Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Why the English?

Jennie at Dear Author, reviewing Caroline Linden's book, You Only Live Once, says,

". . . reflections on the French Revolution made me question (not for the first time) the anti-French, anti-revolution bias in historical romance.  (my bolding)

It’s a bias that has interested me for a while, mostly because I’m not sure what is at the root of it.
Is it a general disdain of the French common to…most everyone but the French?
Is it based on the weirdly pro-British slant in historical romance (I say weird because it’s usually American authors writing these books)?

Is it based on actual disdain for the bloodthirstiness of the revolution?"

I've thought about this subject some.

Bit of Backgound here for anyone who lives on Mars and is tuning in through subether radio:

Historical Romance has a dozen few favorite settings.  The most tenacious of these may well be 'The Regency'.  Regency Romances are set, roughly, from 1800 to 1817. 

Engaging in fussy historical quibbledry here: 

The French Revolutionary Period ran from 1789 to 1799.  From the Bastille to Napoleon's coup d'etat. 

The Napoleonic Era was 1799 to 1815.  From the coup d'etat to Waterloo.

Anyone still able to unglaze their eyes at this point will see that Regency Romances are set during the Napoleonic Era. 

to put it another way . . .

To me, this kinda sums up the Old Regine.
To a character in a Regency Romance, the French Revolution, (Aristos fleeing the mob, heads rolling like ten pins,)
is ten or twenty years ago.  It happened when they were at school.  Some of the protagonists weren't even born when the Bastille fell.

The French Revolution was, (as my kids would put it,) "so last week."

Regency characters are fighting the Napoleonic Wars.
Different animal.

The Napoleonic Wars, unlike the French Revolution,
can be presented, simplistically, as a straightforward conflict of right and wrong.   (Which may be why Regencies are set there.)

France is an invader and conqueror.  England is defending itself and other nations in Europe.
"Them bad French invaded Spain.  We go rescue Spain."

The Regency spy surveils, and the Regency soldier comes home from, 'a just war'. 
My character Annique, in The Spymaster's Lady, has been loyal to France through the Revolution.

I propose that she may plausibly change her loyalty when Napoleon begins a series of wars of conquest.

Her moral dilemma is exactly about the difference between the philosophical basis of the French Revolution and philosophical basis of the Napoleonic Era in France.

My character Maggie, in The Forbidden Rose, makes a choice typical of the French Revolution.

She's not choosing between nations or philosophical systems, but rather is forced to one side of an internecine class war.

Annique responds to a moral conflict that didn't exist in the Revolution.  Maggie, to a conflict that was resolved by the Napoleonic Era. 

Eight years apart, it's an entirely different war.

As to why books get set in England, instead of,  say, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Croatia, or France . . .

I figger it's the same reason kids go out to play soccer or football instead of making up a new game each time.  You arrive on the field and you got yer lines already painted, the goal posts are up, and everybody knows the rules.

We write books set in Regency England because the readers are familiar with the Regency and folks are familiar with Regency England because so many books are set there.
It's one of those feedback loops.  A viscous cycle.  Sticky.

Readers come to a Regency Romance armed with all sorts of background.  They know Almacks, Bond Street, Vauxhall Gardens, and Gunter's.

Just about nobody knows the Chinese Baths, the Palais Royale, the Tivoli Gardens of Paris, or the Cafe Foy.

The Chinese Baths of Paris in the 1790s

A writer who sets a novel someplace . . . novel,
faces a massive origination fee.  She has to describe the Chinese Baths.  Explain what the Cafe Foy is.
While that author is describing, explaining, and making real the setting, she's not telling the story.

And the writer doesn't necessarily know all this stuff.  It's long, irritating, and difficult work to do research outside the English-speaking world, because, (you guessed it,) the references are not in English.

Finally, when we're writing Romance, we do not generally look at the French Revolution because you'd have to be barking mad to set escapist literature in the middle of folks getting their heads chopped off.  I mean . . .  really.


  1. Thank you! The question (from DA) was intriguing, as I had never really thought about it in anything more than a vague sense, and I really had no idea of the answer. Your answer was interesting and informative - and to gush just a little, I love your blog almost as much as your books!

  2. I absolutely love your blog. You have the most interesting posts.

  3. Hi Sandy --

    Thank ye kindly.

    I spent many years writing nonfiction. It's a hard addiction to break.

  4. Christine2:22 PM

    Great post! I was thinking about this as well when I first saw it on Dear Author.

    I think you definitely covered the bases with your explanation. Of all time periods, at least among romance readers, the "rules" of the Regency are well known.

    I think in addition to the fact we are discussing authors and readers who write/read English as their first (and maybe only language)of which I am definitely one, there is also a cultural/education inheritance.

    In school you learn about the French Revolution and it is often described as "The Terror." Much is made about the guillotine and all the various factions, Dantonists, followers of Robespierre etc turning on each other and killing each other. In French you learn The Marseillaise which calls for the citizens to arm and form battalions and talks about bloody flags and slashing throats.

    Add to this the literary and movie history of "The Scarlet Pimpernel" and "A Tale Of Two Cities" and you have the idea pretty much ingrained in most people's heads from the time they are children that it was just a big old bloody mess with Madame Dufarge running around and peoples heads falling into baskets.

    It wasn't until I was in college that the social and political roots of the revolution was explored beyond "the people were hungry." I think there is also a fascination with Marie Antoinette, Versailles etc the way many people are fascinated with the pre-war south in the U.S. No one wants slavery but many women like to imagine swanning about in a big old hoop-skirt like Scarlett did.

    One thing I loved about The Spymaster's Lady was Annique's view as a "common" person having lived through the Revolution and the aftermath. The pride she had in the democratization and how she would sing her little blood thirsty rhyme as a child(so true! Kids still sing the Lizzie Bordon one!)

    I also liked how it seemed a bit ambiguous regarding Annique's father. Clearly he believed in the causes of the Revolution to write so eloquently and I always wondered how much he felt French and how much English.

  5. Hi Bunnie's Mom --

    I am so glad you like the blog. I do enjoy writing it.

    I wouldn't want you think I'm not fond of English-set Romances. I love them.

    But, like Jennie at Dear Author, I've always asked myself why more Romances are not set in France.

    French heroines, in particular, are appealing. They had more Freedom than their English counterparts in the 1780s-1820s period. Many ran their own businesses. Many were active in Revolutionary politics.

    And there was exciting stuff underfoot in France. Women couldn't be 'protected' into passivity with a war going on.

    And --

    ok. I'll stop.
    I get all excited.

  6. Hi Christine --

    Working within the stringent limits of my ability, I'm trying to represent different views of the Revolution.

    This is an example.
    It's where Doyle and Adrian come to the savagely mutilated orangerie on Maggie's estate. Adrian throws a rock and breaks the last pane of glass. He says:

    “The boys in that stinking little village waited years to do this.”

    “Did they?”

    “They dreamed of it. They’d sit in those pig houses in the village with the shutters closed and the wind leaking in. They’d think about these fancy weeds up here, being coddled, all warm and happy behind glass. Down there, they were freezing in the dark. Up here, they were growing

    “That’s fixed, then. No more flowers.”

    No easy answers in so much complexity. Good folks disagreeing with each other all over the place. Great opportunity for drama.

    I appreciate the romance of the 'Beautiful Noblewomen in Peril'. I could see writing that some day. It's just the strongest theme you could have.

    But, in my heart, my sympathies are more with the ordinary folks.

    So the sorrow of the Revolution, for me, would be some hardworking farmwoman, killed in the invasion of France. Not so much Marie Antoinette, who egged the invasion on.

    Great pity for the Swiss Guards who tried to hold back the mob at the Tuileries. Not so much for Louis who fled and left 600 men to die, defending an empty building.

    The French Revolution is just fascinating, whatever way you write it. I want to lure everybody into basing their books in Revolutionary France so I can get sell books, riding on their coat tails.

  7. You wrote:


    Jo - with all due respect, there is more the the Revolution than people getting their heads chopped off. I write during that period and find it fascinating. And let's face it, even in the most dire of circumstances, human nature prevails and people still fall in love. They face great obstacles, but they do succumb to the lure of the opposite sex.

    As for the references not being in English, there are some good ones that ARE in English - first hand accounts from English men and women travelling in France during the Revolution. And some sources are in advantage is that I'm bilingual and spent two years in grad school studying the period and its sources.

    I think, going back to the Dear Author post, is that people have far more sympathy with the aristocracy because of Marie Antoinette and the belief that it was only the aristocracy that had their heads chopped off. Sure, they made up a good number of those executed, but ordinary people were denounced and guillotined as well, throughout France. While I loved reading The Scarlet Pimpernel as a teenager, it did a great disservice in general to the Revolution and created a false picture of what happened. My sympathies lie with the ordinary people, many of who suffered just as much throughout that period as those on the extreme left and right fought for supremacy. The rioting extremist sans culottes did no more to help those whose rights had been trampled for centuries than the arrogant aristocrats who did the trampling. The goals of the Revolution when it started were laudable - alas the execution (excuse the pun) was not.

    In my stories I try to bring various aspects of life during that tumultuous period to life and people them with those who fight for what they believe is right.

    Sorry - this has turned into a historical treatise...

  8. Hi Tess --

    I am so delighted when somebody writes in the French Revolution time frame.


    I did not, unfortunately, catch the quote taken from my post that you responded to. The Blogger comments section is very stupid and doesn't allow htmls of any kind. I am so sorry.

    As to the French Revolution being about more than heads rolling . . .

    You are so right.
    What you got here is a mess of infinite complication.

    (I named a minor character Vauban, because Vauban's last proposal before he retired, if accepted by Louis XIV, would probably have prevented the French Revolution.

    When it comes to heads rolling left and right --
    (actually, they were reasonably tidy with them,)
    I'd argue that between September 2, 1793 and July 27, 1794, the guillotine WAS the major drama on the French political stage. It's not merely modern sensibilities that make us think that. Contemporary accounts put this front and center.

    'The guillotine' also becomes a convenient shorthand for the constellation of legalized republican violence -- Fouché in Lyon, Carrier in the Vendee.

    I do think the ready availability and plentiful detail of English-language references for England compared to France, Germany, Italy, etc. is a factor in where folks set their stories.

    I have a theory -- I'm a great one for theories -- as to why folks are so enthralled by the plight of the aristocrats in the Revolution.

    Yes -- it's partly that they are individuals and we sympathize with individuals rather than the great mass of humanity.

    And . . . We have pictures of them. They're young. They're beautiful. They have grace and wit and manners. They wear exquisite clothes.

    Christine, (above,) sagely compares this to our fascination with the antebellum South. She has nubbed the nubbins -- whatever that means literally.

    Hmmm ... I'll drop another photo into the blog posting itself. Something I think sums up my perception of the Old Regime . . .

  9. Christine1:44 PM

    Jo Bourne said "I have a theory -- I'm a great one for theories -- as to why folks are so enthralled by the plight of the aristocrats in the Revolution....We have pictures of them. They're young. They're beautiful. They have grace and wit and manners. They wear exquisite clothes."

    Hi again, I have been thinking about this some more and what you say above is definitely true- and I think applicable to the English Civil War as well as the French Revolution.

    Ideologically, one would expect readers to be sympathetic to the Parliamentarians as they were ostensibly for more democracy- versus Charles I and the monarchy which was viewed like the French old regime, as spoiled and hurtful to the common person.

    However I can think of very few examples in Romances of the Cromwellians being presented in any kind of positive light. Let's face it the "Roundheads" were not "sexy." They wore sober clothes and preached a lot and closed all the theaters. The Cavaliers on the other hand, dressed beautifully and were tragic and romantic and had Prince Rupert of the Rhine and Richard Lovelace.

    I keep thinking of that painting by William Shakespeare Burton of the "Dying Cavalier" or "The Wounded Cavalier" where the Puritan girl is cradling the romantically dressed and wounded Cavalier while a very grim faced (brother? lover? husband?) in a black hat glowers at her.

    I think the French Revolution suffers from a "lack of sexy" factor. There are no major images of a Revolutionary that are well known and appealing. When I think of art from that time I think of "The Death of Marat" etc. I can't think of any romantic images until Napoleon starts turning up on his stallion in his gold trimmed uniform and red cloak.

    The French Revolution really needed a good P.R. firm.

  10. Anonymous2:42 PM

    Hi there. Not relevant to the subject at hand, but I just added your books in the new series format at GoodReads and was wondering if you had a recommended reading order. Published or chronological? Or some other wacky way ala Diana Wynne Jones? ;-) -- willaful

  11. Anonymous4:25 PM

    Just a comment that one of my favorite "historicals" is Freedom and Necessity by Emma Bull and Steve Brust, partly because it does talk about the working class. And Tracy Grant's novels, and some of Jane Aiken Hodge's also move out of England. Were there regencies before Georgette Heyer started that genre?

  12. Hi Jeanine --

    The Brust book sounds like an interesting book, and it's one I haven't run across before. I don't read much Historical Fantasy. The Man in the High Castle; The House on the Strand; The Folk of the Air come to mind.

    I keep promising myself I'm going to delve into steampunk as soon as I've got this next manuscript done and I can come up for air.

    I think Heyer can be credited with the whole Romance genre Regency bit back in the 20s. You had books written in the Regency period, of course, (Georgette Heyer,) and you had books written later that were set in the Regency, (The Scarlet Pimpernel,) but you didn't have the combination of Romance and comedy of manners.
    I think.

  13. Hi wiliful --

    I have been agonizing over the right order of reading. I did a post on this which is hanging around the blog someplace or other.

    I think, (jo takes a deep reluctant breath,) that I'm going to advise people to read them in chronological order.

    The Forbidden Rose
    Spymaster's Lady
    My Lord and Spymaster
    Her Ladyship's Companion
    MS: Working Title JUSTINE

    It's not a wholly satisfactory approach.
    But I don't think there IS a wholly satisfactory approach.

    (jo, grumpy about it)

  14. Hi Christine --

    The lyrics of one of the Tom Lehrer songs go --

    "They may have won all the battles,
    But we had all the good songs."

    The Terror gives us beautiful victims.
    Let me think about this and maybe make a posting on it. I can't put pictures in the comments trail . . .

  15. Anonymous10:55 PM

    Thanks for answering! I hadn't realized Her Ladyship's Companion fit into the chronology, so I'll add that, too.

    I tend to like to read books chronologically. Except the Narnia books. That's just all wrong. ;-) -- willaful

  16. Anonymous10:58 PM

    Oh, do you have a preferred series title? -- willaful

  17. Hi willaful --

    It has been many years since I first picked up the Narnia books. If I recall, I read the 'core series' chronologically, then the auxilliary books.

    So I read Last Battle before The Horse and His Boy or the Magician's Nephew.

    Go ahead and call it the 'Spymaster' series. That makes as much sense as anything else.

    Thanks very much for plugging this into Goodreads. I don't do much at that site, but it's a valuable resource, I know. Sometimes someone will point me towards a review that's been posted there.

  18. Off topic: I love Tom Lehrer!

    I think one of the issues discussed here--how we tend to empathize with the prominent is on-going. The poor and disenfranchised have always been invisible. Even when we're encouraged to pay attention to them, the face we see is some celebrity like George Clooney or a member of congress. Those victimized are robbed of agency, but they're doing the hard work. The civil rights movement in the US, for example, was largely driven by people we'll never read about in the history books. And when violent acts were committed by those who opposed civil rights, other, often well-meaning people were of the opinion that those fighting segregation wanted change to happen too fast. In other words, the violence was caused not by those committing it but by those who were fighting for their rights. As though there wasn't plenty of violence before bombed churches started showing up on the evening news.

    That's what I think about the French Revolution. Everyone knows about The Terror, but the horrors suffered by the people before the Revolution are not as visible. It's not the violence that drives history, but the people on whom it's perpetrated. This is another way of saying what Jo already said: we have the pictures of the aristocrats in their finery, but not the images of the starving, beaten people they abused.

    Sorry for the rant, I can get pretty passionate about this stuff. That's why I love when Adrian breaks the window in the orangery and knows in his bones why it was leveled. As I recall, Doyle thinks to himself something to the effect that if the boy can see that, he might be worth saving. But who else *would* see it if not Adrian? He's lived the violence.

    A Tale of Two Cities *does* focus on The Terror, but Dickens sees that people like Madame Defarge have been shaped by what has come before. It's not the Revolution that has caused her murderous rage, though it has made its expression possible. When she knits the names of the aristocrats killed, she's writing history using an art associated with the people, not the aristocrats. It's a terrible record-keeping. I think Dickens understands this even as he abhors the violence. And Sydney Carton goes to his death with a young seamstress. She's also a practitioner of an art of the people, which identifies her more with Madame Defarge than with the aristocrats who were condemned to die.

    I'm not being terribly coherent here. I suppose what I'm getting at is that it's often writers of fiction who portray the complexities of history, but the messages are buried in bon bons to make them palatable to the reader.

  19. Hi Jo--

    Great post, and I'm loving the mini-tutorial on the French revolution in the comments string!

    I admit to knowing almost nothing about the French revolution, but one thing that strikes me about the era is that it is one without rules. The Regency period is riddled with social restrictions (at least in the telling of it through Jane Austen, Heyer and the romance novelists writing today--Mary Balogh especially comes to mind here). Characters are often in conflict with that social order--women seeking to be something other than wives and mothers, women seeking to be recognized or included within the social order, heroes having to choose whether they will adhere to social requirements or marry the woman they love. The notion of being able to somehow overcome these external strictures through love and create your own world order in defiance of the one that has been imposed on you is some very powerful myth for romance readers. It gives the reader (and the writer) a tremendous leg up to see that myth played out in the Regency context where--as you point out--everyone knows that being in or out at Almack's is a Big Deal.

    In your books, Jo, it seems to me that the characters struggle with their own world order (or a least a much narrower, more unique world order than the landscape of Regency social mores). Your characters are forced to reconcile their actions--and their love--with that personal world order. The French revolution is a perfect context exploring such conflicts. The catch is that the writer and the reader have to work a heck of a lot harder because you have to understand how the h/h order their world before you can get the romantic payoff of seeing them rebuild those worlds to encompass the HEA.

    A gross generalization on a number of levels to be sure--just a thought that occurred to me as I was puzzling over this question of why we don't see more historicals set during the French revolution.

  20. Hi Miranda and Annie --

    I have not forgotten your comments.
    I'm going to move them up to make a blog posting.

    But . . . as you know, I'm in the last countdown of the manuscript deadline. I'm just frantic.

    So this will be a slow-motion response.