Romancelandia has been eagerly awaiting Netflix’s adaptation of Julia Quinn’s Bridgertons for… oh, centuries, at least. Now the casting decisions have finally been made public, and I for one, was pleasantly surprised to see a few brown actors included.
Unfortunately, that pleasure was swiftly dimmed by predictably racist responses. Frankly, the dull, bitter, and unimaginative nature of the complaints offends me almost as much as the racism itself. I have spent my entire life dealing with, and/or observing, this illogical nonsense. Would it kill you people to get a creative with it?
Clearly, the answer is yes.
Thankfully, I’m a glass-half-full kinda gal, and there are two upsides to this situation. The first: I already had this essay handy on race and historical romance. Convenient!
And the second? Netflix’s Simon Bassett, the Duke of Hastings, is going to look like this. Drool.
Now, let’s chat about these angry demands for ‘accuracy’ and ‘realism’. Please, pull up a chair. This might take a while…
I love historical romance – especially Regency and Victorian. It’s brilliant, it’s fantastic, it’s fun. And a large part of that is down to the fact that historical romance, like all romance, is romanticised.
None of these books mention the stench of unwashed bodies, or the reality of pooping into a porcelain bowl that sits under the bed, or the lack of toothpaste and tampons. Because that wouldn’t be romantic. It’d be gross. Those things, realistic as they are, don’t need to be in romance.
Similarly, historical romance often ignores social and moral issues, giving old-timey characters more modern attitudes to suit the modern reader—which is why so many romance heroines are considered ‘originals’ by their peers, or just plain freaks. They’re modern women in fancy dresses, because that’s what readers want. And, funnily enough, no-one has a problem with that.
No-one cares about the countless series that contain more attractive and unmarried dukes than have ever existed in the history of Great Britain. No-one cares that the elegant ladies in these stories surely have their gowns pressed and aired by uneducated, exploited girls who, for all intents and purposes, may as well be your great-great-great Aunt Sally. No-one cares that the historical romance genre is built on a throne of lies, because it’s bloody romance! The clue is in the name! These! Stories! Are! Romanticised! They are, like all fiction, mere constructs of reality based on the author’s perception of their audience’s desires. And that’s okay!
Except, apparently, when it comes to people of colour.
There’s this fascinating phenomenon in the historical romance world where seamstresses can marry dukes, earl’s daughters can gad about the countryside with handsome rakes, essentially unsupervised, and simultaneous orgasms can be ordered on demand like a pepperoni pizza with fries and Coke… but people of colour absolutely cannot have any fun or happy endings, ever, amen. Sorry-I-don’t-make-the-rules, you- were-all-just-so-busy-being-enslaved-and/or-brutally-murdered, no-hard-feelings-pal, etcetera.
If you didn’t quite catch the tone of that paragraph, let me make things clear: that phenomenon pisses me off. Because it’s bollocks.
I could sit here and tell you about how Great Britain has been racially diverse for centuries upon centuries. I could tell you about the notable Black, Chinese and South Asian communities in Britain during the 1800s alone. I could point out individual Black British socialites, South Asian aristocrats, Chinese technocrats, and so much more. But I’m not going to do that, because Google is free, and because, frankly, it doesn’t matter.
That’s right. You read that correctly. The history of people of colour in 19th century Britain doesn’t necessarily matter—stay with me, keep reading—in the context of historical romance. Just like the WAY LESS EXTENSIVE history of aristocratic former servants and seamstresses doesn’t matter, either.
See, when you’re writing a story, you don’t need a thousand examples of people who are just like your main character. In fact, there doesn’t need to be anyone in the history of the world who is just like your main character. Because stories are about the improbable, the impossible, the special—and that applies to romance in particular. Romance is about the special.
So what message does it send, when entire swathes of people are effectively barred from a romantic sub-genre?
“You aren’t special like us.”
That’s what a lot of people hear, every time they pick up yet another story in which their existence is, at best, erased, and at worst, used as a yardstick for all that is ugly and monstrous. (I’m looking at you, Lord of Scoundrels.)
And that message is vile… so I reject it. I want to read about a black duke waltzing at a ball, or a brown heiress flirting at a house party, because I just bloody do, okay, and because I deserve it. We all deserve it. And now Netflix is giving us the opportunity to watch that.
If you’re not excited about that opportunity, about that growth – you are on the wrong side of history. And you’re also a raging donkey dick.
“But it simply wouldn’t have happened!” I hear the ragey racists-in-denial cry.
Well, sugar, I disagree, since it did. (Not the duke thing, but the other stuff.) However, the real point here is… it’s all a story. Stories are about taking things that might not have happened and saying, Okay, but what if it had? Please don’t conveniently forget that fact – that magic – when it allows people of colour to live their best fictional lives.
Next complaint: “The racism would make things complex and painful!”
Do you read about every dump your heroine takes? Of course not. You only read about the bathroom breaks that are relevant to her story, if any. And since this Netflix adaptation is a story, being produced for fun, about a romanticised version of reality, you don’t need to see every dirty look or racial insult, either. Not unless it’s needed, anyway. Remember: this is a story.
Finally, the dying cry of the hateful: “It’s just not realistic!”
Aha! Do you hear that sound? That siren in the distance? It’s the nonsense police, coming to arrest you! Why? Because when you trot out that inaccurate phrase, you’re actually using bollocks to hide the fact that you don’t want a diverse story.
Now, it’s one thing to prefer entirely white narratives (I’m still judging you HARD, but I digress). It’s another thing entirely to force your preferences on the rest of us by pushing a faux narrative about ‘realism’.
I mean, let’s talk about realism, my dickheaded dumpling. We already did, up there, but it’s an issue that bears repetition.
I want to ask you something, and I want you to consider the answer carefully. In the historical romances you read and enjoy, are atrocities being committed daily, worldwide? Is the society your beloved characters are a part of inherently rotten? Is the sugar in your Lady Matilda’s tea produced by slaves? Is the wealth in your Lord Sexy’s coffers a direct result of murder, rape, genocide, and enslavement?
If those books are, ahem, realistic, the answer to all those questions is yes. Therefore, you have been reading about vile, disgusting creatures who symbolise all that is wrong with the world and have no conscience to speak of.
But you haven’t, have you? Ask yourself—would your favourite historical heroine really support the abuse, forced ‘breeding’, and familial separation that transatlantic slavery required? Would your favourite historical hero really enjoy the blood money gained by the violent theft of land?
No. Because beneath the way they speak, and dress, and flirt, and so on, these characters are good and modern people. They have modern standards. Because they were written by and for modern people. Because it’s a story. Remember that?
The only logical explanation, therefore, is that the lily-white romances you’ve been reading all this time (including the Bridgerton series)… aren’t realistic at all. They don’t occur in a reality where to be wealthy and white is to harm others simply by existing. They exist in a romanticised fantasy world that allows you to enjoy a rollicking good tale about the power of love, guilt-free.
Which means that there is absolutely no reason why people of colour shouldn’t be included.
There are a variety of ways in which people of colour can be included in the historical romance genre—and I don’t mean as silent servants included to make the author feel like a decent person. Yeah, I clock that every time. We all do, beloved.
If you want to see the many ways in which people of colour can find their happy endings (heh heh) in 19th century historical romance, look no further. I have a list of authors for you here. This should tide you over until the sexiest regency duke of all time hits our screens via Netflix. You’re welcome!
Vanessa Riley’s Advertisements for Love series follows black heroines as they find their happy ever afters. Aristocracy, heiresses, and even celebrated actors feature in the series, presenting a far more realistic version of 19th century London than the shiny, porcelain version most books fall back on.
Courtney Milan’s historicals are incredibly popular, and her ongoing Worth Saga series is set to be incredibly diverse, too. Book 2, After the Wedding, is an excellent example: it pairs a long-lost member of a disgraced, aristocratic family with the black son of a businessman and a lady. The hero fights prejudice and manipulation from a loved one due to his race, and that emotional experience is just as valid in romance as any white character’s elaborately described ‘tough past’. So. Fight me, is what I’m saying here.
Tess Bowery’s Treading the Boards series explores the world of 19th century entertainment, rather than aristocracy—all the drama and glamour, fewer questionable social parameters. Book 3, That Potent Alchemy, follows a romance between two black performers. This book is also cheerfully queer (woo!).
KJ Charles writes M/M romance, and her historicals are not just racially diverse; throughout her books, there’s all sorts of representation, which I absolutely adore. Two stand out in this essay’s context, however: An Unseen Attraction, in which one hero is the illegitimate son of an Indian woman and an earl; and Unfit to Print, starring a black bookseller (also the illegitimate son of a peer) and a South Asian lawyer. KJ’s romances do not exist in the squeaky-clean, alternate universe most historical authors seem to prefer. Her characters are aware of political issues around them, and act authentically in response, referencing realities like the sugar boycott and the plight of lascars.
Lydia San Andres
Lydia San Andres is the first of three authors on this list whose books aren’t set in Great Britain. I find Lydia’s books particularly fun and fascinating because they take place in explicitly fictional settings. For example, the Ciudad Real stories are set in a city on a fictional Spanish Caribbean island. At the start of her books, Lydia contextualises the setting by mentioning neighbours such as Puerto Rico and Cuba, and the fact that the island’s people are descended from multiple races. In doing this, Lydia has formalised what most historicals have been doing (many quite lazily) forever: creating a fantasy world for best results. I wish more people would follow her example and be so bold in describing their books’ realities.
Alyssa Cole’s The Loyal League series follows characters involved in the American Civil War, so the romances are very much rooted in realism, and historical atrocities are not ignored. However, this doesn’t weigh down the books or ruin the romance, and why should it? Hardship lies at the heart of most stories—as does adventure and intrigue. The key to romance, no matter what sub-genre or niche, is human connection. Since her characters have modern morals and attitudes, just like all romance MCs, it’s more than possible for Alyssa’s black heroines to find their happy ever after.
I saved the icon until last. Beverly Jenkins has written more words than I can fully comprehend, and many of those words are badass, sexy historical romances between ethnically and culturally diverse black characters. Her books exist in the fantasy world that all romance belongs to—but despite that, they are unbelievably accurate. My personal attitude towards realism in romance can only be described as lackadaisical. Ms. Bev takes the opposite approach, and she rocks it. I don’t believe that people who oppose diverse historical romance in the name of accuracy deserve a response, but if they did… Well, the sheer power of Beverly Jenkins’s research would be answer enough.
There, now. Go forth and enjoy. Oh – and one last thing. If you’ve read this entire post and still oppose the diverse casting in Netflix’s Bridgerton series, please don’t bother contacting me to debate your ‘stance’ (AKA the worth of my existence). I already know that my response will hurt your feelings.
This article was originally shared via Patreon in 2018, but has since been edited and updated.
If you enjoyed my ramblings, you might be interested in my own sexy, diverse romance – sadly not historical, but definitely hot, emotional, funny, and good. I think. Or hope. Or pray. Check out my books page.