#DiverseBookBloggersDiscuss: The Fantasy of Historical Romance

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Historical Romance is a fantasy. It’s one that we as readers choose to engage in again and again for pleasure. It promises us the one thing that is promised in all genre romance: a happily ever after. However, the question that we need to ask ourselves as readers is: who is able to get their happily ever after? The answer to that question is closely connected to another: whose stories are being told in Historical Romance? Unpacking those questions requires looking critically at the books that are being published.

Historical Romance allows for authors to carefully construct a fantasy of glamour, excess, and decadence that is inherently escapist, transporting its readers from their everyday lives to one where characters are a part of wealthy circles. This fantasy is almost central to the genre with popular Historical Romances set in England during the Regency Era and occasionally the Georgian or Victorian Eras, usually focusing almost entirely on the aristocracy or upper class. The lives that the aristocracy in Historical Romance lead become points of interest. Their decadence a point of fascination, but also at times, a point of desire.

The dress (the one worn at that critical scene and often pictured on the cover) that is worn by the heroines is part of the fantasy and is usually described in loving detail by authors. Even the declining power of the aristocracy during that time aids the writing of tropes such as the duke marrying the wealthy heiress in order to save his estate. And it is quite frankly delightful. It is fun and enjoyable. Escapist literature is important, it allows us time to step away and recharge. However, this escapist literature is limited when it comes to who is able to engage with it and it returns to the same question: whose stories are being told in Historical Romance?

Mainstream Romance remains a genre dominated by stories written by and about white people. In Historical Romance, the problem becomes magnified. Society is depicted as highly stratified and people of colour are almost always absent from the picture. If they are included, people of colour tend to be cast as characters in positions of servitude who are never the focus of stories and therefore not able to get their happily ever after. Heroes and heroines are overwhelmingly white and heterosexual. Heroines from all social classes are able to overcome the most dire of circumstances and achieve their happily ever afters. The one thing that the majority of them have in common is that they are white. Within Historical Romance, the story of the white woman is universal. She becomes a relatable figure in a genre mostly written by white women. The white heroine is someone who is easier to write about or whose story is easier to own both by the author and white readers. However, what space is made for readers of colour in a genre so dominated by white women? The truth is, in this current escapist world of Historical Romance, there is no space for readers of colour.

Many readers and writers return to the idea of historical accuracy when talking about the various elements that make up a Historical Romance. However, the cry of historical accuracy is sometimes used to shut out people who are not white, straight, and cisgender. There is a rampant, yet false, belief that minorities either did not exist before World War Two or if they did, lived lives of such misery that to give them a happy ending is unbelievable. It is also true that Historical Romance glosses over a multitude of prevalent issues including colonialism and racism, despite claims of historical accuracy, in order to create that sense of fantasy and glamour. However, to ask readers of colour to imagine a world where these issues are not ever present is not escapism, it’s erasure of our identities, our history, and our stories. In saying that, it also needs to be said that not all novels which focus on characters of colour need to revolve around particular issues. As readers we also deserve books where characters who look like us are unfettered by the limitations of society. We deserve to have multitudes of stories where we are able to engage with the fantasy of Historical Romance.

There exists a gap between what Historical Romance is and what the genre could be and in that gap are where the stories of characters of colour are starting to grow, the majority of them self published. These stories are real sources of hope. Seeing Historical Romance growing to include people who look like you, who are like you in terms of culture is so important and reminds readers that there is a place for them. The real fantasy for readers of colour in Historical Romance is one where we are able to tell our own stories, we get to be more than one dimensional characters, and we can have our happily ever afters.

Recommendations:

  • The Heiress EffectCourtney Milan: m/f, the secondary romance features a young woman with epilepsy who falls for an Indian man studying to be a lawyer.
  • After the Wedding Courtney Milan: m/f, a forced marriage between a woman whose family has fallen from grace and a Black man who is the son of Abolitionists carrying out a mission for his uncle. The story revolves around the couple hoping to annul their marriage.
  • Secrets of a Scandalous HeiressTheresa Romain: m/f, an heiress escapes to Bath where she pretends to be a widow and meets a man from her past who threatens to reveal her truth. The hero is Anglo-Indian, he has an Indian grandmother.
  • Unfit to Print K.J. Charles: m/m, a romance that revolves around a mystery and an elicit bookstore. Vikram is a lawyer who is Indian and Gil an owner of a bookstore.

Romana sigBook Blogger @ Romana Reads Romance

Romana is a postgrad university student who loves reading and looking at her phone while watching Netflix. She has studied English literature, history, Asian studies, and education. When she isn’t occupied with university or reading, she enjoys baking, bushwalking, and eating at new restaurants. Her blog was born out of a desire to highlight the work of authors of colour in romance. You can also find her on Goodreads and Twitter.

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#DiverseBookBloggersDiscuss is a way to boost diverse bloggers who are brilliant, have a lot to say and deserve to be heard loud and clear. What this is, is basically a guest post feature where every Sunday, one blogger from a minority will discuss things they are passionate about on my blog. 

12 thoughts on “#DiverseBookBloggersDiscuss: The Fantasy of Historical Romance

  1. I don’t have trouble connecting to the elite upper-class romance in historical romance, even though I am white. My ancestors where not wealthy. That said, these books might be of interest to you: Dancer of the Nile by Veronica Scott (Ancient Egypt) of the Gods of Egypt series). And for native america there is Beyond the Two Rivers by Zoe Sandia. Somehow I can connect to these books but have yet to find a “British elite romance in that classist, inflexible, capalist, etc. society,” I can connect with. This is also the society that we find Charles Dickson’s A Christmas Carol, and other worlds showing at the time how the poor where poorly treated. I sometimes have trouble connecting to the wealthy elite romance stories set in today, unless done right. That said, I agree with what you are saying, never mind my ramble. I just don’t connect to elite of the past few centuries.

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    • P.S. thank you for mentioning a book with a character who has epilepsy. I have epilepsy, so I wish to ask, is it good rep? In The Heiress Effect?

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    • Thank you for the recommendations! If you’re interested in historical romance and looking for something not about the elite, Rose Lerner’s Listen to the Moon is a romance where the hero is a butler and the heroine is a housemaid.
      I think the rep in The Heiress Effect is quite good, however I should warn that her uncle and a number of medical professionals are abusive towards her in the story.

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  2. This is such a thoughtful and wonderful post! I really like the recommendations here and I completely agree; there are sooo many regency romances even in YA and it’s kind of sad to see that historical fiction is almost always set in European history.

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    • Thank you! All the recommendations I’ve made are set in England mostly because I want to challenge the idea that people of colour cannot have that fantasy of decadence that is associated with the British aristocracy. However, there are historical romances set in other places you just need to search a little for them.

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  3. So much this!!! Why is it that we have to relate to mostly white characters but they cannot find it in them to do the same for characters that look different from them because it is not ‘realistic’? I love this post so much.

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