Tuesday, 18 August 2009

The 'new' historical novel

Maybe I'm just getting crotchety, but it seems that over the last few years the trend in new historical novels is to thrust as much nasty detail down the reader's throat as possible. Whether true or not readers must endure descriptions which encourage belief that:

1. All streets were waist high in shit, muck, filth and sewage, and stank.
2. All houses were poorly built, falling down, too low, to small and full of beetles, bugs and parasites.
3. All householders slung slops and muck from their windows every five minutes.
4. All people wore dirty clothes.
5. Most men, especially the wealthy, spent their time whoring in 'low' inns or fornicating with other men's wives, but never caught the pox or any other STD.
6. All woman at Court or Noblemen's wives were busy screwing anything male. They never became pregnant.
7. All the villains had bad breath and rotten browning teeth or few teeth.
8. All the men drank and vomited over people or furniture.
9. All the heros carried swords and were either magnificent or clumsy but cunning swordsmen.
10. All heroines rode well, sang, danced and were beautiful, intelligent and independent. 21stC women really!
11. Every inn had foul beer, fleas and chigs.
12. Wine in inns was always vinegary or sour and often drugged.


At the moment I am wading my way through a 600 page novel set in 1642. The hero is son and heir to a wealthy Lord. He is a 'bad' boy, screws anything in petticoats, preferably other men's wives, ran away the night before his arranged marriage to a suitable young woman he did not 'lurve', and spent 6 years abroad fighting for the Spaniards and not the Protestants. He ending up as a gambler who lived in a whorehouse. He does not have one STD, but is, of course, a misunderstood, troubled, honourable gentleman, a noble hearted man!
Oh yes?
And he drinks too much, vomits too much, and smokes hashish.

What I would like to know is: Did the author intend us to think her hero was just like wealthy modern young men who drink, screw and drug, or was it her modern arrogance, we are better than those filthy people? Or was it the agent and editors telling her sex sells and women readers like bad young men?

I have just reached the point where we meet the heroine. She is, of course, ultra intelligent, beautiful, rides as if moulded to her horse, is sexually promiscuous, and challenges the hero by refusing to sleep with him on their first meeting.

I could understand this if I were reading a genre romance. I know agents tell us that sex sells - when didn't it? - but this is meant to be a serious historical novel. Actually it's a bunch of clich├ęs. I have to review the book so must read to the bitter end. I really don't want to. I couldn't care less about the ghastly 'hero' or the modern whore heroine.

'Bawdy and smart' is one of the blurb descriptions. Bawdy is used to describe the plays of Oliver Goldsmith and implies humour. There is nothing humourous about this book. It's a weighty tome about a plot to kill King Charles.

So who is choosing these wretched books and why do we have to wade in the filth? A little research shows that cities had bylaws even in 1642. More research shows that the price paid for dog shit, manure, ash, soot, sewage, urine, bone, compostable rubbish, burnable rubbish, old clothes, in fact just about anything we throw out these days, was high, because they were usable and people actually collected the stuff and made money from them.

So why the filth and the thoroughly unlikeable characters. Is it post-modernism brought to the historical novel? If so by whom and where can I find them? I have a strong desire to take this 600 + page novel and cram it down that guilty person's craw.