The Inherent Inaccuracy of Citing “Historical Accuracy”

By Patty Reagin

Painting of general-in-chief Thomas-Alexandre Dumas Davy de la Pailleterie (1762-1806)

All too frequently, what we ‘think’ we know, we don’t know at all. How willing are we to challenge our own deeply held ‘knowledge’ to attain a truer, more nuanced, and more inclusive understanding of history?

If you’re new to historical romance and/or have not spent a lot of time in online and in other social spaces that discuss these books, you might understandably be confused when I talk in terms of ‘historical accuracy’ being a problem. After all, we read or write books steeped in history. We love to immerse ourselves in the nitty gritty details of our chosen historical milieu. Why would we not want to read books that are carefully rendered with accurate details from our chosen place and time?

The problem occurs both in how the term ‘historical accuracy’ is used to police what stories are told, how they’re told, and who gets to tell them, but also in what, specifically, is challenged with the phrase ‘historical accuracy’, and what is not.

To put it bluntly, the term ‘historical accuracy’ is all too often used in an effort to keep historical fiction white, cis-gendered, heterosexual, and able-bodied, in the guise of “that’s not historically accurate”.

Since so much historical fiction is based in Britain – the top 4 subgenres, which take the lion’s share of profits in this space, are Regency, followed by Victorian, Scottish, and (English/European) Medieval – and most of the historical accuracy discussion centers around these sub-genres, I will be discussing these areas for the most part, but the problem persists in other time periods and locations and I will refer to them periodically as well.

Why is Citing the Phrase ‘Historical Accuracy’ a Problem?

In itself, it’s not. Part of the joy of immersing yourself in the story of another time is transporting yourself to an exquisitely rendered world that is as accurate as the author could make it. I’m not saying it’s wrong to reach for accuracy, or that it’s wrong not to. Read, and write, what you wish!

The problem has arisen because this term is couched as a quality issue, and used to push back against specific perceived inaccuracies that all too often point to a specific bias, and has rendered the phrase extremely problematic.

Let’s take a look at some examples.

Things in historical romance that are generally accepted, winked at, and openly enjoyed that are in no way historically accurate:

  • The approximately one million young, virile, rich Dukes in Regency London with all their teeth
  • The lack of bad breath and bodily smells (although there is mounting evidence it might not have been as smelly as one might think! – see: evolving understanding of history)
  • Lack of disease
  • Lack of dead children in a time with a very high infant mortality rate
  • Lack of men who have to actually work for a living. Yes, even the aristocracy. All those landed gentlemen had to spend a lot of time taking care of all that farmland, sitting in the House of Lords, managing their income (that, not incidentally, frequently was as a result of direct or indirect investment in slave labor and the exploitation of other countries/cultures such India and China)
  • Lack of STI’s (sexually transmitted infection) in all those soon-to-be-reformed rakes who have slept with approximately half of England.
  • Lack of POC (people of color) cowboys and settlers in the American West

Things that are decried as not historically accurate:

  • Women who had agency – i.e. wanted independent lives, owned businesses, chose not to marry
  • People of color having agency, being successful, achieving Happily Ever Afters (if they are slaves, or poverty stricken, or discriminated against constantly it might be ok for them to show up on the page – in other words, if their pain is the point)
  • LGBTQIA+ people having agency, being successful, achieving Happily Ever Afters (if they’re being pilloried for sodomy it might be ok for them to show up on the page – in other words, if their pain is the point)
  • Jewish people who weren’t moneylenders, and were successful and had Happily Ever Afters
  • Anyone having premarital sex
  •  Anyone having premarital sex with protection (condoms existed)
  • Anyone who thought slavery should be outlawed, that the subjugation of India was a problem, that the lack of rights for anyone who wasn’t a land-owning rich man was wrong, who thought women should have more rights than they did at the time… You get the idea.

Noticing a pattern? And I haven’t even talked about how an author can get a form of address wrong in one scene of their book and be challenged for not doing their research, but it is vanishingly rare to hear a reader from a non-marginalized group say “it’s not historically accurate to not have anyone in this novel who isn’t white, cis-gendered, heterosexual, able-bodied.”

I’ve been on forums where people have talked about how they don’t want to read about the dirt and smells and disease and the other unpleasant realities of the historical period, so it’s ok not to include those things – after all, it’s an ‘escape’. I can only surmise that they also don’t want to read about the reality of the existence of POC, LGBTQIA+, disability, and so-called ‘progressive ideals’ either.

The argument made, usually derisively, is that any author who includes these stories is being ‘PC’ or ‘social justice warriors’, or ‘checking off a diversity box’, and that as a result, the quality of historical fiction has ‘gone downhill’.

However, it is a fact that diversity was there. It is a fact that many people, both powerful and not, supported the ideas of equality and inclusion or were at the very least aware of the debate surrounding them. I argue that the real ‘historical accuracy’ is to include these characters, stories, and ideals.

Let’s look at a few examples I’ve culled from various places where historical accuracy was being discussed. The facts I use to refute these statements have sources, which are listed in full at the end of this article if you are interested in further reading on the subject. My refutations are general only because to list all the specific names and their wonderful true stories would make this article way longer than it already is.

Example 1: “There weren’t POC/Jewish people/LGBTQIA+ during the Regency/in England before 1940/in America who weren’t slaves/in the American West/Etc.” or “Sure marginalized groups were there, but they lived horrible terrible no good lives because of all the hate and discrimination”

  • There were black people in Britain in Roman times. There was a measurable population since at least the 12th century. By 1800 there was a minimum of 10,000 black people in London alone, none of whom were enslaved.
  • There are many records of interracial marriages in England from at least the 12th century until the present (in America and European countries too).
  • Especially in the 18th century, mixed-race children of Indian and West Indian descent were frequently sent to Britain to be educated. Many were wealthy and mingled with high society. I know of at least one mixed-race heiress from the West Indies who married the son of an Earl.
  • There were many Jewish people in England, they had their own synagogues, and the majority weren’t moneylenders.
  • There were Chinese communities in London and Liverpool from the late 1700s/early 1800s. Some had wealth and some married white British women. By the late 1800s there were thriving Chinatowns in Liverpool and London. Similar story in America – all Chinese were not working as laundresses or on the railroad.
  • There have been people of color in all strata of wealth in America since white Europeans reached Plymouth Rock. Shipbuilders, tavern owners, smugglers, builders, estate owners, and a lot of enslaved and oppressed workers.
  • An estimated 20% of cowboys in the American West were African American, and 40% were Mexican vaqueros.
  • The first recorded Muslim in North America was a Moroccan guide who arrived in Florida in 1527. There were “Moors” living in South Carolina in the late 1700s, and many Muslims were brought from Africa as slaves.
  • There are many records of black and brown people owning successful businesses and having successful lives in Europe, England, and America including; lawyers, coal merchants, printers, shipbuilders, grocers, tea shop owners, feted authors and poets, composers, soldiers (even Generals), and swordsman, and enjoying happiness, safety, families, and wealth.
  • In England, for working-class whites before the early/mid-1800s in particular, blacks were their friends, spouses, coworkers, and fellow fighters for political reform and worker’s rights.
  • There are women who lived together – if not openly acknowledged as lovers – known to sleep in the same bed and some dressed often in men’s clothing. Many had lifelong, loving, sustained relationships.
  • There were men who carried on long-term successful gay relationships that – while not open and ‘out’ – were happy nonetheless. There are examples in all levels of society where a gay man’s sexual preference was suspected, even strongly, but they were still welcomed by their social peers.
  • There are examples of both men and women who either cross-dressed and/or lived their lives as the opposite sex, sometimes for the entirety of their lives.

Example 2: “Women didn’t know they were subjugated/only did ladylike things/weren’t calling for equality” (i.e. women didn’t have feminist-style thoughts)

  • From the working poor to the aristocracy, women owned and ran businesses, were scientists, managed the financial accounts for their families, were philosophers, authored political tracts, were explorers, and did many, many other things that wouldn’t have been deemed female pursuits.
  • For centuries there have been Western women writing, speaking, and agitating in defense of the equality of their sex, and men who supported them and did the same. I won’t speak for other cultures as I’m not versed in them, but I would venture to say the same holds true.

Example 3: “Knowledge of the subjugation and discrimination of others is a modern conceit, and white people of the past did not see things that way.”

  • Many liberal thinkers fought for Catholic and Jewish emancipation, abolition of the slave trade and slavery, education of women, universal male suffrage, rights of the poor, and many, many other causes.
  • The movement to end the slave trade and slavery itself was numerous and powerful, as was the movement to keep it. The boycotts of sugar and tea were real, applied pressure, had an economic impact. Many people argued against the morality of keeping humans enslaved, even as the social construct of “race” was established in order to excuse the enslavement of humans.
  • In England, pamphlet wars and parliamentary debates raged around many liberal (the belief in freedom, equality, and human rights) ideas of the time, including support of the American and French revolutionaries, the abolition of slavery, universal male suffrage, parliamentary reform, Catholic and Jewish emancipation, and others.
  • There have been movements and revolts demanding rights for marginalized groups for centuries in every country and I would guess as long as there have been humans. Those movements and revolts looked different at different times, and were (just as they are now) populated by not just those of the marginalized group of the time (whether POC, women, workers, LGBTQIA+, disabled, peasants, Jews, Catholics, Hugenots, etc.), but of those in power who are in sympathy with the marginalized group.

Were there social consequences when a woman chose an unconventional life? Yes. Was there danger for LGBTQIA+ individuals in many countries and time periods? Yes. Did so-called progressive ideals always hold sway or even a majority? No. Was the past a utopia of understanding and brother/sisterhood? No.

But there were many, many people who weren’t white, cis, straight, able as there are now, who lived, loved, found success, and weren’t defined by their ‘otherness’.

What white people (or any people in power) in any time or place thought was not homogeneous, any more than the members of any group all have the same thoughts and opinions. People were varied, just as now. It’s hubris for any of us to assume that we know ‘everything’ and are therefore the arbiters of ‘historical accuracy’. We weren’t there.

Additionally, the choice of source material matters. If you read the letters of a white, cis, straight, able upper class woman from 1788, but you don’t read the letters from the same era from a Quaker abolitionist, or a Jewish masonry worker fighting for parliamentary reform, or a wealthy African living in London, or a soldier who lost both his legs in the wars, or a lesbian upper class woman living with her partner, you are only seeing a tiny part of the picture. Authors who write these stories aren’t “checking diversity boxes”, or “inserting social justice warrior ideas” into the past. They are writing history, just one you haven’t educated yourself about yet.  

In closing, I am in no way am saying it’s bad to love to read or write books that are about pretty, titled, wealthy, heterosexual white people falling in love across a ballroom, or sailing the high seas, or riding across the prairie or bush. Many of us love those books. I’m not saying there is an ‘acceptable’ level of accuracy that must be included. This article is not meant to be yet another way to police what people can and cannot write or read.

 I’m suggesting you read critically, pay attention to what people are calling out as historical inaccuracy, think about whether your own reaction to a character or event might be your own biases in action (we all have them) and whether that’s a chance for you to step back and examine those biases, do a bit of research, learn something new, grow as a person. Don’t assume that because something didn’t appear in Georgette Heyer’s books (who, while a brilliant writer had serious prejudices of her own, including blatant anti-Semitism) it must not be true (or conversely that everything she said was true). Georgette Heyer and other pioneers of historical fiction are canon, and canon isn’t history, and the history you’ve read isn’t all the history there is to read and learn from.

Learning is a lifelong endeavor. Even my opinions in this article that I write now, in January of 2020, only reflect my own understanding up to this point and could shift or (hopefully) gain deeper insights in a month or a year or ten years. Let’s all choose to be open to learning more.

I would also respectfully suggest that if you don’t already, you expand your reading to include “own voices” authors – those who are writing about the marginalized group to which they belong. You can learn a lot from the stories they tell from the research they themselves have spent days, weeks, and months delving into.

We’re here because we love historical romance. So let’s embrace all of it.

Sources and Additional Reading

Staying Power, The History of Black People in Britain by Peter Fryer

A Parcel of Ribbons, The Letters of an 18th Century Family in London and Jamaica by Anne M. Powers

Trailblazing Women of the Georgian Era by Mike Kendell

Children of Uncertain Fortune: Mixed-Race Jamaicans in Britain and the Atlantic Family, 1733-1833 by David Livesay

Black London: Life Before Emancipation by Gretchen Gerzina

The Chinese in Britain – A History of Visitors and Settlers by Barclay Price

The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the Africa, Written by Himself

The Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho, An African

A South Asian History of Britain: Four Centuries of People from the Indian Subcontinent by Michael H. Fisher, Shompa Lahiri, Shinder Thandi

The Poems of Phyllis Wheatley by Phillis Wheatley

The Infidel Within: The History of Muslims in Britain, 1800 to the Present by Humayun Ansari

rictornorton.co.uk has stories and bibliography of sources for gay life in London throughout the ages

Moses Montefiore: Jewish Liberator, Imperial Hero by Abigail Green

Nathan Mayer Rothschild and the Creation of a Dynasty: The Critical Years 1806 – 1816 by Herbert H. Kaplan

White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth-Century India by William Dalrymple

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