How do you read historical romance?

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Having been on a social media break for a couple of weeks. I popped briefly onto Twitter the other day, and within 2 minutes realised there was a bit of a kerfuffle taking place in relation to  quality and accuracy in historical romance. It sent me away from Twitter again, to find the blog discussion that started the whole thing off.

The comments in the blog discussion that had prompted the tweets I’d seen related to diverse representation and the display of ‘modern viewpoints’ by characters in historical romances. I’ll touch on those points a bit later on, but to be clear, I’m making no attempt here to unpack the long and detailed discussion that took place. I didn’t even read every comment in the thread and only skimmed a very few of the reactions on Twitter that were clearly the tip of a larger iceberg. This post is no more than a few thoughts of my own on the topic of how readers consume historical romances, based on one particular reader.

That reader is me.

Reader belief

There’s an odd thing about fiction. It’s explicitly made up – and we know that going in – and yet the thing that we readers seek, above all else, is to believe in what we’re reading.

Which is kind of weird when you think about it.

A phrase often used to describe how a reader comes to a state of belief is that the reader has exercised a “willing suspension of disbelief” (a phrase coined by the poet Samuel Coleridge). One of the interesting things about that phrase is that it gives the sense that, whether or not to take that step – to willingly suspend disbelief – is firmly in the reader’s hands. As though it’s a conscious decision the reader must make. Should they release their hold on the objective certainty that the story is not real in order to fully enter the imaginative world they’ve been invited into by the author? Or not?

Coleridge talks about the reader’s “willing suspension of disbelief” constituting a sort of “poetic faith” – as though the reader is putting aside rational knowledge in pursuit of a more transcendent experience that can only be achieved following a leap of faith. That makes it sound – to me, at least – as though the act of suspending disbelief is a binary thing. Something that the reader either chooses to do or not do. But as a reader, I experience something much more subtle than that.

I have quite a complex spectrum of responses to the books I read, when it comes to reader belief. These begin with eyerolling, impenetrable scepticism, move through a wide range of increasingly engaged responses, and end up (in rare and wonderful cases) in complete and utter conviction. In these very rare cases, I will feel, when I reach the end of the book, as though I have returned from another world. Sometimes, the sudden knowledge (or recollection) that the characters I’ve just left behind don’t *actually* exist makes me feel forlorn.

So, what makes a reader suspend disbelief?

I think it’s different for every reader and every book. There are many things that play into this, for example,  the quality of the writing, the accuracy of the depiction of any real-world setting/ the vividness of any fantastical setting, the consistency of the worldbuilding, the logical coherence of the plot, the rationality of the characters’ actions.

But just as important as all of these reasonably objective measures are the subjective measures that come from the individual reader.

Every reader comes to a book with a  complex web of personal knowledge, opinions and biases of their own. And this complex web informs what that reader will consider to be ‘accurate’, ‘authentic’, ‘rational’ and ‘logical’. Every reader also has their own set of priorities – what matters most to them in deciding that a particular book ‘works’ for them. And we readers have our moods too. Sometimes we want to read something challenging, other times something comforting. All these elements interweave in ways that are honestly difficult to unpack when the reader comes to articulate why they did or didn’t like a book. This can result in readers seeming to hold inconsistent views, damning one book for its historical inaccuracy while praising another that is objectively just as inaccurate.

So, does historical accuracy matter in historical romance? I would say… it depends.  In reality, it matters a great deal to certain readers,  doesn’t matter a jot to others, and varies in its importance to the rest of us depending on the individual book’s qualities and the individual reader’s many complex preferences and priorities.

Accuracy, diversity and modern sensibilities

I mentioned earlier that the blog discussion had raised two particular issues, namely the relatively new increase in diversity of character representation in historical romance and complaints from some readers about overly modern sensibilities being displayed by characters – these two issues were unhelpfully conflated at times in the discussion.

The diverse characters issue strikes me as a pretty obvious no-brainer. Historical romance has been really horribly homogenous for a very long time. Diverse representation – already far too scarce in the whole romance genre – feels even more scarce in historical romance and to my mind it’s clear we need more, not less of it.

Complaints about ‘modern sensibilities’ are slightly different, I think, though I need to exercise some care here, since ‘modern sensibilities’ is one of those phrases that is capable of a number of interpretations, some of which I may have some sympathy with and others I definitely won’t agree with.

My view is this: I am all for characters with progressive ideas and values – something I’ve always loved in historical romance is to see characters battling against the societal norms they have grown up with. However, having said that, I will admit to not much liking characters who appear to have wholly 21st century mindsets and who seem not to struggle at all with being at odds with the society they live in. I like to see the characters in historical romances having to wrestle with the norms of their time and I don’t mind seeing them making bad decisions along the way, if they come to regret those choices / change later.

One last thing I want to mention in this already too-long post: we are all creatures of our time. And creatures moving through time. Books are written, time passes. When I  pick up a historical romance book, I will be reading about another time, in my own time. One of the first historical romances I read was Devil’s Cub by Georgette Heyer, set in the late 18th century, first published in 1932, and read by me in around 1987, when I was a teenager with an interest in politics and left-wing views.

Now, Heyer’s books are wonderful but they are absolutely brimming with objectionable class snobbery and an apparent unshakeable belief in the rightness of aristocratic privilege. I minded this – but I also loved Heyer’s books, and I found I could sort of “filter out” what I didn’t like,  internally managing my objections.

This sort of ‘filtering’ is not something that can always be done though. Some issues are too glaringly awful to be filtered out. I recently picked up another old favourite from my teenage years, written in 1983 (Daphne by Marion Chesney). I had completely forgotten that the villain – who wanted to marry the heroine – was a homosexual man who wanted her as a ‘cover’ wife. The distinctly unpleasant homophobic tone made this book a wallbanger in 2019, but to my shame, I can’t say whether I even noticed in 1987.

So there you are – that’s my thoughts on the complex process of reading historical romance. Tl;dr: accuracy matters, quality matters, and representation matters… but none of it amounts to much if the reader doesn’t believe.

15 Comments

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15 responses to “How do you read historical romance?

  1. I never really cared for historical romance until I read the Brothers in Arms series by Samantha Kane. This series was also my gateway into MM romance (most of them are MMF). Since I’m not a student of history, the accuracy never mattered much to me. What mattered was a good story and great characters. My next venture into historical MM was The Innocent Auction and The Innocent Betrayal by Victoria Sue and I loved them.

    These books were memorable both because they were great stories but also because they came near the beginning of my love for MM romance. I have since enjoyed many other historical MM stories, including several of yours. 🙂 I can’t wait for the follow-up to Gentleman Wolf.

  2. All the yes, especially in how we approach reading being unique to the individual.
    Wonderful piece Joanna.

  3. wendyloveridge

    This is a smashing post and I agree with you. I read the twitter thread you’ve mentioned, Joanna, and wasn’t too impressed by some of the comments. One in particular rather annoyed me; an author laughing at one reader’s comments about liking her ‘accurate historical content’ and her (the author’s) comment about how she’d ‘made that shit up’. You know how I feel about unkindness, I felt rather annoyed on behalf of the reader.
    I once read an historical romance where an American author had quite blatantly mixed up St. Paul’s and Westminster Abbey that stuff is so easy to research – I never read another of her books.
    I am a reader who likes accurate historical content,
    or I at least need to believe it’s accurate, and that’s down to an author and how she/he tells it.

    As I’ve told you more than once, I LOVE your Enlightenment series and as a consequence, everything you now write. I’m sure it’s as accurate as you can make it, but the most important thing is that *you* made me believe in the events and your fabulous characters.

    • Thank you, Wendy!
      I’m not a fan of the way these kinds of conversations tend to devolve on social media. I’m finding I have less and less appetite for such discussions – too much scope for misunderstanding and offence.

  4. I’m another reader who likes historical accuracy – up to a point. I dislike blatant anachronisms that could have been avoided with a minimum of research, especially when the author info leads the reader to understand the author regards themselves as in some sense a historian. An example I keep coming back to had a mediaeval pope serving chocolates at a party – I promptly ignored all the history in the book and never touched that author again! But I think we need to be reasonable – I don’t want authors to use language for the period concerned. It often sounds wrong to the modern ear and can distance the reader. At the same time, I don’t want modern slang in the eighteenth century. We know that there were people who had same-gender preferences, and people of colour, all over the place at all times and a good author will help us explore how they might have felt. I think that’s really important and is one of the reasons I like your books so much. My own writing is mostly fantasy (which still demands research) though I have written some mm historical fanfic and found it interesting to explore the period and then decide how to portray my characters. I love posts like this and hope you decide on DW where we can have a threaded conversation and reply to each other easily!

  5. I’ve always thought of the historical fiction that I most cared about as a sort of time travel, wherein the extraordinary protagonist’s journey begins with a glimpse beyond the limitations of their time and progresses through a struggle to break through those strictures. And wherein said protagonist ends up being… me. Or us. When it works for me, this is a happy ending worth having.

    It’s why, I think, I don’t usually seek out time-travel fiction, though once in a while it bursts through gorgeously—I’m thinking of watching the original Terminator movie through the eyes of my then 10-year-old son, now a professor of Victorian fiction who sometimes teaches provocative, philosophically based courses on (wait for it!) time-travel novels and their paradoxes.

    But as I’m less philosophically daring than my brilliant boy, I prefer progress to paradox. Which is why I wrote romance novels that tried to situate romantic and even erotic conflict within a thoughtful rendering of the social life of a period. Which I found desperately difficult to do, and which is part of the reason, perhaps, that I wrote myself out after 4 romance novels and a novella. But why I still follow hot, intelligent romance that tries to do this—and why I’m looking forward to Master Wolf.

    • Oh, this makes complete sense that this was your thinking! I remember the idea of time and motion – bodies travelling through time – being a really clear idea I took away from The Edge of Impropriety. I remember a wonderful dancing scene that made me think of that. And lots of stuff about coincidence and weaving – the way people move through time and a sense of pattern and intention. Lovely stuff!

      Also your boy sounds wonderful ❤ I have two boys and I'm so excited to see what they'll do in life.

  6. Maryxb

    Just found this thread (and so very glad to be thinking of something that is NOT pandemic-related!) Important topics to explore, but appreciate the civility evident here…. As a devoted reader, I prefer books that are historically resonant, perhaps is the best word, with characters who feel like real people, with individual personalities and quirks and yet who also “make sense” for their times. So yes, obvious anachronisms will ruin the work, and trying to pretend that the many obstacles — legal obstacles, societal obstacles, cultural prejudice — weren’t in place for non-traditional couples in other eras does not serve the story. Yet I, for one, want to wish that even unlikely couples of all types did, on occasion, find their HEAs in all eras. As a result, my bar is lower for historic anachronisms than it is for one-dimensional characters, boring plots or pedestrian writing. Btw, how happy I have been to find your work — the Enlightenment series has been among the very best Romances I have read. SO well-done! David and Murdo came to life for me, in a way that has made it hard for me to let them go at the end of Book 3.( I wasn’t too interested in Capt Sinclair, but I bought Unnatural anyway just on the off chance they might be mentioned in it, so thank you for that!) Not sure I’ll be dipping into the Wolf books — fantasy romance requiring a bit too much of belief suspension for me — but I might, just on the strength of Enlightenment. Best of luck, and please keep writing!

    • Thank you for the kind words regarding Enlightenment! And your comments on historicals chime with me. I too believe (not just like to believe but do believe) that some people would have found HEAs in these times.

  7. Leci Forde

    This was a great post that was spot on for me as a long-standing reader of historical romance. I am new to your work and must say each book has been excellent! Thank you for sharing these thoughts!

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