I, take thee, to be my lawful wedded wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part, according to God’s holy ordinance; and thereto I plight thee my troth.
Sounds like a fairytale, doesn’t it? Historical romance authors, if they follow the rules, end books in similar ways giving the “HEA” ending to readers. Who wants to read about divorce in a romance novel? However, I’m a diehard researcher that always has to look at a situation from every angle, so I took the time to discover the truth about marriage and divorce.
My research regarding divorce laws in France and England reminded me of that phrase we often say, but don’t really adhere to in the 21st century – “until death us do part.” Let’s move the romance aside for a moment and take a look at the reality of 19th century marriage and divorce. I discovered the following in my hours of researching the topic from a moral, religious, and civil law perspective.
Marriages in the Victorian era fell into three categories: (1) those contracted for convenience; (2) those produced by sympathy or love; and (3) those entered into from duty. The aristocracy put great importance on the background and nobility of the families they married into, as well as marrying for money. Though love in marriage might be ideal, it was not a practical reality, and people were told not to expect too much from marriage. If you found an ounce of happiness in your union, rejoice.
So what about unhappy marriages? Divorce was not easily obtained. Extramarital sexual relations were a normal feature of life in troubled relationships. After marriage, adultery was almost inevitable. Adultery, believe it or not, was preferred to divorce, mainly because divorce was difficult and expensive to obtain. Men had sex with their wives for children, and bedded their mistresses for love and pleasure. A wife had the duty to obey her husband and produce heirs, and in return for her obedience, the husband owed her protection and security.
Divorce in England and France evolved over the years, coupled with Catholic and Anglican restrictions. A married woman in France needed two causes for divorce – adultery and physical cruelty. Adultery alone was not grounds for divorce for a woman. However, a man could divorce his wife for adultery only.
To file for divorce in France, a petition had to be brought before the president of the chambers, and there had to be two attempts before the court to reconcile the marriage. If the marriage failed to reconcile, then court proceedings would continue. Upon the divorce, the children would go to the custody of the husband. After 1886, custody was left at the discretion of the court. The wife had to take back her maiden name and was forbidden to keep her husband’s name. The husband could remarry immediately after the divorce became final, but the wife had to wait ten months after the dissolution before she was allowed to marry again.
In Victorian England, the rules were similar. “The husband could obtain a divorce for adultery, the wife could obtain a divorce for adultery coupled with cruelty or desertion for two or more years, and also for incestuous or bigamous adultery, or rape, or unnatural offenses.” (The Encyclopedia Britannica: Volume 3, Google Books) Divorce could be a lengthy and costly process that only the rich could afford.
Of course, civil laws did not govern church laws. Catholics could not divorce and remain in good graces with the church, and surely Anglican and other protestant branches held the same views. Holy matrimony was just that – a holy union not to be broken. The alternative of adultery to divorce was a matter of sin and one’s conscience. Even though France was predominantly Catholic, the church turned a blind eye to the infidelity of the male Frenchman.
Our modern day divorces are much easier to obtain. Though we may utter those words “until death do us part,” they don’t really carry the serious consequences of marriages long ago. Perhaps that is why readers insist on a happily ever after as a perquisite to a good historical romance. The reality of being chained to a marriage without love for the sake of convenience, law, or religious conscience must have been an unhappy existence. As Jane Austen would say:
“Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance.”
As readers of historical romance, we probably all have our favorite eras that we love to read about. For me, it is the late Victorian era up through the Edwardian era (1870 to 1910). I’m fascinated mostly because of the fashions, etiquette, and way of life of the upper class. Though I’ve written about the struggles of the poor and some of the unseemly points of existence during those years, I guess like most other readers I’d rather bask in the class of privilege.
However, one era that draws readers of historical romance is the Middle Ages, where we are surrounded by knights in shining armor. When I think of that time, I instantly think of Lancelot, that cute Frenchman that stole the heart of Guinevere. Visions of the Knights of the Roundtable, chivalry, amour, jousting, and the crusades fill my mind. This era spans from the 5th to the 15th centuries and leaves for authors a vast time period in which to weave historical novels of love.
Many years ago, I was swept up in curiosity regarding knighthood, and in particular the Knights Templar. I wanted to learn more about knights in general, how they came to be, what their code of honor entailed, how they fought, how they loved, etc. I stumbled across a book at Borders (let us have a moment of silence) entitled, The Knight in History, by France Gies, published by Harper & Row back in 1984. It’s actually available in Kindle form now. Here is the LINK. It’s a fantastic read, and if you’re an author or reader who loves this time period, you might pick it up.
One particularly good chapter is The Troubadours and the Literature of Knighthood, which talks about the love poems and songs written by knights. Below is a short quote from a work that has survived the test of time.
I am blind to others and their retort. I hear not. In her alone, I see, move, wonder…and jest not. And the words dilate not truth; but mouth speaks not the heart outright. I could not walk roads, flats, dales, hills, by chance, to find charm’s sum within one single frame, as God hath set her . . .
While in London, I actually saw quite a few suits of armor, including those worn by Henry VIII. Not only were the males adorned in shining metal, but their horses as well. Below is a picture of Henry’s armor, which was quite larger than other examples. For some reason, I was shocked at the size. No doubt I had Jonathan Rhys Meyers on my mind, rather than the hefty English king of reality. If you enlarge the picture by clicking on it, you note the prominent area of protection around his manhood.
Let us fast forward to the Pre-Raphaelite painters during the mid-19th century who gave us inspiring works of knights in shining armor associated with beautiful women they loved, honored, or rescued. A few of these great artists (Harper, Millais, Waterhouse) have created beautiful scenes of knights and ladies that surely give rise to inspirational stories in all of us. Below is a small sample of some of those gorgeous works of art.
In any event, if you’re a lover of this era, our pages are open to authors who write stories about knights in shining armor. As for me, I’ll stick with the more gentile gentlemen of the Victorian era, rather than men of steel and brawn.
“Where are the simple joys of maidenhood? Where are all those adoring daring boys? Where’s the knight pining so for me he leaps to death in woe for me? Oh where are a maiden’s simple joys? Shan’t I have the normal life a maiden should? Shall I never be rescued in the wood? Shall two knights never tilt for me and let their blood be spilt for me? Oh where are the simple joys of maidenhood?” Camelot by Alan Jay Lerner (book and lyrics) and Frederick Loewe
What a loaded question that happened to be on the Internet today. A blog post was contributed by Jane Litte, the founder of Dear Author entitled, “We Should Let the Historical Romance Genre Die.” A flash flood of comments were posted either agreeing or rebutting the idea. The article was re-posted on one of my favorite sites, The Passive Voice, which generated many comments as well. It was a hot topic between readers and writers whether our Mr. Darcy-type characters are doomed to fade away into the distant past.
I commented on The Passive Voice that I don’t think the genre will ever really die, though the interest may wane because of the current trends in the marketplace. The vampire rage has paled, being replaced by the kinky millionaires and sex slaves in the bedchamber. Perhaps one day readers will want to return to the good old days for a bit of swashbuckling romance. I think new generations who fall in love with Austen’s work will want to read Regency-era stories. Of course, that genre is a bit cleaner than the 21st century, unless we start tying up and spanking Mr. Darcy for pleasure.
Frankly, authors need to make their stories more interesting, reach out to those readers who want that type of novel. Keeping a genre alive is a responsibility of not only a reader, but the author as well, who should have the incentive and imagination to bring a new flavor. If the target audience is getting bored, there must be reason behind it. Perhaps authors are just churning out too many cookie-cutter stories with not enough emotional impact to keep readers interested.
I had an after thought, too, that historical romance is no easy gig for any author. It’s one thing to write contemporary romance, sprinkled with a bit of research. It’s entirely another daunting job to jump into a historical era and learn all about the speech, customs, dress, beliefs, and attitudes of the day. Without research, historical romance is bland and just a story. You can also get crucified in reviews from staunch protectors of the faith if you dare to vary from the historical norm. I don’t mind research, because I want to develop my characters in their true surrounding. After all, some of the research is interesting! I always thought French letters were just that — letters. Little did I know…
Well, I assume that in a few days another controversial post will pop up somewhere in blog land. In the meantime, what do you think? Is the historical romance genre dying a slow death? If so, what can we do to spice things up a bit, without making it raunchy in content?
I’ll leave with you another wonderful photo of a period dress to ponder upon while you’re thinking of your answer. I think women must have felt so feminine and beautiful. Believe me, my jeans and sneakers just don’t do the trick.
“It isn’t what we say or think that defines us, but what we do.”
― Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility
Purple wool, velvet and lace two-piece Worth dress, c. 1890
One of my goals of this blog is not only to showcase books to readers, but to make an interactive location for authors and readers to enjoy the past that we write and read about. I’m a firm believer in using visuals for inspiration. My favorite practice is to make storyboards for my books. Perhaps one day I’ll share those with you.
In 2010 and 2011, I had the opportunity to live my dream of traveling to England and losing myself in the wonderful city of London. My ancestors on my mother side are English and on my father’s Russian. I often say it makes a lethal combination as a writer, because most of my stories have drama and tragedy before the happy ending arrives! I blame my propensities in story writing on my heritage.
Nevertheless, while in London one of my favorite visits happened to be at the Victoria & Albert Museum. One visit is not enough to take in the wonders of art and design that fill its halls. If you’re an author or a reader, you’d love it as a wonderful place of inspiration. Below is a short slideshow of some of the period clothing and furniture that were in the museum. There are so many wonderful historical items to look at that I barely touched the surface of its treasures.
My favorite room contained a world famous collection of medieval tapestries, including the Devonshire Hunts. The room had a protected environment with dim lights and atmospheric controls for the ancient masterpieces. They were absolutely awe inspiring to examine up close in both color and intricate designs that covered the walls. I think each tapestry could be the inspiration for a stunning historical romance.
The Appropriate Use of You-Know-What, You-Know-Where and You-Know-How
This post was contributed by Lorraine Hunt Lynn on 5/5/13
Perhaps I’m a little odd, but I have a thing about hygiene in Historical Romance. Whenever the captain of a buccaneering vessel sweeps his love interest into his arms and carries her into his cabin, I tend to wonder when he (or she) last washed. I know, I know; we are supposed to presume that our protagonist and love interest have taken care of the essentials, but the question of love’s bare necessities remains for me.
Perhaps my obsession comes as a result of the years I spent studying history, and the need to understand it at its contextual level. As a student, I was expected to research everything and assume nothing before attempting to offer my opinion. As there were no Regency rakes hiding in 19th century census transcripts, and little mention of heaving bosoms among the Old Bailey records, the hard graft of understanding the ordinary person took precedence. Then again, my sanitary preoccupation might be the result of my addiction to Time Team, and Phil Harding’s love of the ‘good tomato growing soil’ at the base of a castle’s long drop toilet system. Regardless, historical hygiene has always fascinated me.
Paula Lofting, author of Sons of the Wolf, is a childhood friend of mine, and our shared passion for our writing and our children has seen us through most of our lives together. When Paula’s debut novel began to take shape, and her ongoing involvement with Regia Anglorum fascinated me, I recall wanting to know all about pre 1066 England. So excited was I, that my first question was, ‘So, what did the Anglo Saxons use for toilet paper?’ It’s true; the University of Oxford conferred upon me a piece of paper assuring the world of my historical abilities, and I ignored the status of Anglo Saxon women, their societal structure, architecture, medical knowledge and so much more, to ask about the act of wiping one’s nether regions!
All buccaneers, rakes, heaving bosoms and moss wiped bottoms aside, I have to wonder if this is a subject considered by other Historical Romance readers. Are the undergarments, unmentionables and undesirables better left unsaid in Historical Romance? Personally, I believe that the more of life’s ‘little things’ there are in historical fiction, the more it can lend credibility to a good story. I’m not suggesting that a hero or heroine should be portrayed as an OCD sufferer in a ritual cleansing frenzy, and nor do I believe that a manifest of undergarments should be provided each time anybody disrobes. No; what I would prefer to see is the occasional, tasteful reference to how they kept themselves clean, and to ensure that it is appropriate to the era in which they lived.
This requires a fair amount of research, but it can pay dividends in terms of believability. The practice of soap making, for instance, is an ancient one, and lye soap has been used by everybody with access to animal fat, ash and a fire since time immemorial; possibly since before the Anglo Saxons were gathering moss for the purpose of wiping themselves! Lye soap however, was only fashioned into solid cakes when mixed with salt, and was definitely not to be applied to the face in that form; not unless the heroine was intent on aging before a reader’s eyes. Soft lye soap was used for bathing, and was generally scooped from a pot with the fingers.Toothbrushes too, have been around in one form or another for centuries, and toothpaste as we know it today since at least the 19th century. Before then, salt or charcoal were the most effective dental cleansers. There were no antiperspirants in days of yore, but deodorants in the form of powders and perfumes were in common use by the middling and upper classes since the Middle Ages at the very least. As to underwear, the simple act of having one’s bloomers (the precursors to pantaloons) removed in the late 18th and early to mid 19th centuries, required the removal of two separate legs, each joined by a tied fronts piece. This is the context about which I write when discussing historical accuracy and the ‘little things’.
Often in fiction, the most unmentionable of all subjects is a woman’s menstrual cycle; something requiring a well crafted and sensitive approach by an author. It is difficult to ignore the subject if a fornicating couple is trapped by marauding abductors for anything in excess of three weeks, as the inevitable will happen; from puberty to menopause, you can generally set your clock by it. Pregnancy too, is the result of sexual activity at a certain time in a woman’s cycle, and the credibility of a story can often hinge upon such trivialities as the moon and the calendar. Historical Romance authors should ignore these realities at their own peril; but how can they be addressed without risking it being overdone to the point of distraction? I believe that it’s all about balance, and I offer the following advice to those struggling with subjects from moss to menses, and everything in between.
Heroines can simply catch a glimpse of a little soap at the base of an earlobe, thus assuring the reader that her love interest is ship-shape in the cleanliness stakes. Alternatively, the hair at the nape of his neck might be damp from his ablutions, or his own musk might mingle with the aroma of lye soap as she falls into his embrace. When crafted as a passing mention, these details don’t detract from the scene itself, but they serve to give characters substance. The requirement for a certain level of cleanliness is something we share with our forebears, and thus it can transcend the ages and allow readers to relate; something all authors continually strive to achieve.
The inevitable ‘monthlies’ (a term used in antiquity, and still common in the 1950’s) are bound to crop up in a book spanning a time frame in excess of three weeks. It doesn’t have to be spelled out in gruesome detail, but the passing mention of a heroine’s cramps slowing her morning routine can convey to a reader that she is just as human as the rest of us. Childbirth too, can be an interesting subject, but many authors struggle between providing too much or too little information. If it is essential to the plot, a well written delivery (in history, the woman was delivered of the child; the child was not delivered) can add a wonderful dimension to a story. Again, this must be done in the context of the times, and in keeping with the heroine’s knowledge of childbirth. Words such as uterus, contraction, umbilical cord and birth canal have only been in general circulation in modern times, whereas pain, cramp, urge, sting and push are timeless.
Long underwear on men is another area of fascination for me. Although the nightshirt, nightcap and long undies of antiquity predominate in modern depictions of life in Tudor England, 19th century Midwestern saloons and colonial plantations, the truth of the matter is that not all men wore long underwear. To begin with, the impoverished Dorsetshire agricultural labourer had little chance of affording such a luxury, and I can assure you that no early Australian settler in his right mind would wear long woollen undies and trousers when the mercury hovered around the 110 mark for weeks on end. The latter labouring fellow would either cut out the legs from the offending undergarment, or opt to ‘free-ball’, in order to survive the rigours of his environment.
I suspect also, that stays, corsets, crinolines and bustles for colonial working class women were reserved for the advent of company, or for venturing outside of the homestead for church, as any restriction to working efficiently would necessitate its removal. Books and electronic sources detail what people wore in a certain era, and such resources contain wonderful descriptions and drawings of clothing and accessories, equipping the historical fiction author with everything they need to put a heroine’s ensemble together. The author must however, be wary of out-thinking daily life, and should acknowledge that life’s practicalities also come into the picture; after all, the flip-flop is not a modern invention, and was worn by the Japanese for centuries. As to the aforementioned night attire, it’s all very well to rug up for a night in a Hebridean crofter’s hut, but sweltering nights in the colonial tropics are best survived by wearing as little as possible under netting, thus allowing perspiration to help cool the skin.
Finally, let us not forget the most basic function of all; toileting oneself. No romance reader, historical or otherwise, wants to be faced with the prospect of Lord Dunraven grabbing a copy of The Times and heading for his era’s version of the thunderbox; God forbid! The thought is as abhorrent as any mention of poorly functioning bowels, and any author in breach of this unwritten law should find a sturdy cane and administer themselves a damned sound thrashing. If however, mention of ‘the pot’ is appropriate to a scene, it should be tasteful, fleeting and non descriptive, and used only as a means of adding believability.
I admit that I like Historical Romances with the right doses of ablutionary reality in them, but only as a means of giving characters and situations believability and depth. I need to rest assured that a kiss allows a heroine to be the recipient of a man’s passion, and not the remnants of the pease pudding and faggots he ate for dinner. Most importantly, I strive to provide my own readers with the correct doses of subliminal reassurance that teeth are clean, nether regions are fresh and underwear is laundered, regardless of marauding abductors and the calendar.
It’s fairly late as I finish this Blog, and I’m well overdue for a you-know-what, you-know-how and you-know-where (hot cup of tea, white and sweet, in bed). I shall bid you all good night, climb into my 21st century night attire, and start thinking about my next Blog.
Uninhibited sexual pleasure in the city of love during the 19th century could cause a 21st century woman’s cheeks to blush. Prostitution and brothels were at their heyday, and they served a purpose to meet the needs of men both rich and poor. After all, marriage was an institution for producing children; prostitutes and mistresses were for pleasure. The brothel was a place of relaxation for men and accepted as normal practice in society.
How many prostitutes were there during this time period? This may surprise you. Brothels or mansions of tolerance, as they were called, housed 15,000 prostitutes in 1883. Between 1871 through 1903, approximately 155,000 women were registered as prostitutes. Each prostitute had to register at the Bureau of Morals. Afterward, they received a huge laundry list of regulated behavior for their conduct indoors and outdoors. During that time period, 725,000 were arrested by the police for suspected prostitution because they never registered.
Jobs were scare for women and survival of the poor difficult. Even married women participated in prostitution. There were roughly 125 brothels in business during 1870’s. Brothels were considered a cleaner and more regulated system of pleasure keeping individuals from sexual perversion by giving them an alternative to the women on the streets. Pleasures for the male population were rampant on every corner, and like any other morally questionable practice, it carried consequences.
We tend to romanticize all this into lovemaking in romance novels without consequences, except perhaps a baby or two out of wedlock. Unfortunately, all those pleasures carried risks, especially contracting syphilis. How many had the disease? You might wish to sit down. Fourteen to fifteen percent of deaths were attributed sexually transmitted disease. Some reports carry it as high as 17%. One-tenth of the population contracted syphilis. You may think that’s not many, but one-tenth of the population equated to four million people. Syphilis was attributed to 40,000 still births yearly,when gone untreated, progressed into a dastardly end. Half of the cases were contracted between the age of 14 and 21. As one report put it, young people could not wait to dispel of their chastity.
Treatment for syphilis was inadequate and understanding by the medical community of the disease somewhat lacking. There were hospitals and clinics set up to specifically treat the disease, but many found it embarrassing to seek treatment. Effective treatment really didn’t arrive until approximately 1910 with the onset of better antibiotics. Earlier, Mercury and Potassium Iodide were used.
Nowadays, we’re probably a bit more sophisticated when it comes to sex and disease. After all, we’ve evolved, right? Men that sweep us off our feet today are usually wearing blue jeans and sneakers, and we can insist on blood tests before we hop in bed with them. I guess social progression does have its trade offs, but I have a sneaking suspicion with the number of historical romances sold each year women would rather fantasize in another century with handsome, well-dressed rich men.