Proud Protestations

SARAH BOWER on the history of historical romance


“I expect every one of my crowd to make fun
Of my proud protestations of faith in romance.”

(Rogers & Hammerstein, “I’m In Love With A Wonderful Guy”, from South Pacific)


IN a letter of 1847 to G. H. Lewes[1], Charlotte Bronte wrote, “When I first began to write…I restrained imagination, eschewed romance, repressed excitement…and sought to produce something which should be soft, grave, and true…[publishers] all told me…that it would never suit the circulating libraries, and as it was on those libraries the success of works of fiction mainly depended, they could not undertake to publish what would be overlooked there.” Bronte’s response was to write Jane Eyre.

There is no doubt that Jane Eyre is one of the greatest novels ever written in English. It is also a romance, in the classic modern sense, the story of a man and a woman who meet, fall in love, struggle against various obstacles, both internal and external, to their love, and are finally united in a voluntary, companionate marriage. Romance is the single most popular literary genre of modern literature. Harlequin Mills and Boon, the specialist publisher of short novels in various sub-genres of romance, including the historical, sells 13 million books per annum in the UK, giving it a 74 per cent share of the market for romantic fiction. Over the last forty years, Harlequin lovers have shared 20,000 kisses and 30,000 hugs, and 7,000 marriages have been made in Harlequin heaven. The romance has been attacked by feminists as “[the invention of] women cherishing the chains of their bondage”[2] or “the women’s equivalent of soft porn [conforming] to recognizably male patterns of domination, submission and possession”[3]. It has also, by contrast, been taken up and explored by no less erudite a writer and academic as A. S. Byatt in her ironically entitled novel, Possession, winner of the Booker Prize in 1990. In response to changing social norms, the romance has passed through the bedroom door and evolved to include partnerships outside marriage and same sex relationships. Whatever our opinion of romance, it remains a hardy species, enduringly popular in spite of its slightly doubtful reputation.

Perhaps our confusion about its status arises at least in part from the many different ways in which it can be defined and the ways in which it has adapted itself over time. The Oxford English Dictionary gives definitions ranging from the most basic, a work composed in a vernacular language as opposed to Latin, to the two main strands which define the modern romance. It is a fictitious narrative in a setting remote from everyday life, depicting actions and events which are adventurous, chivalrous and extraordinary. This is the mediaeval romance, Malory’s Morte d’Arthur or the Laies of Marie de France. Alternatively, it is a work of fiction with romantic love at its heart, a definition which can carry us from Tristan and Isolde to Oscar and Lucinda, Barbara Cartland to Bridget Jones. All the tensions and contradictions inherent in modern romantic fiction are here, the “proud protestations” and the “making fun”: the disdain with which it is often treated by “intellectuals” (a narrative in the vernacular, entertainment for the people as opposed to the Latinate elite); its non-mimetic character, “in lofty and elevated language describ[ing] what has never happened nor is likely to.”[4] Despite being adopted by such 19th-century greats as Walter Scott and Nathaniel Hawthorne to describe their works, the term has nevertheless retained the air of being the novel’s flighty cousin, not to be taken too seriously.

The historical novel, by contrast, is often taken very seriously indeed. It is characterised by length (Marilyn Durham’s Flambard’s Confession 788 pages, Lawrence Norfolk’s The Pope’s Rhinoceros 753 pages. The Penguin Complete Novels of Jane Austen fills approximately the same number of pages as these two taken together) and grandiose claims. “An extraordinary recreation of the human drama behind one of the defining moments of western culture,” trumpets the blurb on the back of M. R. Lovric’s The Floating Book. “It has moral purpose and the power to change,” asserts the Mail on Sunday in its review of Matthew Kneale’s English Passengers. “A meditation on the nature of death, desire and decay,” says Peter Ackroyd of Patrick Suskind’s Perfume. Historical fiction is weighty material, to be reverently approached by only the most serious readers. How did it ever get together with romance? What obstacles must history and romance have overcome in order to achieve consummation through the pens of Georgette Heyer, Jean Plaidy or Anya Seton?

I do not propose to pry into their long and eventful courtship too deeply here, but intend rather to celebrate the success of their union and to consider the reasons behind the enduring popularity of the historical romance. An historical setting can heighten the effect of the romance in a number of ways. Firstly, the location itself is, to refer back to the OED definition given above, “remote from everyday life.” The hero may be a stonemason, as in The Heaven Tree, the first volume of Edith Pargeter’s eponymous trilogy, but the point is that he is a mediaeval stonemason, whose quest for love and personal fulfilment takes place against a backdrop of the machinations of King John, the building of the great cathedrals, brooding casualties of the crusades and courtesans who have tracts of Ovid by heart. Tracy Chevalier’s Girl With A Pearl Earring is a humble domestic servant, but her employer is Vermeer. Flaubert, who is famously reputed to have said of his own great romantic heroine, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi,” understood this. “I am weary of ugly things and sordid surroundings,” he wrote in a letter while working on his novel of ancient Carthage, Salammbo. “I am going to live…inside a subject of splendour, far from the modern world of which I am heartily sick.”[5]

Anya Seton’s Katherine Swynford, before her own extraordinary romance begins, dismisses her prospective brother-in-law as “by no means the romantic figure she hoped would fall to her own lot…short…already inclined towards stoutness…”[6] Such sentiments might lurk in the bosom of any romantic heroine, but very few are in Katherine’s position of welcoming Geoffrey Chaucer into the family. Katherine goes on to triumph over many obstacles, both physical and social, finally to win the hand of her lover, John of Gaunt and, through their children, become a foremother of both the Tudor and Stuart dynasties. Pamela Regis, in her 2003 work, A Natural History of the Romance Novel, identifies eight fundamental components of the modern romance, one of the most important of which she calls “the barrier” and defines as follows: “a series of scenes [establishing] for the reader the reasons that this heroine and hero cannot marry.”[7] The barrier may be external, arising from the “disordered” society in which heroine and hero live and by which they are oppressed, or internal, arising from the psychology of one or both protagonists. These barriers tend to be greatly intensified in the historical romance, set in periods of much greater social rigidity with regard to class, the distribution of wealth and power and, of course, the suitability or otherwise of a marriage. Only very recently has companionate marriage based on mutual love and attraction between consenting partners become the social norm in western societies. The barriers to it, particularly in the upper echelons of society, in any period prior to the Second World War, are many and easy to define.

The effects of the barrier, which Regis calls the driving force of any romance,[8] are further dramatised when the author locates a “modern” heroine, financially independent or possessed of the skills to make her so, affectively individual and believing it is her right to choose her partner on the basis of her personal preference alone, in an historical framework. By placing this a historical heroine alongside an equally non-typical hero, sensitive to the feelings of others, responsible, even-handed in his dealings with his social inferiors, the author gives history a part to play in the story as a setting which spotlights and magnifies the unusual qualities of hero and heroine to which they respond in one another.

This is a technique pioneered by Georgette Heyer and permeates every aspect of the modern historical romance, right down to the jacket. I have in front of me as I write my 1974 Fawcett Crest edition of Jean Plaidy’s Madonna of the Seven Hills, featuring on its cover an image of Lucrezia Borgia, bleached blonde hair flowing over her shoulders, looking more like a Californian surfing babe than an Italian renaissance duchess. I have referred already to Edith Pargeter’s The Heaven Tree, whose hero, Harry Talvace, a Norman aristocrat, is set on his course of adventure by his socially unacceptable loyalty to his foster brother, a villein’s son. The modern historical romance may skim lightly over the actual adversities opposed to women such as Lucrezia Borgia or Katherine Swynford, but the historical setting imposes a set of barriers of its own designed to elicit the sympathy of a modern readership. Although Heyer acknowledges a great debt to Jane Austen, her heroes and heroines operate in an environment which would have been incomprehensible to Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. The only point in Pride and Prejudice where Elizabeth exerts affective independence is in her refusal of Darcy’s initial proposal. At no stage in that contemporary Regency narrative does she actively manipulate the hero the way, for example, Phoebe Marlow, the romance writing heroine of Heyer’s Sylvester, or the Wicked Uncle, engages her lover, Sylvester, in a chase across England and France, both physically and metaphorically leading the way.

Although the modern historical romance is effective because of the way the historical setting can be used to highlight the uniquely attractive characteristics of hero and heroine, it also plays a part grounded in its own exoticism. The great writers of historical romance are all noted for their meticulous research and attention to minute details of costume, manners, menus and, particularly in Heyer’s case, the idioms of Regency speech. Many people come to historical fiction in order to learn something about a particular period as well as to be entertained. (I myself studied mediaeval history at university on the basis of seeing the film, The Lion in Winter!) While not condoning the notion that the novelist is somehow responsible for factual accuracy (novelists deal in fictional truth which is something very different), the physical attributes of this “other country” called the past can have an important role in raising the temperature of a romance. In his discussion of the Renaissance novels of Ferdinand Conrad Meyer, Georg Lukacs writes, “Meyer’s heroes stand spiritually and morally on tiptoe in order to appear to others and particularly to themselves greater than they are…The decorative historical costume serves to conceal this tiptoe posture.”[9] John Fowles, in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, uses a description of his hero’s fossil hunting outfit as the occasion for a metafictional aside which distances the reader from the past by commenting from a modern perspective on the unsuitability of his clothing.[10]

What could be more romantic than Ivanhoe, armed and visored, under the escutcheon of the Disinherited Knight, tilting for love and English honour in the lists at Ashby de la Zouche? How to compare the curt, “Are you dancing?” at a Saturday night disco with a full blown Viennese waltz under the baton of Johann Strauss the Elder himself? And finally, in another cinematic aside, would Orlando Bloom’s hapless blacksmith, William Turner, ever have won fair lady if she had not fainted due to being laced too tight, fallen off a sea wall and been rescued by Captain Jack Sparrow? (Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean)

History, therefore, works on several levels to enhance the reader’s experience of the modern romance. It enables the writer to emphasise the unique qualities of hero and heroine so the reader makes the greatest possible investment in their ultimate happiness. It raises the stakes in terms of the barriers to their love and fulfilment. Historical settings are exotic, more so even than palm fringed beaches or blue arctic wastes in contemporary romances, because, unless Einstein was wrong, they are wholly unattainable.

Readers may question my references for this piece. Madame Bovary, Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice are not historical novels; their authors were writing about their own contemporary society, though, thanks largely to Andrew Davies, we are inclined to categorise them as period or costume dramas. The difference is, I think, self-evident. Novels I have treated as romances for the purpose of this article may be more problematic. Girl With A Pearl Earring, for example, is not, in the strictest sense, a romance, in that it lacks the element of consummation between the lovers, who are scarcely even lovers in any conventional sense. Possession and The French Lieutenant’s Woman are historical romances on one level, but areas in which their authors self-consciously play with the form. The Heaven Tree is the first volume of a saga driven by the love between craftsman and patron, whose offspring is a gothic church. Films are patently not novels, but they are fictions so perhaps deserve a place below the salt. Finally, although both Katherine Swynford and Lucrezia Borgia are real historical figures, Seton’s and Plaidy’s treatment of their lives is clearly romanticised in the modern sense. Katherine and Lucrezia are modern heroines who do not question their right to struggle against their family and the prevailing social mores to achieve companionate marriages.

In making my choices, I have looked for love stories, novels which strongly, usually centrally, feature the meeting between two affective individuals who fall in love and whose love is confronted by a series of obstacles, which are not always overcome in the conventional sense. One novel I have not mentioned so far, one of the main narrative strands of which features a powerful, but doomed, love affair, is Kathryn Harrison’s A Thousand Orange Trees, which takes place in seventeenth-century Spain, at the height of the Counter Reformation. The twist in this tale, the insurmountable obstacle for the lovers, is the fact that one of them is a priest. This is a scenario which occurs in several modern romances, notably Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds, and is, I think, an area deserving of further exploration. The celibate priest is a fascinating variation on the classic theme of the wounded hero healed by the heroine’s love, as long as we think of love in earthly, erotic terms rather than divine love. The distinction, however, can become blurred, as in the many documented cases of visionary ecstatics, whose experience of divine love is often expressed in erotically charged terms.

The historical romance has explored, and can be analysed, in many different ways. There are queer historical romances (Sarah Waters’ Tipping the Velvet) and post-colonial ones (Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea). Despite the objections of some feminists, others argue that the location of an independent, affective heroine in a pre-feminist setting facilitates the exploration of feminist ideas and women’s roles in society. The historical romance is an eminently flexible and reflexive form, robustly adapting itself to its readers’ changing social situations. It affords enormous enjoyment, as well as rich food for thought, and I have no doubt its future is assured. In the immortal words of Scarlett O’Hara, however, “I’ll think about it tomorrow…Tomorrow is another day.”[11]

[1] Quoted in Writing From Experience by Brian H. Taylor, Robert Hale Ltd., 2000

[2] Germaine Greer, The Female Eunuch, McGraw Hill, 1970

[3] Patricia Duncker, Reimagining the Fairytales in Writing on the Wall, Pandora Press, 2002

[4] Clara Reeve, Progress of Romance, 1785

[5] Letter to Mlle. Leroyer de Chantepie, July 11th 1858. Ironically, Flaubert’s inclination for historical subjects was initially inspired by the repugnance for the modern bourgeoisie he felt after completing Madame Bovary. See The Letters of Gustave Flaubert, ed. Francis Steegmuller, Picador 2001

[6] Anya Seton, Katherine, Coronet (first published by Hodder & Stoughton, 1954)

[7] Pamela Regis, A Natural History of the Romance Novel, University of Pennsylvania Press 2003

[8] Op. cit. page 32

[9] Georg Lukacs, The Historical Novel, Merlin Press 1989 (first published in English 1962)

[10] See David Lodge, The Art of Fiction, Penguin 1992, pp 130-133 for a discussion of this passage

[11] Margaret Mitchell, Gone With The Wind, Prentice Hall 1975 (first published 1936)


Sarah Bower lives in Suffolk, where she works as a freelance journalist and creative writing teacher. She holds an MA in creative writing from the University of East Anglia. She has published short fiction, plays and poetry as well as non-fiction in magazines as various as British Industry and MsLexia. She is currently seeking a publisher for a novel about the making of the Bayeux Tapestry. She became editor of the Historical Novels Review earlier this year.

First published in Solander: The Magazine of the Historical Novel Society, v.8 no.1 (May 2004): 24-26.

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