Today I am so pleased to welcome KJ Charles to Joyfully Jay. KJ has come to chat with us for Time Travel Week, specifically about writing historicals. Also, be sure to check out our Time Travel Week giveaway because there are quite of few of KJ’s books on offer. Please join me in giving her a big welcome!
Time Travel and Timewashing: Writing Historical Romance
When Jay asked me to be part of time travel week, my first thought was, “Eh? I don’t do time travel.” Not in the sense of Outlander, or A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, or even Terminator: a person transplanted in time and having to cope with a different society.
Except, of course, I do do time travel. It’s just that when you write historical romance, you’re not transplanting a character between times, you’re doing it to the reader. LP Hartley famously called the past “a foreign country; they do things differently there.” When you take a reader on a trip to Victorian London, or Tang dynasty China, or ancient Rome, or Prohibition-era New York, there will be unfamiliar geography and unfamiliar culture. Clothes, modes of transport, how and when you wash, what you write with, what you eat, how you communicate, how you think: all of it has to be sketched in to bring the reader into an unfamiliar world.
This can be tricky for the romance author. There is only so much realism about everyday life readers want at all, let alone everyday life before indoor plumbing, dentistry, and STD clinics. That gorgeous rakish hero just isn’t quite so sexy when you add the shaved head for lice, the rotting teeth, and the second-stage syphilis.
And readers impose their cultural context and judgements without even thinking. Be honest: when you have a mental picture of a hero, he’s probably bare-headed, clean-shaven and non-smoking, even in periods where the likelihood is a hat, a beard you could hide a badger in, and a stinking cheroot. More crucially, he’s probably a radical left-wing extremist (in terms of the time) in his views on racial equality, democracy, women’s rights, slavery, child labour. Very few of us want to read about someone who genuinely doesn’t see a problem with owning human beings, preventing women from voting, or sending children up chimneys.
This is what I call timewashing: whitewashing the past with the benefits of the present.
I can live with a certain amount of timewashing, of course. I like heroes and heroines to be basically decent (and lice-free) human beings by my standards, not just their own. But too much timewashing destroys any sense of the period. A Regency duke who questions his cultural assumptions might be fascinating; a Regency duke on comfortable first-name terms with all his tenants is just irritating. That throws away the entire social context and class structure–which is what we came to the Regency for.
This is not necessarily an easy line to tread, or even find. I wrote a hero in Think of England who starts off with some racist views which are, for our time, pretty hard to swallow. I cannot tell you how toned-down this was, compared to the genuinely awful spirit of the times. Archie’s relatively mild and thoughtless bigotries were was as much as I could manage while still hoping he worked for readers as a good man and a romance hero. Some romance readers felt it was still too much. A lot of historians and readers of real Edwardian pulp would see him as heavily timewashed. Each reader decides where to draw that line.
All historical writing is timewashed to some degree, that’s inevitable. Victorian novels set in ancient Rome mostly tell us about Victorian England. But if historical romance is to be more than romance in funny hats, authors have to strive for accuracy wherever timewashing isn’t required to make the past palatable.
And by accuracy I don’t just mean no zippers, no dukes called “Duke Jayden Smith” or similar atrocities, and no having your character refer to the First World War in 1917. I mean making an effort to show different mindsets, circumstances, ways of thinking. Not just because it’s historically accurate, but because those are really the things that give us the sense of time travel, of journeying to a different place. The rest is window dressing.
Let’s take a specific example: In the Georgian period, there was no concept of gay (or indeed het, or bi. Women who loved women did have an identity, as tribadists or Sapphists.).When I say ‘no concept of gay’, I don’t mean that all men had fluid sexuality, or that nobody had heard of love between men; still less that that people meant ‘gay’ but said ‘sodomite’ instead. I mean that there was no idea of being gay. As a man, having sex with men was, generally speaking, a thing you did, not a thing you were. You simply could not be a celibate sodomite, in the way you can now be a celibate gay man.
So what does it mean if there isn’t a word for ‘gay’? Well, there’s no established romantic identity to fit into, no way to define yourself by who you love (rather than who you have sex with). All the words are negative ones about the illegal practice of sodomy, or specific abuse about effeminacy. You might, as a gay man in the Regency, find yourself on a lexical blank page. And when you don’t have a way to talk about things, how do you think about them? What does it mean for a character’s self-image, for how they construct themselves and live in society, if we’re not just talking about The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name, but in fact The Love That Doesn’t Have One?
Well, that depends on the character, and it doesn’t have to mean gloom and self-loathing, either. Maybe he’s part of the Utilitarian movement, in which people like Jeremy Bentham were arguing for the legalisation of consenting same-sex acts back in the 1790s. Maybe he’s got a group of like-minded friends and found his own tiny society of people he knows to be like himself. Maybe he’s completely, hopelessly unaware that he is not totally alone in the world, and has no way of coping with his desires except denial; maybe he’s totally oblivious and just goes on his own sweet way. Only the author can say. But however it plays out, that cultural mentality has to inform the character, if he’s not to be merely a 21st-century man in really cool clothes.
And that’s the time travel that historical romance can offer readers. To open up foreign ways of thinking, to see a different landscape through eyes that are at once familiar and strange. To do things differently there.
When he learns that he could be the heir to an unexpected fortune, Harry Vane rejects his past as a Radical fighting for government reform and sets about wooing his lovely cousin. But his heart is captured instead by the most beautiful, chic man he’s ever met: the dandy tasked with instructing him in the manners and style of the ton. Harry’s new station demands conformity—and yet the one thing he desires is a taste of the wrong pair of lips.
After witnessing firsthand the horrors of Waterloo, Julius Norreys sought refuge behind the luxurious facade of the upper crust. Now he concerns himself exclusively with the cut of his coat and the quality of his boots. And yet his protégé is so unblemished by cynicism that he inspires the first flare of genuine desire Julius has felt in years. He cannot protect Harry from the worst excesses of society. But together they can withstand the high price of passion.
KJ Charles writes historical m/m romance: Victorian paranormal (the Charm of Magpies series starting with The Magpie Lord, and The Secret Casebook of Simon Feximal, coming in June), Edwardian pulp (Think of England, which won Best Gay Historical Romance in the 2014 Rainbow Awards, and Best LGBT Romance in the All About Romance 2015 Readers Poll), and the forthcoming Regency Society of Gentlemen trilogy starting with A Fashionable Indulgence.).