Sexy History?

As a writer of Historic Romance, specifically Regency Romances I have been asked, “Why do I write stories set in a small period of only nine years?”  My answer has always been that right or wrong we perceive the Regency period to be romantic and sexy.  Regency Romances are mental escapes to a less fast paced life when ladies were ladies and men were gentlemen, dashing wicked rakes and unprincipled noblemen!

I have thought about writing romance stories in other periods and am going to look at each to consider their feasibility.  I welcome comments about any periods of history you’d like to have romances set in. I will sift through history examining what factors make me see them as unromantic.  Although I am all for historic realism, most historical romances require at least one of the lovers to have some expectations of a life that was not total drudgery.  A tale of a peasant and a kitchen slattern might abound in realism but lacks the sophistication readers look for in historical romances.

raquel

So I’ll start at the beginning of man. The only sexy image I can find for caveman times is of Raquel Welch in a revealing fur bikini in One Million Years B.C., but even Raquel cannot convince me it would be a romantic existence. Although the movie included humans with dinosaurs in the same time span which seems unlikely, even without dinosaurs it was almost certainly a gruesomely harsh existence with a short life expectancy.  Cavemen and women probably stunk and aged prematurely with their daily struggle to find food.  And archaeological evidence suggests they did not look like Raquel complete with full make-up! I don’t see myself writing a romance set in a period when the basics of language were so rudimentary.

Moving onwards to early cultures, the Egyptians left beautiful artefacts behind to tantalise us, their costumes were pretty and sexy and the wealthy bathed, using costly perfumes. They had comfortable chairs and beds, a sunny climate and bountiful crops.  They ate well with a wide range of Mediterranean foodstuffs. But children had no choice where they were married. Life was short and often violent, dynasties were easily overthrown and important men could have more than one wife and concubines.

Life was far harder for those below the top echelons of power and huge numbers of people were slaves or serfs. Somehow the Egyptian culture has produced fascinating historical books but does not fit as a setting for historical romance.  The Roman and Greek periods look attractive periods from their ruined buildings and sculptures left behind. The literature of those eras is enthralling, showing hunky adventurous heroes doing great daring deeds.  If you read the Illiad, Hector and Achilles were sexy, attractive, well-muscled men.  But neither lived happily ever after with the lady of his choice.  It always seemed unfair to me, that the loyal and faithful Hector was treated so badly after his death by Achilles. However the Greek custom of having homosexual lovers as well as female is unlikely to go down well with a contemporary female readership.

The Romans’ interest in cleanliness, central heating and inside plumbing might make them more attractive prospects for peopling a romantic story. There were love matches amongst Romans, although many were slaves or just hard working plebs. Being a Roman citizen had considerable benefits in law. If you had enough money it could be a pleasant and luxurious existence, so long as you didn’t fall out with the current rulers.

The clothes and hair styles were attractive and most young men did sports and practiced fighting so were fit. But the lifestyle of a Roman lady was very restricted and they were expected to sit through gladiatorial displays which could end in death or disability without flinching. Their enjoyment of such blood thirsty performances jars with modern political correctness.  I have read romances and at least one very erotic historical story set in Roman times, but the period so far has failed to let me imagine myself living in those days. And you have got to be able to imagine the scene to be able to write it down.

I move on to pre Norman Conquest times and to reduce the article length will stay within the British Isles.  There the people struggled to survive against the threat of Viking marauding but the Vikings have got a far sexier image partially because they took the rights of their own women fairly seriously. Both groups were odiferous and lived a harsh life, although the Vikings when settled were more into bathing. So why do they have such a sexy image?  I life in a former Viking kingship and although the artefacts they left behind are intriguing, they really don’t tell us that much about how the Vikings lived in the Isle of Man. They married Manx girls and the history of Mann is interwoven with that of the Viking invaders because Viking names continue to this day.

One of my problems about writing in the Viking period is so much in the history books is vague or incorrect because it is based on tiny amounts of evidence.  Conjectures created on who Vikings traded with, based on what trade goods were found. Recent archaeology proves those assumptions were seriously out. Every new find improves our knowledge of the period. So if I wrote a Viking Romance it would be with the caveat that I had researched from current archaeology, but I could make no guarantee about my having all or any of my facts correct.

If you move forward to Norman times, is much more thoroughly documented thanks to the Domesday book and other records.  It was a difficult transitional time as the British and their Saxon settled neighbours were subjugated by Norman invaders. The Normans who were of Viking origins were not welcomed by the Anglo-Saxons and were determined to suppress all rebellion.  An exciting period for a writer to write about and setting a romance between one of the conquered with one of the invaders would have natural conflict to make writing a story about lovers full of fire.

Medieval times had brightly coloured costumes and the ideals of knightly honour, vigils and chivalry seems made for romances back to Tristran and Isolde and the principles of Courtly Love. It was a barbaric period but the races of Britain had interbred and settled their differences although the Wars of the Roses and the 100 years war split the country and many Englishmen died on the battlefields.

Again I need to extend my research before writing a historically accurate story. I would omit the aromas that followed the characters around.  Bathing was not a regular activity and the beautiful armour stunk of the rancid oils and fats used to keep it from rusting. Underneath the armour, knights wore a padded tunic to make wearing it bearable, but they were soaked with stale sweat.

Being carried off by a knight in shining armour might require an inefficient nose, but if you loved your man enough; the smell could be ignored.  I will sprint swiftly past the Plantaganets and Houses of York and Lancaster, for no other reason than this article is seriously over running on length.

So on the Tudors, there is something about the clothes and atmosphere of Henry VII’s reign that is fundamentally unromantic.  Good looking girls in Henry VIII’s court could expect to be pursued by the King or his nobles but not be offered marriage.  Skirting the short rule of young King Edward VI and the tragic death of the unwilling usurper, Queen Lady Jane Grey and through the blood drenched reign of Queen Mary.  A period I personally find fascinating but as unromantic as Phillip of Spain’s marriage to the aging Queen Mary.

However with Mary’s death, England had a far more romantically inclined Queen.  Elizabeth I desperately wanted fun after suffering persecution and imprisonment at the hands of her half-sister. She adored beautiful flamboyant clothes and loved to surround herself with handsome flattering men. Which is a interesting prospect to write a historical romance in.  Pretty clothes and handsome men always sell well.

I have considered possible plots to fit the period so this is my first preference when not writing Regencies.  But I will not reveal any plot details, that way when I write it, there’ll be no spoilers. From a historical romance reader point of view the Elizabethan era appears both romantic and sexy.

From Elizabeth to James I but the era fits more with homo-erotica than hetero-sexual romance, because James was definitely bisexual and possibly more gay than hetero. A weird period from a historian’s point of view, but a lot happened before Charles I took the throne. The costumes of Charles I were glamorous and the cavaliers definitely look gorgeous beside their satin and lace-clad bosomy ladies. It was an interesting reign with a stupid king who deserved to be deposed. Charles I’s reign ended with a civil war and his beheading, but brought in a Parliamentary Government and then the governorship of the Protector Oliver Cromwell.

Oliver Cromwell presided over Puritan England, outlawing most entertainments and holidays.  Christmas was banned, although the country-folk largely ignored the legislation over celebrating the festival.  Catholicism was exiled and those continuing to follow it did so in secret and in great danger.  The costume of the period was plain, respectable and dark, yet somehow all the government’s restrictions fail to make the period unsexy or unromantic.  The element of underlying excitement and rebellion against repression gives an added hook to a writer so I find the period very tempting indeed.

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The return of a King with the Merry Monarch himself, Charles II, a man who despite a big nose and a swarthy complexion was definitely sexy, if not over-sexed. He failed to have children with his wife, but had a crop of bastards with his mistresses, many of whom are ancestors to England’s current nobility.  A romping rumbustious reign where the theatres reopened, actresses replaced cross-dressing boys and ladies appeared in public wearing what looked like ill attached nightclothes. The court paintings of luscious ringletted ladies by Sir Peter Lely, 1618–1680 show more dimpled flesh than most respectable women would dare to display today, including some prettily rouged nipples.

It is a period when even working class women with intelligence and beauty could be upwardly mobile and marry into nobility. Moreover it is a period in which most people had fun. So I add it to my historical periods to research for future possible writing projects. History as it was taught and still is taught in schools in the UK tends to concentrate on important periods and themes through history. It omits connecting periods and as a result the population’s historical knowledge is biased and patchy. (I invigilated a few years back so saw the examination history papers.)

The reigns of Queen Anne and William and Mary II are one of those joining periods that tend to be skipped over.  I confess I have never added much to the history I learned at school on those reigns. I know it saw the rise of the Churchill and Marlborough families.  There are fine paintings, sculptures and beautiful country houses, but I have little background knowledge of the era.  It is clearly an omission I should rectify.

Now we are finally on to the Georgians but across the channel we are heading for the French Revolution. The female costumes were beautifully lavish, if not practical or comfortable.  The male costumes were attractive in their own way, silks, lace, patches, paint, powdered hair and wigs. If you did not examine hygiene arrangements or that shaving your own hair to wear complicated wigs discouraged head lice, but other vermin might live in the wigs consuming the flour-based powder that coloured them.

You might notice that most Romances set in early Georgian have heroes who stubbornly wear their own hair.  Although Vin Diesel is and Yul Brynner was an attractive man, I like hair on my romantic heroes. I may not necessarily go for dark brooding hunks, preferring good tempers to stroppy over dominant sulks, but I am aware I am a minority.  My last Regency hero The Marquis of Farndon, Sebastian Vernon in the Marquis’s Mistake, which I hope will be just out as this article appears, is blond, brown eyed and devastatingly handsome. He does not however, brood or sulk.

But with the French Revolution, the costumes dramatically changed, out went the huge paniered skirts, ribbons and frills to sleek and revealing Grecian style slips of muslin. Powdered hair and wigs were replaced by delightfully tousled ringlets and exactly cut male disorder. Men’s clothing became more fitted and arguably showed off the more athletic male physique better than any costume previously or since seen.  I admit that men look excellent in tight modern day jeans but they do not also look elegant.  Regency men’s costume is hard to beat for sex appeal.

200px-Thomas_Lawrence,_Portrait_of_Lord_Granville_Leveson-Gower,_later_1st_Earl_Granville_(c._1804–1809)

I accept that Regency female costumes were not always the most flattering or picturesque but historical romances are mostly read by a female readership. A friend of mine pointed out that fashion plates displayed only extremes of fashion.

It is how today’s women relate to the men of the period that is important. Seeing handsome men in Regency riding or evening dress just makes women’s eyes pop out and their hearts beat faster. Add to that the more respectful language of the gentlemen of the period and the solicitous behaviour that etiquette demanded of them towards ladies. Beautiful scenery, elegant houses, horses and carriages, everything about the period just reeks of romance.  The military and naval dress uniforms are stunning, though foreign uniforms were often even more

I found writing this, firmed up my understanding of what I wanted to write in historical romances and explained my choices in what I like to read.  Obviously I thoroughly enjoy the Regency period and would argue from a female point of view, that it is the sexiest and most romantic but it has made me cast a fresh eye over other periods and whether I wish to read or write about them.

The Victorian age when the female costume got more restrictive once more and the male costume became more boring and dour.  There is very little in the male costume of the Victorian gentleman to enflame a woman’s ardour.  Although most Regency men were clean shaven, the Victorian men flamboyantly displayed huge moustaches, dundrearies (the correct period expression for sideburns) and lavish beards.  They may have seen these facial fungal extrusions as proof of their masculinity but I am not a fan.

Rudyard Kipling may have argued that “Being kissed by a man who didn’t wax his moustache was “like eating an egg without salt.” But am I being too facetious to ask how many men with moustaches had he personally kissed?  I am convinced that all but the smallest hairline moustache are extremely unpleasant to be kissed by and waxed moustaches are worse than others.  Some intelligent cosmetician should devise a facial hair conditioner for men, because their beards and moustaches are coarse and abrasive and end up leaving the female partner who has been kissed with a rash, although that also happens when the man has not shaved recently.

I think what is most repugnant about the Victorian era is the hypocrisy.  There were double standards about how people behaved in Regency times too, but it is so much more flagrant in Victorian times. The public prurience and disparagement of any deviation from the regulated respectability contrasted harshly with private lives ignoring all the tenets they preached allowing themselves to participate in all kinds of debauchery. Even the introduction of modern plumbing in Victorian times and other labour-saving innovations fail to make me have any desire to step back into the period even virtually. The Edwardian period is slightly more romantic and the female costumes sexier in my opinion.

King Edward VII had beautiful mistresses as a young man although his behaviour after marrying Princess Alexandra was slightly more circumspect. I might set a romance in this period but there were many scandals and events that require studying before setting the scene for a story.

I am dismissing the post Edwardian period of George V, the brief abdicated reign of Edward VIII or George VI for historical romances. They are the beginning of modern times as we know them and include the harsh times of the two World Wars. It makes for interesting historical books but I do not wish to set a romantic tale in the era.

Is this a logical way of viewing history in relation to historical romances? I never promised that it would be other than my own idiosyncratic assessment. Clearly I have concluded that the Regency is attractive to a female readership especially because of the form hugging male costume and a number of allied reasons.  But back to my books, so far no reader has come forward to claim a copy of “the Marquis’s Mistake” for spotting the admitted historical inaccuracy that I discovered in my first book “The Fencing Master’s Daughter,” that offer still stands. But I may have to start making some hints if no reader has come forward with the correct answer by New Year.

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