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Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders: A Writer’s (and Editor’s) Guide to Keeping Historical Fiction Free of Common Anachronisms, Errors, and Myths

by Susanne Alleyn

Rating: 5 out of 5.

“May we never again read about Dark Ages peasants eating tomatoes; unbelievably plucky/feisty liberated medieval heroines with names like Dominique; 18th-century travelers crossing Europe of the Atlantic in a week; slang that’s sixty years ahead of its time and many, many other such common anachronisms of fact and attitude…”

Preach it sister!

When I’m reading a Historical/Historical Romance/Historical Whodunnit I want to totally lose myself in the book’s world. Little mistakes can really jar me, big mistakes (or not really mistakes but the author simply doesn’t care enough to do any research) can be enough for a DNF. If an author doesn’t want to be reasonably accurate then they should market their book as a Historical Fantasy, or really let themselves go & make it Steampunk!

I have some examples;

One book where various characters manage to travel very long distances in nineteenth century New Zealand/Aotearoa in a very short period of time. I remember in 1960s Aotearoa it taking forever to get just from Auckland to Keri Keri in the north! (in spite of this, this book remains a favourite of mine! Sometimes the heart loves what it loves)

I know I have read one romance where the heroine rode quite a long distance attired in a muslin dress. Can you imagine the chaffing?

Another where the heroine’s name changed (frequently) from Blois to du Blois. They are different surnames!

&, a personal favourite, where the heroine kept her pet goat in an aristocratic house in the middle of London! No, not in the stable – the actual house! Goats defecate constantly & even the cleanest goat will have a smell. No one in their right mind would do that! (I have owned goats myself, by the way.)

So, although I have no plan to write a book of my own, this one appeals to my inner nitpicker & I am planning to leave this one on my kindle for a quick reference source & to use the websites Ms Alleyn gives, as well as the extensive bibliography – which I might use for further reading of my own.

I’ll admit that I did get a bit bored with the explanation on how the British titles work (& that is an error I’m willing to overlook in historical novels, as I can’t be bothered working them out myself!) but finding out how a guillotine is constructed and what foods were available when was very interesting.

Ms Alleyn is critical – but she also acknowledges both her own & her grandmother the late Lillie V. Albrecht‘s errors & is less harsh on mistakes made by authors that didn’t have the wonderful tool that is the internet available to them.

I can’t help but wonder – with underpants being such a modern invention it must have been a tad breezy down there – even with the long skirts. But I guess what you don’t know you won’t miss!


Pandora’s Jar: Women in the Greek Myths

by Natalie Haynes

Rating: 5 out of 5.

On Goodreads I shelved this as Literary Criticism. I’ve pondered this & decided that this was the right shelf.

Ms Haynes takes us on a journey through the myths of Ancient Greeks, giving the feminine point of view & attempting a rescue of some much maligned reputations. She also shows us how often the (male) classical writers managed to show the female actions in the most unfavorable light.

This dedication sets Ms Haynes tone;

For my mum, who has always thought that a woman with an axe was more interesting than a princess

Another quote about my favourite – Medea;

As we saw with Clytemnestra, there were few things more alarming to ancient Greek men than the machinations of a clever woman, and Medea is the cleverest of them all.

Prinsep, Valentine Cameron; Medea the Sorceress; Southwark Art Collection;

I do love me some Pre-Raphaelite art.

The book manages to be both deep and light and witty – quite a good trick!

I wouldn’t be surprised if I didn’t re-read this book before the end of this year, I loved it so much!

Book Review: Georgette Heyer: A Critical Retrospective

Georgette Heyer: A Critical Retrospective

Georgette Heyer: A Critical Retrospective by Mary Fahnestock-Thomas

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was delighted to get hold of a copy of this book. It was self/vanity published in 2001 in the States and I would think very few copies made it to New Zealand. But lo & behold, a copy turned up on TradeMe and I snapped it up.

I was disappointed almost immediately. M F-T is very defensive about her love for Heyer. But this was about the time when I was reading Mills & Boon & I certainly got very sick of even random strangers thinking they had the right to criticise my reading tastes!

Everything published in this book was originally published in the States and the UK. There were definitely reviews written in Australia but I guess the author made a conscious decision not to go too far afield and end up with a 1000 page book. And internet research wouldn’t have been so easy then. But I would have preferred a truly international book with just the better quality reviews as some of these add nothing to my understanding of GH’s works.

I’ll divide the review up into the divisions M F-T used. This read took me two months &, as usual, I didn’t take notes, although my book is stuffed with bookmarks. Please bear with me. 😊

(i) Her Short Published Pieces

Implies that these were the only published shorts (other than those in Pistols for Two) that Heyer wrote. Thanks to a new collection Acting on Impulse – Contemporary Short Stories by Georgette Heyer (which includes A Proposal to Cicely, one of the short stories in this book) we know that is not the case. I’ve read all 3 of the short stories before – & they are not GH’s best work. On the other hand, The Horned Beast of Africa is the only known writing from GH’s time in Africa (her husband was a mining engineer at the time.) There is no point overlaying 21st sensibilities on this one (about the hunting and killing of an unusual rhino.)

Books about the Brontës is quite wonderfully witty.

The essay How to be a Literary Critic was full of snark – it does confirm my belief that GH would have hated Goodreads.

“…Reflect that you could have written the book so much better yourself, if only you had the time and the inclination for the task; and that the literate won’t be listening, if you’re speaking on air, or doing more than glance at your review, if it appears in print; and go right ahead! There will be no reprisals. If the author is young and struggling, he won’t dare to expose your pretensions; and if he is well established he won’t think it worth while to do so.”

(ii) Reviews of her Books

All review writers on Goodreads should pat themselves on the back – it is hard to believe these critics were, in a lot of cases, paid for these pieces, which for the most part are boring, spoiler filled – or both.

The shining exception is 3 (M F-T has thoughtfully numbered the reviews) by I. W. L. from The Boston Evening Transcript, 1921. I should look him or her up. This review of The Black Moth was so good and funny that I am jealous of the unknown writer!

A lot of the reviews were of GH’s detective works – because a lot of reviewers were men. E.R. Punshon & Nicholas Blake are being read again. I want to read these authors myself even more now & I did enjoy their thoughtful reviews. Phoebe Adams from The Atlantic Monthly (March 1962) proves you don’t need to read a book before reviewing it (now she would love GR!)

“Readers who recall that Georgette Heyer once wrote exceptionally amusing and puzzling murder mysteries may be tempted by opening hints of hanky-panky in the hunting field, to essay her latest novel. They will be disappointed. It is woman’s-magazine pastry with an elaborate Regency setting. Togetherness in a curricle, you might say.”

I’m sneering like the Duke of Avon after reading that one!

I can only think that most reviewers of the posthumously published My Lord John didn’t want to speak ill of the dead. Thank Heavens for PLA from The Atlantic Monthly who was honest enough to call GH’s second worst book “a terrible bore.”

My reading advice for this section – other than I.W. L.’s Black Moth review- skip it. My advice for M F-T if she ever decides to republish this book – move this section to the back – just before the even more boring (vi) film and theatre reviews. (I only skimmed these – all the actor names were unfamiliar to me.) I’ve talked to more than one reader who never finished this book because of the tedious reviews – & that is a pity, as there is much better reading ahead!

(iv) Reference Works

M F-T does some brief research & analysis here. Interesting to see GH appearing in reference books & getting some respect. I have put A Catalogue of Crime: Being a Reader’s Guide to the Literature of Mystery, Detection, and Related Genres on one of my to-read lists.

(v) Other Articles and Books

As you would expect, these are a mixed bag.

For me some of the articles were absolutely outstanding!

Top of the list were the two articles by A.S. Byatt -in particular the interview with GH’s husband Sir Ronald Rougier. Sir Ronald comes across as ever bit as private and reserved as his late wife – but he also seemed really sweet.

Also invaluable to the GH fanatic is Cassandra Jardine’s piece about GH’s son Sir Richard Rougier. GH was very proud of him – and it is quite obvious that the feeling was mutual. I will make the most improper observation that Sir Richard was very easy on the eye.

Here is a family portrait – with an actual painting of GH behind!

Next time I read The Corinthian I will want Kathleen Bell’s thoughtful Crossdressing in Wartime: Georgette Heyer’s The Corinthian in its 1940 Context on the side table beside me. I’ll get a lot out of a parallel read, I think.

Now for the not so good. I’ve been trying to get a copy of Teresa Chris’s Georgette Heyer’s Regency England for quite some time. This very bland extract has made me decide to settle for a library copy.

Ugh. Germaine Greer’s extract from The Female Eunuch. What contempt Greer shows for romance readers and women in general when her research involves just grabbing Regency Buck and a Barbara Cartland from a supermarket. Clearly no further research is needed into the tastes of the empty headed little women who are waiting to be set free by Greer’s superior wisdom. sarcasm

But my real loathing is for Marghanita Laski . Given the opportunity to interview a well loved authoress, who by then was old and sick and had previously always refused to do interviews, what did Laski do with it? A hatchet job, that’s what! If (like me) you didn’t go to university & read GH Regencies you must be simple. (I think Laski is using simple in the sense of not too bright rather than mentally handicapped) My late father would have been surprised to learn that men didn’t read GH at all. My father was an accountant and far from simple. She has no explanation on how an educated woman can read them. You can feel the contempt.

I remembered vaguely who Laski was, but I’m consoled by the fact she is fading into obscurity whereas GH is as popular as she ever was. I know some of Laski’s works have been picked up by the well regarded Persephone Press, but I won’t be reading them after this bitter, jealous and mean spirited piece!

For me this book in spite of its flaws is an absolute keeper and I know I will refer to it often!…

View all my reviews