Pillaging the Past for Contemporary Enjoyment

By Laura Vivanco on

In Alex Beecroft's Blue Eyed Stranger (2015) one of the heroes, Martin, is a history teacher and historical reenactor whose "mother’s a Yorkshirewoman, my father’s from the Sudan" (61). Historical accuracy matters to him and so he has thought out a matching back-story for the character he enacts: "my character is from the kingdom of Meroe in Nubia, one of whose principle [sic] exports was carnelian" (32);

A fair amount of both Saxons and Vikings travelled to Rome on pilgrimage even in the time we’re reenacting, and a fair amount of Nubians travelled from the Sudan to Rome to trade in gold, ivory, and gems. No reason why a Viking couldn’t have married a merchant’s daughter while he was out there and brought her home. (61)

Archaelogical evidence certainly suggests this is a possible scenario given that

at least some people from Africa or of African descent were living and dying in rural and urban communities in the British Isles during the 'Viking Age' (eighth to eleventh centuries). (Green)

All the same, Martin, knows "he wasn’t what the public wanted to see when they looked for Vikings" (34); in many ways, the public want what they imagine the Vikings to be rather than the more complex realities of which historians are aware.

According to María José Gómez Calderón,

In the last two decades there has been a significant increase of novels of the so-called «hot historical» variety focusing on the Viking as object of feminine erotic desire. The most famous authors of these new Viking narratives, Johanna Lindsey, Catherine Coulter, and Sandra Hill have even become «New York Times Best-Sellers.» (292)

and their outlines are well-known enough to be parodied:

In Jackie Rose’s I’m a Viking and I Protest (2004), a contemporary American man of Norse origin, Karl Gustavsen, founds an antidefamation league and sues romance writer Rose Jacobson for presenting Vikings as sexy rapists in her works [...]. To begin with, Karl denounces Rose’s unfair presentation of the Viking in her best-seller Ravished by Ragnar (significantly published by Orgazm Books). (Gómez Calderón 296)

He does have a valid point when protesting against the depiction of Vikings as "sexy rapists" because, as Erika Ruth Sigurdson points out,

While eighth-century writers were quick to denounce the various crimes of Viking invaders, very few of those largely monastic writers commented on rape in the invasions—to the point that even modern scholarship has considered it possible that rape was simply not a part of Viking invasions. (253)

Despite this, the

theme of Viking rape—[which treats] rape as historicizing detail and rape as evidence of Viking masculinity-—appear[s] from the earliest incarnations of romanticized Viking narratives in the early nineteenth century and onward. (Sigurdson 252-3)

In other words, rape appears as a "historicizing detail" in "nineteenth-century Viking stories" because it "formed an integral part of scene setting and the creation of historical authenticity, of creating a world that felt authentically Viking-Age" (261).  Similarly, in a collection of twelve Harlequin Mills & Boon romances reprinted in 2007 and set later in the Middle Ages,

The invented space of the Medieval Collection is one of acute sexual danger for women. [...] The threat of rape or sexual assault is an ever-present fear for medieval heroines [...]. Much of the sexual harassment in these novels originates from the hero, and although some are more explicit, most first sexual encounters are characterized by violence and male dominance. (Burge 104)

Rape in fictions set in the Middle Ages presumably felt and continues to feel authentic, even if it wasn't, because,

As Kathryn Gravdal, a leader in the field of medieval rape, explains, modern culture has developed powerful myths on the subject of rape and sexuality in the Middle Ages:

The first is the notion that women enjoyed unparalleled sexual power and freedom in the days of courtly love. The second is the converse belief that rape was commonplace in the Middle Ages because society was so barbaric that men “did not know any better.” (Gravdal 1991,152)

It is this second myth, the notion of barbaric men and rape as a commonplace[,] that is particularly prevalent in popular depictions of the Vikings. (Sigurdson 254)

Nonetheless, a propensity to rape women was presumably not considered an intrinsic, or at least a desirable, aspect of masculinity in the nineteenth century, because in most of the Viking texts produced in this period

the hero’s masculinity was defined [...] by his sexual restraint, and his ability to love a worthy woman and look for her love in return. At the same time, we have also seen a few places where violent sexuality plays a role in Viking masculine identity, particularly in the case of minor characters, or in the blurring of lines between abduction and voluntary marriage. But there are a few examples from this early period where Viking rape is treated as an unambiguously integral part of Viking masculinity. (Sigurdson 262)

As ideas about masculinity changed, however, so did the sexuality of Viking heroes and in recent decades

Vikings, with their giant battle-axes and muscular good looks, perfectly symbolize “the aggressive-passive, dominant-submissive, me-Tarzan-you-Jane nature of the relationship between the sexes in our [rape] culture” (Herman 1994, 45). With its close correlation to the broader “sex and violence,” the phrase “rape and pillage” has come to encapsulate this paradox and perfectly describe a violent, dominant form of male sexuality. (Sigurdson 250)

What I think all this demonstrates is, firstly, that historical fiction can be shaped by inaccurate ideas about the past and, secondly, that it will also tend to be shaped by contemporary ideas about gender roles and sexuality.

This pillaging of the past often enhances the enjoyment of modern readers. For example:

sexuality in the Medieval Collection is drawn from modern anxieties concerning sexual violence, but this violence is safely confined to the Middle Ages, obscuring the extent to which submission and dominance can be rooted in modernity. Furthermore, defining the medieval as a period characterized by sexual violence works oppositionally to suggest that modern sexuality is not violent. (Burge 109)

If imagined differences between past and present can bring pleasure, so too can imagined similarities. Eloisa James, for example, has argued that

we historical authors need to think more deeply about what men were like back in the era we’re writing about—and if you ask me, likely not much has changed. They were scratching themselves and boasting and carrying on generally 200 years ago.

Those might not seem at first glance like traits which would give readers enjoyment but, on reflection, I think perhaps they do for some readers because they allow the heroines (and through them some modern female readers) to feel a smug sense of superiority. To quote a secondary character in a non-Viking romance:

"Women get off on that, you know."


"Men making jerks out of themselves, [...] I think it reinforces their sense of superiority. I mean, deep down they're ninety-nine and nine-tenths percent positive we're idiots. Still, they like to have it confirmed every once in a while." (Buck 34)

Or, to put it yet another way, there is an appeal

to what in the novels is presented as the eternal feminine that joins both females [i.e. the heroine and the female reader], [...] by assuming that women of all ages have to face the same kind of problems with men, that is, the eternal masculine. (Gómez Calderón 294)

Inaccurate depictions of the past may be enjoyable (although presumably not to those, like Martin, who crave accuracy) but they may, cumulatively, have serious consequences. For example, if one can create the impression of an "eternal feminine" one can ignore the ways in which gender roles have changed and are, therefore, socially constructed. Perhaps even more seriously,

Racist and white supremacist ideas about the past have lingered in our culture. They are not limited to dyed-in-the-wool racists or card-carrying members of the Klan. They can seem natural and normal. That makes them a fundamental part of institutionalized racism as it exists today, since the past forms and informs the foundations of the present. [...] We see the past the way it has been presented to us in school, in history books, and in popular culture. (Sturtevant)

As Martin says, being immersed in accurate history can feel

Funny and bizarre, unsettling and uncomfortable, sometimes even repellent. But you always returned from it with a refreshed perspective, so that just for a little while, before habit kicked back in, you could see your own world with a stranger’s eyes, and all the things that were normally invisible showed up like cancer cells tagged with radiant dye. (121)

It's not everyone's idea of enjoyment, and so perhaps not easy to incorporate into a mass-market genre. In addition, in popular romance fiction the readers do need to feel an emotional connection to the protagonists; that could be inhibited if readers feel too unsettled or repelled by the characters' beliefs and attitudes (though less so if those emotions are elicited by the characters' context). So there are certainly challenges involved in writing historically-accurate historical romance but there also romance authors who are willing to accept those challenges and make their depictions of history that bit more challenging to long-accepted norms.


Beecroft, Alex. Blue Eyed Stranger. Hillsborough, NJ: Riptide, 2015.

Buck, Carole. Knight and Day. New York, NY: Silhouette, 1992.

Burge, Amy. “Do Knights Still Rescue Damsels in Distress?: Reimagining the Medieval in Mills & Boon Historical Romance.” The Female Figure in Contemporary Historical Fiction. Ed. Katherine Cooper and Emma Short. Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. 95-114.

Gómez Calderón, María José. “Romancing the Dark Ages: The Viking Hero in Sentimental Narrative.” Boletín Millares Carlo 26 (2007): 287-97. [Available in full, for free, online.]

Green, Caitlin. "A great host of captives? A note on Vikings in Morocco and Africans in early medieval Ireland & Britain." 12 September 2015.

James, Eloisa. "Making Rakes from Real Men." The Popular Romance Project. 9 April 2013. [link to the Internet Archive]

Sigurdson, Erika Ruth. "Violence and Historical Authenticity: Rape (and Pillage) in Popular Viking Fiction." Scandinavian Studies 86.3 (2014): 249-67.

Sturtevant, Paul E. "Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages: Tearing Down the 'Whites Only' Medieval World." The Public Medievalist. 7 February 2017.

New Page on this Site: Politics and the Past in Historical Romance Fiction

By Laura Vivanco on

In case anyone's following this blog via a feedreader, I thought I'd mention here that I've just put up a new page elsewhere on this site (the topic was a bit long to be just a blog post) about politics and history in historical romance fiction.

In it I refer to Beverly Jenkins, who's one of the authors included in Bowling Green State University Library's new small online display about pioneering African-American romance authors.

Virgin Envy: The Cultural Insignificance of the Hymen (ed. Jonathan A. Allan, Cristina Santos, and Adriana Spahr)

By Laura Vivanco on


I was sent a copy of Virgin Envy: The Cultural Insignificance of the Hymen (ed. Jonathan A. Allan, Cristina Santos, and Adriana Spahr) around Christmas but I waited till after New Year to take a closer look at it. It's not about envying the Virgin Mary, although her presence does make itself felt particularly in the final chapter.

The editors suggest that "our ideas about virginity - the hymen in particular - and the phallus are 'cultural fantasies' that continue to inspire, provoke, and unsettle us" (2): the first and second essays in the volume show the continuities across the centuries of some of these "cultural fantasies". And yet:

As we began to discuss virginity, however, we realized that many of these common virginal narratives are not true. Virginity extends well beyond the girl who protects herself and her hymen until marriage. [...] Indeed, insistence on the hymen erases all kinds of bodies save the most normative, cisgendered body of the female. Therefore, it is imperative that we go beyond the hymen and think about virginity without it. Truth be told, boys are virgins, queers are virgins, some people reclaim their virginities, and others reject virginity from the get go. (4-5)

The editors have tried to ensure that the collection of essays in the volume have a wide range but "as editors regret that this collection does not contain much about lesbian or trans virginities - important areas of research that need to be attended to [...]. It is surprising that, though virginity studies is a field dominated by the idea that virginity is female, lesbian experiences of virginity are unaccounted for in the scholarship" (11). There is a discussion of Catalina de Erauso, though, in the last chapter.

I've copied out the abstracts of the two chapters on romance in this post so here I'll just highlight a few other quotes/elements which piqued my interest, mainly relating to depictions of race/ethnicity/geography and religion in texts/contexts related to popular romance fiction.

Chapter 1: "I Will Cut Myself and Smear Blood on the Sheet": Testing Virginity in Medieval and Modern Orientalist Romance [by Amy Burge, pages 17-44.]

Amy Burge's

focus throughout is on the [virginity] test as it applies to women, echoing the deeply gendered discourses that surround virginity testing: there are no virgin sheikhs. (18)

I'm kind of tempted to look for one now, just in case he exists out there somewhere. Almost certainly not published by Harlequin Mills & Boon, though, as I know Amy researched those very, very carefully.

Given the popularity of virgin heroines in romance fiction, it's really interesting to note that her

large-scale analysis of Mills & Boon Modern Romance [i.e. the line known as Harlequin Presents in the North American market] novels reveals that female virginity is particularly pronounced in romance novels with "foreign heroes": the ubiquitous Greeks, Italians, Spaniards, Brazilians, Argentines, and, of course, sheikhs. Of the 931 Modern Romance novels published in the United Kingdom from 2000 to 2009, 458 feature virgin heroines, and 281 of them (approximately 61 percent) have foreign heroes. This simultaneously reveals Western preoccupation with virginity and its situating of it "elsewhere." (21)

This does begin to make me wonder if, among English-speaking writers and readers, Greece, Italy and Spain are in some way not considered part of the "West," and in turn reminds me of Hsu-Ming Teo's essay about Rudolph Valentino playing the part of the "sheik." Teo mentions that

the period of mass European immigration from the 1840s to 1924 [in the US] “witnessed a fracturing of whiteness into a hierarchy of plural and scientifically determined white races,” dominated by Anglo-Saxons. [...] To southern Americans, the Mediterranean, Eastern European, Jewish, and Levantine immigrants were “in-betweens,” occupying a status between true whites and blacks."

Something of that hierarchy perhaps continues to haunt romance fiction; as a result of my own research on Greece in popular romance (forthcoming) I came across the suggestion that in England the Mediterrean has been particularly associated with passion since at least the early modern period.

It isn't entirely clear why cultures assumed to be more passionate should also be assumed to value virginity more highly but it is certainly stressed in romance novels set in the "romance East" that "female virginity is of great cultural importance. Sheikh romances repeatedly highlight the importance placed on virginity in Eastern culture [...]. Such a cultural valuing is connected to ideas of tradition often glossed as 'medieval.'" (Burge 23). As Burge concludes:

For contemporary popular romance fiction to construct the "romance East" as a space in which "medieval" virginity can be celebrated echoes the similar practice of situating practices or attitudes inappropriate today - such as sexual violence - in a distant space, such as the historical past or, indeed, the East. Relegating the valuing and testing of virginity to the East might be in line with current popular ideas about the East, but it also reveals some of the romance genre's motivations for situating this valuing in the fictional romance East. In other words, for the romance genre to celebrate the unequal traditions of heteronormativity, the virginity testing that upholds these traditions must be situated "elsewhere." As much as many Western readers [...] might condemn "foreign" cultures for continuing to conduct virginity tests, the gender hegemony that these tests uphold is clearly evident and even celebrated in our own romantic cultural imagination, as revealed in the pages of some of the most popular contemporary Western fiction. (34-35)

Chapter 2: Between Pleasure and Pain: The Textual Politics of the Hymen [by Jodi McAlister, pages 45-64.

Given the way in which the valuing of virginity is located "elsewhere" in the popular romances examined by Burge, it's intriguing that McAlister observes that

in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries [..] Some virgins were said to be affected by chlorosis or "green-sickness," for which marriage was recommended as the cure [...]. We can see this represented in [...] the 1682 ballad "A Remedy for the Green Sickness" [...] We can see represented here not only the cure for green-sickness but also the pathologization of maintained virginity that existed during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Hanne Blank notes that it is an interesting coincidence that green-sickness was so often diagnosed during the period in which Protestantism, with its emphasis on marriage as the ideal state, became popular in Europe. (47-48)

Is it also a coincidence that the countries/places onto which romance novels seem to project the idealisation of virginity are not Protestant? Possibly it is, but at the same time I can't help but remember that in the seventeenth century:

European writers associated Islam with, and criticized it for, excessive and depraved sexual practices. The sexual excesses of Muslims were believed to derive from their religion, which permitted polygamy. (Teo, Desert 40-41)

A couple of centuries later, Gothic fiction linked Catholicism and "depraved" sexuality. For example:

When in The Monk (1796), Matthew G. Lewis uses the details of conventual life to suggest lurid forms of sexual excess such as necromancy, incest, matricide, and same-sex love, he does not need to explain his choice of a Catholic setting, a Mediterranean country (Spain, not Italy in this case), or religious life itself. All these things, to the English imagination at least, make such easy, rational sense that Lewis could assume a general understanding of (and even assent to) his extravagant posturing. And while reviewers criticized Lewis’s excess, they never suggested that his portrayal of Catholic monastic life was inappropriate. If the novel can be considered sensational, that is not because anyone objected to the portrayal of the characters themselves: oversexed and violent Catholic priests, victimizing and vindictive nuns, devil worship and self-abuse. These and other lurid sexual possibilities were common popular perceptions of conventual life in Mediterranean countries. (Haggerty)

Is it yet another coincidence that all this sexual excess is taking place in settings which are supposed to be filled with virgins?

Chapter 3 - The Politics of Virginity and Abstinence in the Twilight Saga [by Jonathan A. Allan and Cristina Santos, pages 67-96.

Edward, the virgin hero of the Twilight saga is "foreign" in a different way from Mediterranean romance heroes: he is a vampire. Again, there is a link to religion:

Silver argues that his values are "uncommon in popular, mainstream secular discourse about young adult sexuality today." [...] there is an entire industry dedicated to ensuring sexual purity, which though having a religious affiliation, is also very much a part of secular culture. (72)

The issue of virginity in US culture is also mentioned in the next chapter.

Chapter 4 - Lady of Perpetual Virginity: Jessica's Presence in True Blood [Janice Zehentbauer and Cristina Santos, pages 97-123.]

Certainly, in the past two decades in America, evangelical church groups and the American government have united to encourage youth in general, and young women in particular, to choose abstinence [...]. Historian and independent scholar Hanne Blank points out that, "of all the developed world, the United States is the only one that has to date created a federal agenda having specifically to do with the virginity of its citizens." (97)

Zehentbauer and Santos suggest that

Twenty-first-century America's obsession with virginity also emerges in many artifacts of popular culture, especially those of the gothic or supernatural genres. In her influential Our Vampires, Ourselves, Nina Auerbach argues that vampires, in the Anglo-American cultural imaginary, embody and signify the sociopolitical concerns of the era that produces them. (98)

If the US policies around virginity have been at all divisive, and it would seem that they have, given that "repealing abstinence-only programs, much less authorizing the full scope of reproductive health care services, runs into deep moral divides" (Morone and Ehlke 318), and if Edward's values "are 'uncommon in [...] secular discourse," could it be that those values have to be translated into a "foreign" (in this case vampiric) context to make them palatable to a mass audience which is, nonetheless, still fascinated by virginity and what it represents?


The other chapters in the volume are:

McGuiness, Kevin. "The Queer Saint: Male Virginity in Derek Jarman's Sebastiane." (127-143.)

Ncube, Gibson. "Troping Boyishness, Effeminacy, and Masculine Queer Virginity: Abdellah Taïa and Eyet-Chékib Djaziri." (145-169.)

Sayed, Asma. "Bollywood Virgins: Diachronic Flirtations with Indian Womanhood." (173-190.)

Crowe Morey, Tracy and Adriana Spahr. "The Policing of Viragos and other "Fuckable" Bodies: Virginity as Performance in Latin America." (191-231.)

That last chapter introduced me to Catalina de Erauso whose life

reads like a picaresque novel. Born, probably in 1592, to a noble Basque family in San Sebastián, Spain, she bolted from a convent before taking her vows, assumed masculine clothing, gave herself a new identity as "Francisco de Loyola," and, early in the seventeenth century , made her way to the New World, where she led the rough-and-ready life of a soldier in the Spanish colonies.

On the battlefield she was a formidable warrior; in her other exploits she gambled, engaged in dalliances with women, brawled, and faced death sentences for murder. Once her true sex was revealed, she became a celebrity in Spain. [...]

In her memoir Erauso stressed her chief virtues as a man--physical courage--and as a woman--virginity . While she did not stint at recounting transgressive acts of "manly" bravery such as fights resulting in murder, she was more oblique when referring to acts that were sexually transgressive.

At no point does Erauso speak of physical attraction to a man. She did, however, include several incidents that show her affection for women. (Rapp)

As the authors note, she fared much better than either Joan of Arc or more modern women whose soldiering/other forms of political engagement was responded to with state-sponsored violence that included rape and execution.


Allan, Jonathan A. and Cristina Santos, 2016. 
"The Politics of Virginity and Abstinence in the Twilight Saga." Virgin Envy: The Cultural Insignificance of the Hymen. Ed. Jonathan A. Allan, Cristina Santos, and Adriana Spahr. London: Zed. 67-96.
Burge, Amy, 2016. 
"‘I Will Cut Myself and Smear Blood on the Sheet’: Testing Virginity in Medieval and Modern Orientalist Romance." Virgin Envy: The Cultural Insignificance of the Hymen. Ed. Jonathan A. Allan, Cristina Santos, and Adriana Spahr. London: Zed. 17-44.
Haggerty, George. 2004-2005. 
"The Horrors of Catholicism: Religion and Sexuality in Gothic Fiction." Romanticism on the Net 36-37.
McAlister, Jodi, 2016. 
"Between Pleasure and Pain: The Textual Politics of the Hymen." Virgin Envy: The Cultural Insignificance of the Hymen. Ed. Jonathan A. Allan, Cristina Santos, and Adriana Spahr. London: Zed. 45-64.
Morone, James A. and Daniel C. Ehlke, 2013. 
Health Politics and Policy. Fifth Edition. Cengage.
Rapp. Linda. 2003. 
"Erauso, Catalina de (ca 1592- ca 1650)." glbtq Encyclopedia.
Teo, Hsu-Ming, 2010. 
'Historicizing The Sheik: Comparisons of the British Novel and the American Film', Journal of Popular Romance Studies 1.1.
Teo, Hsu-Ming. 2012. 
Desert passions: Orientalism and romance novels. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Zehentbauer, Janice and Cristina Santos, 2016. 
"Lady of Perpetual Virginity: Jessica's Presence in True Blood." Virgin Envy: The Cultural Insignificance of the Hymen. Ed. Jonathan A. Allan, Cristina Santos, and Adriana Spahr. London: Zed. 97-123.

Part II - Representations of Romantic Relationships and the Romance Genre in Contemporary Women's Writing (Sheffield, 11 June 2016)

By Laura Vivanco on

Continued from Part I. In this post I'm summarising the following 3 papers:

Dr. Amy Burge, University of Edinburgh - Beyond the Alpha: Sex, Masculinity and the Exotic in twenty-first century Harlequin Mills & Boon romance.

Val Derbyshire, University of Sheffield - "In these modern times": Reading Harlequin Mills & Boon Romantic Novels as Signs of the Times

Alicia Williams, Independent Researcher - Busting the Mills & Boon Myth: Category Romance as an Instrument for Change


Dr. Amy Burge, University of Edinburgh - Beyond the Alpha: Sex, Masculinity and the Exotic in twenty-first century Harlequin Mills & Boon romance.


Amy's the Book Review editor of the Journal of Popular Romance Studies and her Representing Difference in the Medieval and Modern Orientalist Romance was recently published by Palgrave Macmillan.

A few days before the conference Amy gave a few teasers for her paper on Twitter:


When the @natlibscot lets you have a whole trolley full of @MillsandBoon novels to consult #research #amwriting pic.twitter.com/axH9p6mQc3

— Amy Burge (@dramyburge) 17 May 2016

Today mainly involves a huge spreadsheet in which I've tried to turn words into numbers and hopefully answers #Quantitative #Literature

— Amy Burge (@dramyburge) 30 May 2016

As these suggest, Amy's been doing quantitative research on a huge corpus of romances. I'm not sure quite how many romances it was, but it looked to be in the hundreds, at least, given that Amy was looking at 10 or more years' worth of novels in a line which publishes around 8 books every month. In the course of the research for her recent book Amy collected a lot of data on the Harlequin Presents/Mills & Boon Modern/Sexy line's heroes. In this paper she revealed some of the findings which didn't make it into her book.

This "line" of romances promises readers "glamorous international settings" and Mills & Boon say that "Our heroes are 100% alpha but that doesn't mean they're perfect. Sheikh, Greek, Russian, Italian, English, American...wherever he's from, it's certain that he turns the heads of every woman he passes!"

Clearly the line provides a rich source of primary material relating to masculinity, race and ethnicity because the heroes embody hegemonic masculinity i.e. the current most honoured way of being a man. This masculinity is both performative (it is shown in what the heroes do) and normative (in that it sets a standard by which other men can be judged). Hegemonic masculinity is an idealised version of masculinity and it's hierarchical because it marginalises some masculinities while elevating others.

In this context, it's interesting to note that although, as Edward Said observed, Western orientalism associated oriental masculinity with feminine penetrability, the Harlequin Mills & Boon sheikh exhibits hegemonic masculinity.

Given that the majority of the authors in this line are from the UK, North America or Australasia and the line promises exotic, international settings, it's perhaps not surprising that 61% of the heroes in the corpus are not from those countries.

Italian heroes appear to the most popular, followed by Greeks, sheikhs, Spanish, Latin American, Mediterranean (either unspecified or invented countries) and Russians. The popularity of certain nationalities has fluctuated, however. For example, in more recent years Spaniards have declined in popularity while Latin Americans have increased in number. Russian heroes emerged in 2008. There were, however, no African or East Asian heroes at all.

The titles of these novels also reveal interesting trends. They usually reflect aspects of the hero's cultural identity (mainly his nationality) and profession (if you can call being a prince of a billionaire a "profession"). Interestingly, while it is common for it to be signalled in the title when a hero is a sheikh, this is not so likely to happen for Russians. Russians (and Latin Americans) are more likely to be described as ruthless, dark or devilish in the titles while the words "Greek" and "tycoon" are often found together.

Within the covers of the novels sheikhs are often described using metaphors and similies relating to the desert and dangerous desert creatures such as birds of prey and big cats. Harems are often mentioned in order to establish the hero's cultural tradition of masculine sexual dominance. In a nod to the feminine connotations of the orient, the authors may mention the hero's "robes" but immediately assert that they increase, or at least do nothing to minimise, his powerful masculinity.

The number of heroes from India is very small (only 3 novels) so it is more difficult to generalise about them. Susanna Carr's Secrets of a Bollywood Marriage (2014) and one of the other novels were both described by readers as having less alpha/dominant heroes than usual in this line.

We speculated about reasons for the trends in particular nationalities' popularity, including 9/11 and economic crises. This led well into the topic of the next paper.

Val Derbyshire, University of Sheffield - "In these modern times": Reading Harlequin Mills & Boon Romantic Novels as Signs of the Times

Even though her "doctoral research concerns a highly respected eighteenth-century poet and novelist, Charlotte Turner Smith (1749-1806)" Val has argued at a "conference, hosted by the University of Cambridge ‘CRASSH’ (Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities) [...] entitled Art/Money/Crisis" that romance author Penny "Jordan’s novels illustrate her understanding of the sense of powerlessness losing financial independence has and how it affects her characters/ordinary people in society" (see the blog post here).

Today Val looked at a range of novels by Penny Jordan and then at Roberta Leigh's Man Without a Heart. demonstrating that Mills & Boon romances could be used by researchers as social barometers which offer information about the times in which they were written and reflect the concerns of ordinary women, offering insight into fashion, fears of financial crises, terrorism, and industrial relations. Man Without a Heart, for example, features a secondary character (the heroine's uncle) who is a trade unionist and the novel highlights the divide between London's social elites and the working classes.

More about Val's history of romance reading, and details of Penny Jordan's role as social barometer can be found here.

Although it's still relatively unusual for romances to be read and used in this way, Val and a handful of other researchers have demonstrated that romances can be fruitful primary sources for historians and others investigating social history. I've summarised Professor Tom Baum's romance-based research into representations of the airline industry here and Joseph McAleer has argued that "the new 'Doctor-Nurse' novels first published by Mills & Boon in the 1950s [...] reinforced a positive view of the NHS among middle- and working-class readers".

Alicia Williams, Independent Researcher - Busting the Mills & Boon Myth: Category Romance as an Instrument for Change

Ali describes herself as a "Freelance editor, journalist and academic. Specialisms include #IntersectionalRomances, #StrongRomanceHeroines and #AdaptationandAppropriation". She's an editor of the Pink Heart Society blog, where Harlequin Mills & Boon authors from a wide range of lines post about their books, inspirations and work-lives. That puts her in contact with a lot of authors and when she asked some of them what they thought about social issues in romance almost all of them said that romance could deal with them and one even stated that it was irresponsible for authors not to address them.

Perhaps as a result, Ali works on the assumption that "the death of the author" has been much exaggerated and in her research into the social issues addressed in Harlequin Mills & Boon romances she's very interested in authorial intent, as often revealed in "Dear Reader" letters which appear before the title page. She believes it's a powerful experience for readers to be addressed directly by authors, as Tara Tylor Quinn does in Husband by Choice and Once a Family.

Romance authors approach social issues with the guarantee of a happy ending providing a safety net which reassures readers that the issues can be dealt with and the obstacles to happiness overcome. Tara Taylor Quinn, who has herself experienced domestic violence, does so in her Where Secrets are Safe series, set in a woman's shelter called The Lemonade Stand. In one novel it is revealed that the hero has been a victim of domestic abuse at the hands of his now ex-wife. In another an abused secondary character is helped by the protagonists.

Ali has now begun The CatRom Project as an online "exploration of the way in which category romances address and engage with social issues." [Edited to add: Ali's now put the whole of her paper online at the CatRom Project.]

Review/Summary (2 - Katherine Morrissey): Women and Erotic Fiction, ed. Kristen Phillips

By Laura Vivanco on

Katherine E. Morrissey's

essay outlines key moments in the history of erotic romance in America, beginning with the "hot historicals" produced (primarily) in America in the 1970s and moving to the production of "erotic" media in America and the United Kingdom in the 1990s. Next, I examine the melding of the terms erotic and romance by American publishers over the course of the late '90s and early 2000s, as well as the debate this provoked among online communities of romance readers at the time. [...] I conclude this essay by asking where erotic romance is headed next and identifying a set of questions we need to ask as this process unfolds. (42-3)

Morrissey does argue, though, that:

Rather than seeing the 1970s Avon publications as an origin point for erotic romance, this period should be recognized as a moment where the erotic again becomes visible. Like the sheik romances so popular in America and the West in the 1920s, the erotic romances of the '70s are indicative of a period of reconfiguration across broader Western culture and a moment where the representation of sexual desire in romance was renegotiated. (44-5)


Morrissey, Katherine E. "Steamy, Spicy, Sensual: Tracing the Cycles of Erotic Romance". Women and Erotic Fiction: Critical Essays on Genres, Markets and Readers. Ed. Kristen Phillips. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland 2015. 42-58.

Nell Gwyn: History Shaped by Romance

By Laura Vivanco on

Perfect Royal Mistress The King's Favorite

Julia Novak's "Nell Gwyn in Contemporary Romance Novels: Biography and the Dictates of 'Genre Literature'"

examines the generic properties of Diane Haeger’s The Perfect Royal Mistress (2007), Susan Holloway Scott’s The King’s Favorite (2008), and Gillian Bagwell’s The Darling Strumpet (2011).

In view of the remarkable rise of fictionalized biography in the past two decades, it comes as no surprise that several novelists have found Gwyn’s life an attractive subject and thus reaffirmed her status as a cultural icon. The fictionalized biography as such is a fascinating hybrid genre, incorporating biographical fact but presenting it in a fictional mode. The novels under consideration are all the more interesting for their participation in a specific segment of contemporary “women’s fiction”: the historical romance novel. While the facts of Gwyn’s life complicate the novels’ generic plotlines as romance narratives, the romantic elements in turn put pressure on the representation of the biographee’s life, which must make concessions to the demands of the genre. (1)

Novak finds that the novels' affiliation with romance is "signaled by the three book covers, showing images of attractive young women in lavish period dress" and by having "the novels’ titles rendered in ornamental gold lettering" (2). I don't really know enough about covers to be able to assess this assertion, but they don't exactly scream "romance" to me. I tend to expect two people on the cover of a romance, or one person in a state of partial undress.

However, Novak also argues that the texts themselves shape history to fit (at least some of) the expectations of romance:

All three novels capitalize on the features of Gwyn’s life that translate easily into a romance narrative, and they all foreshadow the central love plot early on. In Diane Haeger’s Perfect Royal Mistress (2007), which opens with sixteen-year-old Nell selling oranges in front of the Theatre Royal, the heroine first encounters the king as early as on page 4, noticing that “her knees were suddenly weak” in his presence (Haeger 7). The beginning of Susan Holloway Scott’s The King’s Favorite (2008) features an eleven-year-old Nell with a strong sense of self, who spies the king for the first time on page 6, immediately making him the center of her plans for the future. (4)

In their portayals of Nell herself

Haeger, Holloway Scott, and Bagwell have harnessed Gwyn’s relative popularity for their respective Cinderella stories and shaped their novels’ character constellations accordingly: a likeable heroine with whom readers will easily be able to identify, flanked by two disagreeable aristocratic women. Haeger’s Nell is perhaps the most extreme of the three Nells, willingly taking on responsibility for her drunkard mother and sickly sister, and adopting a black slave girl on top (charitable, caring, and not racist!). These efforts to turn Gwyn into a romantic heroine that readers can “cheer for” may well be the reason for the conspicuous absence from all three novels of the more problematic facts about the historical Nell Gwyn. As with the other two mistresses, her subsistence, and indeed, luxury, was founded on the king’s generosity, and thus, on public money. (6)

Novak also highlights several episodes which have been omitted from all of these novels which might have cast Nell in a much less sympathetic light, including her giving a laxative to a rival and the slitting of Sir John Coventry's nose.

As far as Nell's sexual history is concerned, although "the novels are true to Gwyn’s biography in keeping (most of) her relationships in the story," Novak feels they make "concessions to the romance genre by depicting Nell’s emotional development as directed toward her one true love" (9), Charles II. He, however, is not really romance-hero material: he is a married man and Nell is only one among many sexual partners. All the same,

Haeger’s novel ends on the words: “She may not have been the queen, nor even his only mistress – far from that – but she knew with every fiber of her being, and so did their son, that she had been his only love.” (13)


Novak, Julia. "Nell Gwyn in Contemporary Romance Novels: Biography and the Dictates of 'Genre Literature'." Contemporary Women's Writing. Advance Access publication date: June 6, 2014.

Strong Women

By Laura Vivanco on

I'm probably going to be moving house soon, which means I'll have to part with quite a few of my books. I'm treating this as an opportunity to take a break from my current project and concentrate on books I've been meaning to read for a while; one of them is Amanda Vickery's The Gentleman's Daughter: Women's Lives in Georgian England (there's a detailed review here). Vickery's description of their lives and beliefs suggests that women who might be considered doormats by the standards of many modern romance readers would have seen their own behaviour rather differently:

it was a commonplace that the strict performance of duty generated a degree of secret pleasure, and ladies were relentlessly tutored on how to reach and enjoy the moral high ground: 'You must also learn to be satisfied with the Consciousness of acting Right', counselled Lady Sarah Pennington, 'and look with an unconcerned Indifference on the Reception every successless Attempt to please may meet with,' while Eliza Haywood promised 'Sweet indeed are the reflections, which flow from a consciousness of having done what virtue and the duty owing to the character we bear in life, exacted from us ...' Women's own letters and diaries do suggest that many did their duty to a round of inner applause, finding a certain exaltation in it. Ladies accepted patriarchy in theory, although, strikingly, the assertion of male authority often proved much more acceptable and manageable coming from fathers than from husbands and brothers. Still, when wronged, genteel women rarely questioned the justice of the gender hierarchy; rather they bemoaned the fact that their menfolk departed so sorrily from the authoritative masculine ideal. That said, none of the women studied here expected to endure tyranny [...] and they were fully conscious of what was owing to their dignity and rank. While not above the occasional exhibition of an almost theatrical feminine inferiority when petitioning for favours, the habitual self-projection of most was of upright strength, stoical fortitude and self-command. To be mistress of oneself was paramount - genteel ladies aimed to be self-possessed in social encounters, self-controlled in the face of minor provocations, self-sufficient in the midst of ingratitude, and, above all, brave and enduring in the grip of tragedy and misfortune. Abject feminine servility was the ineradicable mark of the kitchen maid not her employer. (8)

Samuel Richardson's Pamela Andrews and Jane Austen's Fanny Price may not appeal to modern readers as much as the outspoken Elizabeth Bennet, but they are "brave and enduring in the grip of tragedy and misfortune" and, in their own ways, they show a great deal of strength. They may begin their stories rather closer to being kitchen maids than employers but by the end of the novels in which they appear these heroines have been rewarded for their fortitude and virtue with more than "a round of inner applause": they are firmly embedded in the ranks of the genteel.


Vickery, Amanda. The Gentleman's Daughter: Women's Lives in Georgian England. New Haven: Yale UP, 1998.

History and an Emotional Revolution

By Laura Vivanco on

The period covered by Claire Langhamer's new book, The English in Love: The Intimate Story of An Emotional Revolution is probably not quite "historical" by the standards of popular romance fiction since it looks at the years from "1920-1970" (4) but reading it made me consider beliefs about love in relation to both historical romances and the history of popular romance.

Langhamer argues that

there is something distinctive about the ways in which love, sex, and marriage were interwoven within mid-century England. This is not to suggest that love had no significance for ordinary people prior to the twentieth century or that there was somehow 'more' love in this period than ever before. [...] Romantic love is hardly a modern invention. (11)


While it would be inaccurate to suggest that pre-twentieth-century marriages were characterized by lovelessness, love was not always deemed sufficient reason to marry. [...] By the 1950s emotion alone was increasingly enough. (13)

Thinking about love as an emotion which "has a history. It has meant different things to different people at different moments and has served different purposes" (Langhamer 4) has obvious implications for historical romances.

Historical fiction, I suspect, always keeps one eye on the present even as it looks backwards in order to depict the past. Sometimes the eye looking back sees little more than picturesque clothes and quaint customs and the result is "wallpaper" historical fiction; at others a whole-hearted attempt is made to depict a time and place with its own mentalités (I put that in the plural because societies are not homogenous, and there are likely to be significant differences in the worldviews of people of different social classes etc).


In recent years historical research has taken an 'emotional turn', driven by an assertion that feeling is shaped by time and culture. 'Emotions themselves are extremely plastic,' observes the medievalist Barbara Rosenwein, 'it is very hard to maintain, except at an abstract level that emotions are everywhere the same. (Langhamer 7-8)

another of my suspicions is that it is still more difficult to create a work of historical fiction which is accurate in its depiction of a society's attitudes than one in which, for example, details of clothing have been meticulously researched, partly because because beliefs are much less tangible than old fabrics and less visible than fashion prints but also because the beliefs and attitudes of the author and intended readers may get in the way. I suspect, too, that this might be a bit more likely to true in historical romance than in other kinds of historical fiction because the heroes and heroines of romances are usually people the reader is meant to find admirable and/or "sympathetic" and that probably means they're expected to have attitudes similar to those of the reader. Furthermore, readers of romances usually want the novels to be romantic and they may well define that by their own standards rather than by those of the historical period in which the book is set.

Characters whose attitudes seem closer to those of a modern reader than to those of their own time are not necessarily anachronistic. After all, as mentioned, societies are not homogeneous and it's possible that romance authors are more likely to write about characters whose beliefs are somewhat unusual yet might still have been held by someone living in that period. There's a limit, though, to quite how far "before their time" someone can be and still seem authentic, and there are also implications for such an individual's status in their society.

One way round this might be for authors of historical fiction to concentrate on periods which are not so very far from our own, so that the gap between their attitudes towards love and ours seems easier to bridge. I wonder if that might be one factor underlying the popularity of Regency romances.


Attitudes towards love and marriage would appear to have changed quite rapidly however, even within the past century. One indication of this is provided by lonely hearts columns:

What the modern reader might see as endearingly modest romantic aspirations were not unusual amongst Post clients in the 1920s and 1930s. The successful execution of gendered roles was of apparently more importance than looks and the capacity for passion. A 5 foot 6 inch tall widower felt it important to include his skills as a motor car driver, pony and pig breeder, and experimental fruit grower before self-describing as 'kind and cheery ... and not too ugly'. A commitment to domesticity was paramount: both spinster and bachelor clients requested 'homely' individuals. Steadiness was a much sought-after attribute.

After the Second World War personality traits became more important within the pages of the Post. Women clients now looked for a sense of humour, loyalty and kindness whilst men requested affectionate and loving women. 'Normality' and 'ordinariness' was also much in demand. By 1955, the language of emotional intimacy had shifted. It was not unheard of for those who advertised to suggest that they were looking for a soulmate. We can begin to discern a more introspective model of romantic taste which placed emotional connection at its heart. Changed understandings of love - of its everyday status, meaning, and power - underpinned this model. Within this context, love had the capacity to transform the self. Indeed, a capacity for transcendence came to be a marker of emotional authenticity. (23-24)

I can't help but wonder how these changes affected popular romance fiction. Langhamer notes that

historian Judy Giles explains: 'in the 1920s and 1930s the acceptable response to the longing expressed in romantic fiction was to read these as "silly", "perverted", and "immature", marginal and potentially threatening to the "real" experiences of a woman's life which consisted of prudential marriage and the provision of a comfortable, hygienic home in which to sustain a male breadwinner and rear healthy children.' (54)

Of course romantic fiction isn't homogenous and there's always been a mixture of the really escapist and unrealistic (like E. M. Hull's The Sheik) and the more down-to-earth, which is perhaps more likely to emphasise shared backgrounds and outlooks.  I wonder if, in a way, the more escapist side of the genre came to seem more emotionally realistic as the century moved on and people adopted more idealistic views about transcendent love within marriage. As far as the present is concerned, Langhamer's suggestion that

At the beginning and at the end of the twentieth century sex and love constituted separate, though often interlocking, spheres. The mid-century achievement was to entwine them. (49)

makes me wonder whether romance fiction which equates passion with true love seems increasingly unrealistic in the context of 21st-century attitudes towards love, sex and marriage. Also, given that Langhamer's study is about the English in love, and the centre of romance publishing seems to have moved from London to North America, I wonder whether there are significantly different ideas about love in the US and UK.


Langhamer, Claire. The English in Love: The Intimate Story of An Emotional Revolution. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2013. [Excerpt here and reviews from Times Higher EducationThe Telegraph, The Economist and The Guardian.]

Heyer's Here

By Laura Vivanco on

My article about Georgette Heyer is out now in the latest issue of the Journal of Popular Romance Studies. It's called "Georgette Heyer: The Nonesuch of Regency Romance" and it addresses a variety of issues, including Heyer's attention to historical detail, her didacticism, and her attitudes on matters relating to race and class.

I've identified a number of primary sources Heyer seems to have used in her research, including an engraving of the Dropping Well which is mentioned in The Nonesuch and the guidebook Corisande Stinchcombe's been reading in Lady of Quality. I also think I've pinned down the precise year in which The Nonesuch is set (it's the first of the two possibilities given in the "Heyer Novel Chronology").

I conclude that:

As with the Nonesuch’s gift of a “dissected map [...] all made of little pieces which fit into each other, to make a map of Europe” (190), “The impression given of ‘history’ in these novels can be summed up as an imaginative creation, a selective version of the past” (Hughes 139). The nineteenth-century dissected map, “born in the same workshops as its more formal sibling, the imperial map” (Norcia 5), offered children “narratives of power and authority which are incumbent in the business of building both nation and empire” (2). Such maps were not simply neutral depictions of the world: they were “often strategically colored or marked to catalog the resources and opportunities for imperial inscription; titles reflect the moving horizon of imperial ambitions” (10). Heyer’s historical romances are also shaped by ideologies which ensure that, despite the historical accuracy of many of their details, they will not be universally accepted as “quite unexceptionable.” Mrs Chartley cautioned Miss Trent that

Sir Waldo belongs to a certain set which is considered to be the very height of fashion. In fact, he is its leader […]. You must know, perhaps better than I do, that the manners and too often the conduct of those who are vulgarly called Top-of-the-Trees are not governed by quite the same principles which are the rule in more modest circles. (207)

Heyer is the Nonesuch of Regency romance: like Sir Waldo she led her “set,” conforming to such high standards of historical accuracy that she too can be considered a “paragon” (20). Nonetheless, neither Heyer nor Sir Waldo embodied “perfection” (20) and the manners and conduct endorsed by Heyer’s novels are not governed by quite the same principles as those which are the rule in many more modern circles. (11-12)

You can read the article on the JPRS website or download the pdf.


Vivanco, Laura. "Georgette Heyer: The Nonesuch of Regency Romance." Journal of Popular Romance Studies 3.2 (2013).

Passing: Identifying Dragons

By Laura Vivanco on

Like Aliette de Bodard, I have recently finished reading Rachel Hartman's Seraphina, a fantasy novel with romantic elements. Unlike her, I enjoyed it. Now that could be because, unlike her, I did not read it

mainly because it was recommended to me as a great portrayal of a mixed-race protagonist: its eponymous heroine is half-dragon, half-human in a world where a fragile peace reigns between the two species. Seraphina is the Music Mistress at the court of the human queen of Goredd, where she passes as human in order to avoid the deep-seated prejudice and fear engendered by dragons (who are able to take human form but are betrayed by their silver blood and their odd smell).

It’s an intriguing setup; but in the end, I’m sad to report I was somewhat disappointed by Seraphina and its portrayal of race relationships.

I wonder, though, if another reason I enjoyed it is that I'm a medievalist at heart despite my move into popular romance scholarship and the religious beliefs and race relations in Goredd seemed to me to resemble those I came across while studying medieval Castile.

For those who haven't read the novel, here's a quick summary taken from Janine's review at Dear Author: this

debut YA fantasy [...] set in a world based [on] Renaissance Europe, is both a coming of age story and a tale of a clash between two species. Sixteen year old Seraphina Dombegh, the heroine of the novel, is the child of a human father and a dragon mother. The secret of her maternity is one she must hide at all costs.

In this world, dragons are a logical, emotionless species, but they can take human shape and while doing so, experience human emotions – something they guard against vigilantly. A truce exists between the two species but there is also a lot of tension and bigotry. Most dragons in Goredd, Seraphina’s country, are required to wear a bell on their shoulder, although scholarly dragons are exempt.

From Seraphina’s narration, we learn that her father Claude had no idea his wife Linn was a dragon until Linn died giving birth to Seraphina. At first glance Seraphina appeared to be a normal human baby, and it was not until she was eleven that she discovered that she is not what she appears to be.

I'd have identified it as a fantasy version of the late Middle Ages, but that's probably because in the Castilian context the fifteenth century is considered medieval. Random House describe the novel as being set in "an alternative-medieval world" and, although I'm no expert on this, the buildings on the cover look Gothic or Tudor to me.

Whether alternative-medieval or alternative-Renaissance, the dating of the setting is, I think, rather important to the novel's depiction of the way the two species relate to one another. Aliette de Bodard has stated that

I guess that, insofar as you buy the setting, Seraphina and the other half-dragons are an accurate portrayal of what it’s like to be mixed-race in a world where race divisions are sharp and bitter, and half-dragons are viewed as abominations. What I take issue with is the whole setup: as a metaphor for race relationships (and, even if this wasn’t deliberate, the metaphor sort of naturally bubbles up when the book tackles subjects like interspecies breeding, interspecies prejudice and other related stuff), this is freaking old-fashioned. It might have been the case in my grandparents’ generation (and even then, did we genuinely have two races at each other’s throat in such a non-subtle way?); but it’s certainly never been my experience. In a similar way, prejudice here is outright ugly and blatant: people throw “abomination” very quickly at half-dragons (and at dragons), and Seraphina herself is very much aware of this–even doubting at times that she has a right to exist.

Firstly, in my grandparents' time we did indeed have "two races at each other's throat in such a non-subtle way": they lived through the Second World War, a time when the supposed differences between "Aryans" and Jews were elaborated in considerable detail. Secondly, if Seraphina is set in an alternative-medieval world then of course it may seem "freaking old-fashioned" but

In medieval parlance, the term ‘monster’ was [...] applied specifically to non-Christians, all of whom shared a common monstrous flaw: the failure to embrace the true Christian faith. So even though they possessed an extremely well-developed set of monotheistic beliefs which provided the infrastructure for Christianity itself, the Jews were viewed as idol-worshipping, demonic pagans, principally owing to the Christian conviction that they were responsible for the death of Christ.

The thirteenth-century Salvin Hours contains typically monstrous portrayals of Jews in a representation of Christ before Caiaphas, the high priest. The Jews are instantly recognisable from their grotesque physiognomy, featuring dark skin, hooked noses, and evil grimaces. (Strickland)

There was also a belief that "Jews had a characteristic strong body odor, the foetor Iudaicus. [...] Another such folkloristic feature of the Jewish body was a pair of horns" (Patai & Patai 13). It is perhaps not a coincidence that Hartman's dragons can be identified by their odor.

The belief that Jews were physically different has persisted into modern times. Richard Jeffrey Newman, for example, recounts that,

In eleventh grade, my class went on a trip to somewhere that included a tour of a ship of historical importance. (I don’t remember which one.) We were standing on the deck, when a group of much younger kids, probably in elementary school, came on board. One of the girls asked one of the adults accompanying them why the boys in my group were wearing those “funny hats.” The adult explained that they were called yarmulkes and it meant we were Jewish. “Oh,” the kid said, a tone of wonder completely bereft of irony creeping into her voice. “Then where are their horns?”

If Jews were really readily identifiable by their physical appearance, however, it would presumably not have been deemed necessary to impose particular types of clothing which would act as visible markers of difference. As Hartman herself related in an essay written in 2001, in the Middle Ages it was frequently the case that

Local laws required Jews, "Saracens," and sometimes even Christian deviants to wear distinctive clothing, or markers on their clothing, so they could be readily identified. Again, the details varied from community to community. For Jews, the markers most often consisted of a round patch, usually yellow, about the size of a human palm, to be displayed prominently upon the front of the garment. They could sometimes get out of wearing it -- for a fee, of course. Muslims were marked with a yellow crescent. In fact, visible religious identification may have begun in Islamic countries as a means of identifying those who were exempt from heeding the call to prayer. In Christian Europe, however, lawmakers were more interested in segregation, in preventing intermarriage, and in increasing the revenues brought in by tolls and taxes levied exclusively on non-Christians.

The obligation to wear markers such as these was, of course, revived by the Nazis and, albeit in a much more benign form, concerns about Jews' ability to "pass" continue to be expressed. In 2008 "The Girl Detective" posted at Feministe that:

I’ve written before on how angry I was when fellow progressives began to inform me that while some Jews consider themselves white, it’s only because they’ve assimilated into white culture. They never explained what white-looking Jews actually are, if not white, but the message was always clear: if we Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jews think we’re white, well, it’s just because we wanted some of that tasty privilege so badly that we suppressed our real identity to get it. [...]

Here’s what’s really toxic about the idea that an Ashkenazi like me isn’t what she says she is: it paints us as infiltrators or spies, sneaking into white society so that we can get our hands on what doesn’t belong to us. From a white point of view, this turns us into something threatening, a presence that has to be identified and dealt with. (I still remember the anecdote a Jewish boyfriend’s mother told me: when they moved, their new neighbor felt it necessary to warn them that the family down the block was Jewish. “Well, we’ll fit right in,” my boyfriend’s mother responded. The neighbor didn’t speak to them again.)

Aliette de Bodard points out that "Some of us (white/SE Asians mixed-race people, for instance) simply never have this option, and we live our entire lives with what we are writ clearly on our faces and bodies. This is, of course, true. But many Jews have had this "option" and, in the past, were set apart by methods akin to the bells worn by Hartman's dragons when they are in human form. What de Bodard's comments demonstrate, I think, is that there is no one experience of being "mixed race" but, by the same token, de Bodard's experience does not invalidate the experiences of those who, like Seraphina, are able to conceal their "otherness." In addition, the historical sources on which Hartman is drawing suggest to me that, if "Seraphina is [...] oddly obsessed with 'passing'" this is not, as de Bodard suspects, simply because "it’s a US book and this has always been a huge issue in the US."


de Bodard, Aliette. "Seraphina, full-blood prejudice and pervasive racial passing." 14 February 2013.

Hartman, Rachel. "Sometimes a Codpiece is Just a Codpiece: The Meanings of Medieval Clothes." Strange Horizons. 22 October 2001.

Janine. "REVIEW: Seraphina by Rachel Hartman." Dear Author. 16 January 2013.

Newman, Richard Jeffrey. "What We Talk About (And Don't Talk About) When We Talk About (And Don't Talk About) antisemitism and Israel - 1." Alas A Blog. 19 January 2009.

Patai, Raphael and Jennifer Patai. 1975. The Myth of the Jewish Race. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1989.

Strickland, Debra Higgs. "Monsters and Christian Enemies." History Today 50.2 (2000).

The Girl Detective. "On Being Jewish and White." Feministe. 7 July 2008.