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There Is So Much to Learn from Historical Romance Novels

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Alison Doherty

Senior Contributor

Alison Doherty is a writing teacher and part time assistant professor living in Brooklyn, New York. She has an MFA from The New School in writing for children and teenagers. She loves writing about books on the Internet, listening to audiobooks on the subway, and reading anything with a twisty plot or a happily ever after.

Romance novels spend way too much time as objects of scorn, butts of jokes, and scapegoats for things that have nothing to do with them. Seriously, in the last few weeks alone they’ve been blamed for things from excusing Donald Trump’s outrageous comments on Access Hollywood to women having “unreasonable” expectations during sex (you know, like, mutual pleasure).

As the graduate of an MFA program, I spent an unreasonable amount of the last two years either angrily defending the genre or deciding to keep my mouth shut because it wasn’t worth my time. My arguments centered on reasons of financial success and gender bias. But I have another line of defense that I rarely bring up: how much there is to learn from romance novels, especially historical romance. I bristle against the idea that reading should be instructive. Every reason to read a book should be celebrated. Enjoyment and escape seem equally valid as any other reason.

At the same time, when people start attacking the genre, I start thinking about how much information I’ve gained from historical romances. Information that makes the world a more interesting and nuanced place. Information I doubt I’d have gotten other places.

In high school, I was considered a particularly good history student. My secret? I’d read tons of historical romance novels. These books gave me social and political context. They weren’t always 100% accurate, but it wasn’t hard to parse out the true from the imagined. The historical notes in the back of the book also helped.

By tenth grade, I approached European history class with a knowledge of subjects ranging from the line of succession during the War of the Roses to the major political players during the Napoleonic Wars. I once got into a heated argument with my teacher when he doubted that Elizabeth I and Phillip II of Spain had been brother and sister-in-law during a class discussion on Elizabeth’s speech to the troops at Tilbury. “How do you know all of this already?” one of the boys in my class asked. “I just like history,” I replied, which was true – although I definitely liked descriptions of sexy men wearing knee breeches more.

To prepare for eleventh grade American history, I read The Kent Family Chronicles by John Jakes. In the first book, The Bastard, Philip Kent moves to “the New World” and meets with Paul Revere, Ben Franklin, and many other important historical figures from the American Revolution. The eight book series follows the family to 1890, thus solidifying a knowledge base about early American history. At one point, Davy Crocket even makes a cameo.

Since leaving school, historical romance has continued to bring new information into my life. Through reading Beverly Jenkins I gained an understanding of African American history during the Reconstruction era. In her latest, Forbidden, I even learned about a Nevada saloon operated by and for African Americans in the 1860s and 1870s that was discovered because of an unearthed hot sauce bottle on a 2000 archeological dig. At a book release gathering for Sarah MacLean’s A Scot in the Dark, I learned about a topless duel between two aristocratic women in the nineteenth century (presumably over a flower arrangement). After reading, Magnate, by Joanna Shupe, I learned about sisters Victoria and Tennessee Woodhull. The sisters became the first female stockbrokers on Wall Street, opening a firm in 1868 almost 100 years before a woman would gain a seat on the New York Stock Exchange in 1967. I could keep going. Romance novels are full of cool information like this.

And information like this isn’t just cool. It’s subversive. It subverts the dominant narratives of history that have been largely controlled by white men. We never think of women running businesses during the Victorian era or black people living in the “wild west.” But they did. And it feels important to understand that history is more complicated than the monolithic visions often presented to us.

At first, I thought of this gained knowledge as a defense of romance novels. But I’d rather celebrate than defend. I’m grateful for what I’ve learned and excited to see what I learn reading stories in the future – especially if it features a topless sword-fighting scene. Come on! That historical tidbit is too good not to write about.