Edited By- Anav Sawhney
With the lockdown in place, this summer had me feeling sluggish and unproductive. I had no desire to do anything but while away the time and so I turned to books (as I always have) to jolt me out of my stupor. But the so-called ‘good’ literature that I as an English major should have been able to appreciate held no appeal. In these desperate times, I turned to the genre of writing that the world (especially the literary world) loves to hate on: Historical Romance. For years these books have been my secret shame, that guilty pleasure I just couldn’t help. My recent binge (seriously, I read more than 30 books in two months), however, has brought me to the realisation that reading historical romance isn’t something to be embarrassed about. Women worldwide love it just as much as I do. Why? It’s because this genre of literature can be incredibly empowering, even feminist in its writing and I for one think that that’s nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, it’s quite the contrary.
Historical romances are usually set in England of the 18th and 19th century and mostly revolve around marriage (although this isn’t a condition of the category). One of the main reasons that this genre isn’t taken very seriously is because people argue that it serves as a reinforcement of patriarchal structures and ideals. The trope of the domineering, exploitative man taking advantage of the helpless woman, for example, is a commonly cited problematic. The perception is that this is a theme that dominates the category. Yes, there are books that make use of this trope; what genre doesn’t have a few bad eggs? By no means, however, does it make up the majority. Speaking as someone who has read a lot of historical romances written in the 21st century, I can say with confidence that most novels of this class have strong female leads which is what makes them so compelling in the first place. Another thing that people say, and they’re mostly right about this one, is that the very idea of marriage being the central aim of the novel is patriarchal and regressive. I admit that marriage as an institution was built to benefit the man and subjugate the woman (talking purely about the history of heterosexual marriage) and especially so in the era in which historical romances are set. Yet, the beauty of this genre, as you will come to see, is in the navigation of such a structure by the female protagonist.
Regardless of the various arguments against historical romance (which some people even call ‘trash’), one thing we can all agree on is that it is firmly focused on the woman—it is about women, for women, by women. This is the one category of fiction that is not at all dominated by the male experience. The narrative, even if in the third person, always follows the female lead, allowing the reader to sympathize with her, understand her, and in some senses be her. In a historical romance, the story itself is very much concerned with the issues of women. For example, I read this one novel where the protagonist, Pandora, had started her own company. She knew that once she got married the ownership would transfer to her husband and she would only be able to run it through his generosity, so she resolved never to get married. The issue at hand is the legal reality of women in that time and in spirit, for most women even now—the question of career vs family. The way the novel handled it, Pandora got to do both in earnest. I’m not going to go into the details but I think it’s important to mention here that Pandora didn’t have to give anything up. She kept her independence and chose to get married to the love of her life as well. Happy ending!
This brings me to another important aspect of the good historical romance: choice. In London society, women were supposed to get married at the age of 17 or 18. If you were unmarried at 25, you were considered a spinster (a word that was quite the pejorative). Such a constriction put pressure on women to marry the men with the best economic status or title (depending upon which section of society we’re talking about). The great thing about this genre is that it talks about women in all sorts of situations—young women who navigate familial force along with their own desire, quote-unquote old maids who don’t want to get married, widows in financial straits, working women like doctors or writers who don’t want to give up on their careers—and gives them the ability to choose. They decide who they want to be with, regardless of outside scrutiny. It’s inspiring to read about such intelligent, strong and successful women who get their happily ever after (whatever it may be) within such tough circumstances.
While the freedom of choice of partner is critical to a good historical romance, I find that the most empowering manifestation of that characteristic is by far the sexual component of the novel. However ‘woke’ we may think society is becoming, sex continues to carry connotations of shame, secrecy and judgement. People are attacked on the basis of their sexual identity and more often than not it is women and people from the queer community. This is where historical romance is valuable. These novels, because of their focus on the female, celebrate women embracing their sexual side. They talk about pleasure without any of the guilt or humiliation or degradation that one can sometimes be made to feel. Indeed, they’re kind of a feminist Epicureanism. They set examples through sexually liberated characters who live in a world that ignores and represses female desire, empowering their readers to do the same. We may not be able to call historical romance entirely feminist but that right there is an ideal, isn’t it?
In many ways, the situation of the historical romance novel is very similar to that of its characters—it lives under the label of disgrace, facing harsh words and disgusted looks and yet, it soldiers on boldly continuing to empower women everywhere. Personally, I won’t be embarrassed into hiding the fact that reading historical romance gives me pleasure. They aren’t my secret shame anymore, don’t let them be yours.