Some updates on History Ever After

For a moment there, I wondered if I was getting to Sydney for IASPR at all. One of the legs of my journey was canceled, and it took two international calls to clear up the mess. (I think I’ve done it…we’ll see if I actually board a plane). When I hung up the phone, I thought to myself: “Gee, I would rather put the finishing touches on my History Ever After talk than grade those thirty-six exam essays waiting for me.”

(I would have probably also opted to fold laundry, clean out the fridge, and even scour the shower if any of those would get me out of grading. I feel bad about this reluctance because I teach really great students, and I love to see them succeed. But staring at such a large pile is disheartening.)

In any case, I procrastinated a few hours and updated the data on my slides. The last time I posted about my research, I only had about three months worth of market data to crunch. Now I have six. The results have not changed so much, even as Twitter has been alight with criticism of the lack of diversity in romance in general and historical romance specifically. But I should not get ahead of myself.

The dynamic duo of Regency and Victorian romance still dominates the industry. Of the historical romances that make the New York TimesPublishers Weekly, USA Today, Amazon, and Barnes & Nobles bestseller lists, 63% are set in 19th century Britain. And among online retailers, dukes are like kings:

Bestselling-historical-romance-peers-duke-marquess-earl

With the royal wedding this past month, I understand the appeal of the royalty-slash-nobility happily ever after—though this wedding was far more inclusive and kick-ass than any Heyer book, I dare say. (While I am thinking of the wedding, let me give a shout out to my good friend Andres for bringing me a commemorative tin of shortbread. I may have been a little excited—ahem—when I received it. However, that “best by” date sticker has me confounded. I mean, really? The tin is what I want. That doesn’t expire. Who the heck cares about the shortbread?)

Meghan-Harry-Commemorative-Wedding-Tin

Anyway, I get it. I really do. But that still does not explain why dukes/duchesses appear in the titles of a third of the Amazon Regency and Amazon Victorian Top 20! (See the above slide.) About the same number of historical romance novel finalists in the 2018 RITAs have duke or duchess in the title. Not in the book; in the title!

International Association for the Study of Popular Romance Sydney Think Globally Love Locally presentation by author Jennifer Hallock of Sugar Sun historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. History ever after.

The New York Times Review of Books just put out a Summer Romance Reads list. The Review‘s new romance columnist (yes, they learned to ask someone who actually reads romance to write about romance) indicates a fresh trend: poking a stick at the genre’s “reliance on aristocracy.” I would have cheered this news loudly if it were not for the fact that 3 of 4 historical romance novels mentioned have peerage or peerage-adjacent heroes (2 duke offspring—one illegitimate—and a marquess).New-York-Times-Review-Books-Summer-Romance

I have no doubt these books are great, and I look forward to reading them. I love all four histrom authors featured, and I have even interviewed Joanna Shupe on this very blog! And a few of these books challenge the chronotope in different ways—for example, Cat Sebastian has written a bisexual marquess and a nonbinary love interest. Cool!

But I want commoner heroes and heroines who make things, heal diseases, and run businesses—and they did in history. Women did, too. The Times book reviewer writes: “In Regency England, the space [strong women] can eke is usually tiny, the size of a marriage and no more. Sure, there are outliers, but authors can only stretch historical constraints so far.” First of all, give me those outliers. Outliers make the best fiction! Second, this is true only as the Victorian era restricted women’s rights from what they had enjoyed before. So why do we love the 19th century so much?

Victorian-Medievalism-diversity-race-women

Despite all these facts above, there are still strong women who made history, no matter the odds against them. And we might expand our understanding of women’s work to include the many household management and childrearing tasks that women had extensive control over. And you did see women in professional fields, such as education and health care. There are interesting stories out there.

And I do want to read all four of the historicals on the Times‘s review. The problem is not them, or any individual book. Any book is great if it is a good story well told. The problem is the effect of the aggregate. The overreliance on two chronotopes—19th century Britain (especially peerage heroes) and medieval England/Scotland—may distort readers’ view of history and make the market less friendly to diverse books and authors. This is a theme I will expand upon late this month in my recap of my talk, History Ever After. Stay tuned.

Research with Red at the Concord Museum

I am thrilled to announce that I will join RedHeaded Girl of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books at the 2018 New England Chapter of RWA® Let Your Imagination Take Flight Conference to present our workshop: Breeches, Banquets, and Balls: Living Your Heroines’ History.

Don’t just research history—live the life of your characters! See how cooking their feasts, wearing their clothes, and recreating their dances or battles will make your writing better. Join practical historian and blogger RedHeaded Girl of Smart Bitches Trashy Books, and Jennifer Hallock, history teacher and author of the Sugar Sun series, for the latest online and offline trends.

Red is an experienced practical historian and officer in the Society for Creative Anachronism, a group of over 30,000 members worldwide who are “dedicated to researching and re-creating the arts and skills of pre-17th-century Europe.” Dressed in clothing of the Middle Ages and Renaissance that she makes herself, Red attends “tournaments, royal courts, feasts, dancing, various classes & workshops, and more.” Oh, and she cooks and bakes for those feasts. Our workshop will tell you all about her adventures and how it gives her insight on daily life in historical times.

I have a lot to learn about making clothes (or food) from history, so Red gave me a primer at a new exhibit at the Concord Museum, “Fresh Goods: Shopping for Clothing in a New England Town, 1750- 1900.”

Fresh Goods Concord Museum history fashion Regency Victorian Georgian American history
Red “shopping” for shoes at the Concord Museum.

Do you see those shoes? People had small feet. I learned that. Also, as Red pointed out, shoes were made from the same fabric as dresses, which is why they had so little durability. If you have read that a character danced right out of their shoes, that description may be literal. It was possible to wear through the soft soles in a single ball, especially in flats. Heels helped.

Fresh Goods Concord Museum history fashion Regency Victorian Georgian American history

I loved the colorful clothes at the Concord Museum. These dyes must have been quite expensive, which may be why they were so treasured and therefore survived—more on that below. We saw dresses for every stage of a woman’s life, too. Below (going backward, from right to left) you can see the dress of a young girl, who then grew to be a young woman and required a formal gown to attract a husband, and then with that husband needed a maternity dress. If your family was frugal—and they probably were—they saved your baby dresses for your babies, and so the cycle went.

Fresh Goods Concord Museum history fashion Regency Victorian Georgian American history

As Red showed me, the fabric of these dresses often predated the styles they were recrafted into. It was not uncommon to see an 1860 dress made out of an 1820 dress, which may have been sold first in 1790 in a slightly different pattern. In fact, clothes were so often repurposed that it is hard to find surviving pieces of a working-class person’s wardrobe because they were worn to the bone. What is left to us is often clothes in odd sizes—especially small pieces, Red tells me—or the clothes of the elite, who bought new duds every time fashion changed. And fashion changed a lot. Do you see the photo above, with the blue dress? Look at the dress on the far left with the big sleeves—you see the one? Yes, the 1830s were a rough time. Sort of like the 1980s.

Concord Museum history bedroom Regency Victorian Georgian American history

And going to a museum with Red makes you look at things differently. For example, at the display above of life for a woman lying-in after the birth of her child, my first thought was: “Are those tea cookies real? Because I’m hungry.” My second thought was, “Look how pretty this room is!” (And our friend Namrata Patel—also a presenter at NECRWA, giving a must-see workshop on search engine optimization—said: “Where can I get this wallpaper?”) But Red’s question was, “Where is the chamber pot?” because she has lived this period (or, rather, earlier) and knows what is truly important. She also admired the washstand in the corner and wished she had one of those for her SCA “camping” retreats.

This trip was just the beginning of my education—and yours. I hope you can join us in Burlington in April! You can see all the great workshops and speakers, as well as register, at the NECRWA conference home page.