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“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.