One of the complaints often aired by romance readers is that the genre is despised as escapism, and yet this insult is not so often aimed at other forms of genre fiction.
There is some justice in this complaint. Yes, there are highly escapist elements to romantic novels – but often they are ones which they only share with other fiction written as light relief.
For instance, if there are a disproportionately high number of fearless, ripped macho types featuring as heroes in romantic novels, then the same could be said of the heroes of action/ adventure stories aimed at a male readership .
Neither are the adventures of the characters in these stories any more probable, though they tend to concentrate on macho adventures to the exclusion of the emotional side of life. In this way, these two forms of fiction – romance and the sort of action/adventure novels that attract a largely male readership might be said to represent two opposite ends of a spectrum.
I may not be fair in showing these two covers as they come from long defunct magazines of the nineteen-fifties. But I thought I would put them in by way of entertainment. I’d like to acknowledge that the adaption of the first was by Shunk, by the way…
Then there is fantasy, a genre about as unrelated to prosaic reality as you can get. (This is also straying from the point; I seem to be doing a lot of that in this article, but I read a blog about writing fantasy which said of dagger wielding leather clad female warriors: ‘Enough…I mean we’re here, right?’ That’s rather a pity: that is a sort of female stereotype I rather enjoy).
But there is certainly some justification to the charge of romance being unrealistic, even apart from the preponderance of billionaires in contemporary romances and dukes in Regency romances (there have only ever been about twenty-five non-royal dukedoms in the UK) and the often, wildly improbable HEAs.
One aspect I have noticed is the lack of sordid details in the stories. I have commented before on how there seems to be an agreement that heroes should never vomit, even when suffering from concussion, and that the women never need to evacuate when held captive. There may well be exceptions, and I’d like to hear of them.
This particularly applies to historical romance. There seems to be a tendency to write stories where, for instance, the characters inhabit a Georgian or Regency London wholly devoid of the filthy streets or wretched beggars.
While the Mayfair aristocracy may have avoided walking through the sordid muck which littered the streets through going everywhere by carriage (and employing a footman to run ahead to clear the way of pedestrians, at least), they could hardly avoid being exposed to general dirt and squalor.
That was why in cities and in London in particular, the reception rooms were on the first floor. That way, the evil smells of the street outside were less likely to penetrate.
Of course, by modern standards, even people from the leisured classes would have been fairly grubby themselves. Bathing too often was seen as bad for the health.
It’s understandable that stories which aim to provide the reader with light entertainment are going to pass over these sordid facts.
However, I do think that this concentration on the upper class in historical romance, and limiting the working -class characters to obliging servants and inn-keepers, can lead to the consensus oriented, a-political view of society which is often presented in historical romances. It is too easy for that approach to ally the readers of historical romanced with a sentimental and even a reactionary view of history. That only can be a bad thing.