So I guess the question of hygiene in historical romance seems to come down to this messy intersection between a) empathy with the hero and heroine (h/h) which is usually seen as grounded in some level of identification with the characters, b) the conflict between the way that we view the past either in evolutionary terms or as a mirror, and c) the big pay-off of romance: the HEA. And the area of debate centres on the question of personal happiness.
After all, how can h/h be happy if they live in what seems like uncomfortable, unsanitary conditions? The argument goes: a modern reader (this means me) would find it harder to empathise, because they personally wouldn’t be comfortable in these conditions. And readers have to believe the HEA, or the satisfaction they get from the book is diminished.
So the h/h must face a clean and hygienic future for the HEA to be believed because:
- Cleanliness = healthiness. Readers need to believe that h/h won’t be struck down by cholera or galloping typhus immediately after the book finishes, or the HEA doesn't pack enough punch.
- Cleanliness = morality. H/H are good people. Disease, dirt and bad breath only happens to deserving villains or ex-partners (possibly tragically if its backstory, possibly because they are villains).
- Cleanliness = civility, and in the modern world, personal cleanliness is a mark of personal status. These days, instead of finding more expensive ways to smell awful (Ashenburg’s book has some great stuff about this, btw), rich, cultured people don’t smell of anything unless they choose to.
- Cleanliness = wealth. Wealthy, or even well-to-do people can afford to be clean, and wealth itself, while not guaranteeing happiness, probably helps – at least in the mind.
- Cleanliness = comfort. Dirt isn’t glamorous, it’s itchy.
- Cleanliness = neutral. Dirt is a distraction – if it’s mentioned, people think about it, so it distracts from the story unless it’s part of it.
The thorny issue is more worrying to me, though, and it seems to take me right back to my starting point. Although historical dirt only shows up in ye olde Romancelande in controlled conditions, if at all; all manner of other historickiness* is either selectively included in, or selectively removed from the landscape. And what does this say about readers/perceptions of readers? But this is probably a post (or six) for another day.
*thanks (probably should be apologies) to Stephen Colbert for the inspiration.
ETA: Hey, cool. I forgot I could do bullets.