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.