On Escapism in Historical Romance, Part II

So I am having this epiphany about escapism and wonkomance — about what I most want to read, and what I most want to write — and it’s all Erin Satie and Courtney Milan’s fault. Blame them for all these paragraphs I’m about to vomit at you, okay?

Duchess WarI don’t know quite where to begin, so I guess I’ll begin here: I loved Courtney Milan’s most recent novel, The Duchess War, which I read last weekend. Loved it absolutely, without reservation, with my whole heart.

But some people haven’t. Some people have found it uninteresting, or unromantic, or just . . . not quite up to par.

Which is fine. I’m not about to go around telling people they’re wrong for feeling that way. I feel that way about books all the time. Taste is subjective. But it did start me thinking about what I want from historical romance, versus what other people want, and that led me down a twisty path that goes something like this . . .

I noticed that many of the same people who didn’t enjoy The Duchess War as much as I did absolutely loved Tessa Dare’s Spindle Cove books. I did not. And I hate saying that — I really do — because Tessa Dare is a very talented writer, and she also seems like a nice person. I enjoyed her debut. I think the Spindle Cove books are excellent, in fact. (I read two of them.) They’re just not what I want in a historical romance novel.

So what is that? And what is it about the version of the past presented in the Spindle Cove books that galls me, even as I’m enjoying Dare’s characters and love scenes and dialogue and craft?

It has to do with escapism. Spindle Cove is itself an escape: a town where unusual women can safely be unusual. In Spindle Cove (which outsiders sometimes jokingly call “Spinster Cove”) these women can live free from opprobrium or consequence among a sisterhood of likeminded others. Spindle Cove is an upper-class radical white Englishwoman’s utopia, tucked away in a picturesque seaside location and populated by hunky soldiers conveniently garrisoned in the vicinity.

I think my inability to enjoy the books comes down to the fact that this is not a version of the past that I recognize.

When I read Courtney Milan’s The Duchess War, by contrast, I had countless moments of recognition. Ah, yes. This dilemma. This constraint. This feeling of pressure, of powerlessness. This is the Victorian era that I studied, in all its suffocating subtleties. This is the airless, difficult, wide-open, ever-changing, complicated past that I gave myself over to for five years of grad school. This is the past I want to read about.

The Duchess War is preoccupied with the constraints of Victorian life — constraints of expectation, of possibility, of class and gender, of power; constraints on hope; constraints of survival — and Milan gives us a romance that does not overcome them so much as it promises the possibility of mutual understanding, mutual transformation, and mutual transcendence within them.

The story goes something like this (spoilers, ahoy!):

Minnie spent her childhood trailing her feckless minor aristocrat father around the Continent. He disguised her as a boy because he wanted to bring her along with him. He taught her to play chess because it was the only thing he was good at. He turned her into a parlor trick, then a chess champion, and then he betrayed her in the worst way at the worst possible time. When she was twelve years old, Minnie’s father went to prison, and she was attacked by an angry mob that threw rocks at her. Rescued by her great-aunt (actually her great-aunt and her aunt’s in-the-closet lesbian lover), she was taken away to Leicester and given a new name and a new life.

Minnie has spent twelve years learning to be invisible. She is not allowed to speak her old name aloud. This, her aunts have taught her, is what it means to be a woman. You make yourself small. You follow the rules, and if you do it right and you’re lucky, they stop throwing stones at you.

Enter the duke. His father was an evil bastard; he wants to be better. He’s a duke, so he ought to be able to make sure his workers are treated well and put his father’s sins to rights. It’s more difficult than he’d anticipated, but it’s still not all that difficult. Everything is easy for a duke. The power sits uncomfortably on his shoulders. He wields it as best he can. He’s kind. He wants to put the world into better order.

When he meets Minnie, her guard is down, and she forgets to be invisible. He sees her. He wants to help her. She tries to blackmail him, and he tries to woo her. She’s smarter than him, and he knows it. He likes that about her — that she’s a strategist, that she’s so much more than she appears. But she doesn’t want him to see, and she doesn’t want him to know. They keep grappling with each other, and Minnie keeps trying not to hope. Hope brings rocks with it.

She won’t meet his eyes most of the time. He keeps asking her to look up.

Minnie is hoping to marry. The man she intends to engage herself to doesn’t like or respect her, but he wants a quiet, malleable wife, and she appears to be a quiet, malleable woman. Minnie thinks she’ll be safe with him — that she won’t have to worry about keeping herself or her aunts alive, that she’ll be able to keep her secret, scandalous past under wraps and achieve an endpoint to the terror that’s followed her around for twelve years. But the problem is that she’s met the duke, see. And she’s begun to hope. She’s begun to look up. When the suitor proposes, his proposal is so casually cruel that she can no longer ignore the truth: with this man she’s hoped to marry, she will never be safe. There is no such thing as safety for a woman in her circumstances.

Here is Minnie, speaking to her Aunt Eliza, coming to understand how trapped she is:

“List the things you are,” Eliza said, “and ask yourself what man would want them.”

I want you. But Clermont didn’t know her, either.

“Your choices are yours,” Eliza intoned. “We won’t steal them from you.”

No. They never stole her choices. They only pointed out — kindly, sweetly, implacably — that she had few to begin with. Minnie’s hands shook. The only thing they had done wrong was to allow her to believe that she had one choice, instead of zero.

Minnie didn’t see any way forward. She couldn’t see a future at all. She felt chokingly blind.

When Minnie gives up the terrible suitor and begins to believe she might have a future with Clermont, her terror reaches a fever pitch. She flings a fork at the wall and indulges in a rare outburst, telling her aunts how angry she is with them for giving her this choiceless life. And she thinks of Clermont, because she can’t stop herself.

You could have had this, the memory taunted, if only you were someone else.

You could have had him if you were yourself. But you aren’t. You aren’t.

Eliza crossed the distance to her and set her hand on her shoulder. “You should never have known,” she repeated.

It is a beautifully subtle moment, because Eliza doesn’t come right and say that what Minnie should never have known is hope. She should never have known what it was like to be a boy for twelve years. What it was like, with her father, to feel as though she could achieve anything, win any chess game, dazzle any new acquaintance. She should never have known that feeling of infinite possibility, because it isn’t hers. She is a poor woman with a scandalous past, and invisibility — freedom from harm — is the best she ought to hope for. She ought never look up.

(The theme of constraints on women is not a new one for Courtney Milan. I noticed it particularly in What Happened at Midnight, a novella about a woman who flees a scandal caused by her father only to inadvertently put herself in the power of a man whose evil is subtle and nonviolent, but inescapable. He doesn’t even have to try hard to overmaster her. It’s takes almost no effort at all.)

The Duke of Clermont (his name is Robert) does not understand Minnie’s situation, of course. How could he? She hasn’t told him about her childhood, and more to the point, he’s a duke. He has never known love — his father was an evil sonofabitch who forced his mother to choose between her sanity and her son — but he is so steeped in privilege that he can’t imagine himself into Minnie’s shoes. Much of the romance in the middle of the book involves his attempts to do so. In one of my favorite moments in Robert’s progress toward understanding, he tells her, “I know you’re worried. I know I can be thoughtless. But I don’t stay thoughtless, Miss Pursling.” And indeed, he doesn’t — much to Minnie’s dismay. She’s eventually forced to accept that she can’t prevent herself from falling in love with him. He won’t stop trying, and she can’t stop hoping.

And so The Duchess War is soaked in questions of power and its exercise, as well as how it’s intertwined with class and individual will. Minnie and Robert are twinned characters, halves of a whole: a hero who has more power than he wants and plenty of confidence in his capability but no experience of being loved, no family; a heroine who has no power, no hope, and a terror of public life, but who has known love and knows how to love. Minnie has quashed her true self, her aspiration, in order to survive. She is entirely inward-focused, whereas Robert is all outward — all searching for approval, seeking love, trying to right wrongs. She fears her connection to him because he can destroy her, and he can do it almost by accident.

It is, in this sense, a romance of learning to understand. Of learning to hope. Of two people figuring out how to support each other, how not to disappoint each other, even as they figure out how to get better at living within the constraints life has handed them.

And I loved it. I believed it.

I don’t mean to suggest with this comparison that Milan’s romance — which features the unlikely pairing of a duke with a scandal-ridden, not-all-that-attractive almost-spinster — is not escapist, nor am I trying to suggest that there were no liberal-minded Englishwomen like the ones who populate Dare’s Spindle Cove. The past contained any number of women who did radical, unconventional things.

But it is to say that when I read historical romance, I don’t want it to be utopian in the Spindle Cove sort of way. I want it to be transcendent, but I need that transcendence be anchored in the real. I want characters who suffer under the constraints of their social class, their gender, their time.

To borrow the terms of Erin Satie’s amazing post on Escapism(s) (which, if you haven’t read it yet, you must), I want “Escape into a Better World,” but not “Escape from Burdens.” The burdens are a large part of the point, for me. The characters can be ordinary or extraordinary — they can be politically radical dukes and former cross-dressing chess champions — but I only want to see them benefit from their unconventionality if they also have to suffer the consequences of being extraordinary. I want to see them grapple with life. Because there are, and always have been, constraints that we can’t escape. And it is in seeing how one might find a way, through love, through mutual understanding, to live with those constraints — to bear them more easily or make them not matter — that I am buoyed up by the power of the romance and left satisfied, in the end.

And — here is my personal epiphany — that’s not just what I want to read in historical romance. It’s what I want to read, period. And it’s what I want to write. It is the only version of escapism that works for me.

About Ruthie Knox

Ruthie Knox writes witty, sexy romance novels for grownups. Read more >
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29 Responses to On Escapism in Historical Romance, Part II

  1. Liz Mc2 says:

    I loved this post, because this stuff was what I loved about Milan’s book. It’s interesting to me that books written in the period are not always so realistic about the constraints on women’s lives (though some certainly are). Maybe they needed to offer an escape to readers who were all too aware of them.

    I think that transcendence within constraints explains my love of historical marriage of convenience stories. Done right, they make you very aware of how awful and miserable the woman’s (and to some extent, the man’s) life will be if the couple doesn’t find a way to be partners. And then, because it’s romance, they find so much more. That hope and promise mean a lot because they are hard won.

  2. Shelley says:

    Oh, I have so many thoughts about this, particularly in lieu of what I’ve been thinking about the possibility of utopia within romance as a way to imagine a better world. I also have 40 preschoolers to read to, so I’ll have to think later.

  3. Del Dryden says:

    Love. As usual. And it won’t surprise you to learn I adored The Duchess War, of course. Have you read the short A Kiss for Midwinter yet? It was a really unexpected followup, and also had another one of those big life issues that you hardly ever see addressed in romances. I love the way that, in Milan’s work, she never cops out on the fact that her wonky characters are not cured by romance. And yet…it’s somehow even more romantic and satisfying, for that.

    • Jessi Gage says:

      What a great way of describing Milan’s work. I’ve only read a couple of her books, but I’ve been completely smitten by them.

    • Ruthie Knox says:

      I did! I liked it, but slightly less because I spent my whole dissertation being irritated by Victorian medical men, and apparently I don’t switch gears easily. But I think you’re totally right about Milan’s insistence that love doesn’t cure wonk. In Duchess War, in particular, the plot kept pushing toward easy resolution territory, and Milan kept refusing to go there. (He’s a duke! He’ll save her! No. They’ll get married! That will fix everything! No. etc.)

  4. MEOSKOP says:

    I have nothing meaningful to add but fervent agreement. Especially about my regret at being unable to connect to Tessa Dare’s work.

  5. Shelley says:

    Okay, I’m going to take a stab at articulating my thoughts about this.

    During the DA post about slut-shaming, I started thinking about the ways that romance can deal with the realities of women’s roles and sex and our societal attitudes about it without perpetuating some of those more harmful attitudes. Basically, the ways that romance can address slut-shaming without the book itself slut-shaming. I LOVE contemporary romances where our current constraints are explored and examined the way Ruthie and Liz are talking about good historicals doing with the constraints of their time periods.

    On the other hand, when I think about contemporaries, I also think that romances with a sort of utopian vision do have a place in allowing us to imagine what the world might look like if we didn’t have those constraints. So, in the slut-shaming post, that would mean a sort of sexual-judgment free utopia, where of course no one is going to judge a woman who lives with two men, or if they do, they’ll see the light by the end of the book, for example. Or, in my own work, trying to write a heroine who has no body-image issues. She’s got other issues, just not those. For me, part of it is exploring the what-if: What if we didn’t all have a bunch of body insecurity tormenting us all the time? What would that look like? Can I provide a model for us/readers/myself, even?

    But when I think about applying this utopian lens to historical romances, I’m not sure how I feel. There’s something that bothers me a little at the thought of idealizing the past, but at the same time, how is that different than presenting an idealized version of the present? Some little niggling part of me insists that it is, but I haven’t been able to tease it out yet.

    When it comes to contemporaries, my feeling on the matter is that the genre does its best cultural work when it leaves room for both honest assessments and examinations of the world we live in AND (escapist, perhaps?) utopias that give us some idea of what it might look like without our current constraints. But again, I feel that this is different for historicals and I’m not really sure WHY.

    • Ruthie Knox says:

      Yeah, I don’t know! But perhaps it’s not so much that it’s different “for historicals,” but that *you* feel differently about historicals vs. contemporaries in this regard, which is a whole different kettle of fish.

      I find the idea of a utopian lens in romance intriguing, but at the same time I’m hyperaware of the almost comical failures of utopias, and am really more attracted to exploring those, i.e., what our ideals and the failure of them reveals about our aspirations and limitations as people.

      • Shelley says:

        I think you’re right to make the distinction that I feel differently about the same idea being applied in contemporaries vs. historicals rather than it being somehow categorically different. As I turn over the “why” in my head, I get a jumbled mess of thoughts about the inherent conservatism of idealizing the past, but I don’t think that’s really it, either.

    • I don’t know if I should comment here since this is about my book… I’ll just say that it is totally okay to hate my books, and trust me, whatever you feel about this one, there were times in writing it when I hated it more.

      So I completely understand and sympathize with anyone who hates it. I HATE IT TOO, LET ME TELL YOU ALL THE WAYS.

      But this discussion is kind of awesome and I want to join in so I hope I can be one of the cool–uh–wonky kids.

      On the issue of contemporaries and slut-shaming… I don’t think that being anti-slut-shaming means that you have to set your books in a consequence-free sexual utopia.

      As an example, one of my very favorite contemporaries was LEAD ME ON, by Victoria Dahl, in which the heroine *spoiler alert* as part of her backstory, when she was still fifteen or so, was taken to Denver by two guys and essentially told that if she didn’t do them both, they wouldn’t take her back home. She did them; they didn’t take her anywhere; when she called the police for help, they picked her up and then threatened to jail her for prostitution rather than taking on the men that had misused her.

      What happened to her–from the guys who misused her to the police that threatened to have her charged with prostitution instead of saving her–was explicitly a result of a society that slut-shames.

      If this was presented as a “good way” for a too-wild girl to learn “how to behave,” I would throw the book across the room. Instead, it’s a world where the heroine learns that she doesn’t need to let herself be limited by the way that others have seen her. There’s a point where she looks at a picture of herself back when this happened and realizes that she was a little girl, not a slut, and that moment just about broke my heart.

      I don’t want the books I read to buy into the slut-shaming, to treat slut-shaming as a desirable norm. But the ones that grab me most as a reader are the ones that acknowledge that those elements are there, unavoidable, for all women to face. Sometimes they scream in our faces; sometimes they whisper in the dark.

      To not acknowledge the burdens that we face as women, to pretend that we live in a utopia, is not what I want. I want a rejection of slut-shaming, not a denial of it.

      My favorite books are always the ones that recognize and acknowledge the world we actually live in while moving beyond them. So I think I feel about contemporaries much the same way that Ruthie feels about historicals.

      Maybe another way to put it is that the injustice (so to speak) needs to be at the beginning, and it needs to be addressed. When it’s at the end, it’s rage-inducing.

      • Shelley says:

        I actually completely agree with you. When I was thinking about slut-shaming, one of the authors I thought of who tackles it head-on (heh) and very skillfully is Victoria Dahl. In fact, when thinking about the possibility of books to acknowledge and then dismantle that, Lead Me On was one I think of as an example.

        I think the only place where we might disagree is that I’m okay with the contemporary utopia too, as long as it’s not the only voice in the genre–so that we see both reality and possibility.

      • Ruthie Knox says:

        “I HATE IT TOO, LET ME TELL YOU ALL THE WAYS.” – ha. Yes. I know this feeling. Sometimes I see the really bad reviews, and I’m like, “Yes. GOD.”

        I had forgotten about that part of Lead Me On, but now that I remember it, yes. The photograph moment was so poignant. And the hero’s memories of the heroine at that age, the way they contrasted with her own — it was all so well done.

  6. Erin Satie says:

    Thanks for the kind mention. I haven’t read The Duchess War yet, because I’m saving it until I’ve finished my WIP, so I had to skip over most of the middle of the post.

    I wish I had some pithy comment, but mostly this made me think about how I need to go over my WIP and see if there are places where I’ve let my heroine off the hook, and if I should twist the screws tighter.

    • Ruthie Knox says:

      I love this comment, because I delayed reading Anna Cowan’s post on The Duchess War until I’d finished the book. I hate reading other people’s thoughts on books before I have formulated my own. :-)

      And screw twisting – always a good thing. Or so I hear.

  7. Excellent post. I find myself echoing your thoughts in what I want in a historical romance. Or any romance, for that matter. In my opinion, historical characters struggled with the same problems we struggle with today–only restrained by the rules of their day. *That’s* what I want to see in a historical. I want to relate on an emotional level, while plunging my mind into the past. If that makes any sense whatsoever.

  8. Pam B says:

    Years ago I was on a historical romance kick – read them all. However got tired of the same thing and drifted off to other genres. At the beginning of last year twitter recommended several authors (Courtney Milan, Tessa Dare etc) and I thought I might try another historical. Wow things had changed in the years I had been reading other books and I loved them for different reasons. I went and read all the backlist of the authors I “found” that had been writing for several years but I had missed. I find that I get in the mood for certain types of books – I read a Delilah Marvelle book and then could not get enough of darker historicals – but then would want to read something lighter with more humor.
    So for me it is all about the mood I am in and what I want to feel.

    Great post!


    • Ruthie Knox says:

      That’s such a good point! And as I think about it, my reading needs have changed a lot over the past few years as my emotional/intellectual needs have changed. I should probably have filled the post with caveats (“I feel at the moment” “This week, I think”)… but they say that’s not good writing. :-)

  9. Interesting post and subsequent discussion, because I admit I love both Dare and Milan but read them very differently and for different reasons. I put my escapism into compartments, I guess.

    I love Spindle Cove because, yes, it IS a female utopia and it absolutely hits that button for me in terms of “you could be safe here and find love here, no judgments, no shame.” Dare makes me feel good and makes me laugh and sometimes I just need that.

    The immersion in Milan’s world, and also in that of authors like Joanna Bourne or Meredith Duran, is a bit harsher, through a darker lens, and, yes, rife with “characters who suffer under the constraints of their social class, their gender, their time.” And the key word there, for me, is “suffer.” When you pick up that book from the TBR pile, are you looking for an empathetic experience that takes the good with the bad (cue the Facts of Life theme song) or one that’s a little more shined up? I apply that rationale to any genre I read, whether or not there’s historical content involved.

    • Ruthie Knox says:

      This is a great comment, Suleikha, and a reminder to me that I needn’t be so restrictive. I’m really talking about what floats my boat at the moment, and at the moment my boat is obsessed with questions of authenticity, emotional realism, and market. They’re all whirling around in my head, which turns this post into essentially my emotional fingerprint for the day. I’m glad that Dare exists for another day when I’m ready for something lighter!

  10. Kinley Baker says:

    I love this post. Having just read About Last Night a few days ago, I can totally see this thought process in your writing. I find it fascinating, and it worked really well for me as a reader. I just read a Tessa Dare, too, and loved it. The great thing about romance is that there are so many layers. The challenge for authors, I think, is to find where they fit. It’s really great for readers because it gives so many possibilities. There’s a book for every mood. Now I need to read a Courtney Milan. :-)

    • Ruthie Knox says:

      Thanks, Kinley! Glad both books worked for you — and you’re right, there’s just so many ways to slice it!

      And definitely read Milan. She’s a delight. May I suggest The Governess Affair as a lovely place to start?

  11. Ruthie, thank you! This post has made me notice that I too like books about social issues, and characters who find heroic ways to transcend social strictures. I’ve only read Milan’s Christmas novella A Midwinter’s Kiss, and I adored it for these very reasons (Victorians discussing birth control and female anatomy!). I suspect this is why a lot of contemporary doesn’t do it for me–because without a social conflict larger than the character’s own psychology, a lot of the stories I first read felt like melodrama. Of course, in all romance, gender as social issue is a factor, but that’s a broad continuum. And I know there are some really great contemporaries out there, I just haven’t read many of them.

    I also wonder if an aspect of historical escapism is to a time in history in which we don’t live, that gives us a lens through which to look at ourselves from a comfortable distance. (Apologies if this is what you said in Part 1, which I missed). It’s just easier on my heart to read a regency, than a contemporary about horrid social and class conditions, because that was then and this is now.

    I write paranormal, which Erin described as an escape to a heightened reality in her escapism post. To me, that’s exactly right–the paranormal is a way to make certain intangibles concrete, and certain difference higher stakes (incompatible species versus just incompatible social class), and at the same time less high stakes. In other words, the un-reality or paranormal offers a similar safety that historical distance offers. I realized this when I finished my vampire novel and saw that on one level it was about genocide (kill all the vampires), which made for a great fictional conflict, but one not at all gut-wrenching in way that reading about real genocide would.

    Thanks for making me think about what I read and write. I love you wonks :-)

    • Ruthie Knox says:

      Interesting — I hadn’t thought about this post as being about social conflict, though I can see that it is. In contemporary stories, I like (and write) books that are really quite bogged down in the character’s own psychology, with little beyond that. How inconsistent of me!

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  13. Lynnd says:

    Thank you Ruthie. In this post you have clearly explained for me the difficulty I have been having with so many historical romances lately. I love Ms. Milan’s books because her characters are interacting in the context of very real issues and concerns. As such, they are books that make me think and make the characters very relevant and engaging. I think about her books after I have finished them and I often go back a reread all or portions of them (I love to reread Smite’s “justice” speech in Unraveled when I’m feeling frustrated with work and wondering why I ever chose a career in law). I do enjoy Ms. Dare’s Spindle Cove books, but, they are escapes from reality. While I enjoy them, I do not feel as deeply engaged by them. The exception to that is A Week to be Wicked and I think it is because both Colin and Minerva have to face the trials of the “real world” outside of Spindle Cove. The one thing that I do like about both Ms. Milan and Ms. Dare’s books is that we see that the characters think about their actions and their interactions and that there are consequences for whatever actions a character takes. I think that what I am finding most frustrating about many recent historicals that I have been reading lately is that they are supposedly set in the “real world” (not a fantasy place like Spindle Cove where the regular rules are suspended); however, the characters do not have to behave as the “real world” would demand. And, there are no consequences for characters who behave outside of the mores of the time. There have always been rebels and free-thinkers and non-conformists, but there have always been consequences for those who do not conform to the mores of the time – and for women, those consequences are more often than not negative. Recently, I am finding that too many historicals are either blithely ignoring the consequences or just paying lip service to them and it’s not working for me. Perhaps Ms. Milan, Ms. Duran, Ms. Bourne, Ms. Dare et al. have spoiled me by writing lovely, intelligent books that challenge me and make me think.

    With respect to contemporaries, I think some of the issues you rasied are the problem I’m having with the plethora of “billionaire” books, but I need to think about that another day.

    • Ruthie Knox says:

      A Week To Be Wicked is the one I haven’t read. Clearly, I should!

      And I agree with your distinction between Dare/Milan on the one hand forcing characters to deal with consequences and other historical novels that can be frustrating — paying lip service, etc. I have this thing about cross-class historical romance — love it, am always seeking it out, and am almost always disappointed in the end. Not so with The Duchess War, but nine times out of ten…