I know I try to keep things on my blog firmly within the Hanoverian time period (1714-1837, or 1901 if we’re including Victoria, who was still of the line). However, I couldn’t resist telling you about Anita Seymour’s new novel, Royalist Rebel, out this month. Some of you may remember, from my post A Rush of Luck ,that meeting Anita at HNS 2012 and her kind invitation to dinner ultimately led to me signing with my agent Kate Nash. If Anita’s wonderful writing wasn’t enough, this is another reason to love her!
Royalist Rebel tells the inspiring story of Elizabeth Murray and her fight to hold her own during the English Civil War. I do hope you’ll want to find out more about her – I certainly do!
Royalist Rebel by Anita Seymour
Intelligent, witty and beautiful, Elizabeth Murray wasn’t born noble; her family’s fortunes came from her Scottish father’s boyhood friendship with King Charles. As the heir to Ham House, their mansion on the Thames near Richmond, Elizabeth was always destined for greater things.
Royalist Rebel is the story of Elizabeth’s youth during the English Civil War, of a determined and passionate young woman dedicated to Ham House, the Royalist cause and the three men in her life; her father William Murray, son of a minister who rose to become King Charles’ friend and confidant, the rich baronet Lionel Tollemache, her husband of twenty years who adored her and John Maitland, Duke of Lauderdale, Charles II’s favourite.
With William Murray at King Charles’ exiled court in Oxford, the five Murray women have to cope alone. Crippled by fines for their Royalist sympathies, and besieged by the Surrey Sequestration Committee, Elizabeth must find a wealthy, non-political husband to save herself, her sisters, and their inheritance.
Royalist Rebel by Claymore Books, an imprint of Pen and Sword, is released on 17th January 2013
Officially, the Regency period extends from 1811, the year George III was finally deemed unfit to rule, to the date of his death in 1820. In common practice, the term is used to refer to the era between the first Regency crisis of 1788 and Victoria’s ascension to the throne in 1837. Poor William IV, alas, is quite forgotten – but more of this in a future post.
When we imagine the Regency we often paint a glittering, exhilarating picture – a breathless whirl of duels and dandies, balls and fast carriage rides. If you look for a work of fiction set in the period, you are more than likely to find a light, skippy, Heyer-esque romance. What has given us this misconception of a turbulent, difficult period in history? These were years of war and political upheaval with the monarchy and country in a state of dangerous flux. Yes, there may have been young women who based their worlds around sprigged muslin and ices from Gunter’s, but there are as many heedless teenagers today. Does that make our time one of peace and never-ending fun? Hardly.
Historical fiction seems to have carved out a particular “mood” for each era. The Tudor novels I have read are full of threat and illicit sex – dark, brooding pieces. Victorian works focus on the poor or the seedy underside of London; those that deal with the higher classes tend to focus on women’s oppression. If we can see the threats and struggles of these other periods, why do we waltz through the Regency as if such things never existed?
True, you were less likely to get beheaded by a capricious monarch in Regency England. But the death sentence still stood and the jails were still filthy pits of hell. The last burning at the stake took place as late as 1789, while quartering and disembowelment were only removed from the punishment for High Treason in 1814. Soldiers came back from the Peninsular war poor and limbless to beg on the streets of London. The Industrial Revolution was putting many out of work. As for women, although they were not yet expected to be “the angel at home” of Victorian times, they were still very much the property of men. They could be legally kidnapped by their husbands and beaten, so long as the stick was no thicker than a man’s thumb.
Perhaps we base the “spirit of the age” on the literature of the times. There is no doubt that the Regency was the golden age of satire. If we only read the comic novels of Fielding and look at the caricatures of the day, it is easy to imagine a period of romping joy. Many people, I know, blame Jane Austen for carving out a tidy little world inside her novels, but this is unjust. Although Austen was a gifted wit, her books are about impoverished women in the power of snobs and men. Moreover, if you look at Austen’s life, you will see more of the “real” Regency: two spinster sisters making shift with their elderly mother, reliant on the protection of their brothers. It is the same with the Romantic poets – Byron and Keats hardly made it to happily ever afters. It is worth noting that popular books of the period were not all careless, happy pieces: we have Anne Radcliffe’s Gothic horror novels, Richardson’s women under constant threat of rape and Sir Walter Scott’s historical yarns, looking back on other times as better days.
The more I consider, I begin to believe we base our view of an era on the reigning monarch. Henry VIII was both powerful and turbulent, an unpredictable force – hence the constant state of uncertainty and danger lurking in Tudor novels. Most people remember Victoria as the unsmiling widow, never amused (a great tragedy, in my opinion) – so most Victorian pieces are equally sombre. For the Regency we have the overly-emotional, extravagant, often ludicrous George IV. His parties, no doubt, were carousels of absurd games and indifferent morals – which is why we suffer from the illusion that one could get away with pretty much anything. But we have to remember dear old “Prinny” was widely condemned in the press for his actions. Only aristocrats with the influence of money and a title managed to polish over their misdemeanours and keep appearing in society, although many of them were still ruined.
So who has written a Regency novel that is not a romance? Worryingly few people. I have highly enjoyed Gregory’s A Respectable Trade (I am yet to read the Wildacre trilogy), Miller’s Pure, Griffin’s The House of Sight and Shadow and Banbridge’s According to Queeny, but most of the action takes place in the earlier Georgian period. Morgan’s Passion is worth a read – although, as you can see from the title, it is a love story, it is based on fact and not whimsical jaunts. The only book that really and truly, for me, manages to combine the tragedy and frivolity of the era in one full swoop is Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Even this starts and ends a little early – 1775 to around 1794 (?) – but it has the right feel to it. Both sides of the Janus-face time come to the fore: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
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.