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Women and Power in Historical Romances

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Two February releases present the interesting struggle of women and power in historical romances. A woman during the Regency romance period had virtually no rights, particularly a married woman. A married woman ceased to even have a legally cognizable existence. Her husband was immediately conferred the property of woman whether she had any by inheritance or earnings. He could provide for her upon his death, but if she married again, the property would come under the ownership of her subsequent husband. (Obviously the best thing to do was to marry well, kill off your husband after he has left you a boatload of money and remain a widow).

There were two ways in which a married woman might keep control of property, either through inheritance or through a marriage settlement.   Both sums of   property and/or money had to be put into a trust.   During the marriage, however, the money/property would still be subject to her husband’s whims.    If the family failed to provide for th woman or her   husband was a douchebag, the female was basically screwed.   

The point of this is to demonstrate how singularly powerless women were. In a setting where women have so little power and men have so much, it takes some deft writing to come up with a story in which the hero and the heroine appear equal.   Carolyn Jewel in Scandal  takes one run at it, pitting the hero’s happiness in the hands of the heroine, making her own that power.   Claudia Dain in The Courtesan’s Wager  takes a different attack, showing instead how a smart woman can manipulate the men, women and society to result in the one thing that will   effectuate a positive end for the woman, a good marriage.

Scandal by Carolyn Jewel.

In The Scandal, Sophie is living with her brother because her dead husband whored, drank, and gambled his way through her money leaving her destitute.   The hero, Earl of Banallt, is as Sophie describes him, the man her despical husband aspired to be.   It wasn’t until Timothy married Sophie that he had the funds to move in Banalt’s exalted circles, but despite the rarified air, the vices were the same, perhaps only executed with greater excess.

Much of this story is told from the point of view of Banallt who, at one time, was everything that Sophie despised. He cheated on his wife. He gambled.   He drank to excess.   He even tempted Sophie when she was married.   Maybe because he tempted her to stray from her vows does Sophie view Banallt with such suspicion and fear.   Banalt has changed, though.   He’s lost much in the past two years and is torn between desparately wanting Sophie and trying to put her out of his mind because Sophie refuses to have him.   We read of his longing, his despair at ever convincing Sophie that she should take a chance on him, that he’s worth the risk.  

In the relationship between Sophie and Banallt, she holds the ultimate power even though in nearly every other aspect of her life she is dependent upon the goodwill of others.   Even when Sophie agrees to sleep with Banalt, he knows that he shouldn’t. Banallt’s inability to withstand Sophie’s charm until he secures her emotional affection deepens Sophie’s belief in his inconstancy.   

Scandal  represents a delicious juxtaposition between how women can have power in some very important areas of her life, over her own happiness; even if the means of ordinary life must be met by the whim of others.  

The Courtesan’s Wager by Claudia Dain  

In contrast to Scandal, Claudia Dain’s The Courtesan’s Wager  is told primarily from the female point of view.   It is the heroine’s journey to achieve happiness and security through the one legally legimitate way:   a good marriage.   Lady Sophia Dalby used her wit, intelligence, craftiness and beauty to go from courtesan to Countess.   She engineered the marriage of her daughter to the Earl of Ashdon in Courtesan’s Daughter.   She matched Lady Louisa with the right man, Lord Henry, instead of the man Louisa thought she wanted knowing that Louisa’s choice would only bring her misery.   In The Courtesan’s Wager, Lady Sophia helps Lady Amelia, the daughter of a duke, marry her heart’s desire, a duke.   

While each book contains a specific romance between the young woman and the right man (as opposed to even a different but good man), it is Lady Sophia who delights me the most.   She is unabashedly teaching these women that in a society that views them nothing more than adornments   they have worth.  

Lady Dalby smiled and said, “Lady Amelia, if you will allow?”

Amelia had no idea what Sophia was asking permission to do, but she nodded her assent. What could she do? Had she not just this moment asked for Sophia’s help?

“You must never thank someone for complimenting you, particularly when the compliment is merely a statement of the obvious. And most particularly when dealing with dukes.”

“I must not?”

“You absolutely must not,” Sophia said. “You accept the compliment as your due and see where that leads. You must know your worth first before you can require anyone else to recommend you for it.”

Lady Sophia is unabashed at using the tools around her, manipulating the chess board, maximizing society’s quirks to the benefit of the young women who seek her aid.   Lady Sophia knows all too well the dangers of being powerless and it is not something she would wish on any young woman, not while she is around.   

The men that are suitable for the women in these books are of all types.   Ashdon was a bit of an uptight, brooder.   Lord Harry was the solid best friend who proved to Lady Louisa that she had all the danger and excitement she could ever handle with him.   Lady Amelia’s partner was one who had to make up for a past misunderstanding.   In a sense, they all had to prove that they were worthy of the women that they found that they loved.

The tone of these books are in stark contrast to Scandal.   They are lighthearted and fun, relying on wit and the Machiavellan plots of Lady Sophia, to carry the momentum of the romances until the end but the stories are much the same. Women in historicals have little power.   How they acquire power, mostly through emotional leverage, makes for fascinating reading.   

References:

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com

30 Comments

  1. Courtney Milan
    Feb 03, 2009 @ 06:50:42

    “A woman during the Regency romance period had virtually no rights, particularly a married woman. A married woman ceased to even have a legally cognizable existence.”

    Tiny legal nitpick–This is not 100% true. A married woman’s legal status essentially merged with her husband’s at law. She did have one in equity, however–and if you were fairly intelligent with trusts, you could in fact construct a trust (if you did so before marriage) that was untouchable by a husband. (And yes, you could do it in Regency England–the magic words in the trust grant were “to X, for her sole and separate use, notwithstanding future coverture.”)

    Of course, the broader point remains. Even if the husband could not touch the money, he could do things like lock his wife in a tiny room for years and years on end and feed her next to nothing, and there was very little the wife or her relatives could do about it.

    If you’re interested in a case that shows both sides of this, take a look at Strathmore v. Bowes (link here, with an interesting explanation in the middle about how law and equity treat married woman differently) in which the extremely wealthy Countess of Strathmore married Mr. Bowes, but had conveyed all her money into a trust set aside for her sole and separate use. Bowes wanted the money, but Chancery held that he couldn’t get it. Complete victory for Countess Strathmore!

    Or not, because she was still married to the asshole. The sad part of the tale, which comes after what you can read in the link above, is that Bowes, having tricked the Countess into marrying him for her money was infuriated that he couldn’t get it, and not being a particularly nice guy, he basically abused her until she signed the money over to him. What he did to her was not legal–it was bad enough that she was able to eventually get a divorce on grounds of cruelty, and he was so bad that he was arrested and thrown in jail, where thankfully the bastard died–but escape for her was very, very difficult.

    So the broader point, that men had way too much power over women, is certainly true.

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  2. Kimber An
    Feb 03, 2009 @ 07:26:03

    “A woman during the Regency romance period had virtually no rights, particularly a married woman. A married woman ceased to even have a legally cognizable existence.”

    Maybe this is why I’m not into Regency Romance. And you didn’t even mention the lack of contraception and how many women and babies died during pregnancy, birth, and the first years afterwards. Being a history buff, I know too much. I’ve thought about what I would do if I had been born back then instead of now.

    I would have become a nanny for a wealthy family, kept a dagger under my pillow in case the butler came calling at night, and made do with chocolate. Like now, back then no one could afford to mistreat an excellent childcare provider.

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  3. Sherry Thomas
    Feb 03, 2009 @ 07:42:44

    All the more reason I love the turn-of-the-century, when women led far more independent lives.

    Amazing what a difference 80-90 years make.

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  4. Jill Shalvis
    Feb 03, 2009 @ 08:42:02

    Thank God for women’s rights!!! LOVED the LOLcats pic, one of my favorite sites.

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  5. Sunita
    Feb 03, 2009 @ 08:51:59

    Veasleyd1 has posted an awesome collection of vignettes and tidbits illustrating British marriage, inheritance and other family matters over at AAR. It’s on the Potpourri board, in the thread titled “Are we entitled to historical accuracy?” The thread started out as a standard debate over what constitutes accuracy in historical romance and what it’s appropriate to expect, but after a few pages it’s basically veasleyd1 reporting her findings from primary sources and histories. She’s a professional historian and genealogist and she clearly loves the discipline. Some of the stories are absolutely amazing and have really made me think twice about my assumptions. I stand by my frustration with wallpaper historicals, but I’ll have to rethink my attitudes about what did and didn’t (or could and couldn’t) happen.

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  6. AAR Rachel
    Feb 03, 2009 @ 09:47:39

    Not sure about the relevance of this LOL Cat, Jane. Interesting post, tho. While women obviously had fewer rights than men for most of history, strip away the money and life was probably pretty equally brutal. Of course, no one wants to imagine they were a coal miner or a quarry slave in a previous life.

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  7. Jane
    Feb 03, 2009 @ 10:28:08

    @AAR Rachel I had problems finding an LOL Cat picture but I thought that it loosely exemplified that there are other ways that seemingly powerless individuals gain power.

    I’m not sure your point re this though “no one wants to imagine they were a coal miner or a quarry slave in a previous life.”

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  8. Jane
    Feb 03, 2009 @ 10:29:34

    @Sunita I’ll have to go over and look. The first link of my references told the story of a woman in the Victorian age who had married a wealthy man and developed a horticulture study that rivaled any man and she corresponded with the brightest minds of the time including Darwin. When her husband died, he left everything to his children and she had to sell her house, gardens and everything.

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  9. Jane
    Feb 03, 2009 @ 10:30:29

    @Courtney Milan No, thank you for the nitpicking. I don’t actually view it as nitpicking though- correction, maybe. LOL. I find these details to be so interesting. Are you giving any presentations at RWA next year?

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  10. Margaret
    Feb 03, 2009 @ 11:20:43

    I believe the title of Carolyn Jewel’s book is SCANDAL not THE SCANDAL…nitpicky? yes. :)

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  11. Evangeline
    Feb 03, 2009 @ 12:51:52

    That’s why I stick to the Edwardian era.

    But in response to this post. I’m still on the fence about women and power in historical romance. Historically, women gained power through marriage, and the agenda of the romance genre is to produce a HEA, but it still rubs me wrong that in romance, a woman’s power is entirely wrapped up in getting the hero to fall in love with her and marry her. The heroine brings the hero to his knees, sometimes literally, but…then what?

    I can point to our template for romance, Pride & Prejudice, and find that while Elizabeth does snag Mr. Darcy, she rejects that “power” promoted in the romance genre with both Mr. Collins and Darcy. She doesn’t even hang on to Wickham’s every word with the intent in catching him. Ultimately, Elizabeth must grow herself before getting Darcy–even though it looks as though he has to grow and overcome his own personal quirks to win Lizzie’s hand.

    Perhaps this is the result of the romance genre being so hero-centric–the heroine is pretty much “set” and the hero must jump through hoops (a character arc) to prove his worth and win her hand–and rarely interested in agape and philia love and relationships.

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  12. Jane
    Feb 03, 2009 @ 12:54:28

    @Evangeline But even Elizabeth had little monetary power. Her strength in the relationship with Darcy had to do with a perceived emotionally superior position. In Scandal, I would argue that the heroine is the one that has to change the most due to her inability to trust and allow herself to be vulnerable.

    In Courtesan’s Wager, while Lady Sophia might seem “set”, none of the other characters are, even the females. They have a steep growing curve. I just didn’t address that for the article.

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  13. Evangeline
    Feb 03, 2009 @ 13:11:50

    @Jane: That is true, but Elizabeth didn’t snag Darcy through mind games or an arsenal of tools to get a husband because that was her only way of obtaining power in the Regency. I’d say Charlotte better matches the assumption of power for a woman, because she married Mr. Collins solely for position and independence.

    RE: The Courtesan’s Wager – though I haven’t read the series, based on the summaries, the surface of power is still barely scratched since Lady Dalby helps the heroine’s catch husbands who will be in love with them. Was the countess’s marriage based on love?

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  14. Courtney Milan
    Feb 03, 2009 @ 14:21:27

    @Jane: I am part of a panel about historical romance–but nothing legal, sadly, and there’s no Beaumonde pre-conference this year, which would be the more natural forum for it.

    I’m halfway through Scandal right now and I have to say my reaction is pretty much the opposite of yours (not that yours is wrong, it’s just striking a different emotional chord in me). Here’s what I’m thinking: “This could happen today.”

    However far woman’s rights have taken us, and however important legal advances have been made, there are still women who fall desperately in love with a man who is wrong on every level, who cheats on her and abuses her trust. This is the woman my husband sees in the ER, beaten and bruised, with broken bones, who ushers her husband in and leaves with him. This is the woman my friend-the-prosecutor talks to regularly, who refuses to press charges, who really believes him when he says that he’s changed, and that it won’t happen again–even though this is the fifth time the neighbors have called the police for her. This is the woman who doesn’t leave the house because her husband is so consumed with jealousy, that he will thrash her if he hears she’s been outside.

    This is, sad to say, a teenager beaten to death by family members who are ashamed that she’s been dating someone of the wrong religion.

    Yeah, laws help. But it’s not just laws. This stuff still happens today, all the time. It’s just that today, if you have the self-esteem to match, the law is on your side instead of against you.

    I think it’s really easy, as successful women with strong support networks and high self-esteem, to forget that no law in the world can give you the courage to leave. No restraining order can help you if you feel like you’re all alone in the world, with nowhere to go and no one to help you. And it doesn’t matter what’s legal and what isn’t–if you can’t believe that you deserve better, you aren’t going to reach for it. I’m not trying to say that these women *are* alone–but they feel like it.

    One of the things I’m loving about Sophie is that she is not going to be That Woman, the one who keeps making the same mistakes.

    So, yeah, I’m seeing this as a book that’s universal in time. It happens today. It happens all the time.

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  15. GrowlyCub
    Feb 03, 2009 @ 14:44:35

    Courtney, so do you like ‘Scandal’? I was intrigued by the review, and then the mention in this column, but I like to get opinions from a few folks before I try new-to-me authors.

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  16. Tumperkin
    Feb 03, 2009 @ 14:57:41

    And it’s the very reason I like the Regency so much. It gives rise to so much ready conflict and drama. A woman agreeing to marry a man was ‘taking the plunge’ in a way that a modern woman would not contemplate.

    In England at the time, divorce was only available (by private act of parliament) to men on the grounds of adultery. Interestingly, it was a two step process – first he had to establish her adultery by an action for damages against the supposed lover (she was not a party to the action – only the property that he complained the other man had unlawfully had the benefit of). Having done that, he could approach the House of Lords for the divorce. Divorce on grounds of adultery was not available to English women until the 20th century.

    Interestingly, however, just north of the border in Scotland, the position was different. This is due to the fact that the Scots legal system has very different roots to the English legal system. In Scotland during the Regency, divorce was available to both men and women on the grounds of adultery or malicious desertion. Nevertheless, divorce rates were low, unsurprisingly given how expensive and lengthy the process was.

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  17. Courtney Milan
    Feb 03, 2009 @ 15:03:24

    @GrowlyCub: Loving it so far. The writing is understated, which I love–it just relies on the bare emotion to pull the book along. And she really does (at least for me) tap into that universal fear of love–how something so powerful can leave you so powerless.

    I’m not done yet, so if this book jumps the shark don’t blame me, but so far so good.

    (Full disclosure: Carolyn Jewel shares an agent with me, so I’m not wholly without interest here.)

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  18. Jennie
    Feb 03, 2009 @ 15:17:55

    Courtney, so do you like ‘Scandal'? I was intrigued by the review, and then the mention in this column, but I like to get opinions from a few folks before I try new-to-me authors.

    GrowlyCub, I just finished writing a review of Scandal. I liked it a lot – gave it an A-.

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  19. GrowlyCub
    Feb 03, 2009 @ 15:28:11

    Thanks, Courtney and Jennie! I have an Amazon gift certificate burning a whole in my pocket, but nothing new on the ‘have to buy’ list that I was willing to pay full price for. :)

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  20. Claudia Dain
    Feb 03, 2009 @ 16:26:05

    Jane, thank you so much! What a delightful commentary. I’m so flattered!

    One of the reasons I’m writing this series, with this slant and this tone, is that even today, so many women behave as if they are powerless. In work, in love, in family relationships…and it just breaks my heart!

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  21. SonomaLass
    Feb 03, 2009 @ 16:39:52

    Courtney makes a point that is a big part of why I love some historical romance. It’s that beneath all the period detail (which I want done right, btw), the best ones COULD happen today. Because the overall social balance of power never tells the whole story; there’s always the individual personalities involved. A man may have the right to do what he wants with his wife’s money — but if he loves her and values her, he won’t. A woman may (today) be theoretically the equal of any man, but if she doesn’t believe that about herself, she can be as badly subordinate as any Regency female.

    The best historicals, to me, are the ones that balance the specific details of time and place with the more timeless aspects of human nature, as brought to life in hero, heroine and (hopefully) a host of engaging minor characters, too.

    I already had Scandal on my list, and now I’m even more excited about reading it.

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  22. Kalen Hughes
    Feb 03, 2009 @ 16:53:10

    and there's no Beaumonde pre-conference this year

    Yes there is! It’s just not a workshop format this year, instead we’re going to tour period houses in the D.C. area and then have our annual soiree.

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  23. Courtney Milan
    Feb 03, 2009 @ 16:58:17

    @Kalen Hughes: Okay, okay! I should have said: there is no workshop vehicle for legal-nitpickery through the Beaumonde.

    Better? :)

    Sorry, Kalen.

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  24. Robin
    Feb 03, 2009 @ 17:38:16

    I stand by my frustration with wallpaper historicals, but I'll have to rethink my attitudes about what did and didn't (or could and couldn't) happen.

    History is full of the exceptional; after all, what is most likely to last in communal memory, let alone historical record.

    But IMO that still doesn’t let history-lite books off the hook, because for me the issue isn’t so much the exceptional hero and/or heroine; it’s the construction of a world that attends to both fictional and historical logic. That is, there are the rules of the fictional world that must be followed, and in historical Romance, there are certain rules of history that may or may not be followed. The two related questions for me are these: are the rules of history being followed or not *by design* and are the rules not being followed because it’s necessary for the story (and makes sense) or because it’s easier for the author (e.g. the product of a disregard or lack of interest in the history).

    So a book may write a scenario that could have happened in the time period it was portrayed. But that doesn’t mean the book will still be true to the historical moment. Just as a book that may make a significant detour from historical fact may show more consideration of historical accuracy and authenticity than other books depicting the same period.

    For me, in other words, it’s not just whether the story could have happened in the time period, but how it’s written, and how the book as a whole is written.

    As for some of the issues raised about women’s power during history, I think it’s important to remember that power is always relative, and that context matters. Sometimes it’s difficult, from our 21st century Westernized perspective, to see the different ways in which power is created and imposed in the absence of freedoms we take for granted. What may seem like weakness to us might have read very differently in another cultural and historical context.

    Also, one of the things we rarely see in historical Romance but which was very, very important in the lives of young affluent and even middle class white women was the network of friends and extended family members that made up the social fabric of a person’s life. So quilting and sewing circles, for example, in which many women participated, often served as informal book clubs or political action committees, with women discussing the major ideas of the day, reading aloud and discussing some of the most popular and influential novels of the time, and the like. Although they may not have been directly power brokering in the same way men could, women had their own networks of influence, and they worked them intelligently and assiduously when they needed to.

    I’m always struck by how isolated these women are in Romance, often befriended only by their maid, and by how little influence other women (outside of a mother, stepmother, sister, or the like) have in the heroine’s world, and how little engagement there seems to be with other women (outside of Almack’s, or some such, that is). That was one of the reasons I liked Lisa Kleypas’s Wallflower books — there was some semblance of the rich and varied female societies of former times.

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  25. Evangeline
    Feb 03, 2009 @ 19:29:35

    @Robin:

    I'm always struck by how isolated these women are in Romance, often befriended only by their maid, and by how little influence other women (outside of a mother, stepmother, sister, or the like) have in the heroine's world, and how little engagement there seems to be with other women (outside of Almack's, or some such, that is). That was one of the reasons I liked Lisa Kleypas's Wallflower books -’ there was some semblance of the rich and varied female societies of former times.

    This is part and parcel with my initial commentary: I’ve grown more and more dissatisfied with the lack of family and friends within historical romance. That is, family and friends who aren’t sequel bait! Liz Carlyle was able to do this effectively in her pre-trilogy novels, and I felt the romance much more believable when the h/h were shown in the context of the people populating their lives.

    Jane did say she didn’t speak about the character arc for the heroines of the books she mentioned, so I give a little wiggle room for my initial impression that the post about women and power appeared superficial. :/ Since I tend to read a lot of non-fiction about gender politics and society in the British aristocracy (presently reading Leonore Davidoff’s The Best Circles), when it comes to women+power=marriage in historical romance, I rarely find it particularly “historical” since the heroines’ attempts to gain power only occur within the romance between she and the hero (who will love her), and hardly ever within the greater life of society. To pull out the example of P&P again, when I watched the 1940 version I was more struck by how competitive, how fatal, how heartrending it was to be a woman of marriageable age, and how female relationships (after all, women were in one another’s company more often than that of men) formed the backbone of obtaining power.

    Based on the research books I’ve read, marriage did not gain a woman power: Davidoff details how the real work came into place after the marriage, when familial advancement and success depended upon the social moves the newly wedded wife made. It was quite easy for a bride of even an aristocrat to descend into obscurity if she did not make herself a proper hostess, political mover-and-shaker, etc for her husband. There are also accounts of how women could gain power and independence by being hostess for her father or brother–though this could be broken should the male member choose to marry.

    This subject of women and power in the historical romance is a provocative one for me, as you can see. IMO, the HEA for the h/h, where they “ride off into the sunset” is a superficial sort of power. We all know the hero will succumb to the heroine’s emotional superiority (to paraphrase Jane) in the end, so the stakes are rarely a matter of life and death (social and/or literally) for the heroine.

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  26. SonomaLass
    Feb 03, 2009 @ 21:07:55

    I agree that in the larger context, the marriage is just the beginning of the real struggle for social power. That is why I prefer historical romances where the wedding happens part of the way through the book. I’m really partial to books where the h/h form a real team, and have something to fight together against, rather than spending the whole book at odds and fighting their attraction to each other. Even when one of the big conflicts is something threatening her reputation or social standing, it’s more satisfying to me if the two of them getting married is only the start of the solution to the problem.

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  27. Sunita
    Feb 04, 2009 @ 11:10:04

    @Robin:

    Also, one of the things we rarely see in historical Romance but which was very, very important in the lives of young affluent and even middle class white women was the network of friends and extended family members that made up the social fabric of a person's life.

    Agree totally with this and would go further. It’s not just that the protagonists are isolated from the usual social world, it’s that the social world really only exists to provide a challenge to the romance or to reinforce it. I wonder how much of this tendency is because so many writers are Americans writing about periods that were quite different, socially, from the United States at the same time. Your point about the social networks is right on target for America in the 19th and early 20th centuries; because there was a lot of geographical mobility and a fair amount of economic and social mobility, Americans were more likely to be embedded in an “associational life” than a rigid social structure. But Europe and Asia were quite different. Sherry Thomas is right to say that the Victorian era had more mobility, but even so, individuals were embedded in social networks and *structures* that they couldn’t easily abandon. Women were either their fathers’ daughters or their husbands’ wives or their sons’ mothers, and I think many romance writers do a very effective job of communicating that. But they are less good at showing that men had analogous constraints. In the “who’s got it worse” sweepstakes, obviously women were more constrained and more at the mercy of others. But men couldn’t simply choose their vocations independent of family constraints either, and despite the many men’s clubs in Regencyland, the most influential social networks were those of family and the extended webs of social, economic, and political obligation. A single man had more standing than a single woman, but he was a lot less powerful and esteemed than a married man.

    I’m less forgiving than you of the factual and contextual errors in historicals. I don’t care how well the world is created, if it doesn’t feel like a believable rendering of the time period, then I don’t care how emotionally satisfying the book is, I’m going to class it (to use veasleyd1′s term) as alternate history, not a historical novel in the sense I think of them. That doesn’t mean I won’t admire it on those terms; I read plenty of those kinds of books and enjoy them. But I’m getting something else out of them than the feeling of being immersed in a believable depiction of the past.

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  28. Robin
    Feb 04, 2009 @ 17:00:51

    Based on the research books I've read, marriage did not gain a woman power: Davidoff details how the real work came into place after the marriage, when familial advancement and success depended upon the social moves the newly wedded wife made. It was quite easy for a bride of even an aristocrat to descend into obscurity if she did not make herself a proper hostess, political mover-and-shaker, etc for her husband. There are also accounts of how women could gain power and independence by being hostess for her father or brother-though this could be broken should the male member choose to marry.

    For me the critical point here is that all these things are circumscribed by two things: domesticity and patriarchy. In other words, that women’s power was delineated, at least from the mid-Victorian period onward, by the influence they wielded in the domestic sphere, and their ability to do that depended, more often than not, on the financial, familial support of a man. So whatever powers marriage did and didn’t confer (and let’s face it — we’re dealing with lots of generalizations here that ignore all sorts of class and race and culture issues), I think there’s a certain truth in the way Romance focuses on the *choice* a woman has (or doesn’t) in entering a marriage union.

    As Cathy Davidson and Lori Merish, for example, point out, the feminine space of the 19th century, especially, was one in which choosing a good marriage was a critical choice for a woman, in part because of the commodification of the feminine, but also because of the way social structures were and weren’t changing (i.e. shift to affection-based marriages but continued scorn toward the “fallen” woman). So to me, the way Romance focuses on this very important choice (and on making it a choice) is itself a somewhat canny revelation of certain deeper truths of a woman’s somewhat vulnerable position vis a vis making a good marriage. And the insistence on making that bond one of love and emotional equality is IMO part and parcel of the great democratizing effect of Romance — the impulse to create the image of the nuclear family in the republican image (which goes to the point Sunita makes below about so many American Romance authors), in which its various members are given autonomy and where the microcosmic community of the family sits poised to transform an antiquated or repressive social structure (a la classical Comedy, from which Romance descends generically, through the sentimental novel).

    But Europe and Asia were quite different. Sherry Thomas is right to say that the Victorian era had more mobility, but even so, individuals were embedded in social networks and *structures* that they couldn't easily abandon. Women were either their fathers' daughters or their husbands' wives or their sons' mothers, and I think many romance writers do a very effective job of communicating that. But they are less good at showing that men had analogous constraints.

    ITA with you about the constraints men were similarly under, but have you read Sharon Marcus’s book Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England? I haven’t finished the book, but it’s a fascinating examination of the complex and deep relationships among women within a 19th century English context. And I think it challenges a lot of the assumptions we have about relationships and gender in Victorian culture. And one of the things that Marcus focuses on, that I like, is the commodification issue, which is sooo important in the mid 19th century. The way gender itself becomes a commodity, the way women are so consistently a commercial target, the intertwining of sentimentality and commercial culture — it’s an amazingly rich area that I wish got a richer treatment in fiction (inside and outside Romance).

    But as I said in my response to Evangeline’s post, I think part of the thematic project of Romance is to elevate the coupling of the hero and heroine and to create the illusion that the idealized family of Romance is beyond or at least successfully challenging these circumscribing social structures. Of course, that disregards the fact that any representation itself is circumscribed by various social and cultural ideologies, but if those values are shared between author and reader, then they likely won’t be noticed, I guess.

    I'm less forgiving than you of the factual and contextual errors in historicals. I don't care how well the world is created, if it doesn't feel like a believable rendering of the time period, then I don't care how emotionally satisfying the book is, I'm going to class it (to use veasleyd1's term) as alternate history, not a historical novel in the sense I think of them. That doesn't mean I won't admire it on those terms; I read plenty of those kinds of books and enjoy them. But I'm getting something else out of them than the feeling of being immersed in a believable depiction of the past.

    I didn’t mean to suggest that I’m particularly forgiving of historical inauthenticity/inaccuracy. For me it’s more about differentiating within the history-lite book collection between those books that seem to aim for an alternative history that still has a strong sense of internal consistency, for example, and those that are just getting it wrong, even as they present the appearance of historical accuracy. I’m even less of a fan of the second type of book than I am the first, as my preference is history rich historical Romance. Although I would argue that what we’re really seeing in the best, most historically conscientious historical Romance is more authenticity than accuracy, simple because of what’s often omitted in the service of the romance.

    The overall issue of history in historical Romance is a tough one for me, because part of me believes that if an author doesn’t love Romance and isn’t willing to really dig in when they’re researching/writing, that they just shouldn’t be writing historicals — because for me, the romance should emerge from the time period and the cultural context, and in too many cases it feels like the setting is just pasted on to a generic romantic set-up. Although I certainly understand the frustration of authors who do work to get it right and have readers question them incorrectly, lol. Or who just happen to get something wrong that an astute reader picks up.

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  29. Sunita
    Feb 05, 2009 @ 10:36:17

    I think part of the thematic project of Romance is to elevate the coupling of the hero and heroine and to create the illusion that the idealized family of Romance is beyond or at least successfully challenging these circumscribing social structures. Of course, that disregards the fact that any representation itself is circumscribed by various social and cultural ideologies, but if those values are shared between author and reader, then they likely won't be noticed, I guess.

    Absolutely. And also what you said further down:

    For me it's more about differentiating within the history-lite book collection between those books that seem to aim for an alternative history that still has a strong sense of internal consistency, for example, and those that are just getting it wrong, even as they present the appearance of historical accuracy. I'm even less of a fan of the second type of book than I am the first, as my preference is history rich historical Romance. Although I would argue that what we're really seeing in the best, most historically conscientious historical Romance is more authenticity than accuracy, simple because of what's often omitted in the service of the romance.

    Maybe we should think of the historical romance as another crossover, like romantic suspense and urban fantasy. In those subgenres as well, you frequently find readers lamenting the predominance of the other factor over the romance, or vice versa. There is something about the “strong focus on hero and heroine’s relationship” that works against fleshing out the background. Some romance writers do it really well, I don’t mean that it doesn’t occur, but more that the emphasis on individuals inherent in telling the h/h story works against embedding them in their context. And given that we live in a totally different context in which the social structure is quite different, it’s either something people don’t miss or don’t want, or it’s something that cuts against the emotional payoff.

    I think that’s why I continue to read and reread 19th century social novels; they frequently have a romance, but they are just as much about the social milieu. British 20th century writers did that too, from Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire novels to Cookson’s sagas.

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  30. Robin
    Feb 06, 2009 @ 02:16:39

    Maybe we should think of the historical romance as another crossover, like romantic suspense and urban fantasy. In those subgenres as well, you frequently find readers lamenting the predominance of the other factor over the romance, or vice versa. There is something about the “strong focus on hero and heroine's relationship” that works against fleshing out the background. Some romance writers do it really well, I don't mean that it doesn't occur, but more that the emphasis on individuals inherent in telling the h/h story works against embedding them in their context. And given that we live in a totally different context in which the social structure is quite different, it's either something people don't miss or don't want, or it's something that cuts against the emotional payoff.

    I don’t know; I’m really torn over the question of what we should be able to reasonably expect from historical Romance. OTOH, I really do think there’s a substantial difference between a book in which the history is a major character and a book in which it’s more like eau d’histoire. And I’ve entertained the idea that there should be different categorical labels to memorialize those differences. But that’s probably impractical, especially with the level of generic hybridization that Romance is currently experiencing. OTOH, I think many readers are really in it for the romantic relationship, and are perfectly fine with a sense of historical flavor. I just have a hard time seeing that as “Historical Romance,” per se. Even while I recognize that even much of the most historically rich Romance needs to serve the generic conventions.

    I think what honestly bothers me the most is the idea that the history has become more of a burden to some authors and readers than a necessary and desirable part of the subgenre. I’ve seen comments by authors who indicate that they write fantasy or paranormal Romance so they can make up their own rules rather than do the historical research and rule following it demands. That frustrates me, especially because I think ALL Romance benefits from research and has specific rules around coherent worldbuilding. And I actually think it’s harder to make stuff up that’s richly rendered and cogently presented than it is to let history do some of that work. Still, though, I don’t know if any of that has driven the history-lite trend, or if it took hold as a novelty within the genre and has been aided by diminished word/page limits and the rise of other subgenres.

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