Tag Archives: Historical Romance

Writing the Middle Ages

Monk

I didn’t start this blog to write about writing, but I thought it might be interesting to discuss some of the difficulties of writing historical romances set in the Middle Ages when you want to get the details as accurate as possible.

One of the main problems is the ages of the protagonists. I have usually taken the easy way out and made them older than they would have been in the fourteenth century, although I’ve been vague about the heroine’s age in a couple of cases.

Most women of the class and status I write about would have been betrothed at a young age. Recently I read about a noblewoman who was betrothed at the age of three. Her husband was of a similar age. The marriage would not have been consummated until she was fourteen or fifteen, but that seems to be unacceptably young for the heroine of a romantic novel.

In order not to offend sensibilities my female protagonists tend to be in their late teens or early 20s and the males in their early to late 20s.

This is old for the Middle Ages. Many women had had two or more children by then. Edward III’s wife, Queen Philippa, was a few days short of 16 when she had her first child. I’ve just started reading a book by Christine de Pizan who was married at the age of 15 in 1379. By the time she was widowed ten years later she’d had three children.

When the heroines are older than they should be I have the problem of explaining why they’re not already married.

In a couple of the novels the heroine’s father has used her dowry for something else and she grows older without a husband. Two were betrothed before the start of the novels, but the betrothed husbands went off to fight for a couple of years. One of them was betrothed as a young teenager and more or less abandoned by her much older husband before the marriage could be consummated. The other was betrothed to a man she loved who died in France, allowing her to fall (gradually) in love with another man.

One of my heroines is a nun, removed from her convent just before she can take her vows, and one of them lives as a man. I’m not quite running out of ways to explain away the heroines’ single status when they’re past marriageable age, but it’s something to be considered with each novel.

With the men there is less of a problem. Unless they were the oldest son and going to inherit everything from their father, fourteenth-century men had to find some way of securing enough money to buy property so that they could marry. This would take time.

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Why the Regency?

Just over two years I started writing a trilogy of novels set in the Regency period. This was partly because I had been reading some books set at that time and found myself enjoying the setting and partly because I read a review of a historical romance about Regency spies that suggested that something was impossible since it had never been accomplished in any book that the reviewer had read. I thought about it for a while and realised that it wasn’t impossible and it wasn’t even that difficult, so I started The Heart that Lies to demonstrate to myself that it was easy. Even before I finished it I knew that there would have to be a second book to tell the story of the earl’s friend and then it occurred to me that a trilogy would make more sense, because the story had to continue past the Battle of Waterloo.

Then I had to do the research; it turns out it’s not enough to have read the complete works of Jane Austen a couple (or more) times. It was the research that showed me that the Regency was a much more interesting time than all those TV adaptations of Austen’s works had led me to believe. It wasn’t just about girls in pretty gowns meeting young men with impeccable manners in elegant rooms. It was also about a constant fear of invasion or revolution, whichever came first; it was the beginning of the last hurrah of the landed aristocracy whose place was rapidly being taken by industrialists and capitalists; it was a very violent society where life was cheap; and it was a time when wealthy Britons, no longer able to travel on the continent, came to appreciate the beauty of their own countries.

Like the fourteenth century it was a time of uncertainty. No one knew how the seemingly never-ending war against Napoleon’s France was going to end and it often looked as if there was going to be a violent revolution in Britain before either side could declare victory anyway. There were frequent riots and the Luddites took actions against factories in the Midlands and the North that were, if not taking their jobs, changing the nature of them.

It was a time of change with the industrial revolution taking manufacturing out of the home and into the factory. On the one hand the variety of goods available for purchase increased and the cost of buying them decreased, so people started to own more things, many of which made their lives easier. On the other hand, labour moved from the home into factories and people who had been able to work at their own pace had to work at the pace of a machine.

As in our own time a much-loved monarch was ending a lengthy reign. The Prince of Wales was much less respected and the butt of salacious jokes and cartoons. Although many benefited from his society during his regency, few looked forward to his succession.

The Regency was a very short period of time from 1811 to 1820 and, until I started doing the research, it had always felt like an anomaly between the Georgian and Victorian eras. The people of the Georgian era have always seemed to me, wrongly, as very lumpen, bawdy, without a shred of sympathy for their fellow man and either drunk or recovering from being drunk. The Regency seemed like a sudden burst of elegance that was swept away by what seemed to be a century of mourning and quiet hysteria (if you were a woman) under Victoria.

It is the constant sense that anything might have happened that makes it such a good setting for romances. And the frocks are lovely.

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Why the fourteenth century?

I write about romances set in fourteenth century England. What is it about that particular time that makes it such a good setting?

From the relative safety of the twenty-first century the fourteenth century looks like an interesting time in which to live. It was the time when national identities were becoming strong in Europe. England became so self-assured as a nation that it felt able to take on the most powerful nation in Europe, France, in what was to become the Hundred Years’ War.

It was the time of Edward III, possibly the greatest ruler England has ever had. His reign, one of the longest among English monarchs, stretches across the fourteenth century. The security of his reign contrasts strongly with the anarchy of the hundred years following his death.

English was in the process of becoming the national language. Although the ruling classes still spoke French, English gradually became the language of literature and law.

It was also a time of great disasters. The Black Death claimed between a half and two thirds of the population in the middle of the century and returned frequently for the rest of the century. As a result some people became more mobile and wealthier as more labourers were required than were available.

There were wars, not only in France, but in England and Scotland and border raids in the Marches. Associated with these was the development of the longbow – the superweapon of the fourteenth century. It gave English armies such a marked advantage over the French that the French developed a strategy of avoiding battle if they could.

It was the time of Gower, Langland, Chaucer and the ‘Pearl’ poet, all writing in English towards the end of the century. Literature in English started with a bang.

Wyclif began to translate the Bible into English and the century marked a change in the way that the English viewed the church and the pope, who, for most of the century, was considered to be little more than a mouthpiece for the French king.

It was a time of great change and uncertainty. Poor men could go to war and return with wealth (Henry in The Winter Love ); a Frenchman could be captured by his enemy and brought to England to work off his ransom (Richard in His Ransom) and a woman caught up in a French raid on a southern port could be rescued by a stranger (Alais in The Traitor’s Daughter). What more could a novelist want?

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Hello

I write historical romance novels. They’re set either in the fourteenth century or in the Regency period. I enjoy swapping between a time when everyone had to fight for survival and a time that was equally violent, but in which those who had the means also had some respite from wondering how they were going to survive the next few months.

I live in Hampshire and grew up here. It’s the part of the world that I know best, so it features a lot in my novels. Sometimes characters are just passing through, but usually they live here or have property here.

This blog will cover a wide range of subjects. Mostly it will be about interesting things that I’ve discovered in my research or that I see around me. For example, the office building where I work is very close to the walls of medieval Southampton. There are a few relatively whole medieval buildings still to be seen and I shall be writing about them. Jane Austen lived for time in Southampton when it was a spa town and I’ll be writing about some of the places that survive that she would have known.

There will be the odd book review. I enjoy research and read a lot of books about the periods in which my stories are set. I aim to get the settings of my stories as accurate as possible, so research is important as well as fun.

There will also be reflections on the act of writing itself.

I shall be blogging a couple of times a month and I hope you’ll join me as often as you can.

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