Evangeline Holland

Sweeping Drama ⚜ Larger than Life History ⚜ Exquisite Romance ⚜ Diverse Perspectives
April 7th, 2015

On Diversity in Historical Romance

NYT Best-selling historical romance author Sarah Maclean tweeted a link to a Tumblr conversation about the historical accuracy excuse in regards to period dramas erasing people of color from its cast of characters and its general landscape. It is a powerful indictment against lazy history and the laziness when it comes to building a diverse cast in our media. Yet, it also made me sigh.

There was a discussion about diversity on the Romance Divas forum a few weeks ago, and I believe #WeNeedDiverseBooks took off where #WeNeedDiverseRomance fizzled because diversity is treated as a “lesson.” We want our children to learn and accept everyone in order to become “good” people (this fostering of tolerance and acceptance also keeps order in the classroom and on the playground).

When it comes to the romance genre, it is built on the premise of escaping from life’s burdens. The hyperinflation of the fantasy is another pervasive aspect of the genre. Fantasy and escape does not include elements that discomfort and discomfit, nor does it include elements you don’t consider a personal fantasy (hence why some readers will never tire of billionaires or Navy SEALs or rakish dukes).

With regards to historical romance, it is hit with the double whammy of fantasy and escapism, which is deeply entwined with what readers think they know about the past. The average American mostly encounters people of color in history through lessons about Native American extermination, slavery and Jim Crow, Chinese exclusion, Japanese internment, etc. We are taught history from the outside in, from the top down–by and about oppressors, in literal oppression–which completely erases the inner lives of POC. Since romance is hinged on the inner lives of its characters, it is very difficult to see POC in the past. We only see what “they” said happened to them in the past.

Even though I am a black woman and an historian, I am not exempt from this difficulty in scooping the inners lives of POC from the fog of time. I can easily turn to a biography or a book of letters when I want to craft a white British character. It takes more work to build a solid understanding of who my POC in my books are because the written record is often missing, it is often coded–for the consumption of white audiences–, and it is often scattered in bits and pieces across a variety of mediums.

For example, I’ve been researching black women in WWI and the Spanish Flu in the US. I have been flipping back and forth between primary and secondary sources, obscure books, and general histories to get a proper picture of what they did. The primary sources are chock full of patriotism and keep-your-chin-up. The emotional ups and downs, the political reaction to war, etc seen in contemporary works by white women can be muted or absent absent from black writing. We don’t have books of letters written by a black mother to her son overseas, or memoirs of black women war workers.

This shaky historical foundation can often make it difficult to go “What If…?” (that old writer’s block standby) because you fall back on assumptions–“my heroine can’t do XYZ, it was racist back then!” Or, when desirous of including POC, you only frame them in the context of race and racism.

But this is where I tell you–and remind myself–to dig deep. Read the words of POC. Look at your setting and find works written by POC in that time period–plays, novels, poetry, autobiographies. Don’t be intimidated by academic dissertations and texts. Email professors specializing in a particular cultural group’s history. Read broad histories of these people. Seek photographs and paintings of these people. The same way you’ll eagerly seek information for the weather in London of August 1834.

And then go read historical romance written by AOC about POC.

March 18th, 2013

To Mustache or Not To Mustache

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The physical attributes of historical romance heroes bear more similarity to male beauty standards of not only the decades in which they were written, but the author’s personal preferences. Then we have the covers, where the male models are sculpted, tanned, and chiseled–and manscaped within an inch of their lives. I recall seeing a few covers where the male model had chest hair, but I’ve never seen one with hair under their armpits or on their arms!

Readers also bring their own preferences to the table, which is possibly why the Regency setting is so popular: no facial hair, no heels, powder, and velvet, or anything else that *gasp* threatens to strip the hero of his masculinity (this is an issue for another day!). It’s also probably why publishers say blonde and red-haired men on covers don’t sell. Nevertheless, there’s been a small backlash, so to speak, against the ubiquitous of the Regency in the historical romance genre, and a few authors have braved their way into the Victorian era. Yay!, except for the fact that these 1840s, 1860s, 1880s heroes lack the key component to superb Victorian masculinity: the mustache (and beard).

From Unlacing the Victorians

There’s an old saying that “kissing a man without a mustache is like eating an egg without salt,” and in Anne Sebba’s biography of Jennie Jerome, there are hints that a sign of male virility was attached to the *ahem* size of his mustache. This thread on Paradox Interactive also assigns political meaning to the existence of facial hair (e.g.,”the typical bushy Marx-esque beard tended to be associated with political radicalism prior to the mid-century”; “growing a moustache and large sideburns was a fad of the pro-war with Russia people pre-Crimea. They also wore outlandishly coloured shirts with odd patterns.”). According to the Daily Mail, the mustache rose in status with the Empire–its crown jewel India in particular, since the highest and warrior castes sported fierce facial hair, and to assert themselves as the superior race, British gentlemen grew mustaches and beards just as fierce. “By the 1890s, the moustache was the mark of every successful dandy. As far away as Hong Kong, it was said to be social death for a man to forget to curl the ends of his moustache. At home, Edwardian gentlemen rebuked servants who aped the ‘fancy hairdressing’ of their betters.” To cement this source of social preeminence in stone, the Queen/King’s Army regulations made it compulsory for officers in the British army to grow a mustache between 1860-1916.

From Today I Found Out:

Command No. 1,695 of the King’s Regulations read:
The hair of the head will be kept short. The chin and the under lip will be shaved, but not the upper lip…

“Although the act of shaving one’s upper lip was trivial in itself, it was considered a breach of discipline. If a soldier were to do this, he faced disciplinary action by his commanding officer which could include imprisonment, an especially unsavory prospect in the Victorian era.”

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“Poignantly, that edict was revoked in October 1916, because the new recruits were so young that some could not rustle up more than a thin, mousey streak.” — The Telegraph

Knowing this, I chose to give my hero a mustache despite its seeming unpopularity within the romance genre. For the most part, I did not have a fixed image of Huw Towyn (hero of Mine Is The Night) until being wowed by Matthew Goode’s performance in Dancing on The Edge. It was truly a light bulb moment, and the funniest part is that I had this image of Matthew Goode in WWI uniform and drove myself crazy wondering where it came from until I remembered that he was in Birdsong! Light bulb moment followed by a dim bulb.

Ignore the following picture if you’re one of those readers who hates authors fixing their characters to real people 😉

matthew goode in birdsong

 

So what do you think? Should more Victorian heroes have mustaches and beards? If you read a romance where the hero was described as having a mustache, would you recoil in disgust? What does the popularity of buffed and polished romances heroes–in spite of our own real life preferences, or even the physical appearance of our past or present SOs–say about us? (sorry, sorry, I know I said it was a topic for another day…but I couldn’t resist!)