Outside the Ballroom: Unusual Historicals
I was editing something at my day job on the American Revolution recently and discovered it was riddled with little factual errors. They were the sort of mistakes that probably read as facts to most Americans who gleaned their knowledge of our nation’s founding from textbooks in elementary school. When I mentioned this to my boss, I added, “I only know this is inaccurate because I just read a book on the American Revolution.” (I recently read Washington’s Spies by Alexander Rose, on which the AMC show Turn is based. My brother, a Revolutionary War scholar, and I were the only people who watched Turn and it was on against Game of Thrones so you’re forgiven for not knowing about it. The book is fantastic, though; very engagingly written.) Anyway, my boss made a face that indicated she found this baffling. “Why would you read a book on the American Revolution?” she asked as though I had told her I’d gone for a swim in Brooklyn’s toxic Gowanus Canal.
“Because I’m a nerd?” was the only thing I could come up with.
I take for granted that not everyone grew up with a mom who thought museum trips and battle reenactments were a super fun way to spend a weekend afternoon. My brother and I watched a lot of historical documentaries as kids, got children’s books about historical events as birthday gifts, and in eighth grade, I may have dressed up as a Civil War general for a class presentation. So, I mean, big nerd here.
I was therefore somewhat reluctant to start reading historical romance, because I’d read plenty of historical fiction that seemed problematic to me because it ran contrary to how I understood the events presented. But I started off with Regencies, thinking that I knew basically nothing about the Regency era, so the authors could make mistakes and I wouldn’t notice. I have, actually, since read a couple of books on Regency England (I recommend Our Tempestuous Day by Carolly Erickson), but even anachronistic dialogue and mischaracterizations of historical figures are apparently not enough to diminish my love of these books. The manners, the fashions, the ballrooms, the witty repartee… gimme. I love them.
But Regency romances are as prolific on shelves these days as George IV’s ostentatious military uniforms (that was a historical joke, son). There are a good number of writers writing historical romance in other eras, and that is what I am here to talk to you about today. Some of these may look like your standard British-set historicals, but they’ve got an interesting twist, like a character type you don’t see very often. Some of these are American-set. Some of these are just books I like. So, in no particular order:
The first historical romance I ever read was Flowers from the Storm by Laura Kinsale, and it is still one of my favorite books ever. The heroine is a Quaker, not something you see too often, and the hero has suffered a stroke and can’t speak. It’s the book I lend out when someone says, “I’ve never read a romance novel. What’s a good one?” My paperback copy is basically tatters at this point.
That book blew my mind when I first read it so much that I went in search of more and stumbled upon Kathleen Woodiwiss, as you do. She wrote a Civil War romance called Ashes in the Wind. The heroine is a Southern girl who dresses up as a boy, and she is in said disguise when she meets a Union officer, and then a whole lot of epic adventure ensues. It falls into a few traps—there’s forced seduction here that seems a little problematic to this modern reader, but the book was published in 1979—and seems to draw its portrayal of the war-ravaged South not so much from historical documents as from Gone with the Wind—I mean, the heroine has gray eyes and the hero has blue, geddit?!—but it’s a pretty great ride.
Speaking of mid-century America, this list absolutely must include Beverly Jenkins. Her recent Destiny series is set mainly in California just after the Civil War and features people of color in the cast. I’m partial to the second book in the series, Destiny’s Surrender, because at the beginning of the novel, the heroine is a prostitute and has zero shame about it. That’s such a rare thing to see in any kind of romance, be it historical or contemporary, and this heroine, Billie, comes across as all that more courageous for it. She’s totally no-nonsense and doesn’t take any guff from anyone, the hero included. It’s so great.
If we get in our DeLorean and travel a little further into the future, we arrive in the Jazz Age. This period holds particular interest for me, as a nerd, and has since I first moved to New York City and read a bunch of books on the origins of Times Square and Broadway. Such a fascinating time—new freedom for women, Coco Chanel, Babe Ruth, Walter Winchell, gangsters, vaudeville, all of it. Fascinating and exciting. Lorelie Brown’s Jazz Baby takes place amidst all this, a romance between a woman who runs a speakeasy and a Prohibition agent disguised as a bootlegger. I know. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention Tamara Allen’s Whistling in the Dark, a quiet romance, all things considered, between a man just returned from World War I to find his whole family has died from influenza and a man who has just moved to New York City to escape an affair gone bad with one a teacher. (New York had a lively gay community in the 1920s, particularly around Times Square, and it is portrayed rather vividly in the novel.) I also heartily recommend G.N. Chevalier’s Bonds of Earth, one of the loveliest romances I’ve ever read, about a male masseuse who takes a job as a gardener at the home of a wealthy man whose body was destroyed by World War I. The book has a bit of a Gothic vibe, as it takes place largely at this mysterious old mansion on the Hudson, but that is contrasted against sparkly Jazz Age New York.
Before I come to the grand finale, I want to take a brief detour to England and Heidi Cullinan’s novel A Private Gentleman, a traditional Victorian in a lot of ways, but with a few important distinctions. The thing with most British-set historicals is that England in the 19th Century did have a lot of opulence and frothy gowns and epaulets and carriages and there really were red carpets leading into the houses of the peers who hosted the best parties, but there was also profound, horrifying poverty in London, and that’s something we don’t see too often in romance novels. But we do here. The titular gentleman has a severe stutter that makes it difficult to communicate and also makes everyone think he’s crazy. He treats it with opium, which he must acquire in some of the worst parts of London. The other hero is a male prostitute. So you can tell just by the set up that we’re not in for the usual trip through Victorian England with house parties and hoop skirts. It’s excellent. (For more British-set gay historicals, also check out Ava March and the books co-written by Bonnie Dee and Summer Devon. Actually, Bonnie Dee also wrote a book called Jungle Heat that’s basically gay Tarzan. Seriously. Check it out.)
I’ll wrap up with a shameless plug. I recently collaborated on an anthology of multicultural romance stories set during the American Revolution called For Love & Liberty. We were aiming to tell the sorts of unusual stories you don’t often read about in historical romance; characters from these stories include former slaves, a mixed-race woman living in a Native American community, and a Jewish couple forced to flee New York City because of the anti-Semitism of the British officers occupying the region. My story is a romance between a foppish dandy masquerading as a British aristocrat and a former slave masquerading as his servant so that they can live together without raising eyebrows.
If you have other recommendations for not-your-average historicals, I would love to hear them in the comments.