“Lady Penelope stared into Lord Huntingdon-Hartley’s brooding dark eyes, gasping as he pulled her close, her virginal white bosom heaving against his chest sculpted like a Grecian god, ready and waiting for his kiss…”
Scenes like this pretty much write themselves, so clichéd and cheesy that they have long been part of the public consciousness. When you think of a historical romance, you imagine the classic bodice ripper, a busty heroine with a dashing soldier/lord/insert anything vaguely historical here. The actual history itself often goes neglected. But just how important is historical accuracy? Should we enjoy history being brought to life and make exceptions for wrong names and dates? Or is it something that cheapens real historical events?
The female obsession for smouldering historical romances is a well-known one. Since 1908, publishers like Mills & Boon cottoned on quickly to the fact that the bodice ripper made any poorly-written steamy sordid tale of debauchery instantly more respectable with the label of ‘historical.’ Nowadays, authors like Philippa Gregory and television programmes like The Tudors and Rome produce a similar type of genre, eagerly snapped up the waiting public who like a bit of sex with their history.
The classic cliché here is evidently true: sex sells. As a 15-year old, I avidly devoured my way through Philippa Gregory’s books, relishing the lurid affairs of the Tudor court and it wasn’t for the interesting information about the Reformation that I picked up her books, no, it was the outfits, and the intrigue and the sex scenes. But through this, I became more interested in this period of history. Instead of flipping through a dusty old text book, the text on a page had become real people, with real passions and desires. I loved it. Later on, studying Elizabeth I during my History A-Level, I would come to realise that much of the information about the Tudors and their timeline was askew in many of Gregory’s books, but at the time, it didn’t matter.
Obviously history isn’t all about romance and sex and pretty clothes. It’s also not all about exciting battles, and murders and plots. I love history, but I’m the first to admit that a large proportion of it is dull. Laws, statutes, king after king after similarly named king, it can be easy to get bogged down in the details and dates. If you’re writing an essay on the childhood of Elizabeth I, then yes, the accuracy of your dates and timeline should be absolutely correct, there’s no way around it.
But try to translate this childhood into a work of fiction, be it page or screen, and the staunchly correct facts get in the way of a good story. Real life doesn’t flow the way a story does, real life is messy and would probably not be especially pleasing to the eye if it were relayed blow-by-blow.
Real life is tomorrow’s history, and there will be romance and murders, but there will also be laws and statutes and endless parades of dull kings. To bring history to life at its most exciting, that is the true aim of any good historical romance.
Originally published on The Yorker 18th November 2010