Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Cultural Identity

I had a post yesterday about the use of names in Romance Novels. I started to reply to the comments, and realized I needed the room of an extra post.

I talked yesterday about how some of the given names, especially of heroes are a) overused and b) don't ring true for me. In response, Maili said:
[In England,] a person's accent is the fastest way to figure out the person's background, including his upbringing, education, and current residence. The person's name is a helpful companion to making some guesswork....That is a long way round to say that the majority of names in romance novels have no sense of rhyme and reason, e.g. no sense of culture, history, and regionalism.

and Marianne said:

Because people wouldn't have freely used Christian names with each other when I was a child, I always find it odd when characters in Regencies get on first name terms so quickly....It feels more plausible to me when the hero's friends don't call him by his first name.

As I think about the use of names in Historicals, I'm beginning to come to the idea that we all are reading, on some level, an idea of what we want the culture to have been. When the book lines up with that idea, then it feels "accurate." But it may have little to do with the culture it is supposed to take place in. The bump in the road for me comes in on the names--I simply cannot believe that at any time a mother, wet nurse, or father, ever named a set of twins, Lucien and Damien. It leaps off the page at me, which then gets me thinking about *why* it leapt off the page. I'm somehow not identifying with the set-up of those names--it feels forced--which makes me wonder about what I do expect when I read about this culture in Regency Historicals

When I was reading The Glorious Deception by Jim Steinmeyer, this idea of cultural expectations was one recurring point that intrigued me. William Robinson, in Victorian England, was a more readily acceptable "Chinese Conjurer" as his alter-ego Chung Ling Soo, than a *REAL* Chinese magician, Ching Ling Foo.

William Robinson played "Chinese" to a Victorian audience better than Ching Ling Foo did, precisely because Robinson's version wasn't authentic. Ching Ling Foo dressed appropriately and acted in a self-assured manner. Robinson, as Chung Ling Soo, dressed in bright silken robes and played up the idea that he was from the "mystical Orient." He didn't speak on stage, the stage was dressed in garish colors, he didn't limit himself to Chinese magic tricks, but instead decked out German tricks with Chinese labels, and he perfectly represented to his audience what THEY THOUGHT Chinese culture was.

As I've said before, historical gaffes in Regencies, such as naming the wrong King of Spain, usually just blow right past me. However, in Romancelandia, there are themes, such as men named after angels, which don't ring true. Instead they seem to be an outgrowth of what we want Regency England to be, without thought taken to regional differences or class expectations. (I think this is what Maili objects to in Scottish themed romances as well.)

Marianne is so correct in her noting that men are often called by their last names. My father went to military school in Tennessee, where he was only called by his surname, and then later by his surnames plus first initial after his little brother came to school. Fifty years later his friends still call him by his last name--although they've dropped the initial somewhere along the journey. When he started work in corporate America in the 60s, it was still common for men to know each other by their last names. It was considered a token of great friendship to offer your first name to a colleague after many years of acquaintance.

There's a couple other modern expectations in Regency-set Historicals which niggle at me too, but they're probably not as noticeable as the name (which, after all, gets repeated on almost every page). Primarily, I have to wonder where all the Marquesses, Viscounts, Barons and Baronets have gone. Occasionally we'll get a Marquess as a hero, but usually we're only playing with Earls and Dukes. (Isn't a Marquess in between Duke and Earl? How come it's always skipped? Foreign sounding?)

I think we all know when we pick up a Romance novel that we're paddling in the community pool, with its own rules of behavior, rather than surfing in the ocean of "accurate historical portrayal). However, it's still a surprise to bump up against the side of the pool from time to time. It's not hideously upsetting, just a quick jolt to the senses before turning around and paddling back to the middle again.

And, by the way, The Glorious Deception; The Double LIfe of William Robinson, aka Chung Ling Soo, the "Marvelous Chinese Conjurer by Jim Steinmeyer really is a great book.


sybil said...

this is a nifty site to play with

of course I have no clue if it is correct or where the info comes from ;)

Sisuile said...

hmmm. I come across the marquesses and vicounts on a fairly regular basis, though the earls and dukes are more prevalent. And knowing something of the history of England, having them be the 'duke of x' when the title should properly be 'vicount x' because the area wasn't valuable enough to rate a bigger title. Wrong family names also bother me. If you're going to talk about famous families, please use the correct family name. The duchies of Lancaster and York, for fairly obvious reasons to everyone other than the regency writers, belong to the crown. The Duke of Lancaster is not looking for a bride, he's mad. The other one is when everyone with a title only ever has one title. Most higher titles came with a plethora of minor ones, baronies, baronetcies, etc.

/ rant

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