Lucinda Elliot

Review of the 1993 study ‘The Historical Romance’ by Helen Hughes: Fascinating and Insightful.

Scarlet Pimpernel


I have commented in previous posts – some will say ad nauseam – that it is unfortunate that light historical fiction, and historical romance especially, has long been afflicted by a disproportionate focus on the upper class. While this is particuarly so with the genre of Regency Romance, which seems to offer a world largely peopled by aristocrats, it is also largely true of stories set in other eras.

There are many reasons why this should be so. One obvious one is that the writers writers of the early historical romances were themselves from the upper middle class or even the lower echelons of the upper class. In an era of limited public education most authors would invariably come from that sort of background,and their bias would be natural.

‘Baroness Orczy’, author of the 1905 best seller ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel’ was a great believer in arisctocratic superority, while the views of such writers as Sir Arthur Conon Doyle were generally that power was best left in the hands of those who had been raised to wield it.

Another reason for this contentration on the ruling class is, of course, the obvious appeal of writing about the glamourous and remote lifestyles of the powerful. When Georgette Heyer adpated the format of the historical romance of Dumas, Conan Doyle, Weyland and Farnol so as to appeal to a female readership, though regarding herself as true to the tradition of Jane Austen, she in fact wrote about a world far higher in social status than Jane Austen’s gentry. While the most highborn of Jane Austen’s heroes is Mr. Darcy,the untitled grandson of an earl, most of Heyer’s heroes are by contrast earls themselves. Her later followers have taken this further, beocming obsessed with dukes and even the odd prince, to the extent that one might think that every second person to be met with in the Regency UK had a dukedom.

Regency Romance has, of course, no interest in portraying the real Regency UK, with its ruinous extended war with France, its failed harvests, Corn Laws, poverty and social turbulance culminating in the Peterloo Massacre of 1819. The influence of Georgette Heyer and her followers has been such that (unless I am missing something, and I am qite capable of that) there have been no famous writers of serious fiction on the late Georgian/ Regency era since the rise of the Regency Romance. Popular understanding equates the age with the frivolous.

I believe that there will be an eventual move away from this – but it is, like overall improvements in public transport in the UK, a long time coming.


Having these particular views, I was delighted to find that Helen Hughes 1993 study ‘The Historical Romance’ had been done on this very topic, investigating the historical romance generally, exploring its upper class bias and consensus based depiction of society, and providng some penetrating insights into the writing of Georgette Heyer and the development of the Regency romance genre.

Here is my Goodreads review:

This traces the genre from its origins with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the male adventure novel as typified in such works as his ‘The White Company’ through the writings of such authors as Jeffrey Farnol’s ‘The Broad Highway’ and ‘Baroness’ Orczy’s 1905 best seller ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel’ to the modern change into historical romance as primarily one aimed at a female audience as in Georgette Heyer’s adaption of it.

She makes reference to a Weyman novel that must surely have been an influence on Georgette Heyer, Stanley Weyman’s ‘Stavecrow Farm’ (1905). This book , set shortly after the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, has many of the features that distinguish the later ‘Regency’ (or late Georgian) romances, the unfeeling, contemptuous aristocratic hero, the spirited but innocent and vulnerable heroine rebelling against the artificial constraints placed upon her by society, the run away ingénue, an attempted elopment, the rescue of the heroine by the hero, morally contemptible lower class subversives, and much more.

The only complaint I have to make about this study is an entirely unfair one; I wish the book had been updated to take into account the new developments in the genre that have arisen with the rise of epublishing and the Indie author and the wide availability of older and out of print works online. As it is, as a book published in 1993, it inevitably deals with traditional print publishing only.

I have long been of the opinion that the ‘historical past’ depicted by popular historical romance is in fact, a highly artificial construction, though this is often obsucred by a detailed depiction of certain aspects of historical reality, ie, historically accurate and lengthy depictions of dress and manners, social venues for particular parts of society etc.

Faro's Daughter Georgette Heyer

I have also long argued that unfortunately, the form of popular romance made popular among female readers by Georgette Heyer and continued by the form of current Regency Romance, is also a highly consensus based and upper class biased depiction of UK and European history in particular. This is especially true with regard to the treatment of working class radicalism in the UK or – folllowing on from Dickens and Orczy – the French Revolution.

That being so, I have always found it startling how little attention is paid to the treatment of history in historical romance in the various books I have read analysing romance. For instance, Pamela Regis in her ‘Naural History of the Romance Novel’ seems to see history as oddly static and a wholly uncontentious area.

Therefore, I found it really refreshing to come across Helen Hughes’ analytical approach which accepts nothing as self-explanatory.

It is an excellent study. I cannot do better than give a few quotes from the author.

‘Historical romance thus provides a useful subject for the study of the ways in which an artificial ‘past’ can gain ‘mythical’ signifcance, confirming attitudes or highlighting fears and hopes which arise from the nature of contemporary society.’

‘Even an account of historical ‘reality’ which seems neutral is actually – through selection of ‘facts’ of their interpretation – an ideologically charged construction.’

From Conan Doyle and Orczy through Farnol and Georgette Heyer, there has been an overwhelming emphasis on the ruling class in the historical novel. This goes along with an often nostalgic, if vague, depiction of pre-industrial England. For instance, with Geoffry Farnol:

Jefffrey Farnol

‘Farnol uses the past as a nostalgic frame for a world which never existed in fact: an impossible Old Engalnd’ untouched by the industrial revolution. He is not concerned to depict an accurate picture of pre-industraliszed Britain; his England is simply what the modern world is not, a gentle, countrified background for private adventure.’

He uses, ‘A wealth of picturesque detail, but anything which might suggest poverty, hard work or filth left out…Farnol portrays a world which may contain indididual, private conflicts, but no social conflict. The villagers respect the genry, but do not envy them.’

In historical romance generally, revolt – and particularly the French Revolution – follows from Dickens’ model in ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ in being inchoate, based on a brutal desire for revenge rather than inspired by any thought out ideology and leading inevitably to a bloodbath and failure, unless properly lead by the natural leaders, the ruling class.

However, rebellion against the unjust and oppressive abuse of power by corrupt members of the upper class – if contained and directed by principled and far sighted members of it – is seen as acceptable.

Intriguingly, this depiction of a partial social rebellion as being acceptable, is not only true of the later historical romances, the ones aimed at a female audience from Georgette Heyer’s time onwards, but also encapsulates the relations between the male and female leads.  Her heroines are well aware that the restrictions placed on marriageable young girls from moneyed and landed backgrounds by society are unfair, and often stage a minor revolt against them and against the attitude of the domineering, patriarchal hero, but in the end they are prepared to surrender their freedom in exchange for the prize of his true love.

Among other approaches, Helen Hughes discusses Tanya Modleski’s 1982 study ‘Loving with a Vengeance’ on the mechanics by which a woman reader of historical romance is drawn into acceptance of the inevitable plot feature of the heroine ending up in the arms of the hero through a sort of ‘revenge motif’ whereby the reader gains a vicarious feeling of power through this previously impervious male’s increasing emotional vulnerability as regards the heroine.

Well researched, and thought provoking, this book is full of fascinating insights – my short quotes do not in any way do justice to it.

One of these insights Helen Hughes makes, is that a different approach to a given text can give rise to a different interpretation of the plot. She leaves us with this thought:
‘If the mythical quality of an historical setting carries a potent ideological charge, which it clearly does, the ideological element may not always be received uncritically at every reading.’

I do hope not.


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