Sunday, June 07, 2009

It's like buses. Part 2: Add another book...

...and then some more books

The Sweet Smell of Decay’s unbridled revelling in the sheer ickiness of 17th century life is interesting for me, since it makes two connections with other recent reading. Connection the first: innumerable romance-novels-with-history-scrubuffed-trimmed-and-in-possession-of-their-very-own-olde-worlde-hande-sanityzer-bretthe-ffreshyner-and-rustick-yet-effectivve-plumbingge.

And connection the second: Clean: An Unsanitised History of Washing, by Katherine Ashenburg*, which I read a couple of months ago, and which also does what it says on the tin, and very entertainingly too.

There is a certain rather pungent side-branch of historical novels which takes the question, “But weren’t they quite dirty in those days?” and runs with it - mainly literature and crime/thrillers, probably because the theme provides a wealth of atmospheric tropes that suit these genres’ darker world-views.

By contrast, my experience of the majority of (modern) romantic fiction is that this particular seam of seaminess** is not one that is well-mined. There are generally three possible takes on the thorny issue of historical hygiene in romance novels.

Take the first:
The “If I don’t mention it, it’s because no one would have noticed it at the time” line that allows both writer and reader to gloss over all manner of historical sordidness.

Take the next:
It’s dirty, but over there, in that squalid tavern/dark alley/dockside slum where the heroine ventures (possibly disguised as a boy, possibly as a tavern wench, possibly as both in certain sub-sub-genres) to:
a) Track down the MacGuffin.
b) Create a Big Misunderstanding.
c) Stage a rescue (her own or some other worthy victim’s, possibly leading to b).
d) Kick off a subtly saucy scene intended to either 1) set the sensual suspense between h/h on simmer with a bit of playful badinage and body contact in low-cut and/or snug-fitting tops, or 2) lead to everyone all ending up back at the (remarkably clean) pirate’s lair for a spot of hide the yardarm in the yo-ho-ho. It all depends on what chapter and who’s publishing.
e) All of the above. Sometimes behaviour in Romanceland can be remarkably confusing.

Take the last:
The “If it’s a fantasy, I don’t want to be put off by my vague recall about all that authentick historical dirt and once-upon-an-icky-time stuff,” line. This usually leads to some convoluted explanation of why the heroine is defiantly battling the odds and surly retainers to have her daily hot bath, shave her legs, and squirt the rim of her chamberpot with bleach made from special herbs. Usually she’s a healer.

*A sidenote for anyone who enjoys those "divided by a common language" stories. In the News section of her website, Ashenburg notes that "'Clean', as 'The Dirt on Clean' is called in Britain, has just been released in paperback with a charming new cover of a flapper drying her fanny." *koff.*

Must confess that after reading this, I had to double-check the cover of my own copy, in case I'd missed something rather startling. If you're not aware of this particular bit of lexical divergence, let's just say that in my dialect of English, the word "fanny"*** is used (especially by children, or with a sort of childish undertone) to refer to a part of the body slightly further forward than the one Ashenburg means...

**apologies – couldn’t resist it

***cannot believe I've just written this word twice in a single post. I feel about 3 years old. teehee.

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