I am really pleased to welcome Sophie Perinot, author of The Sister Queens, to Peeking Between the Pages today. I reviewed Sophie’s book last week (my review) and I have to say I do believe it will be one of my favorite historical fiction reads of this year. It was a terrific book and it for being as many pages as it is – a little over 500 – I had it finished in a few days. I’ll definitely be first in line to read Sophie’s next book! Sophie joins us today to talk about Sex and the Historical Novelist…
There is nothing new about sex. Birds do it, bees do it, and our ancestors most certainly did it (to butcher Cole Porter’s lyrics inexcusably).
What IS relatively new is the amount of sex appearing in “straight” historical fiction (I use this term to distinguish historical fiction from historical romance, not to imply that only heterosexual hanky-panky is included). If memory serves, the historical novels of my youth did a lot of fading-to-black. But somewhere between my decision to become a writer and my book deal for The Sister Queens a shift occurred. Today there are plenty of sex scenes in straight historicals—some of them quite explicit.
Opinions on this trend vary. Here is mine: the inclusion of sex in historical novels is neither good nor bad in a vacuum. It’s not the sexual content that determines whether a particular scene works—it’s whether that scene (sex or otherwise) has a REASON for being in the novel. Tossing an orgy (or even a kiss) into your work of historical fiction without a solid reason is a bad idea. The scene will feel “added on,” and gratuitous sex is no more acceptable in a novel than gratuitous dialogue.
So what can intimate scenes sometimes do well?
Forward the plot. Yep, just like any other sort of action a sex scene can move a novel’s plot forward. For example, one of my manuscripts includes the seduction of a royal courier for the purpose of getting a letter into his satchel. This letter is an important step on the path to the book’s central climax. So the sex scene (in a stable and pretty exciting in its own right, I might add) is vital to the forward motion of the novel.
Flesh out (sorry, I just HAD to) relationships between characters and/or give us emotional insights into characters. Sex, as we know from real life (or at least some of us know – no pressure on or disrespect to celibates reading this), is seldom merely a physical act. It has emotional ramifications, and can be a language all its own. So, a sex scene in a novel (whether vague or graphic) can be effectively used to give readers a sense of how characters relate to each other. For example, in my debut novel, The Sister Queens, readers learn a tremendous amount about one of my female characters and her relationships with two separate men simply by the contrast between her sexual experiences with each.
Help set the story firmly in its historical period. Sexual politics, mores, and practices change over time. For example, in certain periods, a man’s dominion over his wife’s body was complete – there was no such thing as rape between a man and his wife. Likewise, for hundreds of years sex (seduction, withholding of, etc) was one of the few tools available to a woman seeking power or influence. While today we would surely condemn a man for taking his wife by force and likely censure a woman for using sex to get ahead, seeing either such event a depicted in a historical novel reminds readers of the realities of the past and of our characters’ lives.
Beyond raising large issues of this sort, the inclusion of period details pertaining to sex—the acceptable positions for intercourse, its prohibition on certain days, the forms of birth control that were or were not available—can help build the “historical world” of the novel just as the inclusion of other period details can. In my novel frequent reference is made to payment of the “marriage debt,” and one of my female protagonists feels wronged when her husband spurns intercourse with her. As a matter of history she was entitled to feel gypped because, under the doctrine of the medieval Church, a married man was obliged, under penalty of mortal sin, to give his wife sex as a preventative measure against temptation to sins like fornication and adultery.
Give the reader a thrill. Yep, this one is legitimate too. But wait, Sophie, you are thinking, “you five paragraphs ago that gratuitous sex is not acceptable.” Since when is giving the reader a bit of fun gratuitous? Meeting the needs of the reader is a writer’s business. We meet needs for escape. We meet emotional needs. We help readers wrestle with difficult questions in their lives. For heaven’s sake why should meeting readers’ needs for a bit of titillation be off the table? Plenty of contemporary novels—from thrillers to literary fiction—include sex. I believe that writers working anywhere along the historical genre continuum should feel free to include intimate moments as well.
What do you think? Can the inclusion of sex in a straight historical novels can be a positive addition?
About The Sister Queens by Sophie Perinot (from Sophie’s website)
Like most sisters, Marguerite and Eleanor were rivals.
They were also queens.
Raised together at the 13th Century court of their father, Raymond Berenger, Count of Provence, Marguerite and Eleanor are separated by royal marriages—but never truly parted.
Patient, perfect, reticent, and used to being first, Marguerite becomes Queen of France. Her husband, Louis IX, is considered the greatest monarch of his age. But he is also a religious zealot who denies himself all pleasure—including the love and companionship his wife so desperately craves. Can Marguerite find enough of her sister’s boldness to grasp her chance for happiness in the guise of forbidden love?
Passionate, strong-willed, and stubborn, Eleanor becomes Queen of England. Her husband, Henry III, is neither as young nor as dashing as Marguerite’s. But she quickly discovers he is a very good man…and a very bad king. His failures are bitter disappointments for Eleanor, who has worked to best her elder sister since childhood. Can Eleanor stop competing with her sister and value what she has, or will she let it slip away?
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About Sophie Perinot (from Sophie’s website)
I’ve always been passionate about history. I was the first member of my college graduating class at The College of Wooster to declare a history major (first quarter of freshman year – not that I was over-eager or anything). I next attended Northwestern University School of Law, where I served on the Editorial Board of the Journal of Law and Criminology. Whatever else can be said about lawyers (and please, spare me the bad jokes), we get a lot of practice writing. It’s a much larger part of the job than most people realize. After practicing law in Washington DC, I left the legal side of things to my husband (aka my law-school-sweetheart) and retired to the happier job of raising my children and pursuing artistic interests, including writing.
It’s often said writers are readers first. I am no exception. I have always been an avid reader, especially of the classics. Deciding what to write was easy. As a life-long student of history, from a family of history-nerds, historical fiction was destined to be my niche. My attraction to French history was equally natural — I studied French abroad, and I am a hopeless devotee of one of the grandfathers of the genre, Alexandre Dumas, père.
I live in Great Falls, Virginia surrounded by trees and books. My books are time machines. Currently I travel daily to my own little corner of the 16th century were I am delving into the challenges and rewards of the mother-daughter relationship – a subject as timeless as the sister-to-sister rapport explored in my debut novel.
I have one copy of The Sister Queens by Sophie Perinot to share with my readers. To enter…
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This giveaway is open to US residents only (no PO boxes) and I will be drawing for the winner on Saturday, April 7/12. Good luck!