What have you got planned for Valentine’s Day tomorrow? Maybe a steak dinner and champagne with your spouse or significant other–or maybe a cozy evening in with your favorite swoony fictional hero and a bag of mini-Reeses. If you’re a historical fiction buff, chances are you’ve dreamed of a Valentine’s Day date not with anybody from the 21st century, but with a knight in shining armor, a Highlander in a kilt, a gladiator in spiked leather greaves. (Anya Seton’s John of Gaunt and I enjoyed many a Valentine’s Day dates in my teenage years.) So let’s indulge: a few Valentine’s Day dates with five of history’s most dashing historical tropes . . .
Your Date: Man of Rome (Stephanie Dray’s Juba, Robert Harris’s Cicero, Margaret George’s Caesar)
If your man of Rome is along the senatorial lines, your V-Day activities will involve a stroll through Mars Field (sedate pace; those togas are binding) and afterward an intimate little meal for two featuring sea urchins in almond milk, stuffed sow’s udders, and jellied roses in pastry. Your post-dinner present? A really fabulous necklace of silver and pearls from Britannia, much more affordable than those “Kiss Begins With Kay” diamond studs because Britannia’s been recently stomped into submission, and all that slave labor in the silver mines means that fabulous silver jewelry comes cheap. If your man of Rome is more in the gladiatorial line, expect a more rough and tumble date: sour posca and the equivalent of a ball-park hot dog as the two of you hit the Circus Maximus and cheer his favorite team. Your gladiator may be on the track for a short life, so don’t get mad if he doesn’t call for another date–just enjoy those abs while you can.
Your Date: Knight In Shining Armor (Anya Seton’s John of Gaunt, Sophie Perinot’s Jean de Joinville)Your knight in shining armor may sweep you off to a castle in France for a passionate idyll, as John of Gaunt did for his Katherine Swynford: private troubadours, a roaring fire, a four-poster bed, banks of jasmine, a pleasure garden with a sweeping view of the Pyrenees, and a cup of wine for two to share. Medieval men tend to be a little rough-spun in their ideas of fine cuisine, however, so don’t be surprised if your knight’s idea of a romantic dinner is to go hunting and then proudly present you with a dead boar. Boar-on-a-spit takes forever to cook, so get your knight out of that tabard and prepare to wile away at least eight hours until dinner’s ready.
Your Date: Scottish highlander (Jamie Fraser from Outlander, any hero from Eliza Knight’s “Stolen Bride” series)
Och, the romance of a man in a kilt! There will be heather on this date, and there will be a picnic lunch overlooking some mist-shrouded loch. There will be the moment when your Highlander looks tenderly into your eyes as he slowly, sensuously, slices open the turgid stomach sac to release the steaming mass of haggis onto your plate. And knowing the weather patterns of the Scottish highlands, there will probably be rain. But he’s got that plaid for a reason, so wrap yourself up in it and get cozy. And hope this date doesn’t end all Braveheart with somebody getting hanged, drawn, and quartered.
Renaissance Man (Elizabeth Loupas’s Duke of Ferrara, Sara Poole’s Cesare Borgia)
Glory be, a man whose dream date is an art gallery! Your Renaissance man truly is a man for all seasons–he’ll take you to see those new Pinturicchio frescoes and talk knowledgeably about poetry, science, sculpture, warfare, and politics–and he’ll do it in a variety of languages, too. Post-gallery, expect a summer cena under the arched loggias: grilled sea bass in a truffles-and-caviar sauce, a strawberry and elderflower crostata, and wine chilled in snow. You’ll be serenaded by a choir of six sweet-voiced children who turn out (surprise!) to be your date’s various illegitimate offspring. Just in case a marriage proposal follows dinner, you should know that Renaissance men (at least in Italy) will expect you to raise the mistress’s kids as well as your own.
Your Date: Regency Man (Jane Austen’s Mr. Darcy, Captain Wentworth, Mr. Knightly, Colonel Brandon . . .)
One thing you may be certain of: Regency Man will not present you with a dead boar on your date. No, your afternoon will involve a drive in his new barouche-landau so that the ton may admire your new spencer and his new cravat, followed by cards at Almack’s (if he is racy) and then a ball (brush up on your minuet figures, as the waltz is still considered shocking). Regency Man may polish his boots with champagne like Beau Brummell, but don’t be fooled by fancy dress–inquire closely as to his prospects. If he is a single gentleman in possession of a good fortune, not to mention a large estate in Darbyshire, then by all means, latch on. Or at least tip him in a lake so you can watch him wade out in his wet shirt.
And on that note, Happy Valentine’s Day!