Many people’s knowledge of history is gleaned through popular culture. As a result there is likely a blurring of history with myth. This is one of the criticisms of historical romance novels, which blur historical details with fictional representations. As a result of this the genre is often dismissed from serious academic scholarship. The other reason for its disregard may be that it is largely seen as women’s fiction. As ‘women’s fiction’ it is largely relegated to that of ‘low culture’ and considered to have little literary value. Yet the romance genre remains popular and lucrative. Research by the Romance Writers of America in 2016 found that the genre represents 23% of the US fiction market and generates in excess of US$1 billion per year (Romance Writers of America). Since the onset of COVID-19, sales of romance novels in the US have soared, increasing by 17% between January and May 2020. The most popular genre was the historical romance genre. In total during that period, 16.2 million romance e-books were purchased by consumers (NPD). Yet despite its popularity, romance fiction remains stuck in the pulp fiction bubble. This article draws upon an international survey conducted in June 2020 by the authors. The study aimed to understand how readers of historical romance novels (n=813) engage with historical representations in popular culture, and how they navigate issues of authenticity.
Consuming History through Popular Culture: “Historical Romance Novels Bring History to Life”
Popular culture presents a tangible way in which audiences can engage with history and historical practices. “The spaces scholars have no idea about – the gaps between verifiable fact – are the territory for the writer of fictional history” (de Groot 217). Historical romance writer Georgette Heyer, for example, was influenced by her father’s conviction that “the historical novel was a worthy medium for learning about the past” (Kloester 102), and readers of historical romance often echo this view. One participant in this study considered the genre a way to “learn about history, the mores and customs, the food and clothing of that particular era … and how it contrasts to modern times”. For another participant, “most historical romances are set in countries other than my own. I like learning about these other countries and cultures”. The historical romance genre, in some instances, was not the reason for reading the novel: it was the historical setting. The romance itself was often incidental: “I am more interested in the history than the romance, but if the romance is done well … [then] the tensions of the romance illustrate and highlight historical divisions”. While a focus on history rather than romance, it posits that authors are including historically accurate details, and this is recognised by readers of the genre. In fact, one contributor to the survey argued that as a member of a writers’ group they were aware of that the “majority of the writers of that genre were voracious researchers, so much so that writers of other genres (male western writers for one) were going to them for information”.
While fiction provides entertainment and relaxation, reading historical romance provides an avenue for accessing history without engaging it in a scholarly environment. Participants offered examples of this, saying “I like learning about the past and novels are an easy and relaxing way to do it” and “I enjoy historical facts but don’t necessarily need to read huge historical texts about Elizabeth Woodville when I can read The White Queen.” Social and political aspects of an era were gleaned from historical romance novels that may be less evident in historical texts. For one respondent, “I enjoy the description of the attire … behaviours … the social strata, politics, behaviours toward women and women who were ahead of their time”. Yet at the same time, historical fiction provides a way for readers to learn about historical events and places that spurred them to access more factual historical sources: “when I read a novel that involves actual historic happenings, it drives me to learn if the author is representing them correctly and to learn more about the topics”. For another, the historical romance “makes me want to do some more research”.
Hence, historical fiction can provide new ways of seeing the past: “I enjoy seeing the similarities between people of the past and present. Hist[orical] Fic[tion] brings us hope that we can learn and survive our present.” A consciousness of how ancestors “survived and thrived” was evident among many participants. For one,
history is best learned through the eyes of the people who lived through the era. School doesn’t teach history in a way that I can grasp, but putting myself into the shoes of the ordinary people who experienced, I have a better understanding of the time.
Being able to access different perspectives on history and historical events and make an emotional connection with the past allowed readers to better understand the lived experiences of those from the past. This didn’t mean that readers were ignoring the fictional nature of the genre; rather, readers were clearly aware that the author was often taking liberties with history in order to advance the plot. Yet they still enjoyed the “glimpses of history that is included in the story”, adding that the “fictional details makes the history come alive”.
The Past Represents a Different Society
For some, historical romances presented a different society, and in some ways a nostalgia for the past. This from one participant:
I like the attention to eloquence, to good speech, to manners, to responsibility toward each other, to close personal relationships, to value for education and history, to an older, more leisurely, more thoughtful way of life.
A similar view was offered by another participant: “I like the language. I like the slowness, the courtship. I like the olden time social rules of honour and respect. I like worlds in which things like sword fights might occur”. For these respondents, there is a nostalgia where things were better then than now (Davis 18). Readers clearly identified with the different social and moral behaviours that they experienced in the novels they are reading, with one identifying more with the “historical morals, ethics, and way of life than I do modern ones”. Representations of a more respectful past were one aspect that appealed to readers: “people are civil to each other”, they are “generally kinder” and have a “more traditional moral code”. An aspect of escapism is also evident: “I enjoy leaving the present day for a while”. It is a past where readers find “time and manners [that are] now lost to us”. The genre reflects time that “seemed simpler” but “of course it helps if you are in the upper class”.
Many historical romance novels are set within the social sphere of the elites of a society. And these readers’ views clearly indicate this:
honestly, the characters are either wealthy or will be by the end, which releases from the day to day drudgeries and to the extent possible ensures an economic “happily ever after” as well as a romantic one … . I know the reality of even the elite wasn’t as lovely as portrayed in the books. But they are a charming and sometimes thrilling fantasy to escape inside …
It is in the elite social setting that a view emerges in historical romance novels that “things are simpler and you don’t have today’s social issues to deal with”. No one period of history appears to reflect this narrative; rather, it is a theme across historical periods. The intrigue is in how the storyline develops to cope with social mores. “I enjoy reading about characters who wind their way around rules and the obstacles of their society … . Nothing in a historical romance can be fixed with a quick phone call”. The historical setting is actually an advantage because history places constrictions upon a plot: “no mobile phones, no internet, no fast cars. Many a plot would be over before it began if the hero and heroine had a phone”. Hence history and social mores “limit the access of characters and allow for interesting situations”. Yet another perspective is how readers draw parallels to the historic pasts they read about: “I love being swept away into a different era and being able to see how relevant some social issues are today”.
There are however aspects that readers are less enamoured with, namely the lack of sex. While wholesome, particularly in the case of Christian authors, other characters are heroines who are virgins until after marriage, but even then may be virgins for “months or years after the wedding”. Similarly, “I deplore the class system and hate the inequalities of the past, yet I love stories where dukes and earls behave astonishingly well and marry interesting women and where all the nastiness is overcome”.
The Problem with Authenticity
The results of the international historical romance survey that forms the basis of this research indicate that most readers and writers alike were concerned with authenticity. Writers of historical romance novels often go to great lengths to ensure that their stories are imbued with historically accurate details. For readers, this “brings the characters and locales to life”. For readers, “characters can be fictional, but major events and ways of living should be authentic … dress, diet, dances, customs, historic characters”. Portraying historical accuracy is appreciated by readers: “I appreciate the time and effort the author takes to research subjects and people from a particular time period to make their work seem more authentic and believable”.
Georgette Heyer, whose works were produced between 1921 and 1974, is considered as the doyenne of regency romance novels (Thurston 37), with a reputation for exacting historical research (Kloester 209). Heyer’s sway is such that 88 (10.8%) of the respondents to the romance survey cited her when asked who their favourite author is, with some also noting that she is a standard for other authors to aspire to. For one participant,
I only read one writer of historical romance: Georgette Heyer. Why? Sublime writing skills, characterisation, delicious Wodehousian humour and impeccable accurate and research into the Regency period.
Despite this prevailing view, “Heyer’s Regency is a selective one, and much of the broader history of the period is excluded from it” (Kloester 210). Heyer’s approach to history is coloured by the various approaches and developments to historiography that occurred throughout the period in which she was writing (Kloester 103). There is little evidence that she approached her sources with a critical eye and it appears that she often accepted her sources as historical fact (Kloester 112). Heyer’s works are devoid of information as to what is based in history and what was drawn from her imagination (Kloester 110).
Despite the omissions above, Heyer has a reputation for undertaking meticulous research for her novels. This, however, is problematic in itself, as Alexandra Stirling argues: “in trying to recreate Regency patterns of speech by applying her knowledge of historical colloquialism, she essentially created her own dialect” that has come to “dominate the modern genre” (Stirling). Heyer is also highly criticised for both her racism (particularly anti-Semitism), which is reflected in her characterisation of Regency London as a society of “extreme whiteness”, which served to erase “the reality of Regency London as a cosmopolitan city with people of every skin colour and origin, including among the upper classes” (Duvezin-Caubet 249). Thus Heyer’s Regency London is arguably a fantasy world that has little grounding in truth, despite her passion for historical research. Historical romance author Felicia Grossman argues that this paradox occurs as “mixed in with [Heyer’s] research is a lot of pure fiction done to fit her personal political views” (Grossman), where she deliberately ignores historical facts that do not suit her narrative, such as the sociological implications of the slave trade and the very public debate about it that occurred during the regency. The legacy of these omissions can be found in contemporary romances set in that period. By focussing on, and intensifying, a narrow selection of historical facts, “the authentic is simultaneously inauthentic” (Hackett 38). For one participant, “I don’t really put much stock into “historical accuracy” as a concept, when I read a historical romance, I read it almost in the way that one would read a genre fantasy novel, where each book has its own rules and conventions”.
Diversifying the Bubble
The intertwining of history and narrative posits how readers separate fact from fiction. Historical romance novels have often been accused by both readers and critics of providing a skewed view on the past. In October 2019 the All about Romance blog asked its readers: “Does Historical Romance have a quality problem?”, leading to a strong debate with many contributors noting how limited the genre had developed, with the lack of diversity being a particular strain of discussion. Just a few weeks later, the peak industry body, the Romance Writers Association of America, became embroiled in a racism controversy. Cultural products such as romance novels are products of a wider white heteronormative paradigm which has been increasingly challenged by movements such as the LGBTQI+, Me Too, and Black Lives Matter, which have sought to address the evident racial imbalance. The lack of racial representation and racial equality in historical novels also provides an opportunity to consider contemporary ideals. Historical romance novels for one participant provided a lens through which to understand the “challenges for women and queers”.
Being a genre that is dominated by both female writers and readers (the Romance Writers Association claims that 82% of readers are female), it is perhaps no surprise that many respondents were concerned with female issues. For one reader, the genre provides a way to “appreciate the freedom that women have today”. Yet it remains that the genre is fictional, allowing readers to fantasise about different social and racial circumstances: “I love the modern take on historical novels with fearless heroines living lives (they maybe couldn’t have) in a time period that intrigues me”. Including strong women and people of colour in the genre means those once excluded or marginalised are centralised, suggesting historical romance novels provide a way of fictionally going some way to re-addressing gender and racial imbalances. Coupled with romance’s guarantee of a happy ending, the reader is assured that the heroine has a positive outcome, and can “have it all”, surely a mantra that should appeal to feminists. “Historical romance offers not just escape, but a journey – emotional, physical or character change”; in this view, readers positively respond to a narrative in which plots engage with both the positive and negative sides of history. One participant put it this way: “I love history especially African American history. Even though our history is painful it is still ours and we loved just like we suffered”.
Expanding the Bubble
Bridgerton (2020–), the popular Netflix show based upon Julia Quinn’s bestselling historical romance series, challenges the whitewashing of history by presenting an alternative history. Choosing a colour-blind cast and an alternate reality where racism was dispelled when the King marries a woman of colour and bestowed honours on citizens of all colours, Bridgerton’s depiction of race has generally been met with positive reviews. The author of the series of books that Bridgerton is adapted from addressed this point:
previously, I’ve gotten dinged by the historical accuracy police. So in some ways, I was fearful – if you do that, are you denying real things that happened? But you know what? This is already romantic fantasy, and I think it’s more important to show that as many people as possible deserve this type of happiness and dignity. So I think they made the absolutely right choice, bringing in all this inclusivity (Quinn cited in Flood).
Despite the critics, and there have been some, Netflix claims that the show has placed “number one in 83 countries including the US, UK, Brazil, France, India and South Africa”, which they credited partly to audiences who “want to see themselves reflected on the screen” (Howe). There is no claim to accuracy, as Howe argues that the show’s “Regency reimagined isn’t meant to be history. It’s designed to be more lavish, sexier and funnier than the standard period drama”. As with the readers surveyed above, this is a knowing audience who are willing to embrace an alternate vision of the past. Yet there are aspects which need to remain, such as costume, class structure, technology, which serve to signify the past. As one participant remarked, “I love history. I love reading what is essentially a fantasy-realism setting. I read for escapism and it’s certainly that”.
“The Dance of History and Fiction”
What is evident in this discussion is what Griffiths calls the “dance of history and fiction”, where “history and fiction … are a tag team, sometimes taking turns, sometimes working in tandem, to deepen our understanding and extend our imagination” (Griffiths). He reminds us that “historians and novelists do not constitute inviolable, impermeable categories of writers. Some historians are also novelists and many novelists are also historians. Historians write fiction and novelists write history”. More so, “history doesn’t own truth, and fiction doesn’t own imagination”. Amongst other analysis of the intersections and juxtaposition of history and fiction, Griffiths provides one poignant discussion, that of Kate Grenville’s novel The Secret River (2006). According to the author's own Website,
The Secret River caused controversy when it first appeared, and become a pawn in the “history wars” that continues to this day. How should a nation tell its foundation story, when that story involves the dispossession of other people? Is there a path between the “black armband” and the “white blindfold” versions of a history like ours?
In response to the controversy Grenville made an interesting if confusing argument that she does not make a distinction between “story-telling history” and “the discipline of History”, and between “writing true stories” and “writing History” (Griffiths). The same may be said for romance novelists; however, it is in their pages that they are writing a history. The question is if it is an authentic history, and does that really matter?
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