Writer’s Journal: Misinformation on historical websites and blogs

Welcome back to Austen Promises and the Writer’s Journal!


One of the important parts of my writing process is research. Because I do not live near a university library, I only have access to so much research material, and most of that is online.

To be honest, I prefer online everything. I’m a bit of a loner and dislike dealing with people in general, much less having to ask questions of librarians. I can do my research in my jammies, if I want, because I am never required to dress. I can eat while I read, because who’s to stop me? 😀 But …

For every plus about researching online, there are minuses. One very big minus is that many websites have simply copied from others. The website owners have not checked their facts, and few have linked their sources. One must wade through dozens of sites, especially Regency and Jane Austen sites, to uncover pages that are not simple copy/paste exercises. It’s time-consuming, at the least. My author friends and I have found that it’s quite easy to get sucked into research “rabbit holes” and spend entire days down in them.

Another drawback is the tendency for people now to speak in absolutes about other eras. For example, “young ladies never went anywhere without a chaperone.” Bullcucky. Marianne did with Willoughby, and she was not compromised and forced to marry him, which I’m sure she’d have liked at that point but would have lived to regret.  In Northanger Abbey, Catherine Morland rode alone with that creepy John Thorpe guy, and was alone with Henry Tilney. Guess what? Her reputation was not ruined. Neither was Emma’s when she rode home with Frank Churchill, or all the times she was alone with Knightly. Now, maybe if any of these three had been high ton, they would have been more carefully watched. But they weren’t. There are other “absolutes,” but I think I made my point with this one. 😉

Then there are customs around meals and foods. I’ve seen people tout as research that certain food items and/or ingredients were not available during the Regency. Yet, cookbooks of the era contained recipes that used said ingredients and had recipes for said food items. The idea of place cards for meals? Nope. Not used in the Regency.

There’s a whole list of other things that people insist are Regency-appropriate that are not necessarily so, but I’m not going to debunk them all here. What I’ll do instead is to offer up a solution. I wish every author would read these, even though they are common sense and if you paid half an ounce of attention in high school, you would know them. Ready?

Number one: find primary sources. Journals of the era. Books published during the era, and not just fiction or poetry, either. Read an etiquette book from that time. Read newspaper clippings and personal letters from the time period. Read more than one. And for heaven’s sake, take off your modern-day filters when you do! Society at large and the world in general was very different one hundred, two hundred, or more, years ago. These sources are difficult to find, especially online, but are gold when you do locate some.

Related to that last statement, don’t judge what you find in primary sources based off what is popular today. For example, children today are treated very differently now than they were centuries ago; you can’t say certain things were right or wrong back then. What was right then is quite often considered to be wrong now, but that’s the way it was back then and we must therefore look through their lens. But once again I digress …

Number two in my solutions list, with a caveat: find secondary sources, and keep in mind that these people are retelling what happened based off what someone else said. Biographies are secondary sources, as are textbooks and histories. Scholarly journals are secondary sources. But again, keep in mind that the author likely is biased one way or another, either toward or against something or favoring one interpretation of something over another. These sources are not as good as primary sources but may be easier to find.

Number three: Always list your sources at the bottom of your blog post and/or link them when they come up in the article. Nothing makes me scoff at someone’s “research” faster than not having proof of what they say. Show me where it says chocolate cake was not available in Regency England so I can evaluate it for myself. Please!

Following these three easy steps will make your research far more valid, and they’re easy to implement.

Come back next Wednesday for another peek into my journal! <3

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