Evangeline Holland

Sweeping Drama ⚜ Larger than Life History ⚜ Exquisite Romance ⚜ Diverse Perspectives
September 15th, 2013 by Evangeline Holland

Historical Romance Week: Emma Barry – Ceci N’est Pas Une Histoire

Historical Romance Week

I fell in love with romance reading books written during or set in centuries before this one. First there were nineteenth-century novels like Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre (an aside: I’m not certain you can love both Austen and the Brontes, but that’s another post entirely). Then, about three years ago, I picked up Loretta Chase, Joanna Bourne, and Susanna Kearsley and I was done for.

I realized I had been reading for romance almost my entire life, I just hadn’t been reading genre romance. Giving myself permission to do so was like cutting out the middleman. Since then I have discovered (and even written) contemporary romance, but historical romance is the core of the genre for me.

In this essay, I want to argue several perhaps contradictory things about the allure of historical romance: 1) you’re not going to learn much about history reading it; 2) that’s okay; but 3) what you do learn is precisely what’s left out of the history books, and that’s what makes the genre significant.

My belief about why readers don’t learn history from historical romance is not the usual one. While there is undoubtedly such a thing as the wallpaper historical, and while it may have proliferated in recent years, I don’t think the absence of history or politics from historical romance is at fault for the inability of the genre to instruct.

In other words, I’m not arguing that historical romance should be more like historical fiction. If anything, I find the genre’s anti-didacticism to be one of its greatest assets. Rather, the culprit is the difficulty of recognizing and moving beyond the unarticulated aims and attitudes of our culture.

Implicit, diffuse, but prevailing cultural beliefs make translation difficult in the history classroom, in professional scholarship, or in our pleasure reading. It’s the problem the fish has in describing the water in her bowl. It’s the way we have difficulty seeing the historicity of a picture taken a few moments ago but no difficulty seeing it in a picture taken twenty years ago. Because we aren’t aware of our own historicity we can’t begin to see, let alone understand, the tacit dreams, rules, and desires of another culture.

Consider a middle-class reader in the contemporary United States reading a romance between two aristocrats in Regency England, either a text written in 1815 or one written in 2013 and set in 1815. Between the reader and the characters there are differences in the structure of government, in social class, in geography, in attitude toward race and colonization, in economic structure, etc.

Even when seeming similarity exists, the gulf is wide. Yes, everyone involved may speak English, but “to blink” had a different meaning in Austen’s time than in ours; eighteenth-century Protestants emphasized different stories about the life of Christ than those of today; and so on. I don’t mean to be pedantic, but at some point, these details add up to different worldviews. It’s not apples and oranges: it’s apples and buses, where one party can’t begin to imagine buses.

In my experience, people are optimistic about their ability to overcome cultural or historical boundaries. They believe that a trip to Colonial Williamsburg will teach them something about life in late eighteenth century America — never mind that the smells have been sterilized and the gardens aestheticized and the racial politics sanitized.

At some level, I find this faith that understanding can overcome any impediment delightful, but it is naïve. To truly make the connection, we not only have to understand and describe the water in our own bowl, which we all too often don’t, but we have to comprehend how it distorts the water in the bowl of the fish two shelves over.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t try. We should watch foreign films, read books in translation, and wrestle with history. We should definitely read and write historical romance, but we need to be clear about the limits of this epistemology in addition to its horizons.

One such horizon is the potential of historical romance to amend History proper (capitalization so definitely intended). Even post-feminism and post-post-colonialism, the teaching of history in the secondary and even undergraduate classroom can be shockingly limited. We’re still largely telling students stories about Great Men, who, it just so happens, tend to be white and dead and rich and straight and able-bodied and cis-gendered and male (but I already mentioned that last part). Women, people of color, and the working classes show up more than they did pre-Howard Zinn, but in almost deliberately marginalized ways. Women’s history month, where we celebrate the things Betsy Ross probably never did, makes me want to scream.

Indigo by Beverly Jenkins But this is precisely where historical romance does interesting, imaginative work. To pick just one example, in Beverly Jenkins’ Underground Railroad romance Indigo, Hester and Galen have the following exchange early in the text.

“You have beautiful hands, Hester Wyatt. They’re like exotic indigo orchids.”

Hester could only swallow.

“You’re shaking,” he stated.

For the first time Galen could see that the smallest finger on her hand had no nail. It appeared to have been severed. He gently moved his own finger over the shortened digit and asked softly, “What happened here?”

“My mother did this a few days after I was born. She and my father hoped it would make me distinctive enough to be found by my aunt.”

Descriptions of bodies are de rigueur in romance, but here, Hester’s stained and maimed hands communicate a history that is at once personal and collective; they add dimension and texture to History, and they enter a broader literary conversation with novels such as Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

Even the most staid and conventional Regency or Victorian romance is insightful about the state of upper middle class marriage in the period, a sort of nineteenth-century version of The Feminine Mystique.

When I read women’s letters and diaries from the early Victorian period, there can be an emotional dullness vis-à-vis the writers’ marriages all the more striking for its banality. What historical romance writers capture is the utter wrongness of a system that insists one party to the relationship be by definition the intellectual and emotional inferior to the other.

This is particularly important when we’re talking about intimate relationships because we have less direct information about them that we do about, say, treaty negotiations. In some cases, the evidence about sex, love, and marriage doesn’t get recorded at all. In many others, what we have is highly edited. In every case, we’re filtering what we know through those often unarticulated cultural values (theirs and ours).

Whether we’re scholars or romance readers or both, we’re analyzing what we have imaginatively. I don’t see why fiction can’t be an important mode for that process. In Indigo, Jenkins subjectifies the historical understandings we bring to the text. She and other historical romance writers are adding dimension and weight to history. However, we must always remember what we’re gaining is a charcoal study. It’s a metaphor for the past (which, yes, I’m explaining via metaphor).

Rene Magritte - This is not a Pipe Think of Rene Magritte’s famous painting The Treachery of Images, a painting of a pipe labeled, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” This is not a pipe. This is not history.

The treachery of representation is that when the process of creation is forgotten or obscured, all the ways it can be manipulated are lost. To forget representation is to forget its limits, to buy the myth of objectivity. In the case of metaphors, it’s to lie about either or both of the things being metaphorized. Difference, texture, and reality itself are causalities of metaphor.

I won’t indict the rest of you with the “we” here, but speaking for myself alone, all too often in historical romance I forget or read over the process of representation. I need Brecht to goose my understanding because I get lulled into complacence by successful writers.

Historical romance is not history – and that’s what’s wonderful about it. History is rarely going to tell us much about the subjective experience of individuals, particularly women. Historical romance, like mortar, seeks to fill in the considerable space between the stones, to give details that might be true. While there is much potential for emotional knowledge in this pursuit, we must always remember what we’re looking at. It is not a pipe, and that’s fantastic.

Biography: Emma Barry is a novelist and full-time mama and graduate student. Her first novel, Brave in Heart, a historical romance set during the American Civil War is available now. She loves hugs from her toddler twins, her husband’s cooking, her cat’s whiskers, and Earl Grey tea. Learn more about her here or follow her on Twitter @AuthorEmmaBarry


11 Responses to “Historical Romance Week: Emma Barry – Ceci N’est Pas Une Histoire”
  1. Great essay, Emma!

  2. I love the excerpt you picked! It’s a fictional moment, between fictional characters, but there’s such a wealth of real History packed into it. Those kinds of moments are some of my favorites in historical romances.

    • Thank you! I really love the opening third of Indigo (the rest is good too but a little more conventional). In the opening of that book there’s so much tension–and the stakes are so high!–and all of the things from the narrative that seem the least probable turn out to be details from Jenkins’ research. It’s such a wonderful collusion of the personal and the political (cultural? collective? historical?), plus it gives me the warm fuzzies.

  3. What a terrific post. I have nothing to add. But this, plus Miss Bates’s review, just sold me your book.

    • Thank you so much. Miss Bates’s review was a lovely surprise, but having you comment on this post is too. I adore your books!

  4. Miss Bates thinks this is a great essay too and enjoyed reading it!

    I read historical romance not historical fiction in order to allow for the possibility that history can be transcended, that love can triumph over “realpolitik”. That being said, this is exactly why the “wallpaper” historical doesn’t satisfy … because there’s nothing to transcend. And so, as if I haven’t waxed loquacious enough, here’s another reason why I loved BRAVE IN HEART so much: the history was interesting and accurate and atmospheric, without the feeling that cue cards had been administered, yet the HEA happened despite historical evidence to the contrary. Because, really, shouldn’t poor Theo not have made it back, knowing the death toll that the American Civil War exacted? The history made the final re-union scene all the more poignant and powerful and healed the wound inflicted by Cold Mountain, thank you very much, Emma!

    And if Miss Bates’s review was convincing to Ms Grant, well then, Miss Bates will be walking on air for the next while! And may I echo Emma in saying I … like Woody Allen in MANHATTAN, love just won’t do … I lurve your books! 🙂

    • 1) re: transcending realpolitik, wait until you read Genevive Turner’s HR Week post: you will lurve it.

      2) You’re making me blush and stammer…again. Your review made my week, primarily because it made me feel like someone had read my book exactly as I had intended. Thank you so much for your thoughtfulness, humor, and brilliancy. I can’t tell you how happy I am that *you* read and enjoyed my book; that you shared it with others was just bonus.

      3) The sheer fantabulousness of Cecilia Grant’s books requires a panegyric, no? Someone with better poetical skills than I get on that, please!

      4) Cold Mountain wounded me too, and not in a good way. As if the book wasn’t punishment enough, we tend had the chemistry-free adaptation. I like to pretend the film doesn’t exist beyond it’s soundtrack, which somehow contains all the emotion and vibrancy that Law and Kidman’s performances lacked. Maybe there’s some sort of distributive law for goodness in a given film and T Bone Burnett soaked the entire allotment up?

  5. I greatly look forward to some demolition of realpolitik by our hardly-indolent G. (I’ve always stood by my claim that realpolitik broke/killed Ophelia … well, Hamlet did; but he was driven to it by realpolitik. Think what a romance would be there were it not for realpolitik.)

    Oh, wow, thank YOU so much for the kind words re: Miss Bates’s review of BiH! Your story made my week-end … and if I’d dragged it out, would have shone through the week! But I was too excited to “sit on it.” I’m very glad to hear that I “read” it as you intended it to be read because this is something that really worries me, no matter what my final assessment of a book may be. Did I listen carefully enough? Did I get it? My reading “philosophy” has always been, I guess you could call it, an attitude of receptivity. In so far as one is able, an emptying out of the self … to be open to the text. Reader response and deconstruction it is not, the belief that this is possible, and a little old-fashioned, probably. But we “see through a glass darkly,” limited beings that we are, so I try to let a book speak to me, as if we’re sitting as old friends. I try to “get it right.” In a way, I was worried about BiH and was harder on it because I so wanted to like it. But there it was, that lovely opening sentence (ah, the spinster tales I could tell of broken engagements … ) and I was a goner.

    I have tried to laud Cecilia Grant … me too, failed to fully capture the wonderfulness!

    Cold-Hearted Cold Mountain … absolutely true, the soundtrack is terrific. I still listen to it; it most definitely took all the goodness out of that endeavour and put the wooden-ness into Kidman and Law, poor things, Aussie and Brit that they are too. And let us not forget that this soundtrack led Miss Bates to Alison Krauss … so worthy of panegyric.

    • I like your theory a lot!

      Completely divorced from discussion of my own books, I do think texts teach us how to read them: literally in the case of scenes that feature reading and writing, but figuratively through how the characters respond to one another. I wrote a paper once about Elizabeth’s misreading of Darcy that largely left out his letter, on which one could write a thesis chapter.

      We don’t always have the time, of course, to become the kind of reader a text wants us to be and maybe we don’t want to. I don’t really have any interest in reading how Philip Roth wants me to; I’m not decrying the power of the resisting reader–no woman can exist in the western tradition without that skill!

      Of course, I have other, more evil, “death of an author/what is an author?” days, but I think it’s at least worth asking, “What does the text want me to do with it? What reading results? Do I want to it?” before we bring other tools and perspectives to bear.

      (Also, do you listen to The Civil Wars? I think you’d love them, if not. And I commend to you my all-time favorite live album, Nanci Griffith’s One Fair Summer Evening. You can listen to the whole thing on Spotify. I always skip “From a Distance,” a song that just plain pisses me off, but the rest is magic.)

  6. Oh, I just saw this now … and have completely lost my train of thought. But, boy, do I ever listen to The Civil Wars … Barton Hollow blares out of the morning computer at least once a week. It’s so evocative. And, they have done the best cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me To the End of Love” ever. And this from a woman who’s memorized ALL of Cohen’s songs. I hadn’t heard of Nanci Griffith’s OFSE … but it’ll be blaring on tomorrow’s commute (TGIF). Thank you for suggesting it; love it!

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