...with some context, a list of books and a MEGA largely irrelevent, but quite interesting footnote
The thing is, I’m perpetually intrigued by what is justified in historical romance novels on the grounds of historical “authenticity” (eg. rape, abuse, swordsticks, Fabio in a Viking helmet) and what is extracted on grounds that it would put off the sensitive reader (eg. slavery, blatant racism, poor oral health, body hair). It’s not the removal of all ick. It’s selective historical sanitisation – and it’s not only in ye olde Romancelande that this takes place.
This isn’t a cry for more historical accuracy on the hygiene front in romance novels either. The way that grime can be fetishised in other genres is something I think is equally worth digging into. It’s another side of the phenomenon. But there’s not enough room to go into that here, and I wanted to write about this topic in relation to romance novels in particular.
It’s a truism that historical novels (or indeed almost any writing) reflect more about the time of writing than the time being written about. So in my view, claims of “historical authenticity” (or claims of a lack thereof) are often more of a figleaf than a valid line of argument. I’d argue that it’s more a question of, “Yes, this did or didn’t happen then, but I want to think about why this is included, but not that, and what does it say about us/our society now?”
Ashenburg discusses the modern obsession with hygiene: the way we erase all traces of our own bodily odour and try to smell “like an exotic fruit…or a cookie” (p.8) instead. She links this to a “confluence of reasons” (p.201) including: distrust of our bodies and the need to control them (p.283); the modern concern for privacy (p.282); and the connection of hygiene with morality** (p.190), civility and advancement (p.201).
(Just a bit more on theoretical background – can be skipped. In the context of historical novels, I'm also intrigued by some of the ideas brought up in studies of the relationship between colonialism and hygiene. There are quite a few recent books on this – the one that introduced me to the topic is Kristin Ross’ Fast Cars, Clean Bodies, but since it was published I’ve also come across a few others: Bashford’s Imperial Hygiene, Jennings’ Curing the Colonizers, and Anderson’s, Colonial Pathologies.)
The inherently optimistic outlook of modern romantic fiction (I'd say that most readers insist that a happy ending is a fundamental requirement of any book in this genre) means that they are often tagged as fantasies, which can be either a pejorative or a positive label depending on the position of the labeller. As fantasies, they are separated from real life and can therefore discard aspects of “real life” as required to meet the needs of the fantasy.
That said, I think this distance from reality is a mark of all writing. Writing is in part a selective process – a writer chooses to dispense with, include or exaggerate aspects of reality. Writing guides the reader’s imagination along a particular path, and to be most effective when dealing with the messiness of reality, it filters things out, just as our perception filters out much of the world around us so that our brains don’t explode. But I don't think it's just the writer in isolation doing all the choosing, all the time, either.
**Ashenburg also argues that one of the reasons for the odoriferousness that permeates European history was that in contrast to the Jewish and Muslim faiths, where sanitary laws are part of doctrine, the Christian faith has no such teaching (p.49-55).
So for medieval Christians, dirtiness was often seen as next to godliness since it meant that the dirty individual was a) above such trivial earthly matters as soap and water and prepared to suffer lice, itchiness and scabs for good of his or her immortal soul (p.58-63), and b) clearly not Jewish or Muslim (p.54, 69-72), whose sanitary laws were viewed with deep suspicion by the majority of medieval Christians (p.71-2, 103, 111).
This was also why the Inquisition took an interest in the bathing habits of any individual unfortunate enough to attract their attention. And yes, being “known to bathe” was enough to damn a person in their eyes. (p.111)