Saturday, September 26, 2015

Class conflict?

Hi, I'm Jo and I write aristocratic historical romance.
Yes, at times it feels as if I should be trying to overcome a habit, and I'm wondering what you feel about this. Is there something wrong about using upper class protagonists in a romance?

A bit of background, because I think it's relevant. I was born and raised in England, then in my late twenties I emigrated with my husband to Canada.

I became a romance novelist in Canada, but sold my books to New York, as that's where the romance publishers were, and America is where the bulk of today's romance readers are. In literary terms, America is my heartland, with Canada second, as aristocratic historical romance is very popular there, too. England is my homeland, but for some reason historical romance in general, and aristocratic historical romance in particular, seems to be a tiny market here.

This puzzles me, as I developed my reading and writing tastes growing up in England, enthusiastically using the public library. The first romance I remember reading was The Scarlet Pimpernel, and then I moved on to the wonderful Georgette Heyer, whose books are full of the nobility, wealth and the "ton." I remember other authors, such as Paula Allardyce and Alice Chetwynd Ley , both almost contemporaries of Heyer. I know there were others back then. Any other names come to mind? 
My first Heyer. The original copy.

So where did this British enjoyment of dashing, high society historicals go? Over to the States, obviously, where they flourished,  but why did they dwindle here? Why did so few British authors follow in the footsteps of Heyer, Allardyce et al? The obvious answer would be that publishers stopped publishing those books because the readers stopped buying them. Did they? If you're old enough, did you?

I can think of some other possible factors.
Alongside the historical romances of the mid 20th century ran the gothic romances. From excellent beginnings such as Rebecca and the novels of Victoria Holt, they became rather formulaic. They were popular, however, in Britain and North America, to the detriment of historical romance. In North America readers tired of them and embraced historical romance, with its much more varied settings, characters and storylines. Did the stranglehold work too well in Britain, leaving readers with a feeling that "historical romance" meant either the sweet Barbara Cartland style, or the gothic, with menacing men, and women with a tendency to go down into blood-soaked basements in their nighties?

Or did something happen in British society to mean that readers simply weren't interested in "toffs" anymore. Why then the popularity of Downton Abbey? It seems to me that most people enjoy some stately home and lords and ladies fantasy fun now and then, but perhaps I'm wrong.

No toffs, please. We're British?

Talking of stately homes, I'm part of a group anthology based on a glittering ball at a stately home in 1815. The characters range from a thief masquerading as a maid to the heir to an earldom, so there's something for everyone.

I'll give a copy of The Last Chance Christmas Ball to one of the commenters on this blog, randomly picked. So, British, American, Canadian or wherever, have your say.



The Professor said...

I bought my first Regency (a Heyer, _Sylvester_) in the Oxfam shop in Oxford in 1983 and was instantly hooked. I love Georgians, too, but rarely read contemporaries, which are usually too materialistic for me. I have learned a lot about British culture and history from well-written books, and will always support the toffs, even though I am in SC.

Anonymous said...

I'd never thought about this before, but after reading your blog post, it occurs to me that most of my friends who enjoy historical novels are not from the UK. I'm British myself, but spent a large chunk of my childhood and teens in Asia, which is where I discovered my love for historical novels through the works of Georgette Heyer. I mostly stuck to Regency and a few Georgian novels in the past, but was introduced to Eva Ibbotson a couple of years ago, and love her settings as well. I also love murder mysteries set in the 20s, 30s and 40s (Georgette Heyer, Dorothy Sayers), so I suppose I just enjoy most things historical. I'll definitely be checking out the other authors you mention.

As to why the British readership has moved away from historical novels, the aristocracy has become a little irrelevant in modern British society, i suppose. With so many people questioning the continuing need for a monarchy, and the changing face of the House of Lords (being populated more and more by life peers rather than hereditary peers) I guess people just don't relate to the Regency style world, with its insurmountable class divides and lack of social movement.

Jo Beverley said...

"With so many people questioning the continuing need for a monarchy, and the changing face of the House of Lords (being populated more and more by life peers rather than hereditary peers) I guess people just don't relate to the Regency style world, with its insurmountable class divides and lack of social movement."

I'm not sure this is true, though. Do people read historical fiction in the framework of the present? And Downton is very popular.

There are plenty of aristocratic historical romances around, but not on the shelves in Britain. You can check Amazon's listing for reference, or Goodreads.

Anonymous said...

Interesting question - I hadn't been aware that the market for historical romance is smaller in the UK. Is it possible the space is taken up by the "poor girl makes good" type of historical fiction of writers like Lesley Pearse, Lyn Andrews and Ruth Hamilton? Not sure what the best name is for that genre.

Jenny Haddon said...

I think it's a really interesting question, Jo. Historically,I suspect Heyer's historical romance of equals was overtaken in the 70s in the UK by Catherine Cookson 's 'Mallen Streak' type stories in which the aristocratic male is the villain. (They don't stand up so well to re-reading, in my view, unlike Cookson's 'Mary Anne stories, which have the unmistakeable smack of authenticity.)

There may have been contributing factors in the education curriculum in the UK - the history taught in school shifted much more towards industrial, agricultural and other economic changes and away from battles, culture and power struggles. Also, when Heyer was writing, there were lots of people still employed on the land and in great houses who would have been familiar with the real influence of the aristocrats who owned the great estates. (I always remember Sylvester, who was clearly a conscientious, working landlord, who knew how to look after his horse as well as his groom did; he conversed with Keighley on terms of mutual respect and, indeed, professional equality on equine subjects.) These days we have tractors and high tech irrigation, along the National Trust. Between them, they have eroded the small self-contained world of the estate, and, similarly, the commonality of interests of an aristocratic group. Nowadays your Earl is as likely to be an accountant as either a) a dashing man about town or b) a working manager of a great estate.

Downton Abbey doesn't seem to have unlocked the door to that particular fantasy in the UK again. Though I suppose that might in part be the result of publisher gatekeeping. All the British publishers I heard about where looking for authors to write below stairs stories, not about the aristocrats in the drawing room. Might just be the taste of few people, convincing themselves that what they liked was what everyone wanted.

Elizabeth Bailey said...

Yes, it's an interesting question. I suspect a lot of it is down to the general snobbery towards romantic fiction and Mills & Boon in particular, with Barbara Cartland leading the historical aristocrats brigade. As she was universally despised by the literati, just as Heyer was dismissed for writing light, fluffy fiction, the whole genre suffered.

This attitude never materialised in the US, where class snobbery is not one of the failings. It's more status and money snobbery, as I understand it. Colonial life in Africa was all status snobbery, as I recall from my childhood there.

I've noticed, though, that Kindle sales of aristocratic historical romance in the UK have been on the rise for the last couple of years. Perhaps the anonymity allows readers to enjoy them again?

Regencyresearcher said...

Are the British reading more contemporary books with billionaires as the heroes?
I am not familiar with contemporary reading habits but know that at any time there are readers who find the more traditional historical romances too intellectual for them. They prefer a novel based more on emotions and the ones critics call "bodice rippers." Authors hate the title, readers seem to love them. The popularity of TV shows like Downton Abbey is partially because they are visual and emotional.
Do you have publishers' statistics as to what books are doing well?

Anonymous said...

"I'm not sure this is true, though. Do people read historical fiction in the framework of the present? And Downton is very popular."

I don't think it's so much reading it in the framework of the present as it is that a lot of historical fiction focuses on the aristocracy, and there's a bit of disaffection with the concept as a whole. But I have a feeling that in the UK people generally tend to go more for contemporary fiction, from the conversations I've had with some colleagues. Particularly when it comes to romance, if people even admit to reading it, they only seem to talk about modern chick lit of the Helen Fielding variety. I don't think Downton is as popular here, either, as it is in the US or in other countries. I have yet to meet someone here with whom I can talk to about the show.

Bibliophile said...

I wonder - without knowing which romance subgenres sell best in the UK - if it's because the UK has aristocrats and the USA and Canada don't, i.e. familiarity breeds contempt?

I think the popularity of Downton Abbey might in part be explained with many people remembering with fondness its predecessor, Upstairs Downstairs, which was very popular back in the day, and partly with the British love of soap operas. Also, I don't think Downton would be half as popular if was exclusively about the Crawleys and their peers. Some of the more interesting storylines have actually been about their servants.

The relatively low interest in historical romance in the UK compared with the USA might be because many American readers look back on the historical era (be it the Regency or the wild west) with a nostalgic eye while the Brits don't.

Carolb said...

I don't feel it is just one thing that has created this issue.
Mills and Boon seemed to become the standard for romance novels and historical romance was more restrictive, and certainly in the UK not as obvious.

I started reading Avon imports in the 80's because they were providing the historical romances I wanted and enjoyed reading, and of course many revolved around the upper ranks of the peerage. So if readers are buying them, then writers will continue to produce them- thankfully.

Whether the changing structure of UK society has been an influence, I'm not sure. Certainly more contemporary romances seem to be written than historical by UK authors. Perhaps because they reflect young women today.

Historical romance novels are still looked down upon (in a way contemporary romances aren't) and labelled 'bodice rippers' (I hate that term), usually by people who've never read one. But that's the age-old problem of the media view of historical romance...

So many of my friends found history boring, and if you don't enjoy it then would you bother reading a story set to that background whether it has Dukes in or not?

Like others who commented up I grew up reading Georgette Heyer, and watching the old black and white movies that told stories set in times past- sort of visual historical romances in a way.

E-readers have probably been the best thing to happen for readers of historical romances in the UK, as we now have more variety, and no one can sneer at our reading choices because they can't see the cover.

Anonymous said...

This is a great question I have contemplated, recently. Where have all the English readers and writers gone.

I rarely read fiction, but when I chose to read it, for escapism, I pick a historic period that features my interest. So the Georgian and Regency period (in particular) is always an attraction for me. The only difficulty with this is, the romance features heavily above the historic and so does the plot development (limited by understanding and knowledge of the period).

Georgette Heyer was particularly good at giving history (setting) and so to, was Jane Austin and there after the British taste buds for regency romance ends. The Americans have monopolised this genre because of their thirst for British history, which they often see through rose tinted glasses, full of country estates, titled gentlemen and beautiful costumes (I say this having a number of American friends), everything is romance above realism.

My gripe and dissatisfaction of Regency romance reading and writers in this age is language. All too often the subtlety of expression (voice) that came from earlier writers of this genre is not found, American writers use American subtleties and expression that have no bearing to the setting (masked modernity) and so us Brits have become disillusioned and frustrated. When reading I often say, that’s not English, now or then or ever. The Americans have monopolised the genre so much that the British voice is lost in so many ways; few wish to write it or read it. Sadly and ashamedly I cant even list an English writer of this genre.

I’m hoping to give the writing a crack one day, but I doubt I will have the American voice to make it sellable.

Tricia said...

Like others, I read Georgette Heyer many years ago in my teens; I struggled to find other writers in the same genre and with her skill. As I grew older my recreational reading taste ran to crime thrillers, historicals, and contemporary novels; it’s only been within the last couple of years that I’ve returned to reading historical romance (specifically Regency romance). I must say that initially it was very difficult to find authors who wrote with intelligence and historical accuracy; having now found authors like yourself, Jo, and others such as Mary Balogh, Elizabeth Hoyt, Jude Knight, and Nicola Cornick, to mention a few, the overwhelming fact is most authors writing in this most specific ‘English’ genre are not English (or British). To be honest I don’t care what nationality an author is, providing the story they write is compelling and true to the period; what jars is when an author has not done the research or uses idioms and words that would not have been used either in the UK now or at the time being written about. Every time I read the word ‘fall’ instead of autumn I am brought up sharp by the fact that the author has been sloppy and begin to search the rest of the story for other anachronisms; it disrupts the pleasure I have had in being conveyed to a different time and place.
To get back to your point about the lack of British readers; I don’t think that British readers are aware of the number of good writers there are around this genre. I certainly don’t think they have lost their interest – see all the social media acclaim there has been about Poldark, Downtown, Jamaica Inn, and Pride and Prejudice. Whenever there is a television adaptation there appears to be a surge in the sales of the original novels; what I think happens the rest of the time is that publishers and book sellers do not publicise these books; they certainly don’t appear to publicise new authors of historical romance novels. I’ve never seen a published review of an historical romance novel in a serious newspaper; certainly there have been reviews of ‘men’s’ historical novels (I’m thinking of C.J. Sansom, Bernard Cornwell, and the like), where the ‘romance’ element is not the main part of the story and reviews of writers like Philippa Gregory whose books are more fictionalised history rather than straightforward romance. The reason for this lack of publicity is, I think, both literary snobbery and sexism; it’s not considered to merit serious criticism or evaluation and besides, it’s only for the ‘ladies’; of course, I could be wrong.

Jo Beverley said...

"Sadly and ashamedly I cant even list an English writer of this genre."

Well, anonymous, there's me. :) Mary Balogh is also British born and educated. There are also also authors on this blog (check out the names listed.)

"I’m hoping to give the writing a crack one day, but I doubt I will have the American voice to make it sellable."

Not necessarily true. It depends what you mean. Personally I don't care for an archaic voice, which is writing in a style of the past, but that doesn't mean it has to be modern and full of anachronisms. We authors tend to call it "time neutral" meaning that it is accessible to the modern reader but doesn't sound too modern or, especially, use inappropriate modern phrases.

Louisa Cornell said...

Fascinating post! And not something I had ever really considered. I fell in love with Regency historical romance at the age of nine when I read Pride and Prejudice. I've been reading historical romance, in its many forms, ever since. I think there are many things at work in this conundrum. Unfortunately, politics and the media tend to influence what many people read, think, and do far more than we as supposedly evolved human beings should allow. The anti-aristocracy movement currently in vogue in the UK may well influence the popularity of the genre. People who see the genre in the light of Victoria Holt's gothics may well be put off without realizing the genre has changed a great deal.

Interestingly enough, my debut novella is in a Christmas anthology published last year which actually did and continues to do well in the UK. All four authors involved are Americans, but I will confess none of us writes Americanized versions of historical romance. Our language is not archaic, but nor does it sound like American romance in Regency drag. And one of the authors has self-published two of her novels since the anthology came out and both have done very well in the UK.

Perhaps historical romance featuring toffs is making a comeback under the radar, so to speak. I certainly hope so !

Julie B. said...

I also cut my romance reading teeth on Georgette Heyer and can remember searching high and low for other UK writers of historical romances after reading all of her books only to be disappointed. Thank God for the wonderful Mills and Boon Historical Romance line, which I don't think gets the credit it rightfully deserves. There are many talented authors writing for that line and the books have an air of authenticity that is sadly lacking in many historical romances by US authors.

I think the regional and family saga edged out the aristocratic historical romance in the 80s and 90s in the UK. However, I have noticed that UK publishers like Piatkus and Headline Eternal are publishing US authors so there must be a market for historical romance, however, there seem to be few UK authors writing and publishing in the sub-genre, with the exception of M&B and small publishers and digital first lists.

Jo Beverley was one of the first modern historical romance authors I read and I remember being blown away. I also enjoy Mary Balogh, Mary Jo Putney, Madeline Hunter, Loretta Chase, Liz Carlyle and Anne Gracie.

Chris Brack said...

I love this blog and everyone who writes for it. However, I began to follow it because of your writing. I grew up on Victoria Holt and others like her. But I have had a fascination for Historical Regency Romance since I was in 5th grade. I love the beauty, the irony and all the behind the scenes workings of that time. To read that is, I think it would not be great to live at that time, so few were wealthy and so many poor.

You are one of my favorite authors and I think I have read all your books. Mary Balogh and Mary Jo Putney's also.

I don't think toffs are making a comeback for me they never went out of style.

Anonymous said...

I have read (and re-read) Georgette Heyer since my teens. In the first instance most of my books were borrowed from the library. I started to build my own collection more recently by searching second hand bookshops. I did read both Catherine Cookson and Barbara Cartland in the past, but by my early twenties I left those behind and have no desire to read either again. However I am still searching for the few GH books missing from my collection.
Having discovered e-books. I have been able to sample quite a few new authors who claim to write in the style of Georgette Heyer and I would still like to read more in that genre. However having been disappointed by a number of American authors who made such a mess (in my opinion) by historical and geographical errors -not counting the fact that the characters spoke and acted as though they were modern Americans and not Regency period English - throughout the books, I came to the conclusion that there is very little to attract me to read more.

I must add that I haven't watched Downton Abbey, as it does not appeal to me. I've not watched the new series of Poldark either (I have fond memories of the original series and I own the full collection of Winston Graham's Poldark series).

I don't think it is the aristocratic aspect of GH regency novels that I enjoy - it is more the characters and stories, and GH does have some lower class characters who play a part.

I have no explanation for the reason that there seem to be less UK readers of historical romances, I know that those of my friends who are readers prefer contemporary mystery, psychological thrillers or horror books - of those the only ones I would read are the contemporary thrillers (provided that they are not too violent)

Nettie Bee said...

I was unaware that this genre was not popular in this country as I have quiet a few friends who love the books I do. Jane Austen, georgette heyer, winston graham, daphne du maurier, armada grange, Nichola cornick , mary balogh are all my favourites. (Jo is on my to read list) I do read lots of other authors, but the 'around the block' and 'on the sidewalk' americanisms do put me off. I have over 1000 books in my collection of regency romance. Australian authors are at the top of my favourite list too. Eg. Stephanie Laurens, Annie Gracie, Lucinda Brant.
The Jane Austen festival and the Stamford Georgian festival were just on in the last month and very well attended by regency/Georgian re-enactment groups and regency romance fans. I plan to attend next year with a regency dance group (which there are many) I am joining.
Very interesting article though. Xx

Beth Elliott said...

Jo, your post and a number of the comments made me feel sad at the dwindling of popularity of the Regency era story. But then some of the comments are positive and it's encouraging that there is still an interest in that period and a following for tales of this era - if you can find them. I have published four wider Regency era stories with Robert Hale, who published [Past tense] a number of Regency story writers, including Ann Barker and Amanda Grange. But then Hale dropped Regency stories in favour of Victorian ones. Even if British readers want Georgian / Regency stories, they have to search hard to find them, as Agents say they don't sell well here and publicity is non-existent. Seems like a vicious circle.

Anonymous said...

As a British (English, in fact) writer and reader, I have to say that Georgette Heyer and the whole 'Regency Romance' bias towards portraying the activities of the tiny aristocracy has trivialised popular understanding of the era of the French Revolutionary Wars, the Peterloo Massacre, etc.

I hope you will forgive me if I say that responsible UK writers, if they must write about this tiny portion of the population, should avoid following Heyer in portraying a glittering but wholly false and socially exclusive view of society in that era. US and Canadian readers, with whom European history may not be a strong point, may have a wholly false and consensus, reactionary view of a time of massive social unrest.

As the late MM Bennetts comments on her blog:

'I also feel that Heyer’s work has done an immense disservice to our understanding of the early nineteenth century. Because by calling that world the Regency, this period of extra-ordinary political and social change and international upheaval of the most catastrophic nature has been trivialised, ‘frivolised’ and demoted to ‘unworthy of consideration by serious writers and thinkers’.

(Curiously, no one ever mistakes Wodehouse’s fictional world of Blandings Castle and the Drones Club for reality.)

At this writing, we know that over 5 million people died in the Napoleonic Wars. Considering that the population of Great Britain in 1800 was only 16 million, that is a considerable proportion of the European population. What we do not know, and may never know, is the number of civilian casualties. Nor have I ever come across any attempt to discover that. So those numbers remain unaccounted for, although they are likely to be at least another million...

And all this, and so much more, has been lost or ignored, because who wishes to count the cost of human suffering on such a grand scale–and so much of it caused by one man’s imperial greed–when we can look away to that splendid shimmering quasi-historical world created by Heyer?...

I do not mean to imply that Heyer’s research was in any way inaccurate. It wasn’t. It’s just that with the exception of An Infamous Army, the whole of her work is one-faceted and is set firmly within the boundaries of this fictional romantic comedy world she created. Thus, what a shock to realise that Mary Webb’s Precious Bane, for example, is set at the same period and included much talk of the terrible harvests, the effect of that on the countryside and the introduction of the Corn Laws.

I’m possibly ranting now. Okay, yes, I am ranting. And I do not wish to be a doom-merchant or a grumbletonian. But I do feel that the interminable focus on the party and courting aspects of the early nineteenth century has robbed this period of both its human cataclysmic disasters but also of its great triumphs of human courage, tenacity and sheer bloody hard work. And the only equivalent I can come up with is this: how would people feel if there was a whole genre of fiction devoted to parties and dresses and bonnets, set in Washington, D.C., circa 1860-1865?'