What a terrific book. You don't have to be a writer or a history buff to enjoy it. If you are a writer or a history buff (or both), for heaven’s sake, read this. Even if your writing isn’t historical in nature. Heck, you might be inspired to tackle historical writing after reading this.
That sense of enthused inspiration was one of the most pleasant surprises Medieval Underpants had to offer me. (That and how much fun it was to mention on a daily basis that I was reading a book called Medieval Underpants. Especially to my teenage son. Seriously, it never got old.) I thought I’d come away from this book terrified to continue with my current writing project, but instead I can’t wait to jump back into it. Because while Alleyn does point out other writers’ bloopers and blunders, she’s never malicious or spiteful. She knows how hard it is to get historical writing right, and she’s made a few mistakes herself. So she doesn’t yell or finger-point.
Well, okay. She does yell, a little. But not in a scary-schoolteacher kind of way. When another writer gets something blatantly, horribly, avoidably wrong, especially in Alleyn’s specialty – Revolutionary France – she falls on the floor and writhes around in agony. And she makes it a lot of fun to watch. Chapter 15, “Bloopers: Guillotines – and the Obligatory Heart-Wrenching French Revolution Execution Scene,” alternates between Alleyn holding it together long enough to offer a lot of fascinating information, and screaming “DEAR GOD, MAKE IT STOP!” as she details some of the worst offenses on both page and screen.
(Speaking of fascinating details: Did you know that the French were using the guillotine in public executions as late as 1939, and “was the sole official method of execution used in France and French territories until the death penalty was abolished,” and that its last use was in 1977? I sure as heck didn’t.)
Alleyn covers a lot of territory in a relatively short book. She offers many good general rules for writers – never assume! Look everything up, even stuff you thought you knew! Believe it or not, Wikipedia is your friend (at least some of the time)! And for mercy’s sake, don’t borrow “historical” details from movies and novels. (Unless they’re novels written during the time in which your novel is placed, of course – and even then, you need to be careful.)
She also slips in some great information specific to certain times and places. I’m not saying I was planning to mention chipmunks in my YA novel set in Regency England, but now I know that I’d better not have my heroine gazing idly out the window and catching sight of a few frolicking in the trees.
And she makes subjects that usually put me to sleep interesting in spite of themselves. (Or, to be fair, my self.) I am that rare American female who has never felt a speck of interest in how British titles work, though I have been known to absentmindedly correct friends who refer to “Princess” Kate. (She’s actually a duchess.) Even after Alleyn’s best efforts, I’m still not totally conversant when it comes to the ins and outs of lords and ladies. But I know more about them now. Mostly, I know enough to know that I’m not even going to try to get them right, so it’s a good thing my heroine is a commoner.
I was also interested, in spite of my generally peaceful tendencies, to learn where the phrase “a flash in the pan” comes from, and the differences between muskets and rifles. (Summary: Rifles are more accurate, but muskets are quicker to load.)
Getting back to subjects that do interest me: I was surprised and pleased to learn that, contrary to stereotype, human beings have not spent most of our history being really, really stinky.
And, most surprising of all, I was impressed to see that Susanne Alleyn offers a really strong argument for a lack of female underpants. (Historically speaking, that is. Go ahead and hang on to yours, if you have them.) I still think that Regency females must have worn something under those relatively close-fitting WHITE gowns. Yes, they might have just wrapped up as best they could during certain times of the month; but many if not most women have been surprised by Aunt Flo at some point in their lives. Surely you’d want to be wearing something to keep from ruining that lovely gown (and embarrassing yourself publicly), especially if, like plenty of women, you had unpredictable periods. But Alleyn’s arguments against pre-Regency panties are compelling.
Which is a great note to end on, so I’ll leave it there.