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Historical Romance: Who Gets the HEA

Discussions of historical romance frequently break into two factions: those who want their histrom to align with modern values about things like consent, equality, and bigotry, and those who don’t because those weren’t the attitudes of the time and that’s part of historical accuracy.

I am of the former group, even though I bang on about historical accuracy when it comes to stuff like modes of address. I need to be able to see a romance hero as a good person by my standards. The fact that a slave-owner or a homophobe might have been considered a good person (by people he wasn’t maltreating) in 1810 is a matter of profound indifference to me: I’m reading it in 2018, and this guy sucks. I’ll take gritty depictions of the past in other genres, but if you want me to buy into a romance and a Happy-Ever-After, don’t give me heroes that I’d happily set on fire.

This doesn’t mean that I want the past erased. It doesn’t do to forget the vileness of which humans are so readily capable. People’s pain ought not to be lightly handwaved away. And the truths of history are not incompatible with romance, when approached from the right angle. There are histrom authors taking on America’s filthy history to magnificent effect—Alyssa Cole’s Loyal League series with black heroes and heroines during the Civil War is brutal; Piper Huguley and Beverly Jenkins don’t shy away from the corrosive effects of racism; Joanna Chambers’ Enlightenment series keeps the homophobia of Georgian Scotland front and centre. All of these are wonderful. It can be done.

But. Also.

You can’t throw a bun on Romance Twitter without hitting someone defending romance as the genre of hope, of the world as it should be, of escape and happiness and love. Romance creates a fantasy, and historical romance is pretty much always a fantasy no matter how much research we do into the top speed of a phaeton or the exact materials used for a ball dress, or what the hell a peignoir might be. The dukes with abs, the governess marrying a nobleman, the earls with a sideline in espionage: it’s all a fantasy, and that’s absolutely fine because, as I wrote last time, you will take my fluff from my cold dead hands.

And yet there is a powerful strand of opinion that holds that any m/m histrom must reflect the fear of legal persecution, that any romance starring a POC must be about racism and injustice, that marginalised people simply cannot have happy endings, let alone fluffy stories along the way, because history was too cruel.

I’ve been sustained for years by Georgette Heyer’s glorious fantasies of women finding love and respect in a glittering Regency that never was, and my knowledge of the actual period’s brutal politics, deep misogyny, and general nastiness doesn’t undermine that pleasure. That sort of fictional escape should not be denied to readers of colour and/or queer readers–and particularly not on grounds of accuracy or historical realism that are not applied elsewhere.

We know that m/f histrom heroes and heroines are immune to lice, syphilis, terrible dentistry, death in childbirth. We know that the heroine will be safe when the book ends: that her husband won’t use her total financial dependence against her or rape her at will as he could because he now owns her body and all her property. In the right kind of modern histrom, we know from the start that the hero won’t be infected by misogyny or toxic masculinity, and will understand the concept of enthusiastic consent without needing a Basic Human Decency 101 class. All that is part of the histrom fantasy—because wow, was none of that guaranteed to actual women in actual history.

So if someone insists historical romance featuring marginalised people must come with the full complement of historical misery–that nobody could possibly have had a happy life with loving family, friends like themselves, good allies, non-bigoted acquaintances, and avoided running foul of unjust law–I need to know that they are applying the same standards to white m/f.

Of course, many people do exactly that. Most histrom readers expect books to show the oppression of the time to some degree, whether light touch, partial engagement, or full-on harsh reality; some people simply don’t read the genre because the happy gloss doesn’t work for them. Some people find it impossible to let go of the exploitation and colonialism that probably underpin a rich aristocrat’s wealth and privilege (which is a real bummer if you just wanted to enjoy a relaxing escapist duke book). Those are all entirely valid stances and down to the individual.

What is not valid is to be on board with duke/governess stories and all the rest of the glittering balls and yet simultaneously to assert that Regency fluff with POCs is unrealistic, or that m/m love stories must be played out under the shadow of the pillory and the gallows. That is to gatekeep who gets the fantasy and who gets the (worst of) reality. And it’s not only unjust: it’s also as historically inaccurate as it gets.

We can state as a matter of cold hard statistical fact that there were far more happy real-life queer people and people of colour in Regency England than there were handsome eligible dukes. This is simple mathematics, because queer people and people of colour actually existed, whereas the number of desirable dukes can be counted on the fingers of one foot. You want historical realism? Check out this babe.

That’s the fifth duke of Devonshire, a repeat adulterer who blamed his wife for having miscarriages, installed his mistress in the family home and made them both pregnant at the same time, and condemned his wife for having an affair while he was fathering numerous illegitimate children with multiple women. She was a writer, supporter of science, and early activist for women’s rights; he was a no-account hypocritical dullard who regarded her with utter indifference and made her life miserable. I don’t think a punny title is going to save this one. Also, those are not romance abs. And this portrait is probably flattering. Wow.

It is of course absolutely fine not to like stuff: modern values in historical romance, or fluff, or the basic concept of setting a romance in terrible unjust times, or anything else. But it’s not okay to support escapist fantasy for some people while denying it to others. And it is particuarly questionable to exclude anyone from a fantasy on grounds of realism. That just isn’t how fantasy works.

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Cover of Band SinisterMy new book, Band Sinister, comes out 11th October and is pure Regency m/m fluff with a bastard baronet, an innocent country gentleman, a hellfire club, and a 100% happy ever after.

Sir Philip Rookwood is the disgrace of the county. He’s a rake and an atheist, and the rumours about his hellfire club, the Murder, can only be spoken in whispers. (Orgies. It’s orgies.)

Guy Frisby and his sister Amanda live in rural seclusion after a family scandal. But when Amanda breaks her leg in a riding accident, she’s forced to recuperate at Rookwood Hall, where Sir Philip is hosting the Murder.

Guy rushes to protect her, but the Murder aren’t what he expects. They’re educated, fascinating people, and the notorious Sir Philip turns out to be charming, kind—and dangerously attractive.

In this private space where anything goes, the longings Guy has stifled all his life are impossible to resist…and so is Philip. But all too soon the rural rumour mill threatens both Guy and Amanda. The innocent country gentleman has lost his heart to the bastard baronet—but does he dare lose his reputation too?

Out tomorrow at the time of writing, from the usual stores.

“Just How Things Were”: bigotry in historical romance

Historical detail is my jam. I am not here for histrom that is modern day people in silly hats; that takes all the fun out of it. I don’t want magic horses that are basically cars with legs, or letter-carrying boys who work with the speed of text messages, and I really don’t want dukes who come with belief in full social equality ready installed. If I want modern things I’ll read contemporary.

Regency romance in particular has as one of its main joys the social stratification, the play of power and status and reputation and responsibility. I wrote a Regency about a marquess’s brother in love with his valet where the entire conflict depended on the power imbalance between the two, and it took a good half of the book for the lord to get beyond his ingrained assumption that he makes the rules, that he is the one who gets to decide that this relationship is impossible and morally wrong, and the valet has no input into that decision. (The valet disagrees.) It was massive fun to do precisely because the power imbalance and the attitudes were such a big gnarly mess.

Social attitudes of the time are a huge part of historical fiction. But historical fiction is still a thing of its own era. If you read books written by Victorians set in ancient Rome, you’ll learn a lot about Victorian England, because people write themselves, their concerns, their views of what’s right and wrong.

I don’t see that as a flaw in historical fiction; I see it as a feature. I am writing books in 2018 for an audience reading them in 2018, and I don’t think the fact they’re set in 1818 is a reason in itself to write things that will be repugnant or wrong to a modern audience. My characters can be at least partially people of their time without being rancid by my own time’s standards.

I dare say you’ve encountered the form of ‘historical accuracy’ often used as an excuse by writers or a critique by certain readers. This is the ‘accuracy’ that insists that any woman in a medieval type setting must be raped, preferably on-page. That everyone in the past must have been virulently homophobic, that everyone was a bigot, that it’s impossible that humans ever cared about people unlike themselves. This is the ‘accuracy’ that denies mixed marriages happened before about 1980, and doubts that white Brits in the Georgian period would have boycotted slave sugar, and writes to inform authors that their white hero was implausible for not raping their black heroine on sight. (All examples recently seen in the wild on social media. God help us. It’s funny how rarely you get told off for not being progressive or liberal enough, for ignoring the many people who fought for other people’s rights, or who fell in love and lived happily, or who existed as people of colour in Europe before 1950. It’s almost like some people have a vested interest in making the past seem a crappier place.)

I am not, of course, arguing that historical romances shouldn’t deal with hard subjects or have bigotry on page.  Writers like Alyssa Cole, Piper Huguley, and Beverly Jenkins engage with American racism continually and directly; Rose Lerner’s True Pretenses deals with English anti-Semitism; EE Ottoman’s The Doctor’s Discretion handles transphobia, homophobia and racism; and I could name you a dozen more historical romances that take on appalling historical attitudes, sometimes even voiced by the main characters.

But these narratives don’t simply present bigotry as a thing, a fact of life like corsets and taxation. These books show us the cruelty and wrongs done by bigotry; where main characters are responsible they learn as part of their arc that earns them a HEA; where other characters are responsible, the narrative engages with that. These books critique past attitudes from the perspective of the present, because it is not the Regency now. It is 2018 and I am not here for historical hatred as a feature, a bit of window dressing, just how things were. Don’t make a fuss, it’s historically accurate. That’s very easy to say if you’re not the reader who’s been slapped in the face by another bit of dehumanisation or violence presented as entertainment.

Romance is all about our engagement with the main characters. Well, I’m not engaging with unredeemed bigots. I don’t want to see their HEAs; I don’t want them to have the happiness they’d deny to other people. I don’t care if it’s probable that someone in 1800 would have displayed unexamined bigotry; that doesn’t entitle them to an HEA in the book I’m reading right now.

And that is not shying away from historical reality. On the contrary, I think refusing to engage with historical attitudes that present bigotry as acceptable is shying away from current reality, in which the same attitudes are making a comeback. Historical attitudes changed because people fought them. Sometimes failing to take a stand is a stand.

Authors don’t have to deal directly with bigotry when writing historicals, of course. You can just not put it in the book, along with all the other things we don’t put in books. Very few historical romances mention headlice, or menstruation, or bad breath, because those are not things most readers want to dwell on, and I’d far rather read about the MCs’ headlice than their hatred. Or you can sketch bigotries in lightly, without shoving them in the reader’s face. Or you can give those attitudes to someone who isn’t the hero or heroine of the damn book. You can do a whole lot of things.

But what you can’t do is depict vile attitudes without examination or consideration, and expect modern readers not to care or object or decide your character can go step on Lego just because the book’s set in the past. It may be; we’re writing and reading right now.

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NB: I have delected a specific reference to a book from this post because the situation is more complex than I originally realised. My general principle stands. 

 

Historical Romance: learn or die

I am not writing about the election. I’m not. If you want my opinion you can find it, extensively, on Twitter, although let’s be honest, if you’ve ever read anything by me you can probably take a stab in the dark as to what I think anyway.

Instead, I’m going  to talk more about getting British titles right in historical romance. Which seems a pretty trivial thing to write about at such a time but I have a couple of points to make, and only one of them is “JFC do your research”.

I wrote this post about aristocratic titles in large part because I’m sick of reading blurbs that begin,

Lord Michael Pemberley, the Earl of Northfield, has long delighted in the carefree existence he enjoys as the ducal heir.

That (with names changed because I want to pick on a general issue rather than this specific book) is a quote from a published book. I can see two (maybe three) glaring problems in that, the first line of the blurb, starting with the guy’s title.

 

 

 

***pause for writers of historicals to work it out. Here is your cheat sheet.***

 

 

 

 

An earl is addressed as Lord Title. If he is earl of Northfield, he’s Lord Northfield. “Lord Firstname” is a courtesy title granted to a younger son; Michael is the heir and thus the eldest son. This is not optional; he cannot be both an eldest son and a younger son. Calling him “Lord Michael the Earl” makes as much sense as calling him “Sergeant Pemberley the Admiral”.

Nitpick: Courtesy titles don’t take “the” so if this is introducing him, rather than a casual narrative reference, he ought to be Michael Pemberley, earl of Northfield (or Michael Pemberley, Lord Northfield).

Now, the book in question goes on to have the duke’s heir marry a commoner of the lowest kind. In historical romance terms I have no problem with that. It’s wildly implausible, sure, but I like a good Cinderella story as much as anyone. I’m cool with a romance that overturns an established order; that is, in fact, what historical romance does, by putting women and queer people at the centre of the story.

So my problem isn’t a romance defying the established power system. My problem is when a book doesn’t understand the power system it’s nominally about. And this blurb (which I am picking on as just one of many) suggests precisely that because of a) getting the main character’s title wrong, and b) the description of the heir to a duke as having a “carefree existence”.

A story about a lower class woman with no rights and a male duke’s heir with immense wealth and privilege is a story about power imbalance. If you don’t understand the power system, you cannot write a meaningful story about power imbalance within it. If you’re writing about aristocracy, about class gaps, about people needing to marry for money, about people meeting or not meeting family expectations when they fall in love, about inheritance, about the freedom to live as you want or dependence on someone else holding the purse strings, about the need to fit into a social role and the chance that your love story will blow your position in that order out of the water, let alone possibly endanger your life or liberty…if you are writing a historical romance where any of those things ought to apply and you just handwave them or treat them as unimportant, I would ask very seriously what you’re writing historical romance for.

This is not just a matter of taste—“Very Serious Romances with lots of politics are better than ones with floofy dresses and fun!” It is, I think, a matter of craft.

Take Lord Michael the Earl enjoying the “freedom afforded him as the ducal heir”. What that says is, Wow, a really rich guy, he must have a great life. It’s not looking at, for example, what it would really mean to be heir to a duke, one step below the king, possessed of jawdropping wealth, vast landholdings, literally thousands of people depending on you. The weight of the position, the responsibility to which you were born. What sort of mentality it would take to ignore it, and why you would, and what that would say about your political views, micro and macro, what you’d ever been exposed to, how you’d have been brought up to regard other people. The hero might be crushed by his position, or he might indeed be an irresponsible pleasure seeker ignoring his responsibilities, or an earnest man shouldering them with enthusiasm. But he’s got to be in his place in society in time in some way because that’s what the “historical” part of “historical romance” means.

Writing “Lord Michael the Earl” pretty much advertises that you haven’t looked at the basic functions of the society you’re writing about or considered how people operate within it, which isn’t something I’d recommend slapping on your book cover. It proclaims the book to be contemporary romance with a dressing-up box.  And mostly, it misses out on the chance to explore different perspectives from those of, for example, a 21st-century mildly liberal white American.

I wrote a book, A Gentleman’s Position, which is the story of Lord Richard Vane, a marquess’s younger brother, who falls in love with his valet. The power balance is obscenely skewed, and the entire conflict comes down to whether there is any way that a relationship between two people in such grossly unequal positions, embedded in a class structure of inferiority and superiority, can work. For Lord Richard, following his heart feels profoundly morally wrong, for his valet it’s wildly transgressive and incredibly risky—and that’s without considering the effects of a grossly homophobic society. Lord Richard gets a lot of flak from readers for having a serious stick up his arse on the subject. (Quite fairly. What? I’m not here to make my characters’ lives easy.) But he considers himself responsible for the virtue and well being of his valet because that was what a good man in his time and position should do. It is a book that basically wouldn’t work at all without the historical attitudes because they are the source of the conflict.

I think this is one of the most romantic romances I’ve written, because Lord Richard  has to change his entire socially programmed way of thinking in order to be with the one he loves. And “learn to change your entirely socially programmed way of thinking” is not an outdated theme. I’d say it might be one of the most important challenges facing all of us if we want to confront racism and misogyny and homophobia and transphobia and ableism and xenophobia and all the other ways we have of keeping one another down instead of lifting each other up, which are all written on us by the world we live in.

Historical fiction has a unique opportunity to examine different ways of thinking and expand the reader’s horizons. The ways that good people can think things that we might now find hair-raising; the ideas and situations that used to be taken for granted; the ways society shapes people. Historicals can show us the continuity, the sameness, of humanity amid completely different societies and histories and pressures and constrictions—all of which will press and warp and shove that common humanity in different ways. Because society affects people, and we can hurt each other in so many ways when we don’t confront power structures, when we refuse to see them at all, when we take our way of thinking for granted or assume our version of “the right thing” is the same as everyone else’s.

That’s why I think it matters not to handwave historical attitudes or ignore the ways a society works in favour of taking our ideas and priorities and beliefs as the only right way. Because I think it’s pretty obvious at the moment that we 21st-century people are not in fact all-wise, that liberal values are not to be taken for granted, and that people who don’t learn from history are, indeed, condemned to repeat it. God help us all.

 

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KJ Charles is a writer and editor. Her next novel is Wanted, a Gentleman, out in January.

This is an edited and mucked-about-with version of a speech I gave at the Manifold Press Queer Company 2 event.

Hands up who forgot to put her new release on her own blog…

Look, it’s been busy, okay? In the last six weeks I have left my job, released a story in the Another Place in Time anthology, done a lot of freelance editing work, written a metric ton of blogs for Queer Romance Month including these on historical romance and happy ever afters, announced the sale of my Regency gay romance trilogy to Loveswept, and lined up another project TBA shortly. And it’s my birthday tomorrow. Frankly, I don’t think it’s unreasonable that I forgot to put my own blog tour and new release on my own blog.

*abandons plans to launch social media promotional service company*

FlightOfMagpies300Right, well. Flight of Magpies is out (*cough*yesterday*cough*), the reviews are nice, and you can find the various bits as follows (the giveaway runs till 2 Nov so you may still have time to enter):

I will also be visiting Becky Black in the near future, in the unlikely event you need to hear me communicate ever again….