Malibu Historical Barbie

by Tracey Pennington

It’s an odd fact, but many fans of historical romance—and many writers of it as well—dislike history.

If you ask them, they will tell you, at first, that they love historical romance and all that implies. However, if you probe a bit deeper, they will tell you that they don’t like too much history in their historicals. They will tell you that history is “depressing,” “tedious,” “disgusting,” “lecturing” and “dull.” They will tell you that they get enough facts in real life and that they want, even deserve, escapism in their romances. I’ve seen blogs and message boards of historical romance writers and fans become outraged to the point of flaming dissenters at the notion that a little historical accuracy might be good for the story.


This is a kind of behavior I’ve never seen in any other genre. I’ve read mysteries since I was young, and yes, there are subgenres within the genre. But I never heard anyone who liked historical mysteries bitching that the mystery’s historical setting was too accurate to be readable. Indeed, your average historical mystery reader likes history well-blended with story, to make the time and the place and the characters come more fully to life.And I’ve certainly never heard a mystery fan say that realistic mysteries—such as Andrew Vachss’s Burke series (which deals with child abuse and child advocacy), Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder series (which deals with alcoholism and gruesome crimes in Hell’s Kitchen) or Patricia Cornwall’s Kay Scarpetta series (which, since it’s about a forensic pathologist, goes into a lot of detail about autopsies)–no mystery fan that I’ve heard about has ever protested that such books are simply too gritty and realistic to be considered proper escapism…or, in fact, mysteries at all. There are people who don’t care for such stories, certainly; mystery subgenres vary. You get police procedurals, private investigators, amateur sleuths, political paranoids, cozy mysteries…the list goes on and on.

But therein lies the difference. I have heard mystery fans say, “I don’t care for a particular kind of mystery.” I’ve never heard one say, “That has too much history. It’s too realistic. Therefore, that cannot constitute escapism. Indeed, it can’t even be counted as a mystery.”

The idea of a historical being too historic is the kind of thing that gives me a migraine. To continue the mystery analogy, it’s like complaining that a mystery contains a crime. You would think that a historical would default to having, you know, history in it.

Yet in most cases, this simply is not so. There is, in most historical romances, a flavor of history. There are milords and miladies, gowns and breeches, horses and cattle drives, knights and manors. Sometimes someone will toss in some made-up slang on the grounds that Georgette Heyer used it, so it must be accurate. Anyway, those who read the genre regularly will know what the Heyerisms mean—and why waste time doing actual research, anyway? No one cares about it. It’s enough that it sounds good.

Apparently writers of historical romances who don’t bother to do research remain blissfully unconscious of anachronisms. I, however, am a history geek, and errors jump out at me. Consequently, I am left gritting my teeth over the Regency buck who just referred to his male lover’s “libido”–a word that didn’t exist until 1913–and the heroine from the court of Charles II who can easily recall the reign of Charles I but who has forgotten all about the existence of Oliver Cromwell…not to mention a little thing called the English Civil War.

Certainly historical attitudes are not considered important in most historical romances. Quite the opposite, in fact. It’s not unusual, in such stories, to run into a heroine who not only runs her father’s business in her spare time, but who also throws conniption fits at the thought of arranged marriages and wearing gowns to a party—no matter that both are completely normal for the world she grew up in. She is also usually outspoken to the point where, if actual history applied, she would have been arrested for disturbing the peace, turned over to her male relatives to compel her behave better in public, or been carted off to Bethlehem Hospital for the Insane.

Or, to use a male example that’s becoming more and more common, the hero is a homosexual man during the Regency. He’s also more out than a drag queen at the Mummers’ Parade. He’s madly in love with his lover. He wants to show this publicly, and does.

And the immediate universe is fine with this.

It doesn’t matter if there were legal and social consequences to what was considered perversion; no, this is a world where parents, friends and society at large are perfectly happy with the young lordling’s same-sex partner. Practically the only time that someone will be shown displaying the typical attitude of the time is when that person is the villain or villainess, the Personification of All Evil.

I’ve come to the conclusion that for most writers and fans of so-called historicals, the idea is not to create compelling characters in a historically accurate setting and to make both interesting to the reader. It’s to play dress-up. It’s Malibu Historical Barbie and Ken. It doesn’t matter if Ken lives in medieval England, where all Christians would be Roman Catholic, and yet repeatedly refers to the Protestant minister at his church. It doesn’t matter if Barbie is tanned, wears thong underwear and cheerfully defies her king with no consequences whatsoever. As long as Ken wears armor or breeches, and as long as Barbie wears a mob cap and a gown from some era or other, it’s all good.

I confess this enrages me. I love history. I don’t consider it boring. And I don’t think that the only choices are wild inaccuracy or dry tedium. I have this odd notion—supported by the works of my friends who actually write historical historicals—that history can enhance the story. That even a fluffy story is better for the author getting the details right. That research can tell you things about the world in which you’re writing, and can turn your story in directions you never imagined.

And there’s another reason that inaccurate historical romances bother me:

People believe them.

I couldn’t tell you how many debates and arguments I’ve gotten into with young writers who claimed to really want criticism to make their stories better. To a girl, they were all baffled by my reaction to blatant historical inaccuracy in their stories. Some grasped what I was talking about. Most of the others protested, saying that history was too hard for them to deal with. Many wanted to know what difference it made if they said that the American Revolution ended in 1776, or if there weren’t any iPods in Elizabethan England. Many cited their favorite writers, saying that so-and-so had said this was the case in Book X or Film Y or TV show Z, so it had to be true. One girl summed it all up in one sentence.

“This is what I learned from the historicals,” she said. “I mean, it says ‘historical’ on the cover. They couldn’t publish it if it weren’t true.”

And that’s the message that the historically inaccurate historical romances send. That they’re true.

And because they’re true, there’s no need to do any research, or to check and make sure you get the details right. You can merely mimic what other writers have done; no one will notice, or even care. We cannot possibly indulge in escapism if we have to think about how the world once was. That is asking far too much of our poor, feeble, fragile minds.

It’s a lazy, slovenly, misleading attitude. Worse, it patronizes the reader. The most common excuse I’ve seen is that the reader doesn’t want historically accurate books, that most people buy historically inaccurate romances. (The fact that most existing romances ARE historically inaccurate, and that if people want to read the genre they like, they have to read what’s available to them—those things are never mentioned.)

Another common complaint is that romance readers must be free to ignore history in order to savor the fantasy of the story. They cannot possibly indulge in escapism and care about history at the same time. This, and I hope everyone in the back is listening, is a load of horseapples.

Anyone trying to write hard science fiction these days without using actual science–and getting it right–would be thoroughly mocked by the fans. Fantasy fans will argue for hours about the details of a fantasy world—and just what those details imply about the world. And it’s generally agreed among mystery writers that the quickest way to get mail from fans is to screw up the functioning of a firearm. Mystery fans are geeks, and they will write detailed letters explaining precisely what is wrong. Sometimes with diagrams.

It’s all escapist literature. And yet that doesn’t stop the fans from wanting consistency, logic, accuracy. The fans of those other genres demand excellence. Quite a few fans (and writers) of historical romance demand the right to avoid excellence, at least in the form of accuracy.

I strongly believe that this insistence that fulfilling formulaic expectations is more than enough, that striving to give the reader more accuracy, more research, more hard work and more effort than usual is somehow reprehensible, even repugnant, is holding the genre back. It’s hard to support a genre when its loudest proponents are arguing in favor of mediocrity.

I don’t understand why the advocates of inaccuracy seem to feel that this is the only way to craft good escapist literature. I think it’s entirely possible for a genre to contain historically accurate, escapist fluff with happily ever after endings, and for equally accurate, gritty realistic romances that only promise happiness for now—because not everyone likes the same thing. I think that it’s possible for a genre to go beyond the “pulp fiction” stage, and to develop into something better and stronger and more varied than anyone would have once dreamed.

Quite honestly, it’s time that historical romance stopped kicking and screaming like a spoiled five-year-old being forced to attend kindergarten for the first time, and grew up.

It’s long past time to put away Malibu Historical Barbie.

9 Responses

  1. I must be an oddball, then, because I can’t stand reading a so-called “historical” that has no actual history in it at all. A more accurate term for these books would be “costume drama.”

    And this disregard for historical accuracy isn’t limited to novels. I ground my teeth watching “The Tudors” last spring!

    My favorite historical writer is Dorothy Dunnett, but you won’t see her level of research in anything published these days.

  2. I think that most people here are the readers and writers of what I would term “historical historicals.” But I do think that we’re oddballs, in genre terms.

    I’ve heard the term “costume drama,” but, until now, I never thought of it as a story with a quasi-historical setting, but no actual history. Now it occurs to me that that’s a pretty good description.

    I managed to miss “The Tudors.” What did that get wrong?

    I wonder why you won’t. I agree with you that you don’t see hefty levels of research in the genre overall, despite my research-and-accuracy-oriented friends…but I do wonder why historicals, by and large, have so little to do with actual history. It’s very strange.

  3. I agree! I think, though, that there are some people who ‘get’ that people in the past had different attitudes as well as dressing differently, and there are some people who just can’t get that.

    You can find authors whose research is impeccable, who still create characters who are dressed-up moderns, and you can (though more rarely) get authors whose research is a bit sloppy but who create a real feel for the period.

    (I’m thinking of the movie ‘The Knights Tale’ in the latter sort. In no way was it historically accurate, and yet it was still a better representation of the spirit of the Middle-ages than I’ve seen in many things that were better dressed.)

    I can’t help thinking that many people simply don’t understand that our modern way of thinking is not the *only* way. If you don’t understand how (for example) honour could be the most driving concern in a man’s life, it doesn’t matter whether you get the number of buttons on his uniform sleeves right or not – your portrayal will still be hollow.

    But it will only look hollow to readers who already know and care about differences in worldview. It will look absolutely fine to those people for whom their own understanding of a period comes down to ‘oh yes that’s when they wore wigs’.

  4. I’m with Bittermint, both on the enraged thing and on Dorothy Dunnett. All too many so-called historicals annoy me so much you could boil a kettle on my head after the first few chapters. What’s the point of setting something in a real timeframe if you’re going to ignore any last realistic praticalities of said timeframe? You might as well call it a fantasy and have done with it. I’ve been known to throw a ‘hysterical historical’ across the room before now….

  5. To answer gehayi’s question about what “The Tudors” got wrong… got a couple hours?

    Just off the top of my head, they had Henry VIII’s illegitimate son Henry Fitzroy dying of the plague as a six-year-old child, when, I believe, history says he died when he was in his twenties.

    They also strongly implied that Henry’s sister Margaret killed her husband, the sick and elderly King of Portugal, because she’d fallen in love with Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, when he’d seduced her on the ship bringing her to Portugal. I’ve read many books about the Tudors, and none of them ever insinuated anything like this.

    I was also disappointed that the actors they cast as Henry and Anne Boleyn were… well, let’s just say severely lacking in the talent department. Although, to be fair, I thought they did a fine job with their portrayals of Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas More. But for the most part it was like watching English history transformed into an episode of Red Shoe Diaries.

    I’m sitting here shuddering, just remembering it. Maybe watching “Anne of a Thousand Days” this afternoon will wash the sour taste out of my brain!

  6. I’m very glad I didn’t bother with it, then. It just started over here on Saturday. The trailer just looked like a big fat soap opera and I don’t know the era well enough to be able to spork the inconsistencies.

    Ick. JRees is hot though, but he’s not my impression of a young strapping Henry (who had the most beautiful calves in christendom, I believe)

  7. We watched it. As entertainment it was okay. As history it was… well, not very historical. LOL. Everyone looked too modern and everything looked too clean. And did all the girls really do it doggy-fashion in those days? *rolls eyes*

    The calves were even referred to, Erastes! They carefully didn’t actually show them in the scene, though.

  8. >>>The trailer just looked like a big fat soap opera and I don’t know the era well enough to be able to spork the inconsistencies.<<<

    A big fat soap opera with some pretty embarrassing softcore sex. They even had a scene in one of the later episodes where Henry appeared to be masturbating right in front of a servant, though they never explained why.

    Call me weird, but I can’t stand it when the sex gets in the way of the plot.

  9. Great post. I’ve linked to it in my blog.
    Maybe we should start a society or a pressure group or something? I’ve just about stopped reading historical romance, because I want to keep my blood pressure regular, but it’s a huge shame because I love reading a well written, well grounded historical romance.

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