Three (Give or Take a Few) Strikes and You’re Out

Today I settled down for my lunchtime reading with Sweet Passion’s Pain by Karen Harper. Because it’s about Joan “the Fair Maid of Kent,” wife to the Black Prince and mother of Richard II, it interested me, despite the cheesy title. (Published in the 1980’s, the book’s being reissued this year with the title The First Princess of Wales.)

In the opening scene, young, unmarried Joan is getting ready to leave her childhood home at Liddell Manor to go to the court of Edward III. We know she’s unmarried because she tells her nurse, spirited girl that she is, that she has “no intention of wedding for years and years yet.” Two pages later, we find out the date this scene is taking place: May 1344.

Big problem. Joan of Kent was married to William de Montacute in 1340/41; before that, she might well have been married to Thomas Holland, who convinced the Pope of that when he got the Montacute marriage annulled in 1349. In any case, Joan certainly wasn’t single in 1344.

So I turn a few pages, heart sinking, and meet Edmund, Joan’s bossy twenty-three-year-old brother. Joan did have a brother named Edmund, but he died in 1331, as a young child. As this hasn’t been billed as a ghost story, this is not promising either. I skip back a page, where an astrologer has been droning on about Joan’s birth date, and notice that he says that Joan was born “the summer her father died.” Well, a posthumous child was born to the executed Edmund, Earl of Kent, but it wasn’t Joan but her younger brother John. Little Joan, in fact, is said to have been one of the sponsors at his baptism because the family was in prison at the time and no adults were able to fill the role. (Lest you be wondering, I’ve picked up these details in doing research for my own novel-in-progress. Joan is the sister-in-law of my heroine, Elizabeth de Montacute.)

OK, time to skim ahead a little in Sweet Passion’s Pain. Joan of Kent’s mother, Margaret, was in poor health when mother and daughter parted, and sure enough, five months later Joan is summoned to Margaret’s deathbed. It’s a moving scene, but a tad early: We’re still in 1344, it seems, and the historical Margaret didn’t die until 1349.

Finally, it’s 1347, and Joan is at last getting married to William de Montacute, the man whom history indicates she had married in 1341.

Check, please.

Now, I’m not unpityingly picky in terms of historical accuracy. I’ve made mistakes in that area myself, for one thing. And if someone’s eating the wrong food, wearing the wrong armor, dancing the wrong dance, or donning the wrong headdress, it doesn’t bother me, unless the novel contains just one anachronism after another. But I do like to have people in a novel be born, marry, and die on the same dates that history says they did, if history gives definite dates and they’re accessible to a researcher who’s not a professional historian. When the people in question are minor characters, I can go on reading if the crucial dates are wrong, though not with much pleasure; when they’re major characters, I simply can’t—unless the novel is so bad in other respects that it’s perversely fun to read.

So, blog readers, would this be a deal breaker for you? Or would you slog on anyway? What type of inaccuracies make you slam a historical novel shut?

While you’re pondering this, I’m off to find another novel. (In the meantime, if you’re interested in reading about Joan of Kent, you might try Juliet Dymoke’s Lady of the Garter, published in 1979, a few years before the Harper novel was published. Not only does an aging, overweight Queen Isabella make a few appearances in it, Dymoke gets Joan of Kent’s dates straight.)

10 thoughts on “Three (Give or Take a Few) Strikes and You’re Out”

  1. I agree with you about getting the dates wrong – it just throws me out of the novel. I’m not too bothered either about wrong headdresses or something, unless it’s really blatantly the wrong century, but I hate it when something as easily checkable as dates are totally incorrect. We’ve talked about the Will Davenport novel and the errors in that, and another one I remember where dates and people’s ages were hopelessly wrong was Margaret Campbell Barnes’ ‘Within the Hollow Crown’ about Richard II.

  2. Susan Higginbotham

    I read the Barnes novel, but was blissfully unaware of the errors in it. Sometimes it helps to have blinders on!

  3. Sigh, that’s disappointing. Same thing happened to me with The Canterbury Papers by Judith Koll Healey. People weren’t the ages they were supposed to be, which completely threw me out of the novel.

  4. I have to admit that a lot of times I wouldn’t recognise when an error is made. I think I read with blinders as well Susan.

  5. It’s really only the fourteenth century where I’m knowledgeable enough to spot mistakes in dates, chronology etc. If I read a Tudor novel with errors, for example, I probably wouldn’t spot them. Sometimes ignorance really is bliss!

    It’s many years since I read the Barnes novel, but I do remember that she made Richard the wrong age at his accession – 11 instead of 10, and she made Queen Anne over 30 at the time of her death when she was really 27. Maybe small points for most people, but their dates of birth are very well-known, so it seemed odd to get them wrong. (I did enjoy the novel in general, though)

  6. In many periods I’m not knowledgeable enough to spot small inaccuracies, so they don’t bother me. But if I get interested in the history and read up on it, and then find that the author got their facts wrong or made up wildly implausible stuff and didn’t come clean in an Author’s Note, that’s a BIG negative.

    If I notice inaccuracies in easily accessible facts, that makes me think this isn’t ‘historical’ fiction. It’s a fantasy loosely based on history, like Braveheart. If it’s a strong enough story I can read and enjoy it on those terms, as a fantasy whose characters happen to share names with real people. I just don’t take any of its history seriously.

  7. Elizabeth Chadwick

    Any inaccuracies bother me if I’m aware of them. I know with the best will in the world no historical novelists can get everything right and I make mistakes myself. I’m willing to keep on reading if I come across minor ones, but they will pull me out of the story for the flick of an eyelid. Clothes, food and head-dresses do matter to me because they are part of what creates the way a character will behave and relate to his or her world and each inaccuracy will detract from how realistically the character will react within the environment of their times. There is no excuse for moving dates and events to suit the structure of a novel. There are always ways and means of restructuring the novel to work with the dates and events. If it’s down to sloppy research, then it’s a pity and the author will always be caught out by someone who knows their history. I
    As far as reading outside of my given period is concerned, I’m a lot less picky. As others have said, ignorance is bliss. Also when it’s a period I’m less passionate about, I don’t get in a fluff about the innacuracy of detail even if I spot it.
    The best novel I have read re inaccuracies was a Harlequin Mills & Boon about the First Crusade, by Polly Forester.
    It’s a gem. The German peasant hero, who nevertheless owns a mail shirt, falls over the heroine’s garden wall in Constantinople whilst foraging for food, and injures himself (despite the fact that falling from a high wall in a mail shirt would kill most men). She emerges from her dining room doors, discovers him and puts him to bed with a glass of milk and a slice of fruit cake. They have casserole for lunch cooked in the oven and even off porcelain plates. She has a cleaning woman called Mrs Khar, and takes her little boy to school every morning. They eat fried eggs bacon and sausage for breakfast and play cards in the evening. Fantastic book. Too brilliantly bad to wall bang!

  8. Susan Higginbotham

    Elizabeth, thanks for stopping by! You’ve made me hungry with that last paragraph. Fortunately, it’s breakfast time here, and my sausage biscuit is on the way!

  9. Not that I’d likely be reading Sweet Passion’s Pain in any case :), but I am flip side to you. These 14th century date errors would fly right past me, but I’d be irked if some important Tudor character was the wrong age, or single when they should be married, etc.

    I don’t know why authors don’t simply invent their protagonists in a situation like this, so that they can have whatever age and marital status they want. Then it’s only a problem if the character is so high on the social scale, or so directly involved in major historical events, that inserting a fictional person would itself strain credibility. Since my protagonist is at the very top – a royal heiress, then Queen Regnant, I’ve followed yet another option: making the whole setting out of whole cloth, a la Guy Gavriel Kay, with a hist-fic flavor but not claiming to be set in our own historical past.

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