Monday, March 16, 2009

The Romance of Historical Novels

I just read a copy of Vanora Bennett’s second novel, Figures in Silk, which is about a City of London silkwoman who gets caught up in the turmoil of the last years of the Wars of the Roses, between 1471 and 1485. I’m not giving anything away by saying that the heroine has a long-term love affair with King Richard III and also meets other members of the glamorous royal Plantagenet family.

Those were turbulent and exciting times, but I have sometimes wondered why novelists keep revisiting them. We are currently enjoying a long-overdue revival of the historical novel, which is distinct from an historical romance. An historical novel is chiefly about real historical figures, not about sexy trysts between made-up characters living in dashing prior times. Philippa Gregory’s series about the Tudors arguably started this movement, and now many new historical novels are being published and some solid old ones are being reprinted. I don’t think it is an accident that I, and numerous other readers, continue to be fascinated by the re-imaginings of what is already a very well-explained period of English history.

It’s not as if I don’t know what’s going to happen next. Of course I do. Richard III loses his horse and his life at Bosworth Field. The Princes in the Tower are never seen again. Henry Tudor starts a new dynasty and his son, Henry VIII, can’t sustain it. Because of his desperation, Catherine of Aragon is shamefully divorced against her will, Henry VIII wrenches the entire practice of religion in England into a church of his own making, and Anne Boleyn is queen for a thousand days. Henry VIII’s children by three of his six wives each get to rule England, but only Elizabeth retains the throne for a significant length of time. I know all this. Yet I can read about it over and over and over. Why?

Maybe, because what creating a fictional heroine who gets involved with an enigmatic, real-life historical figure does is bring the reader close to a celebrity. But instead of the banal truths of the real lives of today’s celebrities, or even the shocking truths that we have yet to learn, readers are brought to a world in which the stakes are much higher and clearer, even though the story is intimate. These people made history. A friend of mine insists that Henry VIII was a minor historical figure, and that economic events determine history. I think my friend underestimates the power and influence that one man can wield. The continued fascination over hundreds of years with the personal lives of these historical figures proves their importance.

In one sense, an historical novel is a safe read. We know the outlines of the conflicts in advance, even the details. We know that the princes will end up in the Tower. That no deus ex machina will appear to save Anne Boleyn from being beheaded. That Elizabeth Tudor won’t marry anyone, ever. Deceit, treachery, and raw ambition will rule, and clothing will be costumes. If anything, these stories get more glamorous because of the distance of time. Strangely, these replayings of old stories come across as intensely romantic. So much more was at stake back then. Today’s celebrities’ marital mistakes can soon be mended with divorces, and their career disasters can be overcome with star turns in new productions. Their drug abuse can be apologized for, and they can be rehabilitated. As for other world figures such as politicians, well, there is quite a lot of latitude for their behavior today. And as interesting as the stories of recent martyrs are, we are aware that the full truth hasn’t yet come out—if it ever will—about such relatively modern shockers as JFK’s assassination. Ironically, the tragic real-life modern story of Princess Diana struck such a nerve because it played out as if it had happened a couple of centuries ago. If one ignored all the sordid details that the tabloids were so eager to provide.

By contrast, we know very little about the far past, and yet we know a surprising amount. Many scholars over the intervening centuries have correlated historical accounts and ferreted out facts that were not known at the time. But much of the truth is forever lost. We still don’t know who murdered the Princes in the Tower, for instance, or even if they were murdered. That may be another reason why we can keep reading about these people over and over. We’re still looking for clues.

How can a romance exist in such circumstances? Easily enough. We already know that there are only two outcomes to a romance: a happy ending, or an unhappy ending. Once real historical figures become the major characters, the writers are constrained to tell the truth about the outcome. But it doesn’t really matter to the reader, because, as with any romance, the pleasure is in the journey. We also know that some romances occur between people whose motives are at cross purposes, or who are wrong for each other, or who simply are unlucky. So the idea that an historical novel is going to serve up a tale of an ill-fated romance isn’t necessarily off-putting. The pleasures of being drawn in close to these glamorous characters usually outweigh the sadness of the story’s ending. And again, it’s the journey, not the destination, that makes a romance satisfying.

And by the way, art directors in the US are imitating each other by putting similar covers on these recently-published historical novels. Note how The Other Boleyn Girl does not show the heroine’s face on the cover. Nor does Figures in Silk. The rest of her face is on the spine. Brief Gaudy Hour, written many years ago and now reissued, also follows this new style, as do many other books published recently that may or may not be historical novels.
Copyright © 2010 Arrow Publications, LLC™. All Rights Reserved.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Ambushed, Bushwhacked, and Entertained by Romance

I was going to write about free romances available on the Internet. After all, offers free romances (in case you came to this page without visiting our home page, check it out), but we aren't the only ones. I just downloaded a batch from Harlequin as part of its 60th anniversary celebration. If you go to you can download 16 different recently-published romances, one each from their many category lines. Then I got to thinking that there probably were lots of romances available free on the Internet. Sure, I already knew about Project Gutenberg, which has tons of public domain novels, but I went to visit it. The oeuvre of Jeffery Farnol, the Regency romance author who wrote before Georgette Heyer, is there. So are potboilers by Edgar Wallace, a thriller writer of 100 years ago. And lots more. Very tempting. Then I found another public domain site, the Ebook Nook at and I got ambushed by a romance. Not by one of the new romances, which were by authors I’d never head of. Mingling with them on the list were novels by familiar names, including Jane Austen. I saw a novel by Wilkie Collins, a mid-Victorian writer who is famous for The Moonstone. I’ve heard that some literary heavyweights think his The Woman in White is one of the best books ever written. His The New Magdalen was on the site, so I dipped into it. And I got caught. I had to read the whole thing. It was that interesting.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading The New Magdalen. But I’ll be honest: it was complete melodrama. Soap opera. Victorian sentimentality meets the socialist movement, and the result is a very talky, innately silly romance. And I couldn’t stop reading it. I was absolutely ambushed. I love this stuff. I don’t care how absurd the plot is, I love the poses of nobility that the characters strike, and the scenes in the mansions of the wealthy, and the arrogant behavior of the social elite. Not to mention the judgment by progressives against the mean-spiritedness of those with pretensions to blue blood. Even in 1873, when this novel was published, and which certainly could be taken as a high Victorian period, there were people in England who looked askance at the social order in all its injustice. (Sometimes we don't know or forget that social movements take decades to succeed.)

I stayed up past my bedtime to read this book. I absolutely could not resist it. What was going to happen to the heroine? What kind of woman would she prove herself to be? And isn’t it amazing that her big problem simply is not a problem anymore in Western society? And what was her problem? Those of you familiar with organized Christian religion know of course that Mary Magdalene has been variously called a saint and a prostitute who followed Jesus. (Although Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code, thinks she married Jesus and had kids, too.) The heroine of The New Magdalen by Wilkie Collins is a fallen woman. What the heck is a fallen woman? A woman who has had sex outside of marriage. Possibly for pay, but possibly as an adulteress. We don’t even know the concept in the United States anymore. In Dirty Little Secrets of Buzz, the author, David Seaman, points out that Paris Hilton had money, was a member of the social elite, and beauty, too. But she didn’t have international fame until she leaked a sex tape of herself. What a different world we inhabit from the standard world of less progressive nations or of other times. The heroine of The New Magdalen is a woman who has lost her chastity, and as such has lost her reputation and any chance of mingling with ordinary society. Just as today there are shelters for abused women, in 1873 England there apparently were refuges for fallen women. In her case, her sin was poverty, and she was victimized and forced into prostitution. Eventually, she escaped to a refuge and was rehabilitated. But her past wouldn’t let her go. No matter what job she held, and what friends she made, eventually, the truth of her past would come out, and she would be tossed out onto the streets. Being a fallen woman back then was social death and economic death, too. A clean reputation was all. Not so today in our world.

The heroine of The New Magdalen is so desperate for another chance at respectability as this novel opens that she decides to assume the identity of a woman who has just died. (Or so she thinks.) Taking on another woman’s life, along with her relationships and social status, is a common theme in romances. Sometimes, it’s because of a chance meeting with a doppelganger, a double. Other times, it’s a twin doing her very different sister a favor. Still other times, it’s a case of amnesia and mistaken identity. Playing with identity, and thus with other people’s expectations of us, is a popular romance plotline. Often it’s a shy heroine who suddenly inhabits the life of a hottie. But sometimes, as in Barbara Cartland’s very similar romance, Stolen Halo, it’s a woman who has led a degraded life, who seizes a chance to start fresh. Usually the writer figures out a way to make the heroine blameless for the mistaken identity situation. She was pressured by her evil sister. She was unconscious when somebody else mis-identified her. She had amnesia.

Not so in The New Magdalen. Mercy Merrick deliberately steals the identity of Grace Roseberry, in order to start her life afresh. She knows it’s wrong. And Wilkie Collins does not let her get away with it. As I said, it’s a soap opera. There is a lot of lecturing by a charismatic and handsome preacher. There is a lot of posturing and melodrama. And there is a happy ending of a sort, the kind that the author of the Saint novels, Leslie Charteris, so cleverly elucidated in one of his Simon Templar adventures: When faced with an either/or situation in which neither choice is desirable, pick a third action. That’s what happens in The New Magdalen, and it’s pretty interesting to realize that the answer, even nearly 140 years ago, was to go to the American west. Frontier society was famously not inclined to judge people about their pasts.

I knew the writer had to come up with a happy ending. He’d created a dilemma and he had to resolve it. Because, after all, this was a romance, and in a romance, a happy ending is a foregone conclusion. It’s how the heroine gets to it that’s the fun. I was ambushed, bushwhacked, and completely entertained by this antique romance. And now that I have experienced how easy it is to find an interesting romance to read free on the Internet, well, now I’m in big trouble. Free romance novels, 24/7. Yikes.
Copyright © 2010 Arrow Publications, LLC™. All Rights Reserved.