the neighborhood butcher.
But is historical precedent enough for the heroes of historical romances to begin waving their be-ribboned
sheathes? John Campbell, the Duke of Argyll, did exactly that in 1708, before a packed House of Lords: “This Certaine instrument called a Quondom, occassioned ye debauching of a great number of Ladies of Qualitie, and young gentlewomen." (There's an example to the right.)
True, good writer can make anything work. But do readers want that much accuracy? Does such a detail serve to reveal more of a character’s personality and beliefs, or does it fall into the category of “too much information”?