Making rakes from real men

Painting, Gwyllym Lloyd Wardle, Arthur William Devis, 1809, public domain
Arthur William Devis, "Gwyllym Lloyd Wardle," 1809.

I don’t know about the rest of you historical writers out there, but there are times when I am riveted with jealousy for contemporary writers—mostly when I’m reading a contemporary and the hero speaks. It’s so much easier to do a man in “regular” speech than it is in “Regency-speak.”

Here’s an example. I happen to adore MaryJanice Davidson’s books, so I picked up a set of three sexy novellas published together as Under Cover. In a novella you must establish the character and feel of a man instantly because you need your page count for other things (a plot, a sex scene, and a proposal, to be explicit). Here’s a tough guy hero, having an introductory conversation with a barman. He’s just found out that he didn’t win the lottery:

“Son of a bitch,” he sighed, and drained his drink.

“Maybe next week,” Mark said.

“Maybe pigs will fly out of my ass.”

“I have no idea,” Mark said cheerfully, “but a man like you probably has several disagreeable habits.”

That made him crack a smile. Wiseass punk bartender. “I don’t have to take this. My left sock is older than you are.”

“Most likely.”

The list of things in that brief conversation that would be difficult to reproduce in a Regency setting, using a titled hero, are endless. Slang? Cursewords? Scatalogical references? It all comes down to rough male conversation amongst men. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m dying of envy.

Yet the conversation can be carried backward into history, and I want this article to serve as a rallying cry to do just that. Historical authors have a tendency to create heroes with rakish reputations, but they rarely exhibit their maleness in speech. In my opinion, there is no better way to establish your hero’s identity and character than by having him in a conversation with a male friend. He can curse. They can insult each other—check out the Shakespearean Insulter website.

So. . . I’m going to take a shot at historical translation of MaryJanice’s conversation, above. My Renaissance era hero just found out his horse lost at Newmarket. I’d have to make this historical detail clear before the conversation, but a codpiece is the piece of leather or cloth that Renaissance gentlemen wore over their private parts, outside their clothing.

“Bloody hell,” he sighed and drained his brandy.

“Maybe next time,” Mark said.

“And maybe the Queen will tie a ribbon on my codpiece.”

“There’s a chance,” Mark said cheerfully, “especially if she is struck blind and could find such a wee peapod in the dark.”

That made him crack a smile. Impudent young dog. “I should challenge you for that. My codpiece itself is older than you.”

“A distasteful thought.”

I think we historical authors need to think more deeply about what men were like back in the era we’re writing about—and if you ask me, likely not much has changed. They were scratching themselves and boasting and carrying on generally 200 years ago. Our challenge is to find a way to depict that to our readers!

Eloisa James

Eloisa James is a Shakespeare professor at Fordham University in New York City and New York Times bestselling author of historical romance novels. Find out more about Eloisa James.

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