Month: December 2011

The Bodice Ripper

Princess Sophia

Back in November, I attended the IHR Winter Conference about the relationship between academic history and historical fiction. One historian gave a wonderful talk about how novels had given birth to her passion for studying the real life subjects.  She ended her speech with the succinct summary: “Besides, the sex is better.”
Later, Stella Tillyard thanked this lady for reminding us all why we really read historical fiction. Of course, every candidate laughed.

But was it really a joke? The more I research into my chosen genre, I start to wonder if there’s an element of truth in this. Let me tell you about my experiences as a reader. In my teens, when my obsession with the Georgians began, I was more interested in books from the actual era than historical fiction. I went on to expand my period all the way up to the Victorian age, but still refused to read any fiction penned after 1900. I felt reading books really written at the time gave me a much better understanding of the people and the society. As you can image, the raciest thing I’d read was Thomas Hardy, and that’s about as subtly sensual as you can get.

I finally broke my chains to read Philippa Gregory’s “The Other Boleyn Girl”. Now, while my friends may tell you I’m a bit of a prude, I had no problems with this story. The Tudor court and its politics revolved around sex, and after all, the book is about Henry VIII’s mistress. My second historical read, Tracey Chevalier’s “The Lady and the Unicorn” was even saucier. But again, I understood the symbolism of the unicorn’s horn and was quite content that the “bodice ripping” was necessary to the story.

I can’t say this of every historical novel. It seems to me that all books and movies now have the obligatory sex scene, whether it’s appropriate or not. At the moment I’m reading Gillian Bagwell’s “The Darling Strumpet” which, admittedly, is about Nell Gwynn, who worked as a prostitute and went on to be mistress to Charles II. Very rightly, it shows the seedy underside of Stuart England but – dare I say it – I think it shows a bit too much! It’s a well written book, even the sex scenes are well written, but there are so MANY of them. I’m getting to the point where I turn the page and think “Oh, goodness, here we go again.” I’m getting a bit bored with them. I don’t think there’s any way Nell hasn’t had it. Twice.

So is this an expectation of the genre? There’s an excerpt at the back of “The Darling Strumpet” from Bagwell’s next one – again, lovely writing – but they’ve decided to feature the bit with a gypsy boy pleasuring himself underneath a tree. This must be what sells about her books – but is it what sells historical fiction in general?

I’ve tried to think why I like certain sex scenes in the genre. I guess there’s always a curiosity about the different types of under clothing they wore and what they did for contraception back then. Yet when you think about it, the act wouldn’t really be as romantic as it’s portrayed, would it? The bed could be ridden with lice, the beautiful clothes that drop off our heroines stiff with weeks of sweat. Afterwards, the hero would probably wee in the chamber pot and go to sleep, leaving his lady with the stench of his urine. Nice.

Perhaps it’s all about the element of danger. In a modern novel, an assignation with a lover doesn’t carry the same risks of disgrace and social banishment. I have to admit, this makes historical sex scenes more exciting for me, but again I wonder, how realistic is it? The threat of an illegitimate child or being cast off from one’s family would prevent most (sensible) heroines from taking part in these escapades.  I’m convinced there are many more girls who throw caution to the wind in historical romance than there were in real life.

So where should we use the good old-fashioned bodice ripping? Obviously, if you’re writing about a real person and they really had an affair, go ahead.  With made up characters, sex scenes can be wonderful, but I would suggest you use them sparingly. I can tell, and so can a million other readers, when you’ve tacked one in there for sake of it. When I look back over the books I’ve read, some of the erotic passages that stand out in my memory didn’t feature the act itself. You can use your skill as a writer to draw out the sensuality of the scene – and often, subtext is so much more thrilling.

In God save the King, I currently have one full-blown bodice ripping chapter. I felt this was necessary to show how sheltered the Princess Royal had been up until her marriage. The scene is revelatory for her and sadly, not very pleasant. But with Princess Sophia, I’ve been less explicit. It is clear from what I’ve written that she sleeps with her lover, but I didn’t feel the need to describe their love-making. I talk about their love and their feelings for each other, including their desire, and the methods of contraception they relied on.  As far as I’m concerned, no more is required.

But am I wrong and hopelessly innocent? Do you now consider my book with disgust and run off in search of fresh, heaving bosoms? Let me know your thoughts.

Can we do the past justice?

Queen Charlotte

Despite writing short stories and novellas set in the Regency period for about the last ten years, I’ve always shied away from “real” people. In fact, I haven’t even resorted to the little stratagem many authors employ of having their characters bump into people such as the Prince Regent and Beau Brummel. Why? Because I just didn’t feel entitled to put words in the mouth of someone who truly existed. I could literally see their Georgian skeletons rotating in their graves at my presumption.

Two years ago, I found a reason to overcome my scruples. I picked up a book that had been long languishing on my shelf: Flora Fraser’s Princesses. If you haven’t read it (and you should read it!), this wonderful book gives a biography of the six daughters of George III. Ever heard of them? It occurred to me that so many people would love this story but would never know of it, because they simply aren’t the types to wander down the history section of the bookshop.  Fired up with enthusiasm for my new best friends, the Georgian Princesses, I decided I was going to tell the tale to those who wouldn’t read it otherwise.

Of course this was massively ambitious and naive. I may set out to write their story, but I will only ever tell my own.

Historical fiction is, I believe, wholly subjective. Yes, you could weigh the subject matter evenly and show every side of your protagonist from birth to death, but you would end up with an academic essay, not a novel. Although all my characterisation is based on research, I am bound to bend it to my own means. Essentially, I am writing about freedom and I will naturally select source material that helps me to express this. I’m not the only one: I was amused this week to see Charles Fox appear on Garrow’s Law as a slim, well-dressed man with small eyebrows – the polar opposite to most of the accounts we have of him. But as Garrow’s Law is aimed at showing a man before his time – liberal, reforming and a beacon of justice – his “radical” associates have to appear attractive to us. Old food stains and a monobrow like a caterpillar just wouldn’t do that. I can fully understand the casting decision.

I have had endless trouble moulding my three heroines Queen Charlotte, Princess Royal and Princess Sophia into “characters”. My problem is that they are people and, however much art seeks to imitate life, will never fit easily into the pages of a book. For example, contemporary sources tell us Charlotte started life in England as a “gay young Queen” but as we follow the course of history we see her beaten down into a selfish, morose woman. She was the type of person who would get herself into debt by giving too generously to charity but in later life acted with almost inhuman coldness to her own family. I have tried my best, and am still working on blending these two aspects of her psyche – but so far the response from test readers has been, understandably: “Why is she so nice in her narratives but so harsh in her daughters’ ones?” Some of this, no doubt, stems from a weakness in my writing and a need to further develop the psychological insight I offer. But I have found what the reader expects from “book characters” is consistency – and unfortunately, their real life counterparts don’t play ball!

Aside from this, there is the yawning gulf between your subject and your reader to consider. However well spoken Princess Royal was, I am compelled to use contractions such as can’t and won’t to make her dialogue flow. I have tried, where possible, to use my subject’s own words, directly from their correspondence. Amusingly, it is these lines that my test readers underlined with “This doesn’t make sense”. Quite rightly, the test readers also highlighted the young Princess Sophia’s narratives that jarred against their expectations: “She is seven! Were you this eloquent at seven?” Sadly, no, but Sophia was. In French, too. But when it comes to writing a good novel, it simply doesn’t matter. My test readers are right: to the modern eye, it looks stupid.

What do you think? Can we ever tell the true story of our subjects, or even present our own interpretations without bowing to the restrictions of the art form? Should we even want to? Would love to hear your thoughts.

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