Reading Grace Burrowes’ The Heir (Sourcebooks, 2010) raised for me the vexed question of the importance of historical accuracy in historical romance. For some good discussions of that topic, check out VacuousMinx, lux lucas, and Sarah Frantz, who links to even more at the start of her post. [Note: I can't explain my feelings about this book without spoilers, so be ye warned.]
The basics of the debate could be summed up like this: one side says that you shouldn’t write historical romance if you don’t care about the history; the other, that they just like a good story and don’t care about accuracy. It’s a hard topic to discuss without making everyone defensive about her tastes: you’re either a stuck-up snob ruining everyone’s fun or an idiot who can’t spot an error at 20 paces.
Of course, it’s far more complicated than that. Any depiction of the past is colored by the time in which it was written. Moreover, not everything people criticize as an error actually is one. Sometimes what we think we know about a time period is shaped as much by literary convention as historical fact. Nor is every reader an expert in every era. I’d be on much stronger ground criticizing a romance set among the mudlarks of Victorian England (fat chance) than a Medieval one.
So here’s the personal context that affected my reading of The Heir: I’m on the “stickler” end of the spectrum, but because my knowledge of history comes from reading a lot of fiction written or set in the 19th century, only certain details will trip me up. I won’t know if you give your heroine the wrong kind of underwear, because 19th-century writers didn’t mention those things; anachronistic language and social customs are something I’m more apt to notice. I think it’s Robin/Janet at Dear Author who says she cares more about a plausible historical atmosphere than complete historical accuracy, and that’s how I feel too. Also, I’m more likely to give a pass to errors in a funny book, because I feel it’s not asking me to take it too seriously–including taking it seriously as an accurate depiction of a historical time.
Author Carolyn Jewel blogged yesterday about reading a book where she liked the hero and heroine, but saw so many problems that she started skimming to get to the end. That was my experience reading The Heir. But the book Carolyn read, I adored. In retrospect, I can see all the problems she mentions, but while I was reading, I failed to notice most of them. So when a book sucks me in, when I find it witty and moving and beautifully written, I definitely find myself in the “all I care about is a good story” camp. Many people seem to have felt that way about The Heir. I didn’t.
Grace Burrowes asks us to swallow some big historical unlikelihoods (just pretend it’s a word, OK?) in her novel: an earl who falls for his housekeeper; a housekeeper who’s really an earl’s granddaughter; an earl’s family who thinks marrying his housekeeper is a great idea, even before they know she’s an earl’s granddaughter; a duke who’s so eager to have his heir marry and produce children that he tries trick him into marrying his mistress (not the housekeeper/earl’s granddaughter); people who think an earl would “have” to marry his mistress or his housekeeper if he impregnated the former or compromised the latter. The first two things I could swallow. After all, I’m on record as liking a book where an earl marries his mistress. But in The Heir that romance happens in a world (all the other stuff above) that doesn’t have a convincing atmosphere of Regency England, a place and time where social distinctions mattered. Perhaps paradoxically, this surrounding unreality made me less willing to buy the unrealistic romance. Why not just make the dude untitled and avoid a lot of the issues here?
The other problem was that I couldn’t swallow the major unlikelihoods because I was already stuffed with little mistakes. I don’t want this to be a catalog of errors, but here are a few examples: the housekeeper performs all sorts of tasks that a housekeeper wouldn’t in a house with a large staff (setting the table or shelling peas, for instance); all the male staff have the same half-day off (which makes a house hard to run, since male and female servants had separate duties); the earl and his brothers keep wandering into the kitchen, where surprise is expressed that they can’t find the breadbox. Outside the house, the earl appears to have one horse, which he both rides and hitches to a gig when taking a trip out of town. Even one or two Heyer or Austen novels under one’s belt make this seem unlikely. A long trip is faster with a pair or team of horses, and a wealthy man could afford them. It’s not just an error, but an unnecessary implausibility.
There are other elements that common sense suggests are unlikely: for example, the book takes place in an English summer featuring weeks of sweltering heat (really?), except during the few days when a chilly downpour is convenient for the plot. I felt my power to suspend disbelief being strained past endurance.
So why did I keep reading? Well, for one thing, I wanted to write about it. But I also wanted to figure out what the people who gave it four or five stars saw in it. The Publisher’s Weekly starred review called The Heir “luminous and graceful;” they also put it on their Top 10 Romances of 2010 list. A lot of people describe the book as “witty” and well-written. I didn’t think so. I found the language awkward, veering between modern colloquialisms and something more formal, as in this passage of dialogue: “Seriously, she is doing well, as are the girls. I can’t say the same for old Westhaven, though. That boy is a shambles. Were it not for his brothers, I’d move him back to the mansion.”
The last third felt dragged out by a weak suspense plot (with an obese, gluttonous villain, please, please may that trope die) and the silly refusal of the hero and heroine to be open with each other. There was a clutter of ill-explained minor secondary characters who appeared to have drifted in from an unpublished prequel volume. I thought an editor should have wielded a more ruthless red pen here, particularly if she had declined to publish said prequel, because the good things about the story got lost in the mess.
And there were good things. I liked both Anna and Westhaven. He’s taking care of his whole family and their estates (the duke has done an inadequate job in some unspecified way) and Anna is the one person who takes needed care of him. I got sick of the endless references to flowers, lemonade and marzipan, but they are lovely symbols of the beauty and sweetness love brings to his life and the care Anna has for his pleasure. I really liked the way Burrowes handled the sex scenes, too. The characters are friends first and ease into being lovers. Anna is (of course) a virgin, though Westhaven doesn’t know it, and he allows her to indulge her curiosity about his body and to give him pleasure, which fits their relationship perfectly. At the core of this story is a lovely romance, and that might be enough to make me try the sequel. Especially since I already bought it. Doh! Let that be a lesson to me: read the first one before buying more.