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Not Quite A Book Review: Why Historical Romantic Fiction Is Kind Of Okay

By Bridget.

So I started reading a book, which shall remain nameless, because it's name isn't the point of this blog. Also, I'll admit, I didn't give it a fair crack. I read fifty pages, and I was like, ugh. Not for me. Some girl, it's always some girl.

Written by some guy, whatever. I'm certainly not convinced that men can't write women, I mean, have you guys read Chuck Palaniuk? (If not I am not doing my job right, READ HIM, HE IS AMAZING). The stuff he writes from the female perspective I would swear was written by a woman. But this guy, this historical, romantic fiction guy, well, he had a particular notion about how a Singaporean Chinese girl raised in British schools would be, and he stuck to the very letter of that. I like a character with surprise, with depth. I don't want a character who I can predict from go to woe, because there are very few actual real people in the world like that. Why sell your character short?

This got me wondering about why I decided to read this book in the first place. Had I gone temporarily insane? Was I ill? And then I remembered.

The Eye Of The Beholder.

When I was a child, my father worked for Doubleday publishing. It was fantastic, although I didn't really appreciate how awesome it was until he moved to apples in Tasmania, and my supply of CDs and books dried up. I was the proud owner of Blood Sugar Sex Magic in 1992, and if you think that's inappropriate for a twelve year old, you would be correct, but I fucking loved it. Anyway, he brought us home a range of slightly damaged books, and we devoured them like the little reading beasts we were. One of those books was... that's right... gloriously entitled The Eye Of The Beholder.

I've investigated it on the internet (obviously) and I'm pretty sure that it was by Robyn Anderson, originally published in 1991 then republished in '96. Sadly not available on Amazon, kids, but you can always buy one of the “excellent condition” hardcovers, available from obscure second hand stores, and one of them may even have my grubby twelve year old paw prints on it.

I read that book so many times, that now, almost twenty years later, I still remember my favourite lines. THAT'S RIGHT, MY FAVOURITE LINES.

What was it about? You enquire. Must have been the fucking business, mustn't it?


There was this girl. (I can't remember her name. I can't remember any names.) She was hanging out in England, not doing so well. Maybe she was in an orphanage, or got arrested, or was raped? Anyway, I have the feeling she got sold, or exchanged, and put on a boat to Australia to be somebodies wife, or wait-staff? Look, it's been about eighteen years since I read it, okay?

And, here's the clincher, she's incredibly hot, but also BLIND.

By a twist of fate she ends up hanging out with two brothers, or best friends, in the tumultuous gold rush times. Living in camp, trying to make the best of being sixteen, blind, and in a foreign country. And then there's the love triangle, in which, (spoiler alert) she starts going out with the charming, conventionally handsome one, but ends up with, after tears and almost murders and potential riches, with the uggo, because, and this fact is important, SHE'S BLIND SO SHE CAN ONLY SEE HIS BEAUTIFUL PERSONALITY.

Come on, how GOOD does that sound?

(For those who are particularly intrigued, the line I remember is somebody saying furiously: “any fool can see, but a poor, blind girl can't!” And the girl was all, walking into a ravine without realising it to get away from the abusive brother, or similar. I don't know why I remember this, and it bothers me that I can remember that, but not the name of the attorney general. Ugh.)

This was supposed to have a point, being me positing a question about what it is that resounds for people about historical fiction, and what resounded for me.

Firstly, it's romantic.

That's right, romantic historic fiction? Romantic. Who knew. But it's not like modern “romance”. There's nothing sordid about it. It's high romance, pure and wonderful. As though back then, (whenever then is), love was different. It didn't have wet bits, or awkward bits, or uncomfortable bits. All the loss of control was emotional, and passion took precedence over everything. Romance had an element of innocence to it, which is probably why I was so attracted to it when I was very young. Because while now I consider myself too old and jaded to feel that way about relationships, the idea of innocent, happily ever after romance is just fantastic.

Secondly, it's not happening now.

We all know how stuff works now. Boring. Well, perhaps not boring. Audiences lap up contemporary stuff, particularly police work, courtroom stuff, thrillers. Even contemporary romantic fiction with varying degrees of reality. But it's all pretty familiar to us, and is satisfying our need for violence or closure or vicarious living through a Miami crime lab, or whatever. But a historical fiction, thanks to a bunch of research done by the authors, can transport us to a time we have absolutely no day to day interaction with. We can learn stuff about that time, think things like “Oh, how far we've come,” and “there but for the grace of god goes a previous incarnation of me”. Obviously this doesn't just apply to historical fiction, although I heartily enjoyed The Last Runaway, which introduced me to a whole world I had no knowledge of. I personally prefer the to get my learning stuff from reading literature from other cultures, like Ha Jin's work, genres that do this are great for learning and escapism. Two birds! One stone!

Anyway, I've now realised that I get why people like romantic historical fiction, even though it mainly drives me nutso. So I'm not going to continue reading the nameless book that sparked this whole experience off, but I encourage you guys to go right ahead, and I won't judge you for it. Because that would make me a big ole hypocrite, and I don't think twelve year old me should be judged too harshly.

I just wanted a little escapism and a little romance, for god's sake.

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