I think it was the fine folks over at Dear Author who coined the phrase “Mistorical” to describe historical romances that are, for lack of a better term, light on the accuracy. “Wallpaper Historical” is a similar term. Mistorical, I believe, is intended to describe not just books that are light on the factual accuracy, but books that appear to be set in a world that never existed. It’s a Meta-Regency setting as opposed to an actual-Regency setting.
The term mistorical is a bit perjorative in that it implies something that is wrong — hence the Latin prefix mis. There is a suggestion in there that perhaps the author is not aware of any errors. Although I think that’s true for some authors, I’m not sure about that as a blanket statement.
The meta-Regency is, for me, a world that never existed and, moreover, is a world that the author and reader very likely both understand did not exist. The stories are built on a set of Regency signifiers that the savvy reader instantly recognizes and navigates.
It’s a world where a woman’s Empire gown can be removed by unfastening a few hooks, no one goes to Church or is genuinely afraid for their immortal soul, and no one blinks an eye when a woman demands to know why she can’t go to Oxford, as if the unfairness ought to be patently obvious (even though, historically, the “fairness” of that prohibition was so obvious as to not need discussion). Reform is in the air and the hero supports it. There may well be sexy lingerie, even though sexy underwear didn’t exist. There are horses and carriages, slippers and ballrooms, eleven o’clock tea and the use of the word “rather” in place of the modern intensifier of “fucking.” I rather think that’s awesome, my lord instead of Dude. That’s fucking awesome.
A Less Meta-Regency
Then there’s the historicals that exist in a Regency constructed through use of a greater set of known facts. In this sort of historical you are unlikely to find a heroine who decides to dispense with her corset in the name of fashion. This heroine might recognize the unfairness of not being allowed to go to Oxford, but she will also be aware that the weight of public conviction is against a change in the policy.
These books tend to explore the impact and meaning of these very real power legal and cultural imbalances and the ways in which the hero and heroine can both transgress those boundaries.
While I enjoy and tend to prefer historicals that are strong on the history, I also enjoy historicals that appear to be set in this Meta-Regency period. I have read and re-read certain “Wallpaper” historicals multiple times.
I’ve reached the point, however, where I don’t feel these two kinds of books should be lumped together at all. When I’m in the mood for the Meta-Regency, I wish I knew a quick way to find one, other than by author name. And when I want a book that gives me a more historically accurate grounding, I wish I could more easily find them, too.
There’s nothing worse than finding out you’ve just paid money for a Historical romance only to find you have a meta-Regency world instead.
So, where do you stand? Do you have a preference? Do you care? Opine in the comments.
aren’t all Regency romances mistorical purely on the basis of the number of Dukes that must be running around London. Not to mention all the love matches instead of marrying for oh, say, security.
isn’t any modern-written Regency (including Heyer) reflecting back to a time period that is a) prettified (one doesn’t get to read about chamber pots or that time of the month) and b) used to reflect some modern day issue in a different setting?
While I don’t like glaring historical errors in the Regency-sets that I read, I think this is very much tomato to-mah-to. In degrees. I’ve seen criticism over the shape of a collar never mind whether or not the girl’s wearing a corset.
You are rather awesome, milady. (I won’t translate that to the present day.) Thanks for analyzing so succinctly what I have come to feel. And also thanks for saying both general categories of Meta and Less-Meta are simply differing types of reads. Some days I want Disneyland and some days I want Harry Potter World. But mostly Harry Potter World.
Excuse, me, but now I must get back to Laura Kinsale’s French Kiss, which I was having a little trouble getting into until the hero suddenly took shape as Johnny Depp-esque and the heroine began to look like Catherine Tate from Dr. Who. Love her.
Tomatoes are in season.
The trouble with the Meta-Regency world–and by extension, that created by both Austen and Heyer–is that many elements have become “historically accurate” simply because they are repeated over and over again in Regency novels. Not to say this is absent in non-Regency novels, but because this particular setting is so dominant in historical romance, its consistent “inaccuracies” so to speak, have begun to erode the enjoyment of historical romance for many readers.
Because the word “Historical” precedes the word “Romance,” the genre promises a romance novel that falls under the broad umbrella of Historical Fiction in the way paranormal romance can fall under the broad umbrella of SF/F or Speculative fiction, or romantic suspense under the umbrella of Mystery/Suspense/Thriller. Yet, Historical Romance does not–it’s mostly removed from any grouping because the Historical aspect is defined only on an author to author basis. It’s unfortunate, because all other genres have their own sub-categories and cover codes that allow romance readers to choose what types of a particular genre they enjoy (compare the covers of romantic suspense with a heavier percentage of suspense vs romantic suspense with a heavier percentage of romance).
Mystery readers can choose from graphic serial killers to cozy, craft-themed mysteries. SF/F fans have a choice of hard science or speculative or high fantasy, etc, and even paranormal fans can pick and choose the types of stories they desire (urban fantasy, vampire romances, fae/fairies, witches, were-creatures). Historical Romance novels are lumped together under the same “Sins of a Wicked Rake’s Seduction” titles with models falling out of their clothes, even if the book isn’t even set in 19th century Britain! We have no spectrum of historical fiction —> historical romance, and the books that do bridge that gap have to be found by word-of-mouth since they’re either packaged as a typical historical romance, or they’re packaged as historical fiction. However, since a large majority of readers are happy with Meta-Regencies and Meta-Other (Regencyfied) Settings, I doubt we’ll see much room for more categories under that HR umbrella, though we do try.
I much prefer the less Meta-Regency (i.e., the more accurate history and setting) and have almost entirely given up reading the Meta-Regencies.
Artistic license is one thing. Creating characters that would not have existed during the story’s time period is akin to trying to rewriting history or creating an alternate world history. Since I prefer history to be factual, I avoid the Mistoricals.
But that’s my preference. Other readers have other preferences. To-may-toes and to-mah-toes are in season, and both are tasty.
I tend to prefer historical accuracy in my historical romances. Frankly I don’t care to read a romantic comedy in Regency drag, so to speak. When I escape to Regency England I want to escape completely. If the author’s only attempt to portray the historical setting is a few period words and an occasional reference to a carriage or a pelisse I tend to lose interest. I guess I want my escape to be as complete as possible!
I was hoping I could pop by earlier to comment.
@Leanne: The Riskies have had the Duke discussion on these pages before. My position is that you can apply the same logic to any genre; Everyone’s neighbor must be a serial killer… Each book, I think, should be considered a world unto itself. It doesn’t matter if there are a million other books with dukes. While you’re reading that one, there’s only the ones in that story.
I think there’s a compelling argument that Heyer invented the Meta-Regency in that there is a very early 20thc British flavor to her world.
Fiction, pretty much from inception, has been used to reflect on modern day issues. During Shakespeare’s time, certain political discourse was forbidden. Poetry and plays both used fictional settings, often historical, to make commentary that would otherwise have been treasonous.
I would love to see a historical with a marriage made for security — that “Marriage of Convenience” is a favorite trope of mine. Balogh plays with it quite a bit.
@Jane George Thanks. As others have said, sometimes you feel like a tahmayto…
@Evangeline Holland: I think I would argue that Austen didn’t have to invent a Regency world, at least for her later books. She was writing about the world she saw. She was writing contemporary fiction. The case of Heyer is different. I think there’s no question she did meticulous research. But I am convinced that the sensibilities of many of her novels are not quite Regency. In many ways, Heyer feels very Modernist.
I agree there are many “facts” that have become entrenched when they’re not actually factual.
Cover signals. Oh, I hear you on that! Wouldn’t it be nice if the covers signified the type of Regency!
@SusannahC I agree with you, and others, some of those Meta-Regencies drive me bonkers.
@louisa Cornell Regency in Drag. OMG. That’s brilliant.
Oh Heaven Bless You! A somewhat large peeve of mine that no-one ever seems to be in church except for banns and weddings. There was so much social reformation stuff going on in the churches in the early 19th Century,,prison reform, anti-slavery societies, etc! Wilberforce was still around, for heaven’s sake! Never mind my petty quibble with people marrying near Christmas when canonically marriages were not performed during Advent…
Can anyone really have a true Regency sensibility at this point? All novels are only a slice of the tomato, so to speak, not the whole. Delicious they can be, but not representative of the whole. And the duke thing is one reason I write about gentlemen and their families– for me, a much more interesting group to explore. Many readers don’t agree, but some do. Just as many readers disagree on which books are historically accurate or not. All a matter of perspective. Thanks for the interesting post. 🙂
I’ve come to accept that readers like all types of Historicals. To some readers, Regency in Drag is exactly what they want. To others, historical accuracy is desired. Or they don’t care as long as it is set in the past.
I don’t think there is any way to distinguish the two, because there is such a continuum. How would you decide which is which? What would signify one over the other?
@Reina Indeed there are a lot of dukes and noblemen. But there are authors who aren’t writing them … but it’s a tough decision for an author who needs to accept the risk of lower sales. The upside is the expanding number of authors stepping outside the Regency and nobility. Elizabeth Hoyt, Courtney Milan, Sherry Thomas… all amazing writers who do very well.
As to the Regency sensibility, I say yes. We can come very close. By reading books written from 1750 forward, reading letters and diaries — there are many good collections, in short there are primary source documents. The reason I say read contemporary lit is not for documentation but to get a sense of what and how people were presenting themselves in various spheres. Plays vs. sermons etc.
I think it is mainly a matter of world-building. That is generally considered the prerogative of paranormals and fantasy, but I think it is just as important for historicals, mis- or otherwise.
Julia Quinn and Julie Anne Long can make all kinds of historical “mistakes,” and their readers won’t mind because they have created a fictional world where their characters and the behavior of those characters make sense. Other authors, like Meredith Duran and Jo Beverley, have their stories solidly grounded in the history they are writing about and present it for the reader. They don’t just rely on what the reader already knows (or doesn’t know).
The ones that annoy me are the ones that will take what they want from history (usually the pretty clothes) and anything they need for the plot, but give the characters contemporary attitudes with no explanation, like the heroine who won’t marry without love and would rather raise her illegitimate child on her own, with no acknowledgement of the problems this would entail.
What a cool post!
Since I’m coming late to the discussion (busy couple of days here) lots of good points have already been made. I agree that research helps us get closer to the reality of the Regency (and I really love reading letters and journals of the time to get that feeling). But at the same time I don’t think we can totally avoid filtering what we read through our own experiences.
I’ve talked about the issue of too many Dukes. My issue isn’t too many Dukes running around London (we all have the right to write a Duke story if we want) but that I like a greater variety in heroes. I also think that sometimes Dukes are seen as wealthy playboys with no mention of their responsibilities, which any hero ought to take seriously, at least by the end of the story.
As to what I like, I tend to prefer the more accurate historical but I can enjoy both. The Mistorical works better for me when it’s fun and lighthearted. If it’s an angsty story I want it to feel more real.