All the History I Learned From Romance

jousting I am a history geek – for some reason unknown to me, when it comes to history, my brain registers and stores a multitude of little details presented to it, unlike, say, names of trees or car brands. I regularly astonish people by knowing historical facts that are way out. Yet I hardly ever open a book of historical fiction, even less often a book of reference. I have learnt what I know about history from reading romances.

For every wallpaper historicals out there, there is a novel that is meticulously researched, and manages to imbue historical facts with so much life by linking them to the lives of characters I am intrigued by, that those facts just stick to my memory like a burr.

Although the era I probably know most about, for obvious reasons, is Regency England, here are some other examples where one book or a series provided loads of information, and in some cases even got me to look up some more in reference books or on the internet.

Medieval jousting and the Magna Carta: Roberta Gellis’s Alinor and Joanna (volumes 2 and 3 in the Roselynde Chroncles). Alinor features a long and detailed description of a two-day tournament, with rules and equipment and traditions. The hero, Ian, knows the tournament is a trap laid for him, and fights for his life. So getting through every step, out-thinking his enemies at every turn, is a matter of survival for him, and I am on tenterhooks every times I read about it, even though I know by now how matters turn out.

Joanna is set over the course of several years and depicts the last years in the reign of King John. The novel describes the frustrations of the English baron at John’s rule, the strain on their loyalties and beliefs, and the very real harm John’s power struggle with the pope caused the English population, both rich and poor. The barons’ attempts to curtail the king’s power culminate in the signing of the Magna Carta. I have read the document in translations, but the articles I remember best are those whose importance have been highlighted in Joanna, by linking them to the experiences of the people of that time.

Salerno: Ariana Franklins’s (aka Diana Norman) Mistress of the Art of Death series and more specifically the first volume, from which the series takes its name. The fact that I am so fascinated by Salerno brilliantly illustrates Franklin’s remarkable talent as a writer, for the novel is never set there. Instead, we only get some flashbacks to the heroine Adelia’s past, and that was enough to hook me. Salerno, in southern Italy, was a highly influential and highly advanced medical school in the Middle Ages. Arabic medical texts were translated there, and through them came the knowledge of Greek medical texts which had been lost in Europe, but transmitted in the Arabian countries. In Salerno, a multicultural society of Christians, Jews and Muslims (in alphabetic order) studied together, enlarging their knowledge through exchange. There were women practioners and teachers. Reading about it, in all honesty I first thought this was a utopia Ariana Franklin had invented. Not so. The place really existed, and I am glad I came across it in my reading.

The House of Special Purpose: Ariana Franklin, again, this time with City of Shadows, a stand-alone novel set in Berlin in the 1920s and 30s. Among the characters is Anna Anderson, a real-life woman who claimed she was the Grand Duchess Anastasia of Russia. In the novel, there is a description of the execution of the Czar’s family, which took place at the House of Special Purpose, so intense and heartbreaking that it had me in tears. This has since lead me to another historical novel, John Boyne’s The House of Special Purpose.

And so it goes on. I learnt about the court of Mary Tudor from Dorothy Dunnett’s The Ringed Castle, fifth volume in the Lymond Chronicles, and about Florence Nightingale’s hospital at Scutari from Leaves from the Valley by Joanna Trollope, about Charleston during the Revolutionary War from Gwen Bristow’s Celia Garth, and about about the Boxer Uprising in China from Madeleine Brent’s Moonraker’s Bride by Madeleine Brent aka Peter O’Donnell.

What fascinating historic events were you pointed out to by romances? Which historical romances have provided you with insight, or in-depth information about specific events? When people wonder how you come to know all this, do you tell them it’s from romances?

-Rike Horstmann

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24 Responses to All the History I Learned From Romance

  1. Christine says:

    When I was still in junior high or early high school I read the entire series of Philippa Carr books set mostly in England, starting under the Tudors with each successive book about the daughter of the heroine of the previous book. I think Philippa Carr was still adding to the series as late as the 90′s (she started them in the early 70′s.) I went on to major in history in college but this is how I came to know every ruler of England from Tudor times into the 19th century. Each story and time frame was so vivid to me I could never understand how people would confuse James I with James II. While I am not sure a lot of schools would approve, it gave me great base knowledge about early modern history that I still carry with me today. I am a firm believer that you can learn something from almost anywhere.

  2. maggie b. says:

    I agree that you can learn something from also anywhere and one of the things I used to love about reading historicals was getting a feel for the time period. Even though I didn’t learn to live in the prairie from the Little House books I remember learning a lot about what happened when. I learned of rushes being strewn on the floor of a castle from all the Medieval books I read :-)

    You have to be careful though. Roberta Gellis and Phillipa Carr were meticulous. I am amazed at some of the gaffes I read today.

    maggie b.

  3. Jane AAR says:

    When I was a senior in high school, I was on the academic team (quiz bowl, Jeopardy-like competitions). At our regional finals, I was the only person on my team to score points — with the question, “Define and spell ‘marchioness.’” I nailed it.

  4. Ellen AAR says:

    Jean Plaidy’s historical novels were some of my favorites. I count my continuing interest in Queen Victoria and her family from reading her books.

  5. At the moment, there are about ten wallpapers to one accurate novel and I for one think it’s a real shame.
    But I’d still advise anyone to never, ever learn history from romance novels. Or any other novel, come to that.
    The reason? Every author has a point of view, and so do the characters. So they never show an unbiased view, and it’s always necessarily selective. For instance, Georgette Heyer meticulously researched her books, but her view of the Regency is very special, and very Heyer-esque. She left out things about the Regency and used the research available at her time, some of which has been superseded by newer research.
    Having said that, a good historical romance can point a reader at something they want to learn more about, and lead her to the non-fiction shelves. Which is always good.

  6. annaR says:

    I haven’t read either of the books about “The House of Special Purpose” but I did read “The Kitchen Boy” by Robert Alexander, another fictionalized account of those same heart wrending events in Russia. There is a wealth of material that these dark events generate for fiction writers because of the high interaction between the hsitorical events and the personalities of the major historical players.

    Right now, as much as these two books mentioned here really captivate my interest, the disturbing scenes they conger up in my imagination have a tendency to linger there too long.

  7. AARPat says:

    Here’s a coincidence for you: I’ve always been a fan of Elizabeth Peter’s Egyptian novels, both the modern ones and those set in the Victorian era. In fact, most of what I know about Egypt, archeology and the pharoahs comes from her books. Imagine my surprise when I found out our guide in our trip to Egypt was her guide and consultant for the books! Since both of them have PhDs in Egyptology, I felt I was getting the best of the best information.

    It also confirmed for me that reading the book of someone who really knows the setting’s background is well worth the trouble to find.

    (An aside: Everything I know about the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars I learned from Carla Kelly.)

  8. Leigh AAR says:

    I can’t pick out one certain thing. I tend to stay away from true historicals, because so many times it just not romantic. . . People unable to marry because of status, (mistress of a king) or marrying for money plus I just can’t follow the politics or I just not interested in the politics. .
    but hardships and challenges. . . like immigrants coming to the U.S. from Europe or outbreaks of diseases . . .that is what interest me.

    While I can’t say that it is absolutely true, I feel that I learn more vocabulary then historical facts

  9. Barb in Maryland says:

    Thank you for mentioning Leaves From the Valley. I read the book years ago, loved it, remembered that Joanna Trollope wrote it, but none of the titles on her book list looked right–
    But now, with the title, I find that in the US(at least) it was published under a pen name (Caroline Harvey).
    Net result–library has it and I now have it on reserve.
    Thank you again!
    BTW–I have read, and loved, all of the books you mentioned. Great post.
    Though I agree with Lynne–use the books you love as a jumping off point to dig deeper, and not as gospel truth.

  10. Rike says:

    Christine and Ellen, I read the Philippa Carr books, too! I have to say, though, that although I enjoyed the history bits a great deal, what I found annoying is that she created this line of goody-goody on the one hand and sexually and otherwise adventurous women on the other hand – too black and white for my taste.
    maggie b. and Lynne, I do know that each author sees her period through her own particular lense, and that for many novels, meticulous prior research and historical accuracy are not of great concern. For me, the solution lies in mixing authors: When I have read many books set in a period (and maybe looked up some facts in reference books), I become more adept at distinguishing between what is silly and what is mostly historically accurate (allowing for above-mentioned lense). Non-fiction bores me, so I just don’t open it. I do read historical novels, however, especially mysteries and YA books, and many of them are well-researched.
    Pat, almost all I know about the Royal Navy is from C.S. Forrester and Patrick O’Brian. :-)
    Leigh, this is the very reason I prefer historical romances to straight historical fiction!

  11. xina says:

    I’ve always loved reading and learning about medieval times. My mother would often recall our many trips to museums, and how she and I would always end up in the medieval area, and in one museum in particular, me…admiring the tapestries on the wall. And that is when I was very, very young. I would have to disagree that you cannot learn history from a romance author. Elizabeth Chadwick is a great example. So is Sharon Kay Penman. Coupled with their knowledge and great writing style, I would say there is quite a bit of opportunity to learn. And I think I have.

  12. SandyH says:

    Great discussion. I love Roberta Gellis and have devoured her books. I enjoyed Ariana Franklin’s series and was sadden by her recent death. Carla Kelly is also another great writer. I have read Elizabeth Chadwick’s books on William Marshall. I got interested in him from Gellis Roselynde chronicles. I really wish those books would be reprinted.

  13. Wendy says:

    I would suppose that most readers of historical romance know a lot more about Prince George’s regency and the Napoleonic wars than they ever planned. In fact, I was asked a homework question about how Russia defeated Napoleon just last night and was able to answer knowledgeably, from reading romance.

    I don’t know how accurate she is, but I learned most of what I know of the Jacobites from Gabaldon.

  14. sue from england says:

    What a fascinating blog! Rike, you are a kindred spirit; I have been passionate about historical novels and romance since I first read The Scarlet Pimpernel when I was 7 years old!!
    I would list as my desert island author, Dorothy Dunnett whose research is meticulous and whose portrait of the ages unparalleled (not to mention Lymond is a hero to die for!!) From one of the books in her Niccolo series, as an example, I learnt that if you were a sea captain and dallied in Tallin after a certain date, you would be trapped for the entire winter because the sea froze!
    I also really admire Elizabeth Chadwick and have just read her latest “To defy a King” which has been short listed for the Romantic Novel of the Year award here in the UK. I hadn’t realised that after Magna Carta, the barons were so disgusted with John’s failure to adhere to the rules, that they invited the king of France to take over and only John’s death stopped this as they then bought him off in favour of John’s young son Henry, who went on to become Henry IIIrd.
    My list could be endless; I love Diana Gabaldon and Ariana Franklin and Sharon Penman, all of whom bring history alive and with the romance parts of their books, also make the characters human, with all human frailties.
    I didn’t know until I read this that Ariana had died. I was lucky enough to hear her talk, with Kate Charles, at a local town as part of Cambridge’s Wordfest a couple of years ago and she was extremely witty and entertaining. She will be sorely missed. I am devastated to know that there will be no more adventures with Rowley and Adelia and as for the cliffhanger…..
    I went on to study History at university, and I would definitely lay my early passion for the subject failrly and squarely at the door of authors such as these.

  15. Lee says:

    I never even heard of Culloden until I read the Outlander series. Or the Indian Mutiny until I read Kaye or the First Anglo-Afghan War (soo relative to what’s going on now) until I read Emma Drummond. Good authors, like the ones that have been mentioned by everyone, take history and weave it into the story seamlessly, so you get a great love story in a momentous time in history. When the history takes over, it’s not as enjoyable to me, becomes more like a lecture. But done right, ahhh, it’s sublime.

  16. Barbara says:

    I too have expaneded my knowledge of history through reading romance novels. The Outlander series is definitely one of those that takes you right to the place in history, whether in France, Scotland or the Colonies. The uprisings in India, the Napoleonic Wars, and the Spice Wars are the ones that immediately come to mind as events that I have learned about in romance novels.

    Since the majority of romance that I read are Regency, England and especially London are easily pictured in my mind. When I had the chance to go to London and Wales I jumped at the chance. Here was my opportunity to see the places I had always read about but didn’t have a true picture of. I only had 3 days in London but I did it all. The Serpentine, Hyde Park, St. James Park, Parliament, Buckingham Palace (the queen was not in residence so I actually got a ticket to go through the public rooms), Kensington Palace and the British Museum. I stayed in the Mayfair area and walked the same streets as many a H/H. I not only used my guidebook, but I could picture what the areas looked like in the early 1800′s. What fun!

  17. barbie says:

    What i like about reading historical romances is that i have to remember no cell phones no tv no techology! But I like the fact that I have to research a certain time period to understand where the moral/value system is coming from. I enjoy that but I like my technology.

  18. mesadallas says:

    I agree that historical romance novels are often told from the point of view of a character or the author which can be inacurate. However, they often act as a springboard which encourages me to delve deeper into the time periods of the story and do further research. They also serve as a good way to aquant people with the dress, lanquage, and everyday life of people of different time-periods.

  19. Tina S says:

    I love well-researched historicals, but have a hard time reading medieval romances because I’m a medieval history student so it’s hard to forget that the middle ages weren’t really romantic, and that upper class people didn’t often marry for love-I can’t suspend my disbelief that far.

    I also have a fun personal anecdote, I was watching Jeopardy with my family and my brother in law had been making fun of me for reading romances-thinks I’m too smart for them! But the final Jeopardy question was something about a French diplomat that spent some time in the Russian court as a woman and the British one as a man and I knew it was the Chevalier D’Eon from reading Jo Beverly’s Devillish and not because I’d read it in any of my history books. I gloated for weeks over that and no one makes fun of my reading material anymore!

  20. Pat Storer says:

    Reading Historical Romance has given me a renewed appreciation for history. I am currently researching/writing a historical romance set in the early 1800s of the Mississipppi Territory (later to become Alabama). The events of history during that time including the massacre at Fort Mims, the dramatic rescue of a Mother and her 7 daughters by one of her attackers whom she had taken in and raised as a child, are so awe-inspiring that it is practically writing itself. (that’s a joke.) There are so many interesting people and situations involved that it is hard to decide what to put in and what to leave out…I think I sense a series coming on here. As an amateur, I am enjoying the research and the writing and consider it a journey, whether I am ever published or not. Anyway, anything that will help us know and enjoy the world around us more is worth the time and effort….Read on, my friends!!

  21. BevL(QB) says:

    I’m loving this discussion because I’ve always said that “Everything I know about British history I learned from Romance novels.”

    So for Regency, Stephanie Laurens sets the standard for me. Doesn’t matter if she’s right or wrong, she’s the one I compare all others to.

    Bertrice Small creates a lush tapestry of the time she’s writing about, particularly the Ske O’Malley series which spans the time of Queen Elizabeth I through James I and possibly the last ones in Skye’s Legacy series were during Charles I’s reign or later.

    Those of you that mentioned Gabaldon’s Outlander will probably get a kick out of this– soon after reading the book (please don’t ask which title) where Claire and Jaime settled in North Carolina, my husband and I took a much needed kid-free vacation down to that area. As we were wandering around and then took a cruise on a sightseeing boat, I kept finding myself thinking “Ooooh, THAT’s where Jaime did this, or THAT’s where this house or building was, or THAT’s where they were when this happened.” Then, of course, I’d laugh at myself because well, DUH… FICTIONAL characters, Bev!

  22. Pat Storer says:

    Reading Historical Romances about Scotland has really made me want to go there. I want to stand in the middle of the field at Culloden, walk through castle ruins, meet the people, and listen for the ghosts of the past. I never paid much attention to that country before but now I want to experience it. I too read the Outlander series and Ms Gabaldon made that time and place come alive for me and so many others. There is also an interesting connection for me in writing about the early 1800s in the settlement of Alabama that I am researching and writing about….Where did all those Scots go who were sent, taken or escaped to other countries after the Battle of Culloden and the clearances? Guess what?…they came here, set up a life of fur trapping and intermarrying with the Muscogee/Creek Indians. Their children were on both sides of the conflict during the Creek Wars and the attack on Fort Mims. So, it’s a small world after all.

  23. Becky says:

    I love all the historical detail in Forever Amber…my first and best loved historical romance. The incredibly detailed descriptions of the plague epidemic were just awesome, although perhaps not for those with weak stomachs. That novel fueled my love of that particular period in British history. The novel has just been reissued and I am very pleased, because my 35 year old copy is crumbling! It was written a long time ago, but still a fabulous historical read.

  24. Tahyun says:

    Lately I have been learning a lot of the various roles British soldiers played in India and various scraps of famous continental battles from Stephanie Laurens’s Black Cobra Quartet. I have always had a bit of interest in the East India Company as well, so I’ve been reading up on them recently (mostly wikipedia, but I am out of the country so extranious research in English can sometimes prove difficult). That is one of the things I love most about historicals, especially the ones that slip juicy details – it leads you on a wirlwind adventure for more information and other resources. I think they are a good starting point for the thirsty mind. ;)

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