Monday, May 4, 2009
Of Myths and Men
There are a number of myths that crop up in Regency Romance novels that drive me crazy. Mind you, until I became a Regency Research Geek, I was just a reader who didn’t know any better, although I sometimes noticed inconsistencies between stories, but not enough to bother me. Nor did I appreciate how much work it is to do that much research. But now that I've embraced the craze, I do know better. And I think all authors owe it to their readers to do their research. When I began researching the Regency Era for The Stranger She Married,a historical romance that just wouldn't go away no matter how much I dreaded taking the research plunge, I realized what a huge undertaking it was going to be. And I also learned that there are a number of "truths" which are, in fact, false.
I don’t know who started these odd beliefs not based on any fact, unless people are confusing Scottish laws/customs with English, but in Regency England, many of the favorite themes that a reader finds in a Regency Romance novel never happened, could never happen, would never happen. Here are a few of the most common mistakes and misconceptions:
Myth: illegitimate sons could become a lord.
1. No illegitimate son could ever inherit a title of a lord; he (or anyone) could inherit property or money if called out in a will, but never the title or entailed property. Also, a man who had just inherited a title had to prove his parents were married at the time of his birth. He would not be legally recognized as a peer, or sit in the House of the Lords, until his birth was proven unquestionably legitimate and the House of the Lords had summoned him. If there were no legitimate heir, however distant, the title died out or went dormant. It did not go to an illegitimate son. Ever.
Myth: an illegitimate son could be made legitimized and therefore inherit a title.
2. No illegitimate son could ever be legitimized. I don’t care who he was or who his parents were; if his parents were not married at the time of his birth, he/she was considered a bastard. (Notice, I did not say they had to be married when he was conceived – just at the time of his birth.)
Myth: children could inherit land or title from their mother's side of the family.
3. In England, unlike some cases in Scotland, no one could inherit entailed property or a title from their mother’s side of the family. Again, wills were a different story.
Myth: an unwanted marriage could be annulled as long as it wasn't consummated.
4. Failing to consummate a marriage never left it open to be neatly annulled. Having a marriage annulled, for whatever reason, was as messy, difficult and scandalous as getting a divorce. I cringe when I read plots in Regency Romance Novels where the hero and heroine get married to help one of them out of a tight spot with the understanding that as long as they don’t consummate the marriage, they can just annul it quietly. Marriage was considered a permanent arrangement -- not a convenient quick-fix.
Myth: weddings were lavish; with many bridesmaids, a kiss, a ring exchange and a huge reception.
5. These are fairly modern traditions. In Regency England, weddings did not include bridesmaids in matching gowns carrying bouquets and marching down the line in front of the bride, a ring exchange, and a kiss. The typical wedding was a lot like a church service, with an additional ceremony where the bride and groom would take their vows. Afterward, the bride and groom signed the registry, and then they were legally married. Usually, they went to the wedding breakfast -- as all weddings,by law, had to take place in the morning -- but never to a reception.
Authors have a duty to do our historical research so that the stories are as real as possible. Yes, we write fiction, which is why the heroes are usually tall and hunky, and we fail to mention how BAD most peoples’ body and dental hygiene were, or the state of the open sewage, but the back drop of any historical novel should be researched enough to create a believable historical feel. After all, why read a historical novel if the author has only written a fantasy? If authors want to duck out of research, they should write fantasy novels!
That being said, it’s not possible to get every single fact perfect. However, big things should be done right. And readers trust the author to get it right while providing a lovely, happily-ever-after that transports them into a glittering new world. Hmmm. That sounds a little like fantasy after all, huh?
So, gentle reader, the next time you pick up a historical novel, send good thoughts to the author who probably labored over the research to provide you with a window into the past...mingled with a healthy dose of creativity.