The Fantasy of Historical Romance

With a new season of Bridgerton almost upon us, Pop DNA decided to cover the Netflix series and the books it’s based on for the month of February. We had my TikTok mutual Sanjana (aka @baskinsuns; check out her BookTok and her Newsletter!) as a guest for one episode to discuss the history of historical romance, and how Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton series and the Netflix adaptation fit into that legacy, from the tropes of the genre, to the series’ handling of issues like gender, race, and social class.

In our discussion, we came upon the question: Is this genre equipped to handle those issues, or to meaningfully address the critiques of the genre being historically overwhelmingly white and heteronormative, and romanticizing or ignoring historical (and still-present) evils like colonialism and racism? I think beyond greater inclusivity and representation in historical romance, such as from authors like Beverly Jenkins, Courtney Milan, and Cat Sebastian, the answer might be no, it is not equipped to do so, and perhaps isn’t even responsible for doing so.

An idea I keep coming back to, and that I’ve engaged with in Sanjana’s content and through my own content to an extent, is that romance, particularly historical romance, can, and perhaps should, be read not as historical fiction, but as a form of speculative fiction, even fantasy. In fact, let’s talk about the relationship between fantasy and historical romance.

Historical romance can, and perhaps should, be read not as historical fiction, but as a form of speculative fiction, even fantasy.

My absolute favorite thing to read (besides Jane Austen’s complete novels on a continuous rotation) is a fantasy romance. And I mean high fantasy. Paranormal is great and I will absolutely read that. But I mean high fantasy, as in a completely imagined world, but the main plot is a romance. This is surprisingly kind of hard to find, especially in traditional publishing. I think it’s a little more common in YA, like The Wrath and the Dawn and The Rose and the Dagger, if you take them as one story, I’d call that a fantasy romance. It’s also more common in indie publishing, like Ruby Dixon’s (yes, the Ice Planet Barbarians author!) Aspect and Anchor series (which is technically portal fantasy, but close enough).

But when I can’t find a high fantasy romance, I’ll usually turn to historical romance. Historical romance comes really close to scratching that same itch, I think because it gives me about 85% of what I love about high fantasy romance. We get a setting with a different culture and different social customs than the world we live in, and since so much high fantasy is historically-inspired, we might get similar aesthetics in terms of, say, the buildings or the clothing. We might get horses, swords, and interesting names in historical romance, as well.

The only significant differences would be that there’s no magic, and the setting is more directly tied to a historical time and place in our world. A Regency Romance like the Bridgerton books, for example, is going to be set in England sometime between 1811 and 1820. But in historical romance in general, and I would say Regency Romance in particular, that setting is still less tied to the actual historical time period, and more to a version of Regency England that only exists in Regency Romance. In that way, the setting of a Regency Romance is almost as much a product of the author and readers’ imagination as a high fantasy setting would be.

I think there is a lot of potential for overlap here with Mannerpunk. In fact one of my favorite books, Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown, straddles the categories of Mannerpunk, fantasy, and Regency Romance (though I don’t think it would exactly qualify as a Romance by the current definition of the genre).

And while Mannerpunk, and more broadly the genre of fantasy as a whole, often have the capability to comment on significant social and ethical issues we deal with in our world, they do this most successfully usually through the lenses of fantasy, allegory, and metaphor. The Lord of the Rings, for example, is often read as an allegory for the horrors of the First World War and/or the evils of industrialization. By exploring these things through a fantasy world completely removed from the world we live in, we are more able to see the messaging and learn from it, regardless of what Tolkien may have intended. But at the same time, we can also simply enjoy LOTR as a high fantasy adventure.

While there are a few historical romances that have (I think) successfully commented on social and ethical issues (The Siren of Sussex and Portrait of a Scotsman both come to mind, though there are more), I don’t believe social commentary is really the main purview of historical romance, or romance as a whole.

Except for when it is. To quote one of Sanjana’s TikTok videos,

Historical romance is better at portraying the material consequences of patriarchy on women’s lives than most of fiction, contemporary romance included.

Part of the fantasy of historical romance is that the protagonist not only finds love, but finds love while successfully navigating the minefield of a patriarchal society. Often this involves some measure of wealth and power afforded to the protagonist, their love interest, or both, that ultimately makes this navigation possible. When we as readers think through the implications of that wealth and power and how it was acquired in this historical setting, the fantasy of it all may start to unravel.

So is it okay to not think about that? Can we as readers and humans striving to act ethically in good conscience read historical romance that doesn’t take these questions into account? I think that has to be something we all decide for ourselves. To quote Sanjana yet again (she is seriously one of the most brilliant people I know), she wrote in her recent newsletter about reading romance as “feminist,” though I think her thoughts can apply to other social issues, as well:

i want to invite us to read for more than ‘how feminist’ something is because it is a flawed metric and because We Shouldn’t Have To, and i want to encourage us to read broadly and diversely and to read feminist work, so we don’t replicate the same power structures of our world in our minds.

We can strive for social change in our world, and we can read historical romance as an escape, a fantasy. After all, bell hooks did both!

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