I fell in love with romance reading books written during or set in centuries before this one. First there were nineteenth-century novels like Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre (an aside: I’m not certain you can love both Austen and the Brontes, but that’s another post entirely). Then, about three years ago, I picked up Loretta Chase, Joanna Bourne, and Susanna Kearsley and I was done for.
I realized I had been reading for romance almost my entire life, I just hadn’t been reading genre romance. Giving myself permission to do so was like cutting out the middleman. Since then I have discovered (and even written) contemporary romance, but historical romance is the core of the genre for me.
In this essay, I want to argue several perhaps contradictory things about the allure of historical romance: 1) you’re not going to learn much about history reading it; 2) that’s okay; but 3) what you do learn is precisely what’s left out of the history books, and that’s what makes the genre significant.
My belief about why readers don’t learn history from historical romance is not the usual one. While there is undoubtedly such a thing as the wallpaper historical, and while it may have proliferated in recent years, I don’t think the absence of history or politics from historical romance is at fault for the inability of the genre to instruct.
In other words, I’m not arguing that historical romance should be more like historical fiction. If anything, I find the genre’s anti-didacticism to be one of its greatest assets. Rather, the culprit is the difficulty of recognizing and moving beyond the unarticulated aims and attitudes of our culture.
Implicit, diffuse, but prevailing cultural beliefs make translation difficult in the history classroom, in professional scholarship, or in our pleasure reading. It’s the problem the fish has in describing the water in her bowl. It’s the way we have difficulty seeing the historicity of a picture taken a few moments ago but no difficulty seeing it in a picture taken twenty years ago. Because we aren’t aware of our own historicity we can’t begin to see, let alone understand, the tacit dreams, rules, and desires of another culture.
Consider a middle-class reader in the contemporary United States reading a romance between two aristocrats in Regency England, either a text written in 1815 or one written in 2013 and set in 1815. Between the reader and the characters there are differences in the structure of government, in social class, in geography, in attitude toward race and colonization, in economic structure, etc.
Even when seeming similarity exists, the gulf is wide. Yes, everyone involved may speak English, but “to blink” had a different meaning in Austen’s time than in ours; eighteenth-century Protestants emphasized different stories about the life of Christ than those of today; and so on. I don’t mean to be pedantic, but at some point, these details add up to different worldviews. It’s not apples and oranges: it’s apples and buses, where one party can’t begin to imagine buses.
In my experience, people are optimistic about their ability to overcome cultural or historical boundaries. They believe that a trip to Colonial Williamsburg will teach them something about life in late eighteenth century America — never mind that the smells have been sterilized and the gardens aestheticized and the racial politics sanitized.
At some level, I find this faith that understanding can overcome any impediment delightful, but it is naïve. To truly make the connection, we not only have to understand and describe the water in our own bowl, which we all too often don’t, but we have to comprehend how it distorts the water in the bowl of the fish two shelves over.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t try. We should watch foreign films, read books in translation, and wrestle with history. We should definitely read and write historical romance, but we need to be clear about the limits of this epistemology in addition to its horizons.
One such horizon is the potential of historical romance to amend History proper (capitalization so definitely intended). Even post-feminism and post-post-colonialism, the teaching of history in the secondary and even undergraduate classroom can be shockingly limited. We’re still largely telling students stories about Great Men, who, it just so happens, tend to be white and dead and rich and straight and able-bodied and cis-gendered and male (but I already mentioned that last part). Women, people of color, and the working classes show up more than they did pre-Howard Zinn, but in almost deliberately marginalized ways. Women’s history month, where we celebrate the things Betsy Ross probably never did, makes me want to scream.
But this is precisely where historical romance does interesting, imaginative work. To pick just one example, in Beverly Jenkins’ Underground Railroad romance Indigo, Hester and Galen have the following exchange early in the text.
“You have beautiful hands, Hester Wyatt. They’re like exotic indigo orchids.”
Hester could only swallow.
“You’re shaking,” he stated.
For the first time Galen could see that the smallest finger on her hand had no nail. It appeared to have been severed. He gently moved his own finger over the shortened digit and asked softly, “What happened here?”
“My mother did this a few days after I was born. She and my father hoped it would make me distinctive enough to be found by my aunt.”
Descriptions of bodies are de rigueur in romance, but here, Hester’s stained and maimed hands communicate a history that is at once personal and collective; they add dimension and texture to History, and they enter a broader literary conversation with novels such as Toni Morrison’s Beloved.
Even the most staid and conventional Regency or Victorian romance is insightful about the state of upper middle class marriage in the period, a sort of nineteenth-century version of The Feminine Mystique.
When I read women’s letters and diaries from the early Victorian period, there can be an emotional dullness vis-à-vis the writers’ marriages all the more striking for its banality. What historical romance writers capture is the utter wrongness of a system that insists one party to the relationship be by definition the intellectual and emotional inferior to the other.
This is particularly important when we’re talking about intimate relationships because we have less direct information about them that we do about, say, treaty negotiations. In some cases, the evidence about sex, love, and marriage doesn’t get recorded at all. In many others, what we have is highly edited. In every case, we’re filtering what we know through those often unarticulated cultural values (theirs and ours).
Whether we’re scholars or romance readers or both, we’re analyzing what we have imaginatively. I don’t see why fiction can’t be an important mode for that process. In Indigo, Jenkins subjectifies the historical understandings we bring to the text. She and other historical romance writers are adding dimension and weight to history. However, we must always remember what we’re gaining is a charcoal study. It’s a metaphor for the past (which, yes, I’m explaining via metaphor).
Think of Rene Magritte’s famous painting The Treachery of Images, a painting of a pipe labeled, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” This is not a pipe. This is not history.
The treachery of representation is that when the process of creation is forgotten or obscured, all the ways it can be manipulated are lost. To forget representation is to forget its limits, to buy the myth of objectivity. In the case of metaphors, it’s to lie about either or both of the things being metaphorized. Difference, texture, and reality itself are causalities of metaphor.
I won’t indict the rest of you with the “we” here, but speaking for myself alone, all too often in historical romance I forget or read over the process of representation. I need Brecht to goose my understanding because I get lulled into complacence by successful writers.
Historical romance is not history – and that’s what’s wonderful about it. History is rarely going to tell us much about the subjective experience of individuals, particularly women. Historical romance, like mortar, seeks to fill in the considerable space between the stones, to give details that might be true. While there is much potential for emotional knowledge in this pursuit, we must always remember what we’re looking at. It is not a pipe, and that’s fantastic.
Biography: Emma Barry is a novelist and full-time mama and graduate student. Her first novel, Brave in Heart, a historical romance set during the American Civil War is available now. She loves hugs from her toddler twins, her husband’s cooking, her cat’s whiskers, and Earl Grey tea. Learn more about her here or follow her on Twitter @AuthorEmmaBarry