By Ishaan Ghosh (2021)
Romance writing is in the midst of a great awakening. In recent years, there has been increased interest in analyzing questions of race, diversity, and representation in the romance industry among both industry professionals and the scholars who study romance. This debate came to a head in 2018, when the Romance Writers of America, the main professional organization of writers in the romance industry, had a major scandal involving racism and diversity in the world of romance publishing (Ailworth, 2021).
In the push to increase representation, one aspect of diversity that often gets overlooked is the question of setting. This is particularly relevant in the subgenre of historical romance, where, as shall be discussed below, the historical and geographic settings of the works is often key to how readers relate to the work of romance and how much they enjoy it. Europe and North America, which are often thought of collectively as “the West”, have long been well-represented in historical romance. Did the push for greater representation in the romance industry lead to a wider variety of geographical settings for historical romance throughout the 2010s? Exploring lists of Bestselling historical romance novels and historical romances that have won prestigious awards like the RITA will show that despite the presence of some romance writers who set their stories outside the West, most of the most popular and most acclaimed historical romances not only confined to settings in the English-speaking West, but also are frequently set in England in particular. This is due in part to the history of the romance genre, but also due to reader preferences and expectations.
One Example of Asian Romance
Jeannie Lin specializes in historical romances that are set in Asia. Examples include the 2015 novel, A Dance with Danger, which is set in China during the Tang Dynasty (A Dance With Danger, 2016). She wrote another series of works known as The Gunpowder Chronicles, written from 2017 to 2019 set in China during the Qing Dynasty (Tales from the Gunpowder Chronicles, 2019).
The Gunpowder Chronicles is a particularly interesting case study in how a historical setting can be used to generate the fantasy-like aspect of romance. These novels take the fantasy aspect of romance more literally than most: not only is the romance itself fantastic, but the novel itself takes place in a fantasy alternate universe featuring advanced technology and gadgets in a historical setting. Much of the inspiration for these machines comes from studying East Asian scientific, technical, and military writings from the medieval and early modern periods (Tales from the Gunpowder Chronicles, 2019). This book is an example of some of the developments that have recently occurred in the romance industry: not only can there be historical romances set outside Europe and North America.
One way of measuring which settings are most popular in historical romance fiction is by looking at bestsellers in the historical romance category in Amazon. As of April 2021, the Amazon bestsellers list contained fifty titles (Best Sellers in Historical Romance, 2021). These novels are quite recent being written mostly in the late 2010s, with many being written in the early 2020s. Looking at the Amazon bestseller list reveals a very striking homogeneity in terms of the settings chosen for these novels. The number one position on this list is held by Dovetail, by Karen McQuestion, which is set in Wisconsin (Dovetail, 2021). The number 3 position, Amy Harmon’s 2020 work Where the Lost Wander, is set on the Oregon Trail (Where the Lost Wander, 2021), and number 5, An Undercover Detective’s Bride, written in 2018 by Blythe Carver, is also set in the United States (An Undercover Detective’s Bride, 2021). Most of the rest of the top ten are set in Britain. One exception to this is the 2019 book What the Wind Knows, by Amy Harmon, which is set in 1920s Ireland (What the Wind Knows, 2021).
Amazon also divides the genre of historical romance into several different subgenres based on setting, either in terms of place or time. A reader can therefore choose between American, Ancient, Medieval, Regency, Tudor, or Victorian romances (Best Sellers in Historical Romance, 2021). These categorizations reveal the extent to which historical romance is dominated not only by Europe and North America, but specifically by Anglophone nations, like England, Scotland, or the United States. Even the subgenres which are not explicitly defined by British history, it seems that the English-speaking world still dominates. The Amazon bestsellers for the “Medieval Historical Romance” subgenre largely consist of novels about the Scottish Highlands, for example (Best Sellers in Medieval Historical Romance, 2021).
In the Amazon Bestsellers, the one subgenre that seems to contain quite a lot of settings outside of the English-speaking world is the Renaissance romances. Some of the Renaissance-era bestsellers are part of the Stolen Crown Trilogy by Sylvia Prince, which takes place in Florence, Italy and Scotland, and which was published in 2019 (Best Sellers in Renaissance Historical Romance, 2021) (The Medici Prize, 2021). Another story in the Bestsellers list for Renaissance romance is The Architect’s Apprentice by Elif Shafak, published in 2014. This story is set in the Ottoman Empire, in the city of Istanbul (The Architect’s Apprentice, 2021). This is notable for being one of the few novels in any Historical Romance Bestseller list that is set outside what is usually thought of as “the West.”
RITA Award Winners
The RITA Awards are annual awards, given out by the Romance Writers of America for the best works of romance in various romance subgenres. Whereas looking at the Amazon Bestsellers will provide a snapshot into what sorts of novels are most popular at the current moment, looking at the winners of RITA awards will provide an understanding into what sorts of romance novels are impactful over a longer time, and which are appreciated by romance industry insiders.
Over the 2010s, 15 historical romances have won RITA Awards. Prior to 2015, there was just one RITA for all historical romance; however, starting in 2015, the award for historical romance has been split in two, with separate awards for long and short historical romances (Romance Writers of America).
Looking at the settings of RITA winners for historical romance reveals that there is less diversity in settings than among the historical romances on the Amazon Bestsellers list. Nearly all of the RITA Awards for historical romance went to novels set in England. Only a few of the novels were not set there. One of the few novels set entirely outside England was Deeanne Gist’s Tiffany Girl, the RITA long historical romance winner in 2016 (Romance Writers of America). This is a story about late-nineteenth century America, which was set in Chicago (Tiffany Girl, 2021). There were a few situations in which there were multiple settings, some of which were outside Europe. For example, the 2010 RITA historical romance winner, Not Quite A Husband by Sherry Thomas, is set in India, and the protagonists attempt to voyage back to their homes in England (Not Quite A Husband, 2021).
Another striking thing about the RITA winners is that there does not seem to be much change over time. The two historical romance winners in 2019 were A Wicked Kind of Husband by Mia Vincy, and A Duke in the Night by Kelly Bowen. Both of these romances are set in England (A Wicked Kind of Husband, 2021) (A Duke in the Night, 2021).
Settings and Genre Expectations
As demonstrated above, while there are several examples of historical romance set outside Europe and North America, they remain the exception rather than the rule. The genre of historical romance as a whole is dominated not only by the West, but specifically with the English-speaking world, with England itself being by far the most popular setting. This is true in both the books that are most popular at the moment, and also the books which have been significant enough to gain industry recognition in the past. Despite the increasing awareness towards writers with non-European backgrounds, this particular subgenre of romance remains stubbornly attached to stories of England and the English nobility.
Part of this could be due simply to cultural closeness. More substantively, the history of the romance genre itself runs through British literature and literature set in Britain. Lauren Cameron traced the origins of the genre back to famous English novels such as the works of Jane Austen (Cameron, 2021) It is also notable that The Flame and the Flower by Kathleen Woodiwiss, written in 1972, which Cameron considers to be the beginning of the modern romance genre (Cameron, 2021) is a historical romance which is set in both England and in South Carolina (Woodiwiss, 1972). These early pioneers of romance writing may have set the association in readers’ minds between England and historical romance.
Reader expectations from historical romance also explain some of the dominance of England in the genre. It is striking how many of the England-set romances are based around or even titled after members of the aristocracy. In addition to some of the romances mentioned above, examples include The Viscount Who Loved Me, written in 2015, by Julia Quinn (The Viscount Who Loved Me, 2021) and No Good Duke Goes Unpunished by Sarah MacLean, the 2014 historical romance RITA winner (RWA).
The researchers Lisa Hackett and Jo Coghlan asked several readers of historical romance what the appeal of the genre was, and several of them responded by saying that they enjoyed reading about the sort of society typified by the British class system. As one reader put it, “I like the attention to eloquence, to good speech, to manners, to responsibility toward each other, to close personal relationships, to value for education and history, to an older, more leisurely, more thoughtful way of life” (Hackett and Cloghlan, 2021).
This importance of aristocratic and class values may help explain why, despite several exceptions, England remains such a popular setting for historical romance, despite the changing sensibilities concerning diversity. One very interesting consequence of this expectation is the Netflix series Bridgerton. The series came out in 2020, but it is based on a series of novels by Julia Quinn from 2015, starting with Bridgerton: The Duke and I (Bridgerton: The Duke and I, 2021). Despite featuring protagonists of color, the series still takes place in England, in an alternate history where racial equality was established early on in British history (Hackett and Coghlan, 2021). Thus, the racial reckoning that has overtaken the world of romance literature is starting to take hold in historical romances, but in new and interesting ways.
Given the recent emphasis in the romance industry on finding and telling the stories of people not of European origin, it is somewhat surprising just how Eurocentric the current genre of historical romance is. Despite the presence of writers such as Jeannie Lin, the Bestsellers pages in April 2021 remain dominated by stories about Europe and America. Although there is some diversity in this selection of popular historical romance. Many of these historical romance novels are set in Scotland or Ireland, and romances set in the Western United States can also make it into Bestseller lists. Occasionally, a work set outside what is traditionally considered to be “The West”, such as Shafak’s The Architect’s Apprentice, can make it into Bestseller lists for certain specific subgenres. However, it is also true that there are surprisingly few stories set outside of Britain than one might expect, let alone outside Europe or North America.
Historical romance readers’ attraction to some of the aspects of aristocratic society, such as the decorum, manners, and the challenge of confronting a rigid social order, will mean that British settings remain very popular, and likely will continue to be popular for quite some time. As a result of this inertia and the popularity of this setting, some stories with characters of color, such as the Bridgerton novels, will also adapt to the British historical setting. It remains to be seen if other settings, particularly those outside of Europe or North America, will come to rival or displace Britain, or whether it will be possible to incorporate characters of color like Bridgerton did. Whatever happens, however, the evolution of historical romance will continue to demonstrate the ever-more complex ways that the present interacts with the past.
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