Politics and the Past in Historical Romance Fiction

January 2017

Words are powerful. They can evoke old fears and prejudices and incite violence; they can comfort and sustain and inspire people to change the world for the better. Alyssa Cole’s protagonists in Let It Shine are tested to see if they can endure the most hateful of words; they are sustained in their struggle by the words of protest songs, sung with others. In Cole’s novel


Sofronia Wallis knows that proper Black women don’t court trouble by upending the status quo, but it’s 1961 and the Civil Rights movement is in full swing. […]


[Ivan Fridman’s] family escaped from Europe before the horrors of WWII, and Ivan decides to help fight injustice in their new country.


Let it Shine is a vivid illustration of the fact that, as one Muslim woman of colour has recently stated, people such as Cole’s Black heroine, her Jewish hero, and their allies “do not need to be silent. We do need to find resilience, inspiration and hope in one another” (Benzizoune). While the novel portrays oppression and prejudice, it also offers tempered optimism: it is a text which, to borrow the words of one descendent of Holocaust survivors, argues that “We must not lose our faith in moral progress and in social progress, but we must remember that moral progress and social progress are not linear and unimpeded and inevitable” (Wieseltier).


It has been said that this is the time to “make America great again” and “one of the strongest indicators of Trump support (and support for far-right movements elsewhere) is a belief that things were better in the past” (Saunders). It may therefore be instructive to take a closer look at the country’s historical romance novels. Some are written by authors who engage in painstaking research; many another has been accused of failing to “understand the power system it’s nominally about” and therefore being, in effect, a “contemporary romance with a dressing-up box” (Charles). Either way, they can provide insight into their readers’ beliefs and desires:


Even if the myth created seems to offer little more than wish-fulfillment, those wishes arise from perceptions which are far from being ‘merely’ escapist. An escape […] must be from something and to something. […] Nor is the past presented by ‘serious’ fiction necessarily any less ‘unreal’ than that in ‘escapist’ texts […]. Even an account of historical ‘reality’ which seems neutral is actually—through selection of ‘facts’ or their interpretation—an ideologically charged construction. (Hughes 7-8)


So-called “inspirational” or evangelical Christian romance novels can be set in a wide variety of places and periods but,


When asked why he felt historical settings were so popular with […] inspirational fiction readers in general, David Horton replied: “I suppose the focus on historical settings was initially popular in Christian fiction for the same reasons it has long been popular in general market fiction. Many people love reading about other times, in particular ‘the good old days’ when, or so we like to imagine, life was simpler and/or more exciting. (Johnson)


For white “conservative Protestant women” readers of evangelical historical romances who “view the novels as historically accurate” these texts portray periods of history in which “evangelicals emerge triumphant, and America is Christian” (Neal: 174, 175, 178). That, presumably, is what makes the “old days” good for these readers.


What readers of mainstream historical romance seek and find in their reading is less clear, yet it is noticeable that romance fiction as a whole constantly “adapts [...], acquiring [...] traits that are favorable to its survival and discarding ones that are not, aided by the way authors code for them in a new sociopolitical environment” (Kamblé 15). Jayashree Kamblé offers as an example the differences between Lisa Kleypas’s Only in Your Arms in its 1992 edition and the revised 2002 version, retitled When Strangers Marry:


All the edits consistently speak to a more racially sensitive rhetoric, likely in response to a perceived emphasis in public discourse on such sensitivity and respect. The edits reveal the author-publisher’s instinct that ignoring Max’s role in slavery [as the owner of a plantation], representing black dialect, or using certain racial descriptors would cast a shadow on the story in 2002 and make its protagonists undesirable/unpleasant/unerotic. (20)


A large number of authors and readers may prefer to avoid such settings entirely; certainly in the current US market “If there’s one unwritten rule in historical romance, it’s that venturing outside of England is a risky proposition” (Lamb).


With regards to racial/ethnic diversity, the 2016 Nielsen Romance Book Summit found that while 41% of “minority” readers of romance said it was “very important” that the characters in the romances they read “reflect diverse ethnic backgrounds” only 24% of white readers said the same thing (Anderson “Romance”). White readers made up the vast bulk of the romance readership: “Nielsen cites as much as 81 percent of the romance readership in the States being caucasian” (Anderson “For”). If a large proportion of them lack real enthusiasm for “diverse ethnic backgrounds” this may be one factor behind the dominance of historical romances located in Britain. There may be other reasons why novels with settings such as the Tang Dynasty China of Jeannie Lin’s romance’s are rare (as discussed by Lin herself). Nonetheless, they are rare and, despite the efforts of authors such as Lin, Rose Lerner, Courtney Milan and others, there is a marked degree of homogeneity in the identities of British-set historical romance protagonists. They are predominantly white, English-speaking, heterosexual, and often aristocratic and extremely wealthy. The latter may owe something to wish fulfilment but the ethnicity/race and sexual orientation of the heroines of these novels tend to mirror that of the majority of romance readers: as mentioned, 81% of them are white, and of the 84% who are female (Anderson “For”), 85% “report their sexual orientation to be heterosexual or straight” (Anderson “Romance”).


Is mainstream historical romance, nonetheless, a type of protest literature? Some of its authors would argue that it is. Sarah Maclean, for example, has stated that “there is nothing at all more powerful than a woman who acknowledges her sexual identity” and argues that romance novels are denigrated because their political message is feared:


once women begin thinking about sexual pleasure, things get particularly terrifying. It begins with sexual parity and ends… where? What will women want after orgasmic equality? Equal opportunity? Equal pay? Equality, full stop? (Answer: All of the above.)


However, one might object that the difficulties of attaining equality are minimised and the contributions of women of different ethnic/racial backgrounds, social classes and/or sexual orientations are ignored when progress towards greater equality is depicted as being achieved primarily or exclusively through well-off heterosexual white women finding sexual fulfilment within marriage. Moreover, in these novels the historical setting may


be seen as the amniotic fluid in which the seeds of the present float. Tendencies can be isolated in a historic period, which, however alien that time may seem, none the less prefigure characteristics of the contemporary world. (Hughes 4)


Such historical romances may therefore nurture or bolster a comforting belief in the inevitability of social progress.


By contrast, Beverly Jenkins, probably the most famous African American historical romance author, is well aware that hard-won gains can be reversed:


right after the Civil War you had those great gains with Reconstruction—this huge amount of Black men in Congress and representatives through the states, you had the lieutenant governor in Louisiana, you had Black folks in positions of power and businesses and colleges going up. And then when Reconstruction died in 1876, everything started to unravel. You had the rise of the Klan and you had the Redemption period. And lynchings and blood and death and destruction. And folks said we’ve got to leave the South. They moved into places like Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Colorado, California. […]


In the ‘70s you had African Americans retaking their places in Congress and in the Senate and in local elections. So there’s a parallel in us rising and then the ‘90s and stuff started to sort of peter out again. It’s an up and down cycle. (Faircloth)


Her historical romances are perhaps therefore more invigorating and uplifting than escapist: as she says of her novels, their message is “Don’t tell a Black woman there’s something she can’t do” (Dandridge). Jenkins has been an inspiration to a new generation of African American historical romance authors which includes Kianna Alexander, Alyssa Cole, Lena Hart and Piper Huguely. Depending on what you believe about the past, now might be a good time to pick up some of their books.


I wrote this in response to a request for an article for an online journal but ultimately it wasn't accepted for publication. Since then it's become clear that this is a time when many readers are seeking out what Oliva Waite calls "Romance for the Resistance." As Ceilidhann says in "Reading Romance as a Political Act," there have been "a lot of fellow romance readers on Twitter seeking out stories with activist and resistance focused elements."

Olivia's list of recommended romances can be found at her website.

If I see more lists of recommendations or articles on this topic I'll add them to this page.


Works Cited


Anderson, Porter. “For the Love of Industry Data: Nielsen’s Co-Location With Romance Writers of America.” Publishing Perspectives. 13 July 2016. http://publishingperspectives.com/2016/07/nielsen-rwa-conference-romance-writers-america/


Anderson, Porter. “Romance Publishers and Diversity at the Nielsen Summit: ‘Uniquely Familiar’.” Publishing Perspectives. 16 July 2016. http://publishingperspectives.com/2016/07/nielsen-romance-writers-of-america


Benzizoune, Romaissaa. “I’m Muslim, but My Roommate Supports Trump.” The New York Times. 11 November 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/12/opinion/im-muslim-but-my-roommate-supports-trump.html?_r=0


Charles, K J. “ Historical Romance: learn or die.” 14 November 2016. http://kjcharleswriter.com/historical-romance-learn-or-die/


Cole, Alyssa. “Let It Shine.” The Brightest Day: A Juneteenth Historical Romance Anthology. 2015. 231-317. It has subsequently been published as a standalone novel.


Dandridge, Rita. “Interview: Beverly Jenkins.” Journal of Popular Romance Studies 1.1 (2010). http://jprstudies.org/tag/african-american-historical-romance/


Faircloth, Kelly. “Talking Black History and Love Stories With Romance Writing Pioneer Beverly Jenkins.” Jezebel. 26 January 2016. http://pictorial.jezebel.com/talking-black-history-and-love-stories-with-romance-wri-1755218569


Hughes, Helen. The Historical Romance. London and New York: Routledge, 1993.


Johnson, Sarah. “Pioneering Efforts in Christian Historicals: Sarah Johnson Profiles Bethany House.” Historical Novel Society. First published in Solander: The Magazine of the Historical Novel Society, v.9 no.1 (May 2005): 26-28. https://historicalnovelsociety.org/pioneering-efforts-in-christian-historicals/


Kamblé, Jayashree. Making Meaning in Popular Romance Fiction: An Epistemology. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.


Lamb, Joyce. “Why setting a historical romance outside of England is risky business.” Happily Ever After. 6 July 2016. http://happyeverafter.usatoday.com/2016/07/06/diana-quincy-license-to-wed-historical-romance-settings/


Lin, Jeannie. “Jeannie Lin Tells Us: How My Worst Seller Became a Bestseller and What it Means to Write ‘Different’.” RT Book Reviews. 3 March 2014. https://www.rtbookreviews.com/rt-daily-blog/jeannie-lin-tells-us-how-my-worst-seller-became-bestseller-and-what-it-means-write-%E2%80%9Cdi


Maclean, Sarah. “Bashing Romance Novels is Just Another Form of Slut-Shaming.” Bustle. 29 September 2016. https://www.bustle.com/articles/186881-sarah-maclean-bashing-romance-novels-is-just-another-form-of-slut-shaming


Neal, Lynn S. Romancing God: Evangelical Women and Inspirational Fiction. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006.


Saunders, Doug. “The real reason Donald Trump got elected? We have a white extremism problem.” The Globe and Mail. 12 November 2016. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/us-election/the-real-reason-donald-trump-got-elected-we-have-a-white-extremism-problem/article32817625/


Wieseltier, Leon. “Stay angry. That’s the only way to uphold principles in Trump’s America.” The Washington Post. 11 November 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/11/11/stay-angry-thats-the-only-way-to-uphold-principles-in-trumps-america/