History Hoydens

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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

13 May 2011

At Home in the World

The worst part of being a historical writer has got to be the anachronisms that creep into your fiction, the ones that bite you about the ankles because you never even thought to check them -- because at the time you wrote them it seemed so entirely obvious that this or that phrase or product simply had to have been around back then.

The product currently at issue being boot polish, tins of which I blithely envisioned neatly stacked on the shelf of every Regency gentleman's dressing room, in readiness for his valet to put a sexy shine on all those hot high Hessians. Boot polish plays a minor but rather important role in my first published romance, Almost a Gentleman, in the form of a made-up commodity of inferior quality called Drumblestone's Bargain Blacking.

I probably cooked up the name in half-conscious reference to David Copperfield and Oliver Twist's tormentors, and once the stuff had a little Dickensian spit (or spite) affixed to it, I never thought to question it.

Which is rather too bad, as I learned some number of years later -- or in fact was just a day or two ago, when I read that boot polish actually wasn't commercially sold until the 1890s.

Authors, don't you hate that when it happens?

Still, I'd hate it a lot more if I wasn't otherwise taking enormous pleasure in having my ignorance revealed, so enthralled (and appalled) have I been to learn that besides all their other drudgeries, eighteenth and nineteenth century English servants were charged with by distilling, brewing, or otherwise concocting "inks, weedkillers, soap, toothpaste, candles, waxes, vinegars and pickles, cold creams and cosmetics, rat poisons, flea powders, shampoos...." (And if I weren't already charmed by the substance and variety of these artifacts, I'd have kept on reading for the vivacity with which the words tumble onto the page.)

Which is to say (as I'm sure some of you have already guessed), that I've been spending the last few days reading Bill Bryson -- more specifically, his recent book called At Home: A Short History of Private Life, a wonderfully entertaining, inquisitive and informed account of the house he and his family live in, "a former Church of England rectory in a village of tranquil anonymity in Norfolk, in the easternmost part of England."

The original concept for the book, Bryson says, was "to wander from room to room and consider how each has figured in the evolution of private life." Writing about what's "neatly bounded and cozily finite," this was to be "a book I could do in carpet slippers." But as you'd expect from the author of A Short History of Nearly Everything, there's very little that remains obediently on its proper side of the invisible circle separating home and whatever happens outside of home.

"Houses aren't refuges from history," is how Bryson puts it. "They are where history ends up."

As does historical romance, at least in the novels I've tried to write, which almost always end up with a hero and heroine finding their home -- and in my most recent, The Edge of Impropriety, (just out, I'm just saying, in mass-market paperback), also finding their family. For me it's one of the great pleasures of historical romance when the period setting becomes something more than costume and furniture, or housework done by the invisible elfin hands of unnamed servants. At best, I love historical fiction, especially about men and women finding each other and finding home, as the venue wherein (again, in Bryson's words), "whatever is discovered or created or bitterly fought over -- eventually ends up, in one way or another, in your house."

Or in this case, his house, as he takes us through the hall, kitchen, scullery and larder, to the fuse box (with a fine, concise history of the lighting of houses and cities from candlelight through whale oil, kerosene, gas, and electricity), the drawing room (architects, architecture, Chippendale and a lovely bit about the best wood that was ever used for furniture). I'm in the dining room now, learning about the long struggle to discover and invent the vitamin.

Bryson wears his astonishing erudition as lightly, comfortably, and modestly... as, well, a pair of carpet slippers. He tells you stuff you didn't suspect; stuff that makes stuff you sort of knew but never understood finally make sense; and stuff you never thought to ask but should have. And he seems to know how much is enough to make you feel comfortably full and not enough to sate your sense of wonderment. Though if you want more that this 450pages of richness, there are always the 114 pages of source notes that didn't make it between the covers of his book but can be found online at http://www.booksattransworld.co.uk/billbryson/downloads/athome_source_notes.pdf.

But according to the table of contents I've still got the cellar, the passage, the study, the garden, the plum room (??!!), the stairs, the bedroom, the bathroom, the dressing room, the nursery, and the attic, deliciously to go, in this book that I can't imagine how I've done without up until now, and that I overwhelmingly recommend to history hoydens everywhere.

The plum room? I'll be sure to let you know.

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8 Comments:

Blogger Diane Whiteside said...

Pam - At Home sounds fascinating! I can hardly wait to find out the complete history of the plum room with you. I love books like that. I'm currently working my way through a history of the British street scene, according to their sensory impact, which is also mind boggling.

7:53 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Sounds like a wonderful book! I love tracking down details of every day life. And inevitably I do discover an error in my assumptions along the way!

12:18 AM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Ah, well, now you've given me another tome to add to my mental TBR list, Pam! And naturally I am eagerly awaiting your next installment because for the explanation of the plum room. Nickname for the best guest bedroom? Room with the nicest view?

3:28 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Will keep everyone posted!

6:25 PM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

One of my friends just gave me this book! I haven't had a chance to crack it yet, but now I'm dying to do so!!! And yes, I hate the anachronisms that creep in, but I’ve accepted that it’s inevitable. In every interview I do, I ask if the writer has discovered any errors after the books is out and almost to a woman they’ve said no. This fascinates me, as I almost ALWAYS find one in my own books (and frequently spot them in the books I read).

7:13 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Anachronisms are inevitable -- my husband found one in WAR AND PEACE a few years ago. So it's funny that I care so much, because I know that's what important in the romance genre is the coherence of the made-up world.

But I do care, because a well-placed, accurate, non-cliched detail can cause everything to click into better focus, like there are suddenly more pixels on the screen. My husband said he had one of those moments reading ALMOST A GENTLEMAN when I referred in passing to the raised wooden walkways in Mayfair, that kept feet dry and mudfree in winter -- in Mayfair, though not in other parts of London.

Anyway, Isobel, you'll love AT HOME.

11:13 AM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

I'm not sure the coherence matters as much to readers as it does to us. I've had two reviews for RIPE FOR PLEASURE so far that complain about all the historical details (they really have a hate on for my use of period books). I just keep Sabrina Jeffries’s advice in mind: “They’re not part of your million.” (not everyone will be your fan, but enough people will that it won’t matter that not everyone gets you or your books).

12:46 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I like that phrase. Will have to remember it.

2:47 PM  

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