Writing Around Reality; Or, Why there are 10,000 Dukes in England

I read Jess Romeo’s “Why Are So Many Romances Set in the Regency Period?” on Daily JSTOR early this year, right around the time I started reading romance novels on the sly. (Is there anything as comforting as a happily-ever-after with a wealthy peer who can make all your problems disappear when the world is all topsy-turvy?) I’ve been bothered by it ever since. I don’t disagree with the scholars Romeo summarizes in the blog post. I agree, to a certain extent, that Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer are ground zero for regency and historical romance novels. But I think there is something the scholars overlooked: it’s hard to have an all-consuming romance when you have a day job.

Hugh Thomson’s frontispiece for Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (Image via Jane Austen’s World)

Romance novels have a lot of tropes. The predictability of the genre is part of its appeal. But when you read across different authors and different series, certain things start to jump out at you. If I were to do a census of the characters, I would find a statistically improbable number of dukes, earls, and high-ranking aristocrats—more than the ordinary population could support, certainly. I laughed at this when I started to notice just how many of the male protagonists didn’t have anything like a 9-to-5 job. It was easier to understand why so many of the female protagonists were free to go on long walks any time of day, make months-long visits to country houses, and attend any number of gatherings during the London Season. Social expectations of women of a certain class were that they absolutely would not perform paid labor.

Once I got over the absurdity of my imaginary census, I started to really think about why so many writers of historical romances have aristocratic or otherwise very wealthy male protagonists. One of the major demands of the genre is that the characters have to meet, fall in love, and get married in short order. We readers are supposed to experience the whirlwind, too. But a day job would be a huge damper on that love-fueled rush. I, like many people today, work 40 or more hours during the week, barring holidays. When on earth would an employed person like myself have time for long arm-in-arm walks across moors? (Not that there are any moors where I live.) When would I have time to spend weeks at someone’s house in the country? (Most of my family and friends are introverts, so I’m pretty sure that they would kick me out after a long weekend.) It would be hard to squeeze a passionate romance into the weekends and evenings for a lot of us.

Another reason for all the dukes, etc., is the old filthy lucre. Several tropes of the genre involve makeovers, in which impoverished women get new wardrobes or have to find something eye-catchingly beautiful to wear during all those Season events. Those country houses cost a lot of money. The servants who do so much of the invisible labor that has to be happening in the background have their wages. Patricia Marisol worked out how much the net worth of Mr. Darcy and other Austen characters would be in today’s money. According to Marisol, Mr. Darcy’s £10,000 a year works out to be in the high six figures. Darcy’s not even titled, so I can only imagine how much all those romance genre peers are raking in per annum.

In retrospect, all this sounds very prosaic—even cold-blooded. But you have to admit, promoting your protagonist up the aristocratic ranks makes things so much easier for the author. Money and time make it easier for everyone to get swept away with love and passion, because they don’t have to worry about who has to do the dishes or bring home the metaphorical bacon.

2 Comments

  1. Love this Marxist reading of the genre – where are all the scullery-maids yearning after footmen they’ll never get to go to a ball with? There are some rags-to-riches romance narratives out there, but not so many rags-to-romance-with-no-change-in-social-status tales.

    Liked by 1 person

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