Reality in Historical Romance

One of the blogs I follow is Hearts Through History, which features some marvelous posts on history in general, as well as historical romance in particular.  A recent post by Merry Farmer caught my eye, about historical body image. The concept of skinny, as she notes, is purely a 20th century notion, but most heroines in historical romance are portrayed as the young skinny girls of our current reality, rather than the curvy young women their real-life counterparts actually were.  Take a look at this piece of “genteel erotica” from 1886 and you’ll see what I mean:


Anyway, Merry’s blog led me to another I hadn’t seen before: Rakes, Rogues, & Romance by Nancy Goodman. How real, she asked in a recent post, do we want our romance? Do we read it purely to escape the reality of our not particularly romantic lives, or do we want something else?

Personally, I like some realism. I want to see the heroine lift her skirts a bit to step over the disgusting muck that filled London streets prior to the end of the 19th century. I want her to wrinkle her nose when she gets a whiff of the Thames as the wind shifts. I want to see the household staff wash off the windows, again, the soot that constantly covers them. In my mind, such snippets of historical fact add much to the setting, but don’t detract from the romance.

Perhaps it is my advancing age, but I am a bit tired of the virginal teen heroine, who loses her maidenhead to the more worldly but gentle hero and almost always has an earth-moving orgasm on the first try. (No comment on the realism of that.) I have read many romances which feature this type of heroine, and have enjoyed them, but nowadays I find I like my heroines grittier, with more life experience before the first page. To me, they are much more real, and these are the heroines I like to write about.

However, as in most things in life, balance is important. I do understand the need to read as an escape from reality–it is very often that impulse which leads me to pick up a book. I read a lot of different types of fiction, but I open a romance when I want to be assured of a happy ending. It isn’t always very realistic, but it is usually immensely satisfying.

So if you read romance, how do you feel about realism? How much is too much?