This post is not a demand that all historical romances be “historically accurate”: it’s what happens when an author claims to be constrained by history in ways which make me wonder if they were not, in fact, nearly so constrained as they seem to think. I felt I should start by clarifying that because, as Marlene L. Daut observes,
Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton novels are mostly populated with white people like the regency-era England where they take place. The London of Shonda Rhimes’s Bridgerton tv series for Netflix, in contrast, is a multicultural mecca, sprinkled with Black characters of various skin hues, as well as a smattering of east and south Asians walking around silently in the background. There is even a Black queen and a Black duke.
In the world of fiction—whether on the page, stage, or screen—such ahistoricity does not necessarily have to be an issue. We should not evaluate a work of art by how well it matches reality, or how faithful it is to history.
It does, however, seem entirely valid to evaluate claims of historical authenticity when these are deployed to justify particular inclusions and exclusions, as in the case of Julia Quinn’s “past dubious statements about race in the Regency period and romance” (Cuthbert).
The best documented of these can be found in a video dated 1 June 2017, of a panel event held by the Strand Book Store in New York. Before I turn to them, however, I’d like to note some earlier statements Quinn made in that video which give indications of her approach to history. With reference to the English Regency period Quinn stated:
That particular time period works very well for me but I think it’s also very popular because it is modern enough that people think in a similar way to the way we think now. If you go a lot further back, say to the medieval period, there's a sense of mysticism that pervades your life and the church - it's such a big part of your existence. And it's not to say that going to church and that sort of thing wasn't an important part of society in, you know, 1815 England, but it didn't pervade every sensibility that you have the way it did further back. So I can make my characters think in ways that will - modern readers can relate to. At the same time it's far enough removed that there's a fairytale quality to it and readers can, like, have a certain element of fantasy. (11 minutes onwards)
The “medieval period” covers many centuries, many locations, and medieval people were by no means homogenous. The “Toulouse Inquisition records of the 1270s,” for example, record
witnesses, many of them probably illiterate [who]: had shown disrespect for sacred things by dirty jokes, defilement of cemeteries, disparagement of the reputed holiness of saints and shrines, scepticism about the sign of the cross, quarrels with priests over burial practices, restlessness at sermons, and disparagement of current attitudes towards Jews and usury. It was surely encouraged by Cathars and Waldenses. It could also easily be generated by peasant scepticism and the frictions of village life. (Edwards 20)
Later ages’ assumptions about the European Middle Ages have sometimes been shaped by
A Protestant tradition [...] inclined to dismiss late medieval Catholicism in particular as 'magical' and 'superstitious' to explain why a Reformation was so badly needed by the sixteenth century. [...] It is no longer convincing to dismiss the medieval Church, in 'Protestant' terms, as a source or purveyor of 'magic', but hints that Catholicism, on the eve of the Reformation, was 'vulnerable' to a 'rationalistic critique' can still inform present debate. (Brown 2-3)
In addition to possible ideological biases which may have affected historians, it is also important, as Susan Reynolds states, to consider the biases of some of their primary sources:
The mentality of the sources and the degree to which it was shared by the whole of society also need more critical consideration in face of the mass of miracle stories which have for centuries been taken as evidence of medieval credulity. Most of the collections of miracle stories which were so notable a feature of the eleventh and twelfth centuries were made by monks to promote particular shrines. Taking their word as evidence of general belief is like taking television commercials as evidence of the public's preferences among pet-foods. The miracle stories are full of scoffers. Like people in commercials who use the wrong soap-powder, they get their come-uppance, but they would not be in the stories if such people had not existed in real life and needed to be converted. (29)
Admittedly, the evidence adduced here may seem a little obscure and insufficient to challenge the respective characterisations of the two periods of history Quinn is discussing but it may challenge some assumptions about “social mentalities” (Reynolds) or “the totality of those implicit assumptions which are imposed on us by our environment and which rule our judgements” (Febvre, qtd. in Reynolds 21).
At 17.46 minutes Quinn makes a statement about the “social mentality” of the Regency period for which there are well-known counter-examples:
I wrote a novella recently where the heroine is very scientifically-minded. She’s really into astronomy and what I didn’t do was make her somebody who’s banging down the doors at Oxford and Cambridge demanding to be earning a degree because this just takes place too far in the past. It wouldn’t even occur to her that this is something that she can do. But what she can do is sort of fight against her constraints in smaller ways, ways that are more obvious: figure out how to study, how to learn, how to do her own investigations, how to finagle her way in to visiting, you know, this previously off-limits telescope. So I, I do feel like I have to work within the constructs of the, and the constraints of, the time period because a lot of the ways that we as modern women would think we can fight against, you know, the patriarchy or the rules or whatever, it just if, if you don't even realize what - how strict those rules are, and, and I honestly think a lot of women at that time had no idea, you can't really fight them in the same way.
Quinn continues at 19.14
so even just getting women of the early 1800s to a point where they understand how many fewer choices they have, and how the fact that they have fewer choices affects them, is to me a very feminist moment in the book
However, as another panellist, Sarah MacLean, states around 22.29,
I think it is a difficult argument to make that - to say that women in history haven't always had power and seen the struggle that women in the world have to go through and I often, whenever I sort of really struggle with this I think about […] Wollstonecraft, right.
As a scientist, perhaps Quinn’s heroine might have known of Laura Bassi, who gained a doctorate from the University of Bologna in 1732 and was subsequently appointed to a professorship there. Certainly a woman who literally tried to bang “down the doors at Oxford and Cambridge” wouldn’t have got far but, in the 1790s, the French mathematician Marie-Sophie Germain, due to not being permitted to attend the “École central des travaux publics, later to become the École polytechnique” found an alternative method to access an education there. It was admittedly due to the fact that “one of the innovations in this new scheme of education was to make lecture notes available to all who asked, among them Germain. Another innovation was the practice of having students submit written observations.” Thanks to these innovations, Germain was able to send her observations to a member of the faculty, Lagrange,
using the name of a student acquaintance, M. LeBlanc. Germain's originality and insight moved Lagrange to want to meet ‘LeBlanc.’ His respect for her work was not diminished when he learned that the notebooks were produced by a woman, and Lagrange continued for many years to provide support and encouragement. (Grinstein and Campbell 48)
Even taking account of different circumstances in England, Quinn’s heroine would not have been entirely without access to institutional support as a woman scientist in the UK since “From its inception in 1799 the Ri [Royal Institution of Great Britain] welcomed women to lectures and also accepted women as members” (Scales). As for an awareness of the barriers that existed for women scientists, Mary Somerville, who visited the astronomers Caroline and William Herschel’s “telescopes at Slough in 1816 […] described herself as "intensely ambitious to excel in something, for I felt in my own breast that women were capable of taking a higher place in creation than that assigned to them in my early days, which was very low" (Holmes).
So yes, “most people in any society probably accept its prevailing beliefs, and most dissidents in a persecuting society will keep their heads down” (Reynolds 33) but again, no society is entirely homogenous. Here’s another historical example, recently published:
In a newly discovered passage from an 1810 diary, Yorkshire tenant farmer Matthew Tomlinson considers the notion that homosexual desire is a natural, divinely ordained human tendency, discernible from adolescence and undeserving of capital punishment. Although ultimately inconclusive, his reflections offer tantalizing evidence that historical attitudes towards same-sex love in early nineteenth-century British society could be more diverse and sympathetic than previously assumed. (O’Keeffe)
It was after Quinn had demonstrated a propensity to latch on to potentially incorrect “social mentalities” and to minimise the extent to which individuals can resist them, that she proceeded to make some “dubious statements about race in the Regency period”:
[at 45.29] Somebody asked me [...] recently, about introducing more diversity into my books and it's difficult because first, with the time period that I write in, I mean, some say "Oh well, it really was diverse". Like, well, not among the Dukes [...] It's tricky because you know you read these civil war romances and they’ve been kinda out of fashion for a while and you're like you know isn't it interesting that you know the heroine always seems to feel that her slave is really, truly her equal, and I'm thinking well, she wasn't raised that way. She'd have to be pretty remarkable to have figured this out on her own. So, she's going to feel that way, you need to explain to me how that came about, and a lot of times they didn't.
I doubt many white people in slave-owning families would have had to ‘figure this out’ entirely on their own given the prominence of debates about abolition but this example Quinn offers does perhaps suggest that the veil of “fantasy” which allows readers to suspend disbelief about certain elements of historical romance can fade. Perhaps plantation romances lost popularity because many readers could no longer find those settings “far enough removed that there's a fairytale quality to it and readers can, like, have a certain element of fantasy.” That said, in fact “an entire industry of Christian romance novel-writing has coalesced around these sites, offering readers plantation-centered narratives which are presented as wholesomely romantic - and, even more troublingly, factual” (Adair).
If readers who are troubled by plantations, but find England in the Regency a fairytale escape, started to think about the sources of many Regency protagonists’ wealth, they might stop finding this setting quite so escapist:
geographic distance made it possible for slavery to be largely airbrushed out of British history, following the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833. […] The history of British slavery has been buried. The thousands of British families who grew rich on the slave trade, or from the sale of slave-produced sugar, in the 17th and 18th centuries, brushed those uncomfortable chapters of their dynastic stories under the carpet. Today, across the country, heritage plaques on Georgian townhouses describe former slave traders as “West India merchants”, while slave owners are hidden behind the equally euphemistic term “West India planter”. Thousands of biographies written in celebration of notable 17th and 18th-century Britons have reduced their ownership of human beings to the footnotes, or else expunged such unpleasant details altogether. (Olusoga)
Getting back to Quinn’s comments about the setting in which she herself writes, at around 46.19 she says:
You know, I think, "Okay, I want to introduce diversity into my book, maybe put a Jewish character in there." There were Jews in England at the time, but you know what, a lot of people really didn't like them, and for me to explain why my characters, who I'd like to think are fundamentally good and kind and true, suddenly find these people to be perfectly fine and "Yeah, sure, Miriam, no problem, you know we don't care", I'd have to come up with a really good explanation of how that came about and that might have to be the story more than the actual love story so it's tricky to do.
First of all, the situation was more nuanced than Quinn’s comments might suggest. Of course there was prejudice, but, to give one example,
Horatio Walpole, 4th earl of Orford (better known as Horace Walpole, writer, historian, Whig Member of Parliament and prolific correspondent), was on friendly terms […] with Jewish neighbours at Strawberry Hill, his striking neo-Gothic country house in Twickenham, south-west of London. “My next assembly will be entertaining,” he wrote to his friend George Montagu on October 3, 1763; “there will be five countesses, two bishops, fourteen Jews, five papists, a doctor of physic, and an actress; not to mention Scotch, Irish, East and West Indians” (Letters 5:376).
Prominent Jews did similar entertaining. Thus Joseph Salvador, a wealthy Sephardi merchant (1716-86) and financial adviser to the Duke of Newcastle and his government around 1757, “gave a grand entertainment at his seat at Tooting in Surrey to a great number of noblemen and gentlemen, members of both houses of parliament” — so reported the London Evening Post of 10 July 1753. (Gossman)
I found it difficult to unpack and understand the assumptions behind Quinn’s statements however, particularly after discussions online which brought to light interpretations I had not considered. Here are some possibilities. If Quinn (incorrectly) believes that she could not have her aristocratic protagonists interacting with Jewish characters, does this mean
a) that she believes her characters would have anti-Semitic views and are therefore not entirely “good and kind and true” but has also decided that she does not wish her readers to think about this?
b) that her characters should be considered “fundamentally good and kind and true” despite their anti-Semitism?
c) that they are “fundamentally good and kind and true” and therefore not anti-Semitic, but readers are just supposed to take that on trust, without any explanation?
d) readers are left “with the mistaken impression” that Jewish characters “weren’t in England at that time having well rounded experiences and JQ manages to uphold the same anti-Semitic histrom ideals pioneered by Georgette Heyer”? (Blakeman)
In a recent interview Quinn stated that
"I'm Jewish and when I would read a book and one of the characters would be Jewish, I'd be like, 'Oh, that's me.' And it was very powerful," she explains. "And so now I feel like I'm able to start to extrapolate that and be like, 'You know what, everybody needs that.'" (Gillette)
However, Quinn apparently did not consider the possibility of addressing this need by centring non-aristocratic characters (and neither did the screen adaptation, even though it did change the race of some of them). It has been reported that “Her resistance to writing diversely because she doesn't think HEAs are believable in that era is well-documented and persistent.” (Lerner):
Let's not forget the panel where she said - apparently in reply to a question - that OF COURSE she doesn't write diverse characters into her novels because she doesn't write about suffering. Said with a smile while sitting next to a black romance author of historical romances. […] There was also a FB post where she basically said the same thing - how difficult and tricky it would be to write diverse characters into hist rom because it would need to be historically accurate. (Schwab)
It seems an indication of the extent of Quinn’s commitment to her views of the “social mentalities” of the past that such comments could have been made while she was sitting alongside an author of African-American historical romances whose very body of work (full of HEAs) provided counter-evidence which should have made Quinn pause. It may also be an indication that, as Felicia Grossman observed,
there is a lot of resistance to the idea that histrom can center established communities that aren't aristocracy, or at least comparable to aristocracy. Or the idea that people were happy inside those communities.
It’s instructive, I think, to see when historical verisimilitude is, or isn’t invoked, and what must be overlooked or temporarily put to one side in order to enjoy tales of “fundamentally good” aristocrats, dressed in beautiful, expensive clothes and living in luxury.
Adair, Joshua G. “ ‘A Battlefield All Their Own’: Selling Women’s Fictions as Fact at Plantation Museums.” Museums, Sexuality, and Gender Activism. Ed. Joshua G. Adair and Amy K. Levin. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2020. 239-251.
Brown, Andrew. Church and Society in England, 1000-1500. Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
Cuthbert, Kate. “‘Bridgerton’ Finally Harnesses The Power Of The Romance Book Community.” Junkee. 19 January 2021. https://junkee.com/bridgerton-romance-books/285428
Daut, Marlene L. “Why Did Bridgerton Erase Haiti?” LA Review of Books. 19 January 2021. https://avidly.lareviewofbooks.org/2021/01/19/why-did-bridgerton-erase-haiti/
Edwards, John. “Religious Faith and Doubt in Late Medieval Spain: Soria circa 1450-1500.” Past and Present 120 (1988): 3-25.
Gillette, Sam. “Author Julia Quinn on the Netflix Adaptation of Her Bridgerton Series: It's a 'Fairytale'.” People. 25 December 2020. https://people.com/tv/author-julia-quinn-on-the-netflix-adaptation-of-the-bridgerton-series-its-a-fairytale/
Gossman, Lionel. “From Expulsion to Emancipation: Jews in England 1290-1858.” Victorian Web. http://www.victorianweb.org/religion/judaism/gossman3.html
Grinstein, Louise S. and Paul J. Campbell. Eds. Women of Mathematics: A Biobibliographic Sourcebook. New York: Greenwood Press, 1987.
Holmes, Richard. “The Royal Society's lost women scientists.” The Observer. 21 November 2010. https://www.theguardian.com/science/2010/nov/21/royal-society-lost-women-scientists
O’Keeffe, Eamonn. “‘A natural passion?’ The 1810 reflections of a Yorkshire farmer on homosexuality.” Historical Research, 2021. https://doi.org/10.1093/hisres/htaa037 That’s not open access but you can find more details about this here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-51385884
Olusoga, David. “The history of British slave ownership has been buried: now its scale can be revealed.” The Observer. 12 July 2015. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jul/12/british-history-slavery-buried-scale-revealed
Reynolds, Susan. “Social Mentalities and the Cases of Medieval Scepticism.” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 1 (1991): 21–41.
Scales, Laurence. “Ladies with attitude.” The blog of the Royal Institution. 2 July 2014. https://www.rigb.org/blog/2014/july/ladies-with-attitude
The Strand. “Feminists Take on the Romance Genre.” 1 June 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6bX8XSkdbkI&feature=share