Earlier this week, I wrote of the terrific slang term clanker, meaning “a great lie.” The imminently quotable philosopher Barney Stinson once said of clankers:
A lie is just a great story that someone ruined with the truth.
As an author of Historical Regency Romance, there are few things as frustrating as writing what you think is a terrific scene only to find out through research that your situation could not have happened for another fifty years. Or that the words you think made your dialogue Oscar-worthy weren’t even thought of for another five generations.
I love history and I love research, so it’s no chore for me to dig deeply into archives and contemporaneous resources to find the meat for my stories…but this does not make me hung up on being 100% historically accurate 100% of the time. Care should be taken to be as authentic as possible, but there is room for creativity and invention without completely disregarding archival facts. I like characters with independent, curious natures and sparkling wit, but they can still be properly attired and mannered when in Society (though not necessarily in private!). As an author, I have to set up my narrative in a way that makes the anachronism plausible and thus acceptable in my story.
If we can all find some common ground and agree to the premise that Regency romance is fiction and that some artistic license is allowed, can there still be errors that bump readers out of our time period, and thus out of our stories? Most definitely.
Some errors – whether accidental or purposeful – are so egregious that readers say they have to physically restrain themselves from throwing their Kindles against the wall. When accidental, we authors have a responsibility to learn from and vow not to repeat those mistakes. When purposeful, we authors need to support our choices: by explanation in the notes at the end of the story, by context in the anachronistic scene, or by consistent narrative that makes the error necessary and relatable to our entire plot. It’s a fine line to walk, and care must be exercised to make sure the historical embellishment (such as the educated and politically-minded heroine) doesn’t stray into the implausible (said heroine decides to stand for her deceased father’s seat in Commons because she must fight for her neighbors’ rights).
It’s a gamble to play fast and loose with historical fact. When successful, it’s wonderful (“I love this book!” gushes one reviewer). When it fails (“This book needs to be burned with fire!” raves a reviewer)…well…it just fails.
Just as it’s unreasonable to have doctors shock patients back to life with a MRI or cars maneuvered by gear sticks rather than steering wheels, I think there are some clankers in Regency romance that need to be phased out. I’ve made a list of the ones that bother me enough to eliminate.
My Top Ten Clankers in Regency Romance:
(in no particular order)
1. The engagement notice to the newspapers. Some marriages had notices placed, but never betrothals.
2. The threat or bargain of a simple annulment or divorce. Annulments occurred due to ineligibility of the participants (someone was too young or the guardian’s permission was not granted) or inability of the male (ahem). Divorce was even more difficult. Both were ugly, drawn-out, and expensive. See Nancy Mayer’s thorough explanation on Dissolving a Marriage.
3. The overnight elopement to Gretna Green. Only if you begin the trip in Yorkshire.
4. The heroine must marry by age 20 or be “on the shelf.” I admit I’m torn about this one. A simple check of parish registers reveals marriage of the extremely young to be the exception rather than the rule among the peerage…but I do love a good “almost a spinster” storyline!
5. The threat of disinheritance of the heir apparent by the parent/guardian. This clanker is usually tied to the main plot of why the hero marries the heroine (i.e., the hero is threatened with the loss of peerage unless he produces an heir, nabs a respectable wife, changes his rakehell ways, etc.). The heir’s title cannot be withheld or given away; parents and peerages were stuck with the firstborn. In book three of my Lords of Oxford series, Earl Crazy, the earl grandfather petitions parliament to amend the Letters Patent of the Aylesford Earldom to change the line of succession. Change could take place, but not via threats, just arduous and slow parliamentary procedure. Better to just blackmail and bully the heir with penury; parents didn’t have to send along enough of the ready to run the peerage.
6. The heroine is alone with the hero (or any unrelated male) and thus compromised. This situation alone didn’t force marriage. Extenuating circumstances were called for: her skirts up around her waist; traveling alone, especially overnight; those discovering the twosome demand satisfaction (through duel, marriage, etc.). If all parties agreed to just let it lie (or let it lay; I can never remember the grammar here), there was no scandal.
7. The Upper Ten Thousand. Not until the Edwardian era. The Regency featured the ton, beau monde, and Society (to name a few).
8. The necessity of permission from Almack’s patronesses to waltz. There is zero/zilch/nada contemporaneous documentation for this entrenched clanker. The earliest documentation of the concept occurs in the novels of Georgette Heyer. Several reputable research sites still list this myth as fact, which only strengthens the truth behind the adage of always going to the source. In a review dated 16 July 1816, a writer from the London Times reported: “We remarked with pain that the indecent foreign dance called the Waltz was introduced (we believe for the first time) at the English court on Friday last.” This was the King’s Birthday Ball. Although the waltz had been danced in England much earlier than this (privately, and especially in the country and by the lower orders), the writer notes that inclusion at the Kings Birthday Ball will make the popularity of the waltz spread like disease. Despite this writer’s near apoplexy over the dance, no mention was made of permission nor patronesses. It seems were there a way to stem the tide of its unfettered acceptance, this writer would have stressed any restrictions.
“So long as this obscene display was confined to prostitutes and adulteresses, we did not think it deserving of notice; but now that it is attempted to be forced on the respectable classes of society by the civil examples of their superiors, we feel it a duty to warn every parent against exposing his daughter to so fatal a contagion.”
9. The legitimization of a bastard. Never. Ever. A natural child could be included in a will to receive money or unentailed property, and they could be acknowledged openly by the family, but they could never claim legitimacy nor be put in the line of inheritance.
10. The concept of adoption. Much like a bastard, an orphan or foundling could be taken in and receive money or property in a will, but there was no concept of adoption as we know it. This can be confusing because bringing an orphan or foundling into the home was called adoption – but it’s not a legal term, just a familial one.
🌟 11. BONUS: The misuse of titles. I’m going all-in on this clanker, which probably deserves a
rant post of its own. When writing about the aristocracy, there’s just no escaping the necessity of proper address and use of titles. Could a reader ever take seriously a story set in a hospital where the doctor was always addressed “Mr. Randall?” Likewise, would it pull a reader out of the story if nurse Stephanie Smith was addressed as Doctor Smith in her scenes? That’s a contemporary example of the misuse of titles. I’d love to declare a universal embargo on lordly dukes and baronets (His Grace and Sir FirstName, if you please), married ladies going by their first names, and unmarried ladies sporting title names. Does anyone else hear nails on a chalkboard? To be in the know, reference Nancy Mayer, Laura Ann Wallace (Chinet), or venerable Debrett’s.
I write Regency romance and will be the first one to admit that I make multiple mistakes; some are discovered before publishing, and some slip through the editing net and go live. It is a difficult job to keep everything straight all the time. But guess what?! It’s my genre and I’m sticking with it. With great power comes great responsibility – the responsibility to do all that I can to thoroughly research and produce an authentic product.
So what do you think? Did I miss some big clankers? Are any of these lovelies too delightful to stop using? Is clanker too harsh a word – would you prefer “trope?” Am I too nitpicky? Tell me what you think in the comments below!