IASPR2018: History and Romance

This represents my notes on the presentations at the 2018 International Association for the Study of Popular Romance conference. Please consider my status as an imperfect recorder of literary academia. I hope you enjoy reading about this conference as much as I enjoyed observing it. This blog uses affiliated links.

Georgette Heyer’s Unruly Eighteenth Century. Stephanie Russo (Macquarie University)

Unfortunately, I missed most of this talk as I was running late (thanks to the children sleeping in after watching World Cup soccer – that’s my excuse anyway!)

My notes have only the end portion, but here are some comments from Jodi McAlister who live-tweeted the session:

Russo: Heyer, via Austen, virtually created the image of the Regency which is now the setting for so much historical romance. However, she also wrote eighteenth century novels (long 18thc = 1660-1838).

Russo: the close association of Heyer and the Regency might suggest that there’s something about that period that suited her style more than the 18th century. Perhaps Regency nostalgia was part of post-war domestic homefront culture.

Russo: the “unruliness” of the eighteenth century may be one of the reasons that the period didn’t work quite so well for Heyer.

I caught the very end of this session, and my notes include:

  • 18th Century novels are about power without consequence
  • Heroes often show a callous disregard for life
  • Regency era had clearly demarcated gender roles

History Ever After: Fabricated Historical Chronotopes in Romance Genre Fiction. Jennifer Wallace.

Diversity of location does exist in historical romance, but the best sellers are all set in white England (mostly Regency and Scottish). This is harmful to diverse writers and to reader’s understanding of history. Wallace has created a list of diverse historical romance on Goodreads.

Of the RITA 2018 Finalists, 71% are Regency, and 24% Scottish.

According to RWA – historical romance is 11% of the romance best sellers and of those 4/5 are regency or Scottish.

Of the AAR Top 10 romances, 6 of 10 are historicals (Wallace didn’t count Pride and Prejudice as it was a contemporary novel when written), and 5 of the 6 are regency (the other one is a time slip). Only one doesn’t have a British peerage title in the book title (A Seditious Affair: A Society of Gentlemen Novel (Society of Gentlemen Series Book 2) by KJ Charles)

One third of the top 20 selling regency books have the word Duke or Duchess in the title – ie the 10,000 Dukes problem.

In 1815, there were only 24 non-royal dukes.

Romance has created ‘peerage inflation’. Why?

  • Perceived security blanket of money for the heroine

It is easier to meet an American billionaire today (in population terms) than a Regency Duke back then.

Where did this obsession with titles come from?

Not Austen – her books had zero Dukes, even Darcy has not title (he is the nephew of an Earl)

Heyer had many more titles, and many romance authors point to Heyer as an influence.

Darcy’s income. Austen gave us a gift by mentioning his 10,000 per year – it works out to either £8.3m or £41.5m per annum depending on the method used to calculate it. Where did the money come from? Probably land ownership, but in that era there is a strong possibility he invested in goods production such as sugar, and thus may have been a slave owner.

Readers and “historically accurate”. In reality, reviewers are historically selective.

  • They will get really upset if an author has a door knob in Regency romance (not invented until 1878) or a Christmas Tree (Victorian era)
  • Romance never includes a Duke with syphilis: Reality – no cure until 1945, 140,000 deaths per year to syphilis (the same as tuberculosis), and between 8 and 15% of the population had syphilis.
  • Lack of diversity reflects Heyer’s world, not reality. (My note: Prior to the Regency period, one third of British East India Company employees willed all their assets to their Indian wives and children. With the immense economic power of the East India Company, that relates to a LOT of Anglo-Indian people existing, and with money, during the Regency period).
  • Romance is a cleaner, safer, happier, better smelling Regency than reality

The upside for readers is that they already understand the rules of the world before they read – therefore authors need to do less world-building, allowing them to get into the story faster. The downside is that readers only get more of the same.

Problems – windows vs mirrors

In 1965, Nancy Larrick found that only 6% of kids books in America had African-American characters. This creates a problem for white readers, as they miss out on growing empathy for others.

The Ripped Bodice study

  • There isn’t enough diversity (in books and in publishing)
  • It’s a vicious cycle
  • Diversity needs institutional support (from inside publishing houses0

Damage is done to history when people see Regency (as portrayed in best selling romance) as real.

  • Regency romance has created a perceived accuracy, which isn’t reality.

Beverly Jenkins calls her books ‘Edu-tainment’, allowing people to inhale history as they read. An Extraordinary Union (The Loyal League), by Alyssa Cole was omitted by AAR on their top ten list, because it had a low review. The reviewer asked if it was a realistic depiction (of the USA Civil War), and marked it down.

This is the oranges and apples of accuracy – regency is judged by a different (the Heyer) standard than other historical romance.

We need to allow Cole the same freedom we give regency (while allowing for more world building). Writers working outside the Regency space are criticised for both ‘having too much history’ and ‘having not enough history’.

Wallace made it clear that it is no single book, reviewer, or publisher who is the problem. The aggregate of all the books is the problem.

Is Romance falling behind, or missing an opportunity?

  • Diversity might be a matter of survival
  • A USA study asking people if they’d read one book in the last year, showed a very different group of readers to those in the RWA reader survey. If romance publishers want to grow their market, they need to pay attention.

Readers are caught in a self-fulfilling cycle. They think Regency is real history, not a fantasy world, and therefore their assumption of accuracy is based in fiction.

Note: This whole presentation is on Jennifer Wallace’s author website: Jennifer Hallock.


“He looks like he’s stepped out of a painting” – the idealization and appropriation of Italian timelessness through the experience of romantic love. Francesca Pierini (Academia Sinica, Taiwan)

Marina Fiorato’s The Glassblower of Murano (2008)
Anne Fortier’s Juliet: A Novel (Random House Reader’s Circle) (2010)

In both novels, American lives are given history and purpose by the connection to Italy’s history. Italians are perceived as Shakespearian avatars, as the search for a connection to past occurs. Italy’s history is shown as benign, endless, and continuous.

The history of the Grand Tour

  • The British originally went to Italy for modernity
  • By the 18th century this had reversed, and people went on their Grand Tour to search for the past

There is a rhetoric of the genetic purity of the Italian bloodline in these two novels, as Italy is perceived as ‘pure’, but in reality, it’s actually been full of immigrants throughout its history. Pierini suggests that perhaps Americans imagine Italy as a place they left behind (and assume it hasn’t changed since).

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