Excuse Me, You Got Some Feminism in My Regency Romance
Today I’m here to talk to you about a somewhat controversial topic that annoys the bejeezus out of me — feminism in historical romances. Specifically, because I see it most often in this era, feminism in Regency romances.
Because, y’all. It doesn’t make sense. Some of the most progressive novels of that era were Jane Austen’s (ish). And yes, Jane Austen heroines are sometimes spicy and fiery, and the ideas she presented (and the overblown parodies of reality she wrote) were huge for the era. I love me some Austen.
But still, that’s pretty tame. And it’s far, far less feminism than you see in literally any Regency romance you pick up off the shelf. Also, Jane Austen is a master while most of the historical romance authors you’ll find around are … not. They’re often good, but they’re not Jane Austen.
Historical romances — and Regency romances are the ones I’m picking on today — are as anachronistic as it comes when it comes to the ideas women present, the way men react to them, and basically just … all that.
But before we dive into my post-sized rant, some clarifications:
What do I mean by the Regency era?
The Regency era is technically 1811-1820, but I define it loosely as novels written in a style or in a way that hints at Jane Austen. *shrugs* I know most would say Georgette Heyer, but I don’t care about her.
Jane Austen is my role model, and Jane Austen I shall call the author of Regency romances who one must emulate, and Jane Austen I shall praise day and night.
Georgette Heyer, Georgette Schmeyer. Did she live through it? I think not.
What do I mean by feminism?
Now, don’t get me wrong — I’m fine with some elements of feminism. The “woman are equal” and “women have brains” and “women should be allowed to vote and get whatever jobs they can get” part.
But not the “woman are the exact same as men” or “women are better than men” parts. Just nope. Nopety nope. Sorry, folks. That’ll be enough of that. *tosses all of these thoughts out the window and walks away casually as they fall screaming into the void*
That said, I mean all these elements when talking about feminism in this post. Just … the good, the bad, and the ugly. And the “I don’t even care” parts, as well. All of it.
With those clarifications in place, pull up a chair and grab a mug of hot cocoa, because Granny Kell’s gonna tell you a story. (Though don’t call me Granny.) (I’m just a child.) (Well, a young adult.) (Let’s call a spade a spade and not let me be more immature than I am already.)
A Story by Kellyn Roth
Once upon a time, there was a girl named Miss Gillseldina Grimelda the 3rd. Or Gillie, to her friends (of which she doesn’t have many). (Yay for cute nicknames for horrific old-fashioned names!)
Gillie loves books, and is somewhat shy, and allows her wicked Uncle Mortimer to abuse her. No, Uncle Mortimer never would hit Gillie, of course — this is a PG-rated story, after all!
But he does abuse her by taking away her books, insisting that her childhood dream of being a botanist librarian is ridiculous, and, most of all, says that because she is a girl, she is useless and stupid and silly.
Although Gillie was born in the Regency era, she is blissfully unaware of it. Every time a Regency era tradition or rule comes up, she is shocked. She must wear a corset!? And SHOES!?! AND IT’S UNLADYLIKE TO SLIDE DOWN BANISTERS!?!?!
Gillie comes to realize that her horrible Regency life is HOLDING HER BACK. It is AWFUL. She’s never known anything but it, of course, but Gillie refuses to acknowledge this. Instead, she whines about how her life is a prison compared to those 2010s girls.
Sadly, this is not the kind of story where Gillie can time travel to 2010. Instead, she is stuck in 1810. It really sucks for Gillie. She is so oppressed.
One day, while feeding her pet chipmunks, Gillie runs into Handsome McHandsomeface. We’ll call him Han for short.
Han and Gillie hit it off and spend the rest of the day walking about in the forest together. Gillie tells him about all her REBELLIOUS ideas — like reading and not wearing a corset and wearing her hair down and running about wild in the prairies without her bonnet on — and Han LOVES her for it.
Gillie is different than every woman Han has ever met because she enjoys reading and says really bold, obnoxious things and doesn’t at all understand the era she’s been born in.
Han is in love with Gillie, and after some mishaps of various sorts, he proves that he is an ACTUAL gentleman, having inherited 2010s feminist morals from … somewhere. He buys Gillie a botanist library and marries her, after proving that her Uncle Mortimer is an Absolute Idiot.
Uncle Mortimer dies of typhoid fever.
Do you like my story?
Good, ‘cause I could recommend 500 others just like it. 😉
The truth is, I actually somewhat enjoy elements of these stories (when not over-simplified, as such). I know a number of authors who have done really clever things with these tropes (Julie Klassen and Kristi Ann Hunter both write masterful Regency romances without driving readers insane, for instance).
But here’s the thing … did you catch the feminism? Because it wasn’t subtle. At all.
And I just really don’t understand how authors always manage to get so much feminism in my Regency romances!
Why is the feminism even there?
Here’s the thing … people like to include feminism in their historical stories. For no reason other than to show that they are Woke and they Understand that Back Then things were Not Ideal for Women.
But, first of all, they exaggerate some elements of the era (probably based on authors like Jane Austen who exaggerated conditions for the sake of proving a point).
And then they put in their modern sensibilities to solve the problem, unlike Jane Austen, who never attempted to solve the problem of her era at all, except by pointing out that some things (read: most things) were irrevocably silly and random.
It’s misplaced and weird, it doesn’t make sense for the era, and it’s just … annoying. A little trope or plot detail or whatever you want to call it that is included for the sake of including it.
Perhaps it’s to make the hero seem more heroic or the heroine more spicy, but let me tell you — it does not work. And it’s annoying.
And it never gets resolved, truly, at least in a realistic fashion.
And it takes the reader into some fantasy reality the author created for the sake of letting the author be Aware of how Bad things were back in Ye Olden Dayes.
There are times when it does work, of course.
The 1920s? Yeah. And even the 1890s. But you have to be aware of the era you’re working in. In the Regency era, it WASN’T uncommon for women to read novels, if they were well-educated, and a lot of them did have little side hobbies, even if they never turned serious, like botany librarianism.
In the 1880s and 1890s, there were some major changes in the way people thought of women as inheritance laws changed, women were found to be murderers, and more and more women attended colleges and got into different business endeavors.
But the thing is, not very many authors take the time to understand the context of the era they’re writing in, the way men and women truly viewed each other, the way gender roles (and all kinds of roles, in fact) were presented, and how people actually thought.
Or if the authors do think of these things, they fail to realistically portray them in their novels.
It’s not enough to know the kind of candle holder used in the era if you don’t understand the kind of people who used the candle.
Why heroes shouldn’t always be perfectly woke
This is probably my biggest issue with this trope: the hero always gets it. He’s never really a bigot, never really sexist (even if the heroine starts out believing he is).
The thing is, this gives us an unrealistic expectation of the Prince Charming’s Existence AND an unrealistic view of the past. The heroine never has to prove herself to the hero. The heroine doesn’t have to be unobnoxious or kind because He Just Gets Her.
The only reason he is actually the man for her is because he doesn’t have anything to do with the world around him — he is a man who exists beyond his era, and therefore doesn’t really exist at all.
He’s a figment of the imagination, not of the heroine who would not know what to imagine, but of the historical author who believes that a man would realistically behave that way in the era he was born into, raised into, etc.
And yeah, I’m currently with a guy who Just Gets My Quirkiness to a degree, but at the same time, I’m not gonna expect him to understand it immediately. Just to accept it and try to keep his mouth shut if it gets to weird. (Just kidding, Ian. If I start going off the deep end, reel me back in.)
But there’s a difference between a man understanding a woman’s quirkiness and falling for it (something that I believe should happen — never change who you are for a man because God is preparing someone for you who understands you — you don’t have to change for the Real Deal because the Real Deal was made for YOU and no one else on earth) … where was I?
Mini rant aside, there is a difference between that and a man in a historical romance time traveling from 2010 to 1810, his modern sensibilities intact.
Also, there’s a difference between understanding someone and giving in to a crazy woman who wants to start a botany library when it Just Isn’t Done. #holdupgirl #whatdoesthatmeanmean #chill
Why heroines shouldn’t always be perfectly woke
Mostly because if you’re constantly treated like a piece of property, you eventually adjust your thinking to “I am a piece of property” and find ways to cheat the system rather than moaning about your lot.
Okay, I’m joking … kinda. But how much more powerful would it be, if you really want to write this kind of story, to show a heroine who doesn’t get how she’s being treated and then wakes up to it?
That said, I’m also confused about why this has to be an issue presented at all. Why does the heroine have to feel stuck in her era? Maybe she’s fine with wearing a corset. I hear they give marvelous posture support.
Especially in the Regency era, due to the dress shapes, a corset was actually not for crushing your insides but for support and modest. Like a long bra that mostly just covered your abdomen. xD Okay, but really. The Regency era is a weird one to whine about corsets in — try Victorian, and even then, it’s not as bad as it could be.
And the whole deal with always wanting Something More than to just be some random guy’s wife (you know, until Handsome McHandsomeface comes along)? Well, dangggg, girl. What’s wrong with being a wife and mother? Isn’t it kinda like … the best?
Also, what else could you possibly do in the era you were born in? Has no one told you about the property laws?
ALSO, I would like to point out that it is SUPER WEIRD for you, Miss Gillie, to be concerned about arranged marriages/marriages of convenience, marrying a man older than you, marrying your cousin, etc., because YOU HAVE BEEN RAISED SINCE CHILDHOOD TO BELIEVE ALL THESE THINGS ARE 100% NORMAL.
DAH HECK ARE YOU WHINING ABOUT, CHILD!?
Seriously, the amount of WHINING that you do about simple LIFE THINGS, Gillie. gEt UsED to YOUr ErA and ShUT tHe McFRICKeN ChIckEn TurKeY McGUrKey UP!!!
Covering up the past with our present.
Let me be honest: the past is more interesting. I read historical fiction to go back to the past, and yet historical authors are continually trying to insert the present into the past.
Okay, I’m probably wrong there — more than likely, historical authors are forgetting to NOT just write contemporary fiction but the Women Wear Dresses.
And that’s an issue because the past is still a thing. Yes, we shouldn’t get bogged down by it, but we can learn from it. But only if it is presented honestly.
Honesty really is the best policy, and the only way we can hope to grow as a culture. If we can take the good things, leave behind the bad, and move on, we can hope to improve rather than continue this big downhill race (dinna get me started, lass).
But … if we continue to look at the past and apply our modern thoughts to it, we won’t see the past. We will see a confusing muddle of our thoughts applied to their lives.
The thing is, it’s a mark of maturity to be able to look at someone else’s life … through their glasses — those old timey spectacles that are adorkably quirky on your heroine. (By the way, reading is not quirky. It’s something people do. Reading. See various Jane Austen heroines and all the lovers of Udolpho out there).
So we have to do that. We have to be able to look back on a culture very different from ours (e.g. Regency England) and interpret it in their way, or we’ll never write a novel that is truly realistic or good or true.
We can’t be perfect, but we can try, if we really want to. If we care about history. If we care about peoples’ lives. And if we care about not being selfish and stuck on our own ideas and views.
With that thought, I’ll leave you to ponder why you just read through so many of my nonsensical ramblings when you had 10 other things to be doing. 😉 Talk to you later!
Have you ever noticed misplaced feminism popping up in these sorts of novels? Does it effect your reading enjoyment at all? What are your thoughts on this whole subject? Is there a place for these types of issues in historical romances?
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