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Historical and Regency romances – does it matter if they’re “history-lite”?

downton abbey, romance novels, historical romance, regency romance

There’s been a lot of debate recently about anachronisms in Downton Abbey, and I’ve enjoyed reading it.  One or two were just glaring errors that made me laugh (double yellow lines and a TV aerial were a couple of them), and others I thought were just nit-picking.  ‘Get knotted’, for example.  I didn’t even know it was out of place.  I can imagine a first world war soldier saying it, and in any case there is some debate about whether it existed at the time or not.  There are other anachronisms that are a little more jarring, and a guy called Benn Zimmer from Language Log put together this great “Downton Abbey Anachronism Watch” video which picks up on a few of them.

But I didn’t mind the Downton Abbey anachronisms so much.  They didn’t stop my enjoyment of the series, and like pretty much everyone else in the country I watched all of it avidly.
But if you think the anachronisms in Downton Abbey are worth debating, you should try reading a few “Historical” Regency romances.  Thunder an’ turf!   I very rarely read them, to be honest, because they’re not my cup of tea (after Georgette Heyer, everyone else seems a pale imitation), but I was led to pick up a few recently by some recommendations I’d read on various blogs.  These were authors I’d never heard of before, because although they’re very popular in the States they aren’t well-known here.  And after reading them, I have to say I understand why.  Tare an’ hounds!  I did persevere with a few of these authors (honestly!) but by the time I came to Julia Quinn I was ready to ‘wish the whole lot of them at Jericho’.

(First of all, I have to explain that I’m usually pretty anal when it comes to language.  I’m the sort of person who has to  text “you” instead of “u”, for example.  It’s not something I’m proud of – it takes me bloody ages to text – but not doing this sort of thing makes me very edgy.)

So, bearing that in mind, here’s how I got on with The Duke and I, by Julia Quinn.

romance novels, regency romance, historical romanceI had high hopes.  Very high hopes.  I’d heard Julia Quinn mentioned as an author to turn to for historical research, so, even though she’d called her book The Duke and I when I’m pretty sure it should have been The Duke and Me (told you I was anal), I was excited about reading it.  My excitement was short-lived.  Not only was the book riddled with anachronisms, it was also awash with Americanisms which every two paragraphs dragged me out of the London ballroom and into 21st century America.

The very first paragraph set my teeth on edge.  “…the entire village of Clyvedon quit work to partake of the feast.”  It’s leftLeft work, for God’s sake!  Why use an olde English-e word like partake, but throw in an American quit?  It doesn’t make sense!  Then I realised I was becoming anal again.  It was probably a simple error.  I tried doing some deep breathing and thought of my happy place, but it was no good.  The mood was set.

To someone like me, every sentence was torture.  By the time I’d read through all these, my blood was boiling:

  • he left the house to go exercise the mare.  Go and exercise! 
  • A good paddling might help him find his voice.  Paddling!  Are we at the sea-side?  Oh no, she means hiding
  • Say!” Benedict exclaimed.  Say what? Is Benedict a 1940s American? 
  • Nah,” Colin said, grinning.  Nah?? If I heard an upper-class British voice say “nah”, it would mean “now”.  (And of course, Colin was such a popular name in Rengency times.)

These are just a few, a very few instances, since the whole book was riddled with them and as you can probably tell I was too tortured to finish it.

Romance novels, Regency romance, historical romance
An English fox hunt. No guns allowed.

My absolute favourite, though, was the Duke who bought his son a gun for the fox hunt.  This more than anything brought the flavour of the American cavalry into the English countryside.  For anyone who doesn’t know about fox-hunting, it’s the hounds that kill the fox (that’s why fox-hunting has recently been banned in the UK as barbaric).  No-one carries a gun.  It’s probably more humane (I’m no expert), but the hunt would be over pretty quickly if the fox got shot.  Tally-ho, chaps, the fox is dead, let’s go home and open a can of Bud!

So, does it matter?  I feel churlish saying it does.  I’ve seen discussion groups on Goodreads in which readers have LOVED these books.  One particular comment I found touching was from a reader whose daughter has a stutter.  The hero of The Duke and I has a stutter, and grew up being bullied by his father because of it.  Obviously the book really struck a chord with this reader and she took some comfort from reading it, and this storyline was more important to her than the Disney style flavour of British history that I’m complaining about.

Still, in my opinion accuracy does matter.  I think authors have a duty to research and to try and present the most accurate picture they can, without losing the entertainment value.

How about you?  Do anachronisms bother you as much as they do me?  Do you think I’m being pedantic, and that the story and entertainment is the most important part of reading?  Let me know what you think – I’d love to hear from you!

6 thoughts on “Historical and Regency romances – does it matter if they’re “history-lite”?

  1. Oh yes, haha. They bug me all the time. I sort of tolerate it from television, but I truly can’t believe Quinn’s book was so riddled with Americanisms and yet heralded as being a go-to for research! Research into England Land, perhaps.

    Where on earth did they say double yellow lines and TV aerial in Downton? You’d think somebody on the team would have pointed it out before it was filmed. Perhaps Mary will be in the parlour “chilling on her iPod” next series. Don’t they say “stuff” instead of “things” a lot, too? I can’t imagine the term would have been in used in that context for at least another thirty years.


    1. Hi, nice to meet you and thanks for your comment! The double yellow lines, etc, were filmed by accident, so you can sort of excuse it. Easily done! There’s an article here with other filming errors that you might like:
      It’s strange, but like you I’m also far more able to tolerate anachronisms on television than in a book. Like the idea of Mary on her iPod :) Maybe after Mrs Patmore’s just microwaved a takeaway for her!


      1. Nice to meet you too! Ah, I see. For a moment there I thought they were actually in the dialogue! Okay, I can sort of excuse the setting. You’re always going to miss something.

        I see Julian Fellowes really took the comments on the chin! Just slag the critics off, that’s how professionals should behave. I understand that some of the small stuff is nitpicking (e.g. the stirrups) but there are times the series has been woefully inaccurate, such as almost everybody being cool as cucumbers about Thomas’s sexuality. Plus the family’s relationship with the staff must be so sugar coated you’d rot your teeth on it.

        Perhaps we cut TV more slack because we’re able to recognise the time and budget constraints, or just sort of accept it as being “less intellectual”. In a book, the author’s historical setting essentially means they are claiming to be an expert on the time period so we’re very critical of them when they get it wrong. Not to mention, we trust books to tell us facts so we get shirty when they tell porkies!


        1. Yes, you’re right, maybe that’s it – we trust books to tell us the facts. And I heard servants often in those days had to turn their faces to the wall when members of the household passed, so they do seem to have a very good relationship considering the times! Still, I suppose it could happen. I’m not sure how people would have taken Thomas’s being gay. Maybe they were more relaxed in ordinary life than the law was at the time. Not sure about that one! It’s certainly an interesting debate, though!


  2. Thank you for this! (A long time ago now, I realise.) I bought Bridgerton thinking it must be good as it was being made into a TV series and could not believe what I was reading. My mother in law insists it is supposed to be a spoof….

    I also feel churlish about it as I know that the majority of the readership of US-written, UK-set historical romance is in the US. I can just about forgive the occasional “sidewalk” or “fall” in descriptions rather than dialogue, on the basis that they are being described for a US audience. One of my biggest bugbears is characters being “cut off without a cent”…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello Jenny, I wrote this post a long while ago, and I’ve read very few US Regency romances since then. Things like ‘cut off without a cent’ just jar too much. I now know how hard it is to write a character from the other side of the pond. I had an American editor for one of my books (it has an American hero) and she would write ‘lol’ in the margins whenever he came out with a Britishism :) It’s surprisingly hard to get right. I found a native editor invaluable.
      When I realised Bridgerton was based on The Duke and I, I didn’t have high expectations, but some friends told me how much they loved it. I watched it and loved it, too! Perhaps it was because the actors were mainly British (or Irish) and so the dialogue sounded like British English rather than US English. It was also clearly, from the soundtrack, a fantasy world rather than a historically accurate one, and so that made it much easier for me to get swept up in the story.
      Georgette Heyer is one of my favourite authors, and although her historical novels seem like a light, fun read, she was actually very knowledgeable and meticulous in her research. I totally understand your point about the US-written romances being for a US audience. Without knowing the market, it’s hard to say how off-putting US readers would find it to have the dialogue in these novels completely in British English, but if things were reversed, I’d personally much prefer not to feel writers have to use British English f they were telling me a story set in the US.
      Thanks very much for dropping in, and for your great comment!


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