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In defence of "bodice-rippers"

Do you see a theme here? Also, who else snaps up old books at library sales? (No, I don’t Dewey Decimal my own books… although maybe that isn’t a bad idea…)

Do you see a theme here? Also, who else snaps up old books at library sales? (No, I don’t Dewey Decimal my own books… although maybe that isn’t a bad idea…)

I often feel that reading historic fiction is my guilty book pleasure. But why should that be? My husband has jokingly referred to these kinds of books as “bodice-rippers” and I guess that’s what is at the heart of this feeling. There are a lot of different types of historic fiction and (duh, obviously!) so many different historic eras to write about. However, because I have a particular penchant for English royal history, particularly the Tudors or anyone connected with them, there are indeed a lot of bodices. There’s actually not as much ripping as you might expect, but there is a lot of sex. I’ve discussed this in a previous post, but I’ll say it again – when writing dramatic fiction about a class and era that was preoccupied with status, inheritance, and bloodlines, it kind of makes sense that sexual relationships come up a lot. Sure, there’s also politics and wars and social upheaval, but often these can be traced back to issues of who married who (or didn’t!) and procreated with them. To actually place readers closer to these relationships puts a human face and human motivations on these situations and makes it easier to understand what the hell actually happened.

Reading non-fiction books about these events can often feel dry and impersonal, especially if you’ve picked up a lovely-looking vintage book second-hand… those biographies written in the 50’s and 60’s aren’t always written in the most digestible manner. As human beings are wired for story-telling, the modern method of writing popular history in a more narrative style increases our comprehension and empathy when reading about days of yore.

But when writing historic fiction, you can pique readers’ interest in a historical figure, a particular event, or a time and place by filling in the gaps in order to make them feel real and whole and alive. Placing an invented personality onto a historic figure whose actual personal motivations and characteristics cannot be known, gives us the suggestion of context to help us identify with them. We feel like we know them – perhaps we like them, see ourselves in them, feel we could be friends with them. Or perhaps we dislike them: they may remind us of the mean girl back in high school or a current political figure. A good historic fiction author invents these characters as a logical guess based on the extensive research they’ve done. In fact, I enjoy reading fiction about the same historic figures written by different authors, seeing the different take each one has on the personality and motivations of these people bearing well-known names.

I particularly enjoy when historic fiction brings an era alive, making a time long gone feel not so alien. I like seeing how people inhabited spaces that are now simply tourist attractions for us, from the Tower of London, to the ruins of Akrotiri, to the city of Pompeii.

When I read historic fiction, I almost always end up reading non-fiction on the same subject afterwards. The story has such an impact on me that I want to know more, I want to know how close to reality these characters and places actually are. 

One of my oldest loves of this kind is Anya Seton’s Katherine. I know this book is well-loved amongst historic fiction fans. I remember picking up a worn paperback copy from the local school fete, probably in my late teens. It was a good purchase that day – ever since, Katherine Swynford and John of Gaunt have been figures of interest to me and I have re-read Anya Seton’s book several times over the years. She brings these people to life in a way that non-fiction simply can’t – there just aren’t enough facts available for us to know and relate to them without a little creative filling-in of gaps.

Searching for the truth of Katherine led me to Anthony Goodman’s slim booklet, Katherine Swynford, which for a long while was the only non-fiction book I could find on her. So I searched for her in other places, by reading about other people in her world such as Edward III’s mistress Alice Perrers, in F. George Kay’s biography, Lady of the Sun. In 2007, the prolific Alison Weir had her biography of Katherine published and that finally satisfied my curiosity.

From left to right:  Katherine  by Anya Seton,  Katherine Swynford  by Anthony Goodman,  Lady of the Sun: The Life and Times of Alice Perrers  by F. George Kay, and  Katherine Swynford: The Story of John of Gaunt and his Scandalous Duchess  by Alison Weir. (I realise that you’re perfectly capable of reading the titles on the covers where they appear, but just in case the images are too small on mobile I’ll caption them anyway!)

From left to right: Katherine by Anya Seton, Katherine Swynford by Anthony Goodman, Lady of the Sun: The Life and Times of Alice Perrers by F. George Kay, and Katherine Swynford: The Story of John of Gaunt and his Scandalous Duchess by Alison Weir. (I realise that you’re perfectly capable of reading the titles on the covers where they appear, but just in case the images are too small on mobile I’ll caption them anyway!)

My bookshelf is full of examples like this. Philippa Gregory’s books, although perhaps not historically accurate, are very easy to get lost in and The Other Boleyn Girl led to me looking up more factual information about Anne and Mary Boleyn. Alison Weir’s Captive Queen had me follow up with her biography on Eleanor of Aquitaine and Sharon Kay Penman’s The Sunne in Splendour had me reading Paul Murray Kendalls’s biography on Richard III (still too dry for me!)

From left to right:  The Other Boleyn Girl  by Philippa Gregory,  Anne Boleyn  by E.W. Ives, and  The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn  by Alison Weir.

From left to right: The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory, Anne Boleyn by E.W. Ives, and The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn by Alison Weir.

Would I have picked up these tomes of non-fiction if I hadn’t first had my imagination fired by story-telling with a dash of romance? Probably not.

And that’s why “bodice-rippers” are great. And totally legitimate reading material.

Here are a few other examples of where reading fiction has led my curiosity on to non-fiction counterparts (none of which are bodice-rippers at all)…

I read this book at probably 12 or 13 and the fascination with the Batavia has stayed with me ever since. Luckily, what’s left of the Batavia lives at the WA Shipwrecks Museum in Fremantle, so I got to visit it once on a trip to Perth.

I read this book at probably 12 or 13 and the fascination with the Batavia has stayed with me ever since. Luckily, what’s left of the Batavia lives at the WA Shipwrecks Museum in Fremantle, so I got to visit it once on a trip to Perth.

OK, this one is cheating a little because  A Dream of Sadlers Wells  was published in 1950. So it’s historic now, and historic when I first read it as a child, but it’s not actually historic fiction as such.

OK, this one is cheating a little because A Dream of Sadlers Wells was published in 1950. So it’s historic now, and historic when I first read it as a child, but it’s not actually historic fiction as such.

This one is a little bit of a cheat too, because I didn’t visit Knossos  because  of the book, but I did deliberately save reading it for when I was there. Reading this book on the trip added an extra layer of interest to my travels.

This one is a little bit of a cheat too, because I didn’t visit Knossos because of the book, but I did deliberately save reading it for when I was there. Reading this book on the trip added an extra layer of interest to my travels.

I’ve been lucky enough to see the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries twice, once in Paris, and then when they visited Sydney. They are fascinating in themselves, being so beautiful and intricate, but I know my original interest was sparked by reading Tracy Chevalier’s novel.

I’ve been lucky enough to see the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries twice, once in Paris, and then when they visited Sydney. They are fascinating in themselves, being so beautiful and intricate, but I know my original interest was sparked by reading Tracy Chevalier’s novel.

My history teacher put me onto Fergus Hume when I was in high school. Again, this is a contemporary novel, actually written  in  a historic period, rather than being modern and  set  in a historic period, but I think it still serves the same purpose. Seeing familiar locations around Melbourne as they were in the 19th Century is so interesting. I followed up with this book about St Kilda Road and to this day, whenever I drive in that area I think of how, 150 years ago, I might have been held up by bush rangers in that very location.

My history teacher put me onto Fergus Hume when I was in high school. Again, this is a contemporary novel, actually written in a historic period, rather than being modern and set in a historic period, but I think it still serves the same purpose. Seeing familiar locations around Melbourne as they were in the 19th Century is so interesting. I followed up with this book about St Kilda Road and to this day, whenever I drive in that area I think of how, 150 years ago, I might have been held up by bush rangers in that very location.

Peter Carey creates such a vivid personality for this famous historical figure, that you just can’t help but be curious about the real man.

Peter Carey creates such a vivid personality for this famous historical figure, that you just can’t help but be curious about the real man.

When you realise that  Little Women  is semi-autobiographical, you want to learn where the real people and the fictional characters overlap.

When you realise that Little Women is semi-autobiographical, you want to learn where the real people and the fictional characters overlap.

Likewise for Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” books. Read many times during my childhood and into my adulthood, I’m still so interested that I jumped at the opportunity to order the South Dakota Historical Society Press’  Pioneer Girl  that features the original text alongside extensive notes comparing the fictional account with historical fact.

Likewise for Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” books. Read many times during my childhood and into my adulthood, I’m still so interested that I jumped at the opportunity to order the South Dakota Historical Society Press’ Pioneer Girl that features the original text alongside extensive notes comparing the fictional account with historical fact.