Elizabeth: Diversity and the Historical

A while back I wrote a series of posts about diversity romance writing/ publishing which included a discussion about the recent decrease in the number of books published by diverse writers (aka PoC); recommendations for some diverse authors to consider when looking for that next book to read; a perspective about diversity in romance from a diverse reader;  and finally, some things to keep in mind when creating diverse characters in your writing.

I didn’t think I had anything else to say on the topic, but then there was the recent RWA Conference, where diversity and inclusion were in the spotlight – from Suzanne Brockman’s Lifetime Achievement Award speech to Kristan Higgins call-out on the lack of diverse finalists in the RITA awards, to an “invitation only” Diversity Summit where “high level publishing professionals, key contacts at major retailers, and members of the RWA staff and Board” talked about . . . well, something.

All of that got me to thinking, as did Nancy’s insightful More Thoughts on Diversity post earlier this week, and Justine’s blog-post comment below.

“In my particular circumstance writing Regency historicals, I endeavor to be historically accurate, but history wasn’t kind to gay men or women back then . . . nor were they particularly kind to people of color . . . [but] . . . there also weren’t 4,000 dukes, but we seem to conjure up plenty of them in our stories.” ~ Comment by Justine | July 26, 2018 at 7:40 pm

Like Justine, I write Regency historicals and figuring out how to include characters who aren’t one of the “4,000” Dukes, one of the “wealthiest men in England”, an heiress with a massive dowry, or a “diamond of the first order” – characters who are definitely over-represented in Regency novels – is a challenge, given the attitudes and realities of the time.

Then I saw this article in the New York Times about sculptor Edmonia Lewis – an artist who, according to the article tagline, “transcended constraints, and as a woman of color, she confronted a society that wished to categorize her.”  She spent much of her time in Rome and her studio was a “required stop for the moneyed class on the Grand Tour.”

What a wonderful character she would make in a Regency story.    I can just see one of the aforementioned Dukes or other titled aristocrats, encountering her on the Grand Tour.  Maybe they fell in love with her; maybe they bought a piece of her work, brought it back, and made her wildly fashionable amongst the haute ton.   The possibilities are endless.

The Grand Tour seems like it would be a great way to bring diverse characters into a story in a realistic way.

And what about those intrepid individuals who went off (or were sent off) to the Caribbean or West Indies or India or whatever distant outpost of the British Empire?  Surely they encountered diverse individuals in their travels.  Some of them undoubtedly married, had children, and then had to face returning back home.  I smell an interesting potential story there.  What if a younger son when off to the Caribbean, married a native, had children, and then came into his title and came back home?  Would his mixed-race offspring have been considered eligible heirs?  Would he or they be accepted in society?

For stories set in and around the Napoleonic wars, let’s not forget that there were both black soldiers and seamen fighting for Mother England.  What happened to them when they came back to London after the wars ended?  They were an extremely small part of the population, but they did exist, and had successful lives, as did other members of “black Britain”.

A quick dive into the internet returned some examples like:

  • Nathaniel Wells, who became Britain’s first black High Sheriff (Sheriff of Monmountshire) in 1818
  • William Cuffay, born in 1788 of an Anglo-Saxon mother and a father of African heritage, who went on to campaign for universal suffrage and became a Chartist leader in early Victorian London.
  • Mary Seacole, who was born to a free black woman in Jamaica, cared for the wounded during the Crimean War and had a reputation to match Florence Nightingale.
  • Ida Aldridge, born in 1807, was one of the highest paid actors in the world, at a time when black roles like Othello, were played by white men with blackened skin.

Of course there are many other diverse characters who could reasonably be expected to exist in a Regency story.  As Justine correctly noted, history wasn’t kind to gay men back then, but they certainly existed.  I remember reading Beyond Innocence by Emma Holly years ago.  While I think it may have been set in the early Victorian rather than late Regency period, it featured an older brother trying to marry off his gay younger brother (spoiler alert, it didn’t work).  The book itself was “not my catnip”, but the author did a really wonderful job with the younger brother and his ultimate relationship / happily-ever-after.  The depiction of that relationship was both true to the time period and accessible to the modern reader.  I may have to read that one again to see how she did that.

Realistically speaking however, despite all of our talk about writing diverse and inclusive stories, some of our readers aren’t going to want that.  They want their stories populated with “4,000” Dukes, the “wealthiest men in England”, heiresses with massive dowries, and “diamonds of the first order”, and that’s okay.

The world of fiction has room for all kinds of stories; the trick is making sure everyone who wants to has the opportunity to tell their own and remembering that we’re more alike than we think we are.

Thoughts?

5 thoughts on “Elizabeth: Diversity and the Historical

  1. I think the trick is to tell compelling stories with fascinating characters who happen to be diverse. Like (say) Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London/Midnight Riot (love that book).

    Regarding historicals, I don’t see why it couldn’t be done. Almack’s might be a stretch, but there are plenty of Regency spy stories now, and lots of gaming hells and tradespeople blended in with the ton. You could make a fantastic series about a gaming club or a group of spies made up of (say) brilliant, dashing hot heroes and heroines who are excluded from the uppermost echelons of society because of their birth, and blend in their interactions with the Upper Ten Thousand. I’d read it 😉

    For more real-life examples, there’s Dido Belle, of course. She was born into slavery in the British West Indies, but was raised by Lord Mansfield as part of an aristocratic Georgian family. She lived at beautiful Kenwood, just up the road from my house. She became an heiress on Lord Mansfield’s death. She married, and her sons worked for the East India Company.

    Or another big favorite of mine is the Chevalier d’Evron. He had two successful careers, first as a soldier, a diplomat and a spy, and then as a female fencing instructor. I stumbled across him in the National Portrait Gallery (that’s a great place to find interesting characters). Here’s a little more about him from the NPG blog https://www.npg.org.uk/blog/soldier-spy-celebrity-transvestite

    Most historicals are about outliers in one way or another–Darcy and Elizabeth both reject the expectations of their families and communities–and there are plenty of exciting real life models who’d make great story starters.

    • I was fascinated by the story of Chevalier d’Evron when I first read it. It’s got action, intrigue, and more. You’re spot on about the National Portrait Gallery being a great place to find interesting characters. Obviously I need to head their post haste to do some research :-).

      I love your idea about the “brilliant, dashing hot heroes and heroines who are excluded from the uppermost echelons of society because of their birth”. I need to give that some serious thought. They could form the basis for my new series: Outcast Hearts. I’ll get right on that as soon as I finish the multiple stories currently in varying stages of completion.

  2. I had some thoughts about the beau monde vs. the demi monde. Dukes and wenches are for people who like a straight (in several senses of the word!) Cinderella story. With the demi monde, you get more variety, but you also get unhappier tales. At least, traditionally speaking you do.

    I keep thinking about all the servants who travelled with their wealthy masters. I believe Sally Hemmings could have freed herself in France, but didn’t. I think it’s clear that SOME servants did jump ship, but I haven’t read those stories.

    There’s a photographer from the Gilded Age named Zaida Ben-Yusuf. Her mother was born in Germany, and her father was from Algiers. The family lived in Britain; after her mother was divorced, her mother worked as a governess and then a milliner before emigrating to the US. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zaida_Ben-Yusuf

    Fascinating stuff! Zaida wasn’t a serving girl nor a duchess, but she rubbed shoulders with American industrialists and the intelligentsia of her era. There’s a little bit of her in Bunny Blavatsky, spirit photographer . . . .

  3. Pingback: Elizabeth: Name that Series – Eight Ladies Writing

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