Probably the oldest thing I own is a silhouette in cross-stitch that my mother did when she was a girl in 1931. It’s framed and preserved behind glass and shows a couple seated before a hearth, drinking tea. The caption reads, “Sweet are the thoughts that savor of content. A quiet mind is richer than a crown.” Below that, are the initials of its creator, BEG. Bernice E. Gaines.
On a bookshelf across the room, I have the books she wrote about gardening. The author is listed as Bernice Brilmayer. Between the embroidery and the books, my mother had married my father, Bob Brilmayer. At the time, although the author name on the books didn't reflect it, my mother moved her maiden name to her middle name and referred to herself as Bernice Gaines Brilmayer. In doing so, she’d lost the E.
My mother died when I was thirteen, so I don’t have her around to ask what the E stood for. I didn’t think to ask my father before he died, so for the longest time, I didn’t know what my mother’s middle name was. When she assumed her spouse’s last name as her own -- something that would never have been done by a man at the time -- she maintained her old identity as a Gaines, but lost her middle name. My brother discovered it on a birth certificate or some such document a few years ago. Elizabeth. My mother’s middle name was Elizabeth.
Back in the olden days when people wrote on manual typewriters, when a woman got married she technically became Mrs. Husband. So, Miss Jane Smith became Mrs. John Jones on her wedding day. She didn’t even become Mrs. Jane Jones until her husband died. When you read the society column, the wives were listed that way…”The committee, consisting of Mrs. Robert Rhodes, Mrs. Harold Martin, Mrs. Lawrence Cartwright, etc.” And there would be the picture of the smiling ladies of the committee, none of whose husbands had done any of the actual work but whose names were nevertheless the ones listed.
That’s how it was done. Although it was in my lifetime, it could be seen as ancient history to younger people here. Things have certainly changed, and overwhelmingly, if not totally, for the better. I think if we look to this recent past, we can find a lesson for romance fiction written in earlier time periods. Namely, just how strictly do we need to stick to the societal conventions of the historical period in which we’re writing?
First, let me draw a distinction between historical non-fiction, historical fiction, and historical romance. The first must be completely factual and true to the period. The second also needs historical accuracy, although characters and situations that never existed can occur in the service of the story being told. On the other hand, historical romance (in my humble opinion) isn’t so much about the events and conventions of history as much as it’s a romantic story (and I mean that in the heroic sense as well as the romance sense) that’s set in a prior period. We can’t change events that actually occurred, and we can’t rearrange conventions willy-nilly. However, I do think we can create characters who act outside of the strictures of “polite society” and break conventions for good and moral reasons.
There were always women who rebelled against the “proper female role.” Lucy Stone, for example, retained her maiden name after her marriage to Henry Blackwell. Blackwell, himself, applauded her independence in that matter, and when Lucy asked him if she should attend a convention in Saratoga, Blackwell told her to “ask Lucy Stone.”
Mary Edwards Walker retained her maiden name after marrying Albert Miller. A doctor, she went on to serve as a surgeon in the Civil War and was captured and imprisoned for a while in a Confederate jail. She was and is the only female recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor. She also railed against the constriction of women’s clothing and often appeared dressed in men’s clothes as she campaigned for women’s suffrage.
If I were to create historical romance heroines like these women, a critic could easily say, “Women wouldn’t have done that in that period. It wouldn’t have been allowed. This story isn’t true to its history.”
To which I say, some people always forged their own paths in opposition to the accepted way of doing things. Some people looked at what was correct and decided the correct wasn’t right. These are the people I want to write and read about.