Balls. Arranged marriages. Corsets. Top hats. Chaperones. London. Brighton. Grand mansions in the quaint English countryside. Handsome footmen. Pretty ladies' maids. Bawdy lower classes using funny cockney slang. Proper upper classes using archaic speech patterns. Swords. Horse-drawn carriages. And, occasionally, pirates.
This is the world of the 19th century...as depicted in 21st-century romance novels. It has very little in common with the 19th century as it actually was. Novels rarely have much to do with the world as it actually is, but in most genres you can inject a strain of realism without much harm. Historical romances are unique. The conventions of novels set in the Regency and Victorian eras are so deeply ingrained in their authors' and audiences' collective imagination that the fictional version has, effectively, usurped history.
Your novel takes place in an adorable hamlet some 16 miles from London, circa 1860. Your heroine is a genteel corset-sporting lady. Her dear father recently passed away from unspecified illness, leaving her all alone in the cold, cruel world. She needs to manage the estate, but no solicitor will work with a mere slip of a woman like her. Since her brother Fitzwilliam, the rightful heir, disappeared at sea ten years ago, they refuse to communicate with anyone but the nearest male relative, her Evil Uncle Joe, who arranges to marry her off to his philandering son. Her friends and relatives encourage the match, reminding her that, at the ripe age of four-and-twenty, she is already an old maid.
But being a spunky lass, she takes matters into her own hands. She stumbles upon a handsome amnesiac nobleman, whom she mistakes for a common wandering minstrel, and convinces him to pretend to be her long lost brother. As Fitzwilliam, he can seize the estate from Evil Uncle Joe and quietly pass it back to her. Of course it's all just for show, until they fall desperately in love, etc. etc.*
* The twist: he actually is her brother Fitzwilliam, but he only regains his memories after they've given in to their feelings in a steamy night of passion. Then after many chapters of tragedy and tears it turns out she's actually the daughter of their father's deceased pirate friend, so they're not blood-related and it's okay.
How exciting. And how utterly nonsensical.
(a) Unmarried women of age in the Victorian era, and before, were perfectly capable of owning and managing their own properties. Solicitors worked with them all the time. Public sentiment was strongly in favor of giving married women these rights as well, and women of means usually had protections in their marriage settlements to make sure they were functionally independent. By 1870 women owned the properties they acquired after marriage, and by 1882 they retained the properties they had owned before marriage too. That's a lot of "mere slips" in need of a good lawyer.
(b) Arranged marriages fell out of fashion long before the 19th century. Guardians steered their children towards young people they approved of, and they could kick a fuss over lovers they didn't like, but they had as little say in who their adult daughters and sons married as parents do today.
(c) The average age of first marriage for well-to-do Victorian women was twenty-five. For men, it was twenty-seven to twenty-eight. Men and women in the middle classes were often well over thirty, because they waited until they were financially established to start a family. Your heroine may have younger, prettier rivals, but she is nowhere close to an old maid. (Anne, the heroine of Jane Austen's Persuasion, published in 1817, was twenty-seven and still had her pick of admirers.)
But while history buffs would rage at this plot, historical romance buffs will love it. Write your novel more realistically, and the two will swap. If your heroine behaves as a real woman in 1860 would have, working with a lawyer to manage her estate and laughing at her uncle for trying to dictate her marriage, your critique partners and beta readers will chastise you for not doing your research.
"She's acting like a feminist in 2013!" they'll sneer. "Women in the Victorian era didn't have any power over their lives. Don't you know that?"
Actually, though women were treated pretty badly in the 1800s, and many prominent men were racist, sexist SOBs, everyday life as a female wasn't nearly as bad as romance novels would have you believe. In Pride and Prejudice, the ridiculous Mr. Collins reads to the Bennets nightly from Fordyce's Sermons to Young Women, written in 1766. These sermons, by the early 1800s, were well-known and well-mocked for being absurdly sexist and old fashioned. They contain gems like:
- "Be ever cautious in displaying your good sense. It will be thought you assume superiority over the rest of the company."
- "The men will complain of your reserve. They will assure you that a franker behaviour would make you more amiable. But, trust me, they are not sincere...It would make you less amiable as women; an important distinction which many of your sex are unaware of."
- "I am astonished at the folly of many women who are still reproaching their husbands for leaving them alone...Had you behaved to them with more respectful observance—studying their humours, overlooking their mistakes, submitting to their opinions in matters indifferent, giving soft answers to hasty words, complaining as little as possible—your house might be the abode of domestic bliss."
In Austen's novel, published in 1813, Mr. Collins' choice is a gag. The youngest Bennets are appalled, while the oldest are amused, by their cousin's obtuse, stuffy advice. The Regency era was certainly sexist compared to today, but they didn't expect women to be silent, empty-headed dolls.
But in the historical romance version of 19th century England/America, every Regency heroine is frowned upon for having a spine and working vocal chords. Every Victorian heroine is ostracized for spending her time with books instead of embroidery. And every hero is astounded to meet a woman with a vocabulary larger than "Yes, my Lord."
In contrast to the novels written today about the 19th century, the bestselling novels written in the nineteenth century feature heroines who assert themselves all the time.
Elinor Dashwood (Sense and Sensibility, 1811) and Anne Elliot (Persuasion, 1817) both manage their household finances to ensure their families live within their means. Emma Woodhouse (Emma, 1815) has dominated her hypochondriac father and overwhelmed governess since childhood and declares she will never marry (though she reneges on that one). Elizabeth Bennet (Pride and Prejudice, 1813) is witty and outspoken and turns down two wealthy suitors because she can't stand to marry a man she doesn't respect.
The opinionated and passionate Jane Eyre (Jane Eyre, 1847) rebels against her worldly family and wicked schoolmaster, makes a living for herself as a teacher, and refuses first her possessive employer, then her uppity cousin. She only marries Mr. Rochester after she inherits 20 thousand pounds and he's been permanently disabled, upending the balance of power between them.
Margaret Hale (North and South, 1855) finds her family a new apartment when they move to Milton-Northern. She participates in heated discussions of politics with the local men, makes friends with the cotton mill workers and their families, and takes a rock to the head from an angry mob when she tries to dissuade them from attacking their employer, Mr. Thornton, who had brought in Irish laborers to break their strike. Like Jane Eyre, she only marries Mr. Thornton after his mill goes bankrupt and she rescues it with her substantial inheritance.
Strong-willed Jo March (Little Women, 1868-1869) pursues a literary career in New York City and abhors the very thought of marriage until she meets a gentle professor who can be her equal partner in life.
Then there are the antagonists, who are even more assertive: the dour Lady Catherine de Bourgh, the crazed and caged Mrs. Rochester, the intimidating businesswoman Mrs. Thornton.
Of course there are many other books featuring demure, blushing maidens, and female novelists were critically slammed for not being "masculine" enough, but the above titles were so popular in their time that you have to wonder if people really disapproved of strong, independent women.
The 19th century rollicked with technological advances and aggressive social and legal reform, but from the way it's portrayed today, you'd think we were stuck in 1750 until World War II. Victorian romance heroines have never heard of the rational dress or women's suffrage movements, which started to murmur to life around 1850. They don't pursue higher education, though women's colleges were established as early as the 1830s. They certainly don't have jobs, though by the last quarter of the century most did. Lower class girls worked in factories, agriculture, domestic service, and even mines. Middle class women worked as teachers, secretaries, telephone/telegraph operators, nurses, librarians, and more. Upper class women were expected to spend their time doing charity work, at least—not just whirling around at balls and making out with handsome rogues.
But in the historical romance version of the 19th century, women's lives revolve entirely around men. And here we have a bizarre contradiction. The heroines frequently complain that their lives shouldn't revolve around men. They have lively characters that defy convention. They rebel in adorable spunky ways, fleeing hand-wringing parents and dull suitors to enjoy wild horse rides through the countryside.
Yet their fictional lives do revolve around men—particularly sex with men and marriage with men—though in reality they didn't have to.
The supposed free nature of most historical romance heroines is a facade. A sham. Because in the real 19th century, a woman could be free if she wanted to be. She might feel social pressure to marry, she might face a hard life if she didn't, but it was her choice. Ten percent of the adult population in the 1800s never married. Among working women, a full third of them remained single. The pay was lousy, especially in over-saturated occupations like teaching, but you could live reasonably well. The upper-class heroines in novels needn't worry about income anyway; they could happily live out their days on well-funded estates. But though most of them loudly detest the institution of marriage, or the men proposing it, they always get married in the end anyway.
Historical romances are misnamed. They have nothing to do with history, but are really a subgenre of fantasy. They're fairy tales for adults. They don't take place in, say, 1860 London, but rather, "Long, long ago, in a land far, far away." But more than most other fantasy genres, this fairy tale world has rigid rules that authors must follow, or break at their peril. These rules include:
- Women are spinsters after twenty.
- Women can't live unless they marry well.
- All women must be repressed and silent. There are dire consequences for any with the bad breeding to use their brains.
Why do we insist that the Regency/Victorian eras were like this? Because these rules are the only way to keep the sham going. Romance readers want thrilling stories of virile princes sweeping swooning princesses off their feet. But in this day and age, you're not supposed to write that. You're not supposed to write about submissive women becoming the willing prey of dominating men; the feminists get huffy. But if your setting is historical, you have a whole arsenal of excuses. The mere fact that she's in the 19th century—or the imaginary 19th century established by the genre—releases your heroine from any obligations to support herself or make her own decisions.
"Yes, she's weak and useless, but that's only because women were forced to be weak and useless. Women weren't allowed to control their own lives. That's the way things were!"
If you write intelligent, independent heroines into Regency romances, you get to have your cake and eat it too. You can champion women's lib and decry the outdated institution of marriage, but then invoke marriage as the happy solution to all of life's problems. You can pretend to support gender equality, but then secretly sigh for the days when all women had to do was wear low-cut gowns and men would pamper them for life.
The problem is, those days never existed.