Anne here, pondering the much bandied-about question of historical accuracy in novels. How historically accurate should an author be? Or can an author be? Which areas are the most important to get right? Language? Dress? Events? Likelihood? Tone? For me it's always a balancing act. (And I know it's not Regency but I couldn't resist this photo of a rather large lady riding on an ostrich.)
For me, the portrayal of historical language is like dialect — you need a good whiff of "historicity" to give you the flavor and effect of the era, but not real accuracy. It's like rendering dialect on the page — if totally accurate it would be tedious and difficult to read.
Even written language from the past is often difficult for modern readers to read. One would imagine that using a contemporary account such as a diary or letters from people who lived in that time and place would be foolproof, but even leaving aside differences in interpretation by different individuals, a modern reader still might not buy it.
In my second book, Tallie's Knight, where the characters were making the Grand Tour through France and Italy, I relied heavily on just such original documents. After the book came out, I heard from a fellow author that she'd heard Italian readers complaining that the few Italian phrases I'd used in the book were wrong and it was simply dreadful that I'd made such sloppy mistakes. I asked my friend to ask the readers to write to me directly, and I eventually had an email conversation with one lady.
I showed her my original sources, and her response was more or less, "Oh my goodness, you used 19th century Italian! How marvelous! What wonderful research." Still, my reputation had already been ruined in that quarter by the public discussion of my rotten Italian. So in that case, my historical accuracy counted against me.
So it doesn't matter if the history is right, as long as it seems right to readers? Maybe.
Dress is probably the easiest area to get right. Thank goodness we have so many paintings and drawings and costumes saved from the past. But even so, one has to remember that the drawings we have from publications such as La Belle Assemblée, were for the rich upper class, and just as most people today don't wear high fashion outfits, the dresses of the magazines of the day would not necessarily be worn by the ordinary people in the street. They'd likely be wearing much older clothes, often repaired and made over, or adapted from even older dresses.
My heroines are often strapped for cash and I enjoy playing with these notions and having them adapt clothes and refurbish garments and hats, as people usually did, and I like to research how they did that.
What about historical events?
The trouble with that is that history is frequently in the interpretation. People might be able to agree on a date or an isolated fact or two, but stories are brought to life through images and sensations and command of fine detail. If you can lay your hands on an eye witness account or two, that helps, but even so, witnesses differ, and not just in small details.
I remember a superb documentary I watched once on the Roman occupation of Wales. It opened with an eminent Oxbridge historian presenting a very plausible introduction of how the Romans occupied Wales, and how the Welsh had responded. There was a filmed reenactment and all — thrilling stuff.
Then on came a quite different, equally eminent historian who stared into the camera and said in a strong Welsh accent, "Absolute rubbish!" And then gave his version of what happened, which was just as reasonable and logical and fascinating, based on exactly the same evidence — and was quite, quite different. The whole documentary was presented like that, as a kind of debate and it was wonderful. (And I know the photo above is neither Roman nor Welsh, but it's Clive, so I rest my case, that sometimes we prefer fantasy to accuracy)
And how far do we go with historical attitudes?
Classism, sexism, racism and more — all were alive and well in my period. Do I show my characters as racist/sexist/classist as they were most likely to be? Dear readers, I have to admit I don't. I try not to give my people modern enlightened attitudes but there are areas into which I refuse to stray.
I want my readers to like my characters and wish them well, and if they're showing abhorrent attitudes, no matter how historically likely those attitudes might be, readers (and their author) won't like them. (There's also the additional problem that many readers assume that the attitudes and prejudices expressed by characters are also those of the author, and I certainly don't want to go there, either.)
Do readers want historical accuracy anyway?
I suspect most don't. Many of the genre's most popular authors stray more to the "history-lite" side of the line, but readers love their stories and their characters, and simply don't care if the characters sound more like modern Americans (or Australians) than 19th Century English people. In fact some prefer it, because it makes the books more accessible to modern readers.
Historical writers are a bit like those historians debating about the Welsh and the Romans — we each have to decide what our own take is on historical accuracy, and in the end, it's more about the creation of a vibrant, plausible and exciting fictional world than it is about history.
Laurie, on All About Romance said" Some readers demand a great deal of history in their romance. Others prefer a smattering." So what about you? Do like a meaty helping of history, or a light snack? Do you have a favorite "history-lite" author whose writing can make you forget about history and just read for the story? What kind of historical inaccuracy really bugs you? And what's the best historical romance (or historical crime or any other historical sub-genre) you've read lately?
PS Having been asked for further details of the Welsh History program I mentioned, I've since discovered it was called The Dragon Has Two Tongues, a 13 part series on the history of Wales that was broadcast 20+ years ago, and though I couldn't find the Roman episode on line, here's the first episode of the series: http://tinyurl.com/bqkdons