History Ever After: Fabricated historical chronotopes in romance genre fictions

Jennifer Hallock
Session 5.2: History and Romance

Abstract:  Over 80% of bestselling historical romance books published in the first half of 2018 were set in Britain, either during the 19th century or the mediaeval period.  These two fabricated chronotopes are selectively accurate to history and narrowly focused on high ranks of the nobility – in other words, they are ‘escapism’.  What does escapism mean in this context? Who does this serve, and who does it harm?

Jennifer’s presentation notes can be found on her website.  This is long, I took lots of notes and there were graphs and stats I’ve tried to include.

The Fabricated Chronotopes

Fabricated historical chronotopes in romance genre fiction

  • Disproportionally set in Great Britain
  • Overpopulated with nobles
  • Historically selective

Can be harmful to our understanding of history and diversity

In the past 6 months (Dec 2017 – May 2018) in the historical romance genre:

  • 79% in 19th century England (Regency and Victorian) or Scotland
  • Regency makes up 50% of the field

RITA finalists

  • 71% regency
  • 35% have duke or duchess in the title
  • Add marquess or earl, it becomes 50%

The obsession with Everything Regency is backed up by a reader survey Jennifer did of 336 participants (self-identified historical romance readers).  Respondents could choose more than one favourite period from a list.  From that she found:

  • 90% of them chose Regency romance
  • 70% chose Victorian romance
  • 25% said no when asked if there were more periods that they would like to see used in romance
  • However 8% independently wrote in ‘anything non-Western’

The website All About Romance does a reader survey every few years via readership poll of ‘top 100 romances of all time’.  Methodology aside, this provides longer term trends.  Of the 2018 ranked top ten:

  • Six out of ten are historical (skews high compared with current sales data)
  • Five out of these six are set in the 19th century.
  • The other is a time-travel Scottish romance, Outlander
  • Five out of six historicals dealt with peers or lords and their heirs

Of the top ten, Only KJ Charles has a relatively elite gentleman without a family title. Moreover, her book breaks class and sexuality assumptions that exist within the chronotope.

RITA finalists mirror the ARR poll.  Out of the seventeen finalists in historical categories, including historical novellas:

  • 71% were set in the Regency
  • 24% were set in Scotland (with some overlap between those two).
  • That is a total of 88% set in these two chronotopes.
  • Note that 35% of these finalists have duke or duchess in the title—not in the book, but in the title

These reflect the trend in sales.  More than one-third of the top 20 Regency and Victorian romances on Amazon’s bestseller lists have included either duke or duchess in their titles during the survey period. If you extend that count to marquess and earl, the numbers jump to one half.

One author called this “the 10,000 dukes problem”.  Several other authors reported that they had been asked to change the settings of their novels to Regency, and often specifically to dukes. One wrote: “Hero had to be a duke (again) to improve marketability. This is ridiculous. There were at most a couple dozen dukes running around Regency London at once, and they were not all tall, dark, grouchy, and in want of female companionship. Try telling my trad house editor that.”

The trend seems to have happened in parallel with the influx of billionaire books n contemporary romances.  Possibly a reflection of insecurity / instability in real world social situation.

NOTE:  This trend has become more prevalent over the past decade.  I have historical romances from before that without freaking Dukes, some are without any nobility at all.  I’ve got a half written blog post [rant] on this that I’ll finish and put up soon.  But dammit, give me more ‘All Through The Night’ style books instead of another damn duke.

In reality:

  • There were 24 non royal dukes in 1815
  • Averaged over 50 years of age
  • The Regency, when Prince George ruled in proxy for his incapacitated father, George III, lasted only from 1811-1820.
  • However, the era’s “style” may extend a decade or two on either side.

Jane Austen is not at fault for this duke obsession.  Her heroes included Mr Darcy, Mr Bingley and Mr Kingley.  Austen had:

  • 0 dukes
  • 1 marquess (mentioned only)
  • 4 earl relations (Darcy is a nephew)
  • 1 deceased viscount (2 living relations)
  • 3 baronets (1 son is a hero)
  • 2 knights
  • 1 naval officer

Heyer had more peers in her stories. 43% were top ranked peers and their issue (Duke & Earl), and 68% in total were peers and their issue.  But there was still only 3 Dukes and 2 heirs of Dukes in her output

Historical Selectivity

So, where did all these dukes get their money from?

  • Mines
  • Trade
  • Sugar / slavery

This is glossed over in the Regency chronotype.  Readers are selectively obsessive about details like houses not having doorknobs, which were invented June 8 1878.  And yet no-one contracts syphilis, not even the stereotypical Regency rakes.  Whereas in reality 8 – 15 % of population had it, no cure until 1940s with penicillin.  Yet readers claim that ‘historical accuracy’ is very important to them.

Advantages of the Regency Chronotope

  • Fabricated chronotope allow us to be historically selective for the sake of a happily ever after
  • Cleaner, safer, prettier, better smelling Regency than the actual one
  • Lower marginal effort to jumping into a new book for readers
  • Rules of the world are known before the reading begins
  • Allows author to do research by doing more reading of other novels
  • One blogger called this chronotope a “Never-Neverland mash-up that’s been dubbed ‘The Recency’ or ‘Almackistan’.”
  • Prospective authors are advised to immerse themselves in Georgette Heyer, and read until they can fix the era clearly in their heads
  • IE Regency dukes are commodities

The Problem of Chronotopes

Popular concept in discussing multicultural books:  whether fiction is meant to reflect one’s own identity and experiences (a mirror) or provide insight into the identity and experiences of another (a window)

  • 19th century historical fiction acts as mirror texts for white readers and window texts for readers of colour, but not enough of the reverse.
  • Misses the chance for people of colour to be featured, and white readers to develop empathy
  • Damage being done to history when the artificial construct is believed to BE history

This is not a new problem.  In 1965, a study showed that less than 7% of children’s books had one or more African-American characters.  African-American children couldn’t see themselves as heroes, or just children in stories.  The flipside is that while children didn’t develop humility or empathy.

Part of the issue is the lack of diversity in within the publishing sphere.  We need diverse historical romance to be pushed with the same kind of institutional support that an Avon Regency duke book gets. Why isn’t that happening?

Misunderstanding History:

Part of the reason is we misunderstand history. There is damage done when people believe that the chronotope is history.

  • People of color existed in Europe from Rome to the Middle Ages and beyond.
  • Examples from art of the period not only proves this, but also that people of color existed at every level of society, too.
  • Medieval Europeans discriminated more by class than race, a word they did not have.

People are getting their ‘history’ from reading other historical romance novels.  But the history they are learning is not accurate:

  • One author was told to remove a secondary character who was Chinese-American from a book set in 19th century NYC because the editor believed having a character of Chinese descent in that time period and setting was anachronistic.
  • When publishers have such a warped impression of history by the books they have been the gatekeepers over, then there is a terrible feedback loop of ignorance.

Perceived accuracy as a double standard:

Perceived accuracy is a dangerous weapon, and it can hurt an author’s critical reception by people who should know better.  Diverse historical romance is not measured against its own model, it is measured against historical fiction – inappropriate standards.

I’m just going to quote this next bit directly, I can’t summarise it and still do Jennifer’s analysis justice:

In the AAR Top 100 romance novels process, there were no books by African-American authors on the original stage one voting lists. AAR rushed to change the stage one list after Twitter blew up, but they still left off the Romantic Times 2018 Book of the Year Award winner, An Extraordinary Union by Alyssa Cole. I believe it is a particularly relevant example. First, AAR had the ambition to make such a list, so clearly they consider themselves an authority in the genre. Second, even before it became RT’s (last) Book of the Year, it was already a very, very highly praised book. An Extraordinary Union is the story of a free black woman who goes undercover as a slave in the American Confederacy to spy for the Union and falls for a white pro-Union spy she uncovers along the way. What an interesting story, you say. And outside the British peerage chronotope! So why did AAR omit it? Because they had given it a C.

One of the reviewers questioned whether this book provided a “realistic depiction of the slave experience”? If it were realistic to the slave experience, there would be no happily-ever-after. There was no HEA for slaves. When history endangers the HEA, the HEA comes first because this is romance. It is usually a minor accommodation, as it was in this case. (For example, one reviewer claimed that the heroine Elle had “an awful lot of freedom” for her spying, but this same reviewer later stated that she would still have liked to see “more emphasis placed on the spy portions of the story.”) I should point out that Cole’s book was a very well researched piece of fiction loosely based on a real person, Mary Bowser. Its treatment of everyone—from black slaves to white Confederates—is highly nuanced and layered. It also includes a bibliography. [Edited to add: As pointed out in the Book Thingo podcast on romance lists, the real and harrowing risks Elle faced in her role as a slave were explicitly laid out in the book.]

One month later, the same primary AAR reviewer blasted the historical flaws of a Regency duke book: “Ladies didn’t run amok unchaperoned in London, and dukes didn’t volunteer for the job without any prior introduction or connection to the lady in question.” She also wrote that “it’s awfully convenient how often [Max] breaks his own rules and finds himself alone with Sophie; and Sophie, country bumpkin, transforms into a sexually confident seductress.” The reviewer was “nevertheless charmed” and gave it a B. One reason this happened was because the reviewer the Regency book was judged against a chronotope, not real history.

  • It’s blatant double standard.
  • No pre-established model for diverse Civil War romance – An Extraordinary Union was compared to the inappropriate standard of historical fiction.
  • No romance novel will stand for everything about slavery/civil war – it’s a window into that world
  • World-building has to be done very explicitly to allow for a romance to develop between two characters and to make room for their HEA.
  • Need to allow Cole the same authorial agency as they do for Regency authors.
  • Readers are not already immersed in the world before they read / know the chronotope rules, as they are with the Regency.
  • Alyssa Cole and Beverley Jenkins have both been criticised for including too much history, but they have to do the historical work because the reader is unfamiliar with the setting.
  • Both Cole and Jenkins include bibliographies in their books, something the authors of the all the Regency duke books rarely do.

Inertia or Incentive:

  • Lack of diversity in reviewers is also problematic
  • ARR has only 2-3 reviewers of Asian descent
  • No apparent reviewers of African-American descent
  • Some reviewers used pseudonyms, so not totally sure
  • Historical categories only include English and American, and ‘native american’ books (problematic in themselves)
  • Updated note:  Jennifer didn’t do a breakdown of other review sites, there is no indication their diversity in reviewers is any better.

No single book, publisher, reviewer or reader is the problem:  The aggregate is the problem.

It can then become a self-fulfilling prophecy:

  • authors writing diverse historical romance, are not getting traditional publishing support
  • they are not getting critical acclaim because of an unequal standard
  • then they will have a harder time finding their market.
  • then could have a harder time being mainstream bestsellers.
  • And then traditional publishers might say “those books don’t sell,” which is a way to obscure the fact that publishing has helped establish a market that is unfriendly to these books.

However, lack of diversity can be costly:  reading is an inclusive activity

  • The most likely candidate to pick up a book in any form (print or digital) is a black woman who has been to college
  • The younger reader, the more likely they are to be non-white
  • Ethnicity of RWA (US) membership is predominately white
  • Diversifying books is a matter of survival for the genre

For those interested in finding historical romance outside the 19th century England and Scottish highland setting, a list has been compiled on Good Reads.  New additions always welcome.

My addition:  As mentioned above, I’ve got a half written rant about Too Many Dukes.  I’ll finish my references and post it soon.  Even though there are well written books within the genre, overall I find it so predictable and uninteresting I’ve gone right off historicals.  I actually did my thesis on the Romantic period (ie Regency), specifically on Byron and Shelley and covered a lot of the political and social events that are missing from all these Duke books.  The period is so much more diverse and interesting than is being depicted, and I just can’t face another evening at Almacks.  LIFE IS TOO SHORT.  (Yes, I am a huge Austen fan, and Heyer too – including her fabulous contemporary mysteries.  But I hate what it has devolved into.)

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