A Facade Of The Past

Writing historical romantic fiction is not an easy place to position yourself currently as an author. It is in many respects now a genre that is misunderstood and even dismissed as fluff. For if you say that is what you write, you are going to find most readers immediately have an “image” in mind of a tale…

[War and Peace (1869). Photo by me, 2019.]

[The Winds of War (1971). Photo by me, 2018.]

…and let’s just say they do not usually picture first the likes of War and Peace or the more recent The Winds of War.

They think rather of decidedly another type of “romance” book. The other day, I saw a blogger who had interviewed a Mills & Boon published author. This is one of that author’s books:

You see it is termed at the very bottom of that cover “Historical,” which is a genre within the Mills & Boon “universe.” If you have never heard of M&B, it is an imprint of Harlequin Ltd. As Wikipedia explains:

Modern Mills & Boon novels, over 100 of which are released each month, cover a wide range of possible romantic subgenres, varying in explicitness, setting and style, although retaining a comforting familiarity that meets reader expectations…

Thus the books are not challenging stuff. They also tend to be pretty predictable. In some respects, one might term the books “guilty pleasures” in that readers are not expecting too much, but just want some “escape.”

That is harmless in its way.

However, the company has also long been famous (infamous?) among some for the style of those romances – which are targeted at women readers:

In popular imagination and feminist criticism, the heroine of a stereotypical Mills & Boon novel is often seen as a passive virgin who is submissive to the hero in every way. This was often true in older novels but changed over the years; modern novels feature more active protagonists. Mills & Boon heroines cover a wide variety of types, often depending on the author’s preference. Romantic encounters were embodied in a principle of sexual purity that demonstrated not only social conservatism, but also how heroines could control their personal autonomy.

As for the male “leads” portrayed in the books, uh…

The attributes of the heroes of Mills & Boon novels have not significantly changed over time, however, almost always being a dominant alpha male. Joanna Bowring, co-curator of the Mills & Boon centenary exhibition at Manchester Central Library in 2008, notes that “there’s always been a subtle undercurrent of force throughout the books and that’s never changed from the earliest ones. Even later, when other aspects are influenced by feminism and the shifting attitudes outside the novel, the men are masterful and stern.” In 1966, the Mills & Boon author Hilary Wilde said “The odd thing is that if I met one of my heroes, I would probably bash him over the head with an empty whisky bottle. It is a type I loathe and detest. I imagine in all women, deep down inside us, is a primitive desire to be arrogantly bullied.” Many critics particularly point to the comments by another of Mills & Boon’s writers, Violet Winspear, in 1970, that all her heroes “must frighten and fascinate. They must be the sort of men who are capable of rape”. [Julie] Bindel argues that, as heroines have acquired greater agency, the heroes have become even more domineering and misogynistic. Other critics contend that these characters are outdated and inappropriate for modern works.

“Critics?” The books seem beyond criticism. Readers don’t seem to care:

However, supporters of the publisher counter that Mills & Boon are careful to follow their readers’ tastes and interests; if the hero follows this trend it is because that is what the readers want.

“It is what the readers want.” Attempting to give readers what they want – obviously determined by what sells – has worked well it appears for Mills & Boon over the decades. The name of the company alone conveys instantly a type of novel that is now a recognizable adjective. (Ex.: “It is such a Mills & Boon book…”)

Here is a bit from the Amazon sample of the book above (if you open the image in a new tab, you can make it easier to read):

[Screenshot from Amazon.co.uk.]

As an author, one of the dangers in writing for such a publisher is that once you do, it is difficult getting away from being pigeonholed as only a writer of such books. If you want to try to write something more challenging, you will definitely need another pen name. And you will certainly need another publisher.

On a positive note, most Mills & Boon authors appear to be women. It is essentially women writing for other women. It is difficult to argue with that being wrong.

Yet terming – as the company does – such books “historical” is, to me, wrong. For whatever actual historical FACTS there are on the pages, they seem at best likely to be few and far between. “Historical” is a word that is, again, to me, tossed around now at times by many writers and publishers too casually; “historical” is not about merely dressing the “fetching” young lady up in a bodice and the “handsome” rogue in breeches.

[From Conventions: The Garden At Paris, a 2017 novel that may be familiar to you.]

For example, one of the two people in that scene really lived. Gouverneur Morris was one of the authors of the US Constitution (1787), and after traveling to Europe was appointed the US ambassador (they were called “minister” then) to France from 1792-94. (Abigail Adams once wrote out that he pronounced his name “Gouveneer.”) What Morris says on those pages that take place in Paris in early 1792 (when Morris was about age 40), and elsewhere, is culled often from his diary, letters, and other historical sources I used in order to try to bring him to “back to life” here… in a novel.

A third mentioned only, “William,” was also real: William Short. He had been Thomas Jefferson’s private secretary and temporary US representative to France from 1790-1792 after Jefferson returned to America in late 1789. When Morris was appointed as the official US successor to Jefferson, thirty-four year old William was reassigned to the Hague and promoted to Minister to the Netherlands – a move which actually did not please him; he wanted to stay in Paris… most likely because he was in love with a married woman there.

And in that excerpt, this anecdote in particular is historically true: Morris did indeed slap General Washington on the back. Washington was well-known by his military staff not to be an “informal” man (and if you know nothing more about him other than what you saw in the musical Hamilton, you know that). Morris wrote that the slap did not go over well. LOL!

[View of George Washington’s Mount Vernon, his home for most of his life. Virginia, U.S.A. Photo by me, 2011.]

That is – to me – the sort of writing that makes for historical romantic fiction. The fictional characters must inhabit recognizable history, and in doing so help us to better understand the history… while we are being entertained and without feeling like we are in school. If that is not the case, the novel is really just a “period piece”: all historical facade with nothing substantive behind it.

You also know what is inevitable at some point in a Mills & Boon, or a similar, book. Of course the handsome rogue is going to tear off the heroine’s bodice and have his wicked way with her. Which is apparently what its readers also want to read! LOL!

Have a good weekend, wherever you are. 🙂