Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Common historical costume errors

I've been buried under the pressures of work lately, compounded by teaching a spinning workshop all last weekend. But here's the promised post about costume errors that I find frustrating in historical romances.

Silk chemises
Okay, there may have been a few of them around. But the fact is, linen is much more comfortable next to the skin, and could be exquisitely fine and luxurious. Forget modern starched linen. Especially forget fabric marketed as 'handkerchief linen', because most of that is actually ramie, not linen at all. Ramie is not as fine, and is stiffer and scratchier than real linen. Real linen as used for underclothes becomes wonderfully soft the more it's worn and the higher-end stuff is beautifully fine. Even the lesser quality linen was still soft and sensual on the skin. My DH had a pure linen shirt years ago and it was soft, and fine, and draped wonderfully, whisper-soft on the skin. Pure bliss.

Corsetless Heroines
If you're writing Regency, you can get away with you heroine not wearing a corset. If you're writing pretty much anything else between about 1480 - 1915, and your heroine is even vaguely respectable, then she wore a corset the majority of the time.

You think corsets are uncomfortable? Restricting? Tight laced? Ummm... no. Many women (including me) find that a properly fitted corset is more comfortable than a bra. Yes, your posture is a bit different - but women wore corsets from adolesence onwards, and were used to them. They provide back support, boob support, and encourage a better posture.

Facts about corsets:
  • Dresses were designed to be worn over corsets. If your heroine puts on a dress without her corset, it won't sit right. Everyone will know that she's not wearing one.
  • Tight lacing was a short-lived phenomenon practised by only a few in the later 19th century - probably about as common as nipple-piercing today.
  • The slight restriction of corsets on deep breathing can heighten the sensual arousal and excitement for a woman.
  • Corsets are incredibly sexy. Ask any guy of your acquaintance. Men find them very, very enticing - the sense of the forbidden, the hints of what lies beneath stimulating the imagination....
Pre-20th century women in trousers
I recently read a 19th-century set American historical in which the heroine - a respectable woman, employed as a nanny - spent most of her time wearing trousers. Because they were more 'comfortable'.

Yes, some women undoubtably did don trousers in pioneer America and Australia, for practical reasons while trekking, riding etc. But respectable women didn't wear them around their employer's house as a matter of course. And women who'd spent most of their lives wearing long skirts and only loose linen or cotton underwear around their fannies probably didn't find moleskin or denim trousers cut for a man's shape to be 'comfortable.' Physically or socially. Which is probably why, in all the diary accounts and letters of pioneer women I've read, I can't recall any references to women wearing trousers. It's sort of like expecting modern women to go naked to their corporate jobs - yeah, it'd be more comfortable than power suits and heels, and a practical saving on cleaning costs, but there's a whole lot of other reasons why we just don't do it.

I'll probably remember the other costume issues I was planning on ranting about later, but it's been a looonnngg day and my brain just died.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Tagged by Kate

I stumbled, bleary-eyed and still half-asleep to the computer this morning to discover that Kate had tagged me.

Now that I'm slightly caffeinated:

Total number of books I own
(I'm not going to count the DH's as well):
  • 300 or so costume and textile books
  • 300 0r so novels and a few non-fiction in the living room
  • a stack of probably 100 category/series romances in a cupboard
  • about 150 children's and YA books in another cupboard
  • 200 or so academic history books
  • 200 or so boring management/leadership etc books in a box in my car (I ran out of bookshelf, so they've been in the car for a month or so.)
Space is a bit of a premium around here, so I've culled the book collection several times in the past year. I've also been very broke, and haven't bought as many books as I'd like. But today is the first day of the Rotary book sale, and I'm going into town shortly, and can probably afford to actually spend about $30 on books ;-)

Last Book I bought: On Wednesday I bought Sharon Sala's Bloodlines and Merline Lovelace's The First Mistake. (No, not you, Miskate.)

Last Book I Read: You mean the one I started reading at the gym the other week and have put down somewhere and now can't find??? It's a romantic suspense. By What's-her-name. Big name. Came out a few years ago and I've borrowed it from the library. Must be in my car somewhere - the car DH refers to as the movable office.

Five books that Mean A Lot To Me: Only 5??? How am I supposed to pick 5 books from 40 years of reading???

Mister God This is Anna, by Fynn

Maid of the Abbey, by Elsie Oxenham - the first Abbey Girls book I ever read (aged about 9) and a lovely romance

Any book by Michael Leunig, Australian cartoonist/poet and beautiful soul

The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula Le Guin

The Shiralee, by Darcy Niland - he worked in rural Australia in the 1950s and wrote evocatively of the time and the people. His male characters in particular are brilliantly drawn; tough, hard-working rural men - real alpha heroes with flaws written by a man who was one himself. (Author Ruth Park's two-volume autobiography of her life with husband Darcy Niland is also wonderful.)

Five people I'm tagging:
Amy, Claire, Joanna, Rae and Carrie

Edit: Darn, Kate already tagged Amy. So, Janice, if you've got a blog, you're tagged!

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

costume rant

I apologise to my handful of loyal visitors that I've not been around much lately. I started a new half-time job two weeks ago, in addition to the old half-time job, and that has sucked up most of my time and my brainspace.

But now I'm in ranting mode. The cover art on today's 'Pick' on the e-Harlequin site got my hackles raised. I have no idea about the quality or content of the book, and my rant in no way reflects any opinion on the book itself or its author*. But what's with the darn dress on the cover???

(If you can't see the picture, right click here)

Another example of cover art that bears no relationship to actual historical costume. And it's not even trying to be a Fabio cover, which I don't expect to have any relationship to any fashions seen outside a bordello. The book is apparently set in Montana, so I'm assuming sometime in the nineteenth century. The dress has some stylistic similarity to early Tudor styles (1500s) - except that there's no underskirts, undersleeves, and the fabric isn't anywhere near right, so the drape of the dress is more medieval. Unless our heroine had fallen under the influence of the Liberty set (unlikely, in Montana) then that dress simply could not have existed in a woman's wardrobe in Montana in the nineteenth century.

I don't read as widely as many of you, but I've noticed the tendency in a number of American-set historical romances to have costumes on the cover that just aren't right. And I'm not really picky, honest. Regencies tend to be a bit more accurate, and I'm happy to grant some artistic license. And the Fabio-style covers are supposed to be way over the top. But why can't cover artists of covers like this, which are (I presume) meant to convey a more realistic impression, actually portray something vaguely right, instead of this fantasy of women's fashion that never existed?

Some day I'll rave on about the portrayal of historic costume in novels, and all the totally wrong things that some romance writers fall in to - like their heroines never wearing corsets because they're 'uncomfortable', and silk chemises, and women wearing trousers.... but darn, I'm just too tired to rant any more tonight.

*If anyone's read the book and recommends it, let me know. It won't come out here in Australia for a couple of months, but if it's good I can probably get over cringing at the cover long enough to read it.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Cultural differences in romance

Monica Jackson is doing a great job in blogland reminding us that romance doesn’t – and shouldn’t - just come in shades of white. I’m interested in how authors and wannabe authors portray diversity in their work. Do white writers consciously consider issues of race, ethnicity and diversity as they write? Do you make efforts to ensure your novels reflect the non-uniformity of our societies?

Like the US and the UK, Australia is a very multi-cultural society, although patterns of immigration, race relations, and ethnic and racial balances are different. Nevertheless, many of the issues are similar. As a writer, I want to ensure that the Australia I portray reflects the reality. Yet I’m very conscious that as a white, Anglo-Celtic, middle-class Australian, my experience as a member of the majority culture is very different from those who belong to minority cultures. I’ve been heavily involved in equal opportunity issues for most of my working life, so while I’m aware of the major issues, I’m also very aware that there are a zillion ways in which cultural differences are manifested that are subtle, perhaps sub-conscious, but which add up to a very different experience and, sometimes, a very different ‘way of knowing’ than the majority culture can really understand. For this reason, I’m very hesitant to pretend that I know enough to write heroes or heroines from very different cultural backgrounds to my own.

The loosely-linked series I’m currently working on is set in a small fictional town on the edge of the outback. I made a conscious decision when I began writing it that, while I didn’t feel qualified to write Aboriginal heroes or heroines (the issues surrounding the indigenous experience in Australia are very complex), I didn’t want Aboriginal people to be invisible. Nor did I want to succumb to the stereotypical images of Aboriginal people – either positive or negative. So, I have a major secondary character who will appear in all the novels (Adam) who is a Murri, and there are mentions and references to consulting with local elders, as a normal part of the way in which the community works. In the second novel, the hero will discover that his mother was Aboriginal, one of the ‘stolen children’ who never knew her own family due to the forcible removal policies that operated here until the 1970s. I won’t make a Big Issue out of it, but it is one facet of his journey to come to terms with his own life experience, within a fairly complex plot.

Will Adam ever get his own story? Probably not, because a) I don’t think I could adequately portray the experience of an Aboriginal man, and b) he’s still young, yet :-) But you never know… by the time I get to the end of the series, he may have his own HEA.

So, while I can only view indigenous issues through a white person’s eyes, and through the things Aboriginal people I know share with me, I hope that Aboriginal readers will regard it as a respectful view.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

But is it Literature?

I read this quote from Helen Falconer in the Guardian book section this morning:
When women write cheerful, upbeat stuff about aspirational females out and about in the world, they are bluntly informed that it doesn't count as literary, it's just chick lit. ... This situation means that there is a vast sea of books by female authors out there that are too well-written and quirky to be trashed, but which by their nature (written by women, about women, for women) do not qualify as literature.
And then over on Booksquare's and Brenda Coulter's blogs there is discussion about the article in The Book Standard which quotes Otto Penzler, 'dean of mystery-writing in America':
“The women who write [cozies] stop the action to go shopping, create a recipe, or take care of cats,” he says. “Cozies are not serious literature. They don’t deserve to win. Men take [writing] more seriously as art. Men labor over a book to make it literature...."
It really worries me that in 2005, any definition of 'Literature' that so blatantly excludes women and women's values and interests can be accepted as the norm - even by women.

I've been mulling all day over how I would define a novel as a 'Literary' one. Not that books have to be 'literary' to be good - there is nothing in the slightest wrong with a rattling good yarn read purely for enjoyment, whether it be romance, chick lit, women's fic, sci-fi, fantasy, thriller, mystery, whatever. But yes, there are books for me which go further than providing an enjoying read, that I would class as 'literary'. So, what do those books have for me? One or more of the following:
  • evocative writing
  • emotional engagement
  • originality of concept
  • deftly drawn, fascinating, complex characters
  • beautifully crafted story-telling
  • a perspective of the world that shows me new things in it
A glance at my bookshelf shows the following books I frequently reread and that I'd class as 'literature': Ursula Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness; Herman Hesse's Narziss and Goldmund; Patrick Susskind's Perfume; Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird; Kathleen Creighton's The Top Gun's Return; Ruth Park's The Harp in the South; Darcy Niland's The Shiralee. And, least you think literature has to be Serious - Terry Pratchett's Discworld series, which meets pretty much all of the above criteria (including laugh-out-loud emotion).

Yes, some of you will have spotted it - I've included a romance in that list. A category romance at that. And I didn't get struck by lightning. Not yet, anyway.

I'm interested in how others define 'literature', and whether there would be any romances on your list of literary books. I know that only about three people per day come here, but hey, feel free to make my life more exciting by leaving a comment ;-)