Guest Post: The Diversity Thorn – Ethnic Identity, History, and Historical Romance

Sarah: I had a long conversation via email with Asha Ganesan that culminated in her writing this guest post that addresses her desire for more inclusive representation in historical romance and supports her argument with data and external sources. I just heard you perk up in your chairs, didn’t it? Oh, yes, data!

Welcome, Asha, and thank you for being part of our community.

This thoughtful guest post comes from Asha Ganesan. Asha is a social psychology Ph.D student in Sydney by way of Iowa (born and raised in Malaysia), currently working on research related to stereotypes of ethnicity and gender, and how cultures evolve. She’s relatively new to romance, in comparison to many seasoned readers of the genre. She says that the genre itself feels more like a movement with its extensive online presence. As she’s someone who works in understanding people in everyday situations, Asha also became interested in what motivates romance readers and women in general and what their views are on gender roles. Also, she thinks readers have the power to ask for changes that are inclusive, which in turn helps us empathize more with experiences of people who are different from us. Finally, she says, “Diversity is not just a buzzword, it was a part of history and it is the reality that we live in now.”

Historical romance (HR) has a major diversity and accuracy problem. The problem stems from assumptions that have been passed down through the lineage of HR (though these assumptions are not exclusive to this genre). The assumption is that branding a story “historical romance” includes some representation of “historical accuracy.” It does not.

I have noticed on threads and on Goodreads, commenters often respond to concerns about racism and sexism in HR as being accurately reflective of that particular era. From my perspective, this is major cherry-picking and a deeply flawed argument, because the lack of diverse characters (including diversity of ethnicity, class, and sexual orientation, but I am focusing on people of color – POC – for this discussion) is also often assumed to be (and defended as!) representative of that particular era.

In reality, HR represents some made up notions of what POCs were like in that era, which are (not surprisingly) actually pretty close to the stereotypes that most people have about POCs today.

In 2014, The Atlantic discussed how the difference within book reader demographics between White and Black readers was not statistically significant. In other words, by population size, readers were and are not more represented by one group over the other.

The quantifiable reality is that writers are now catering to a more diverse audience. But within HR, the characters remain steadfastly and almost exclusively White, even though the population of that time period was not.

Let’s make this quantifiable (I refrained from using sources that would be behind a paywall like academic journals or books, but some of these sources have links to them). Here is the minority population breakdown based on England’s migration data in the 1800s (note that census at the time is considered unreliable for migration data):

  • Americans in Britain (1881-1889): 16,000 – 19,000
  • Africans in Britain (~1800): 14,000 – 20,000
  • Indians in Britain (~1850): 40,000

Sources: Wikipedia; BBC; Migration Watch UK

So, Indian immigrants outnumbered American immigrants by more than a 2:1 margin, while Africans immigrants have comparable numbers to Americans. And yet, if HRs were truly “historically accurate,” why do we have proportionately more stories with Americans characters (usually heiresses), but not Indians? Not only have Indians historically served as seamen, diplomats, businessmen, and officials (the first non-White MP was elected in 1892), but they are also better represented in the population.

In other words, it’s disingenuous and deceitful to defend a character who is racist or sexist as “historically accurate,” while at the same time defending stories populated entirely by White people as “accurate” as well.

It’s hard for me to examine population numbers and HR and not think the discrepancy has something to do with writing and reading what’s comfortable for the general Western population. And I am certainly not the first to point this out. For a more powerful condemnation, read Zora Neale Hurston’s What White Publishers Won’t Print, which begins:

I have been amazed by the Anglo-Saxon’s lack of curiosity about the internal lives and emotions of the Negroes, and for that matter, any non-Anglo-Saxon peoples within our borders, above the class of unskilled labor.

This lack of interest is much more important than it seems at first glance. It is even more important at this time than it was in the past. The internal affairs of the nation have bearings on the international stress and strain, and this gap in the national literature now has tremendous weight in world affairs. National coherence and solidarity is implicit in a thorough understanding of the various groups within a nation, and this lack of knowledge about the internal emotions and behavior of the minorities cannot fail to bar out understanding. Man, like all the other animals, fears and is repelled by that which he does not understand, and mere difference is apt to connote something malign.

Because I am a romance reader, I am speaking of romance, specifically HR. There is a whole population of us (whether in the West or East) who want more from HR. And that more is very possible, and in fact probable.

There is historical evidence to show that there were British men who had Indian wives, and White women married and had children with Indian men. In one example, Sake Dean Mahomed (who opened London’s first Indian restaurant and introduced shampooing to English baths) converted to Anglicanism to marry his wife, Jane Daly, because the law at the time forbade Protestant and non-Protestant marriages.

So why is it so unbelievable in a HR? If we are capable of suspending reality when it comes to our handsome rake alpha not being even slightly physically affected by his debauchery and we are willing to overlook the deus ex machina in many of our favourite books (twin-swapping? Windfall? He wasn’t a commoner after all?), is it really too much to ask to make one of the MC’s lover an African woman? To make his wife Asian? To have a character be a cunning Indian businessman – villain or hero?

Personally, I have no issues if POCs were shown in the capacity reflective of that time (i.e., lower status), but right now, for the most part we have a barren wasteland where these characters have been completely erased from most HR, as if they weren’t a part of society at all.

If HR is really meant to be accurate, then there should be more diversity in its stories as that is accurately representative of the England’s population of that time. Moreover, if HR is meant to be fantasy/fiction, including diversity shouldn’t bother anyone nor should it become a chore.

Some may ask, “Why do we need diversity? These are stories about people, not race-based social commentary.” The sad part is that the lack of diversity itself is race-based social commentary.

I’m using Indians in England again as an example to illustrate my point. There are thousands of HR books with White characters, more books than the average person can read in their lifetime. Regency/Victorian HR books with POCs as central characters? I’m pretty sure I have read all of them because they amount to less than 20.

TV shows with Indians are central characters in the last 5 years: around 5. This doesn’t even address whether the central characters had depth and were not exotified or other areas like video games and comics, sci-fi & fantasy books.

The Heiress Effect
A | BN | K | AB
For me as a reader looking for any representation outside of White characters, I was almost in tears reading Courtney Milan’s Anjan Bhattacharya in The Heiress Effect having his own chapters, where he wasn’t always shown through other characters’ perspectives. I was also gleefully watching Aziz Ansari’s Master of None episode where there was a flashback to his father’s childhood in India. Neither character was treated as a social commentary exhibit or an exotic device, but as a human story.

I admit, it is likely a struggle to write about a group of people one doesn’t know. I am not a writer, but I am a researcher. So I know this problem is not just for fiction writers. But citing “lack of resources” or “I didn’t know” is not an adequate excuse for me anymore because it took me all of 10 minutes to look up the research and statistics for this write-up. At its core, diversity is about listening, reading, and understanding diverse stories. Love, lust, affection, and intimacy are not exclusive rights belonging to a particular group, even in a historical context. They do not have to be entrenched with social commentary.

To assume English historical love stories should focus solely on the upper-class, White aristocracy is myopic, limiting, and for me, rather uninteresting. The fact that there are individuals out there who make unsubstantiated assertions about an all-White Regency/Victorian England, as reflected in HR writings, is evidence enough as to why diverse characters are needed.

these emotions and experiences have not included me quoteThe default assumption about the Whiteness of England sits uncomfortably with a lot of POCs in part because historically, records and stories are written by individuals in positions of power. The truth is often only known through close examination of unbiased records taken by few individuals and interestingly enough, military records, during that time. Yes, England was a White-majority country, but that doesn’t mean interracial marriages, relationships, and births did not happen. Because, yes, interracial relationships were frowned upon and illegal, they likely went without substantial documentation – but they happened. Here is a brief example with Black British immigrants.

As a similar example, the documentation during colonial times can also be tricky, due differences in language and naming conventions across different countries. (To see an example of how tricky it is, watch the episode of Who Do You Think You Are? with Persuasion’s Rupert Penry-Jones discovering his Anglo-Indian heritage from the 19th century). This intermingling of ancestry between the English and POCs from their colonies is a well-known matter to geneticists and historians as well.

The point here is this: we readers want to see ourselves in characters we read in Historical Romance.

At one point, I did feel like I saw myself. But the more HRs I read, the more I started feeling like an outsider. I no longer experienced the dizzying highs because I realized these emotions and experiences have not included me and will likely not include me whether I am in Regency England or in real life.

In Regency England, someone like me would have no place in aristocracy (unless I’m passing for White or from the British Raj) and most HRs still focus on the aristocracy. In present day life, Indian women (and many Asian, South American, and African women as well) are often stereotyped as being repressed, submissive, or speaking with heavily-accented English. Isn’t it ironic that all the POC women I’ve read about in HRs and contemporaries stick pretty close to these stereotypes? Either I’m not present in the story at all, or, if a character attempts to resemble me even a little, it’s a limited, prejudiced representation that is so far from reality it isn’t me, either. I remain invisible. It also makes the character hard for anyone else to empathize with because it’s just a caricature.

I don’t want to be a special snowflake. In books, I want see POCs as people, heroes, villains, lovers, con-artists, or children, not as a social issue that needs to be addressed. Yes, I belong to minority groups, but beyond that, I am an individual and I would like to see characters that are supposed to “represent” me being treated as a whole individual, with strengths and flaws.

So, to summarize: historical romance was likely never meant to be historical fact, given how selective the “accuracy” of these stories has been. Let’s not mislead ourselves into thinking so and using that as a reason to exclude diverse stories. We were present in Regency England. We are present now. And we want to be included.

Comments are Closed

  1. G. Rich says:

    Thank you so much for writing this. I love that you point out that men who had as much sex as rakes in HR do, would’ve been hit with STDs on the regular. As it is, the ‘pox’ in those books only ever affects villains, male and female.

    I think that one big reason for so few POC in HR is the lack of inclusion in publishing house staff. If you are reading books where you always see yourself, then you’re never absent. White writers who are hesitant or afraid to write POC in HR or other genres should ask themselves why they can’t call on someone at their publisher’s, at their day job, or in their own lives to review their work and give an opinion. Why have some writers had to resort to ‘sensitivity readers? It’s because people who can decide not to venture into situations where they might interact with people who are different than they are, often do. Most POC can’t do that. Our non-personal spaces are usually very multicultural. I would challenge published, non-POC writers to do better and demand that your publishers do better.

    Although, some non-POC writers shouldn’t try to write POC characters, because even if they do the research, they still might not be capable of treating those characters well. I read an HR a long time ago that was set in San Francisco and included characters in the Chinese community. The hero’s younger brother was seeing a Chinese girl. When she was sent back to China to be forced into a marriage, his response was to worry about for a week, but then decide he should just move on, when the White girl from next door (who’d come over to make dinner for he and his doctor brother) bent over to put biscuits in the oven. Literally, she bent over to put biscuits in the oven. I was so offended by that. There are scores of historical epics about men who go to the ends of the Earth and never give up until they get the heroine back, but this author treated that particular character with such disrespect that I never read another one of her books.

    I have read HR where a nineteen- year-old girl was the ‘Laird’ of a clan, where a maid married a Duke, and where a courtesan married a nobleman, but Black people not being slaves or living in misery is too difficult for writers or readers to accept? I would love to read more stories about Black, Asians, Native/First Nations people in HR, because as the author of the post points out, we were there. We’ve always been there.

    Finally, to the commenter above who said that HR with POC are available, you just have to really seek them out. That is part of the problem. If I want to find a series about six noblemen best friends who all went to the same school or the same club or fought in the same war, it’s easy. Readers shouldn’t have to become detectives to find a HR with POC. We have to start demanding that publishers buy and promote these books. The next time any of us compliment a publisher on a book, we also need to make them aware of our desire to read inclusive HR written by Own Voices and others.

  2. Deb Wilson says:

    First up, I’m writing from a mainly Regency viewpoint, with occasional excursions into Georgian times.

    Secondly, I’m all for greater inclusivity in romance, and have been delighted to see a greater range of LBGTIQ romances, for example, in recent years.

    However, the white and racist aristocratic world portrayed in many RHR and Georgians is accurate, from what I can tell.

    The number of migrants to Britain Asha Ganesan mentions seems large until compared to the British population of these times.

    Asha Ganesan’s numbers:
    • Americans in Britain (1881-1889): 16,000 – 19,000
    • Africans in Britain (~1800): 14,000 – 20,000
    • Indians in Britain (~1850): 40,000

    UK population 1801-1891:
    1801 7,754,875
    1811 8,762,178
    1821 10,402,143
    1831 12,011,830
    1841 13,654,914
    1851 15,288,885
    1861 18,325,052
    1871 21,361,235
    1881 24,397,385
    1891 27,231,229

    Whether the average British person in these periods would have known any migrants at all would also depend on where they lived, and their class.

    Upper class people do traditionally travel more than other classes, and are generally exposed to a greater variety of people even if they don’t travel overseas. For middle and working class people, those who lived in London or other port towns like Bristol would have encountered greater numbers of non-white people, often as merchants or shopkeepers. Whether white people would socialise with non-whites is another matter again. Merchants would have had the greatest likelihood of doing so due to their work.

    The issue of POC and non-white inclusion is (close to) mainstream now and as a result is gradually making its way into RHR and Georgians. That non-white people existed in Britain is being gradually exposed to the average reader/viewer, for example the 2013 movie Belle. But this film also clearly portrays the racism she faced, and her exclusion from upper aristocratic society, despite having money and a certain amount of social influence through her white family. An example of the ‘what happens in India, stays in India’ mentality is told by William Dalrymple in his Guardian article of 2002, after stumbling across the story of James Achilles Kirkpatrick in 1997 while in India (not Britain, please note).

    RHR and Georgians do predominantly focus on the aristocracy or gentry due to the simple fact that life for the rest of society at that time is hard to glamorise. Lower classes were not educated and generally lacked physical mobility. They dressed poorly, were often ill due to poor nutrition and/or living conditions and their daily routine was soul-numbingly depressing if viewed from today’s vantage point.

    Taboos (the unwritten rules in the genre, usually coming from Georgette Heyer’s detailed Regency creation, or more authentically from Jane Austen) are being broken regularly and often now and in the last 10-20 years, a situation strikingly different from forty years ago, when most heroines were virgins, sex could be somewhat rapey and no one was allowed to be illegitimate.

    Other taboos being broken now include sex before marriage, the male virgin, age differences (where the woman older), social status (where the woman is richer or titled), settings other than England, working class men as heroes, tattoos, women working after marriage, heroines befriending courtesans, women controlling their own money, and older (40+) heroes and heroines.

    Much of the taboo breaking, while fascinating and completely worth reading, is anachronistic and as unrealistic as the genre as a whole (sorry, but we all know it is! Who has an orgasm when they lose their virginity?!). The genre has to develop to keep readers interested by remaining relevant to today’s issues, but it is very difficult, dare I say impossible, to find an author who gets everything right, historically speaking, and still manages to tell a fresh story. Glaring anachronisms should be avoided (like chocolate bars before the 1870s, and words like ‘okay’, and the Battle of Waterloo being in 1820), but to be consistently realistic. . .it’s not going to happen.

    The numbers of non-English and non-white people in RHR are regrettably small at this stage, but that is changing.

    Mary Jo Putney has created a few mixed-race heroes and heroines, if you have yet to discover her.

    The China Bride has a half Chinese heroine who was brought up in a Chinese environment. Loving a Lost Lord stars the Duke of Ashton, who is half-Indian and half-English. Nowhere Near Respectable is the story of Lady Kiri Lawford, sister of above. Thunder and Roses’ protagonist is Nicholas Davies, a half-Gypsy earl. Angel Rogue has a heroine who is ‘half Mohawk and all American’, Maxima Collins.

  3. Msb says:

    Thanks for this fine post and many thoughtful comments. I’ll just wave the flag for Belinda, a big hit written by Mrs Edgworth, a contemporary of Austen. Good novel in itself, made more interesting by the inclusion of black and mixed-race Jamaicans in the main romance plot.

  4. […] du jour stretching back to at least 2005. So I was quite chagrined by a new Op-Ed on SBTB about the lack of diversity in historical romance. Not because the OP doesn’t have a valid argument, or that the rallying cry is not true. I was […]

  5. Barbara says:

    Fascinating article and it does bring some things to light but I also think the majority of writers, serious and devoted to putting books out there in the romance genre don’t deliberately leave people out as much as work within what they know. For instance in the Australian romance genre particularly rural they leave out Italians. I don’t know how they can do this particularly in North Queensland but they do. I’d like to think its because they honestly don’t have any understanding of the differences in the culture and not malicious intention. A lot of writers work with what they know, or what is easy and within their grasp to know rather than research. I don’t think it is deliberate and about culture. It is simply taking what they consider an easy path to writing a best-seller. They see the end, or hope for the end result. They don’t decide to leave out a period of history, they are so concentrated on the writing that their world-building is limited. I agree they should expand themselves but often they don’t know how to. I don’t think we should impose our thoughts on them either though as we then take away their freedom to write their way. Let them write what they do and the rest of us do the same. It is why my heroine is Italian, Italo-Australian, as both heritages matter. I think rather than be so critical we should encourage writers to expand their repertoire.

  6. Asha Ganesan says:

    @ Deb: I’m not sure if we’re crossing-wires, but my point is that HR is NOT accurate and has never been so and we should stop thinking that it is at the exclusion of diverse characters and stories.

    Since I’m a numbers person, I want to clarify that my intent was not to show the minority to population ratio, rather the over-representation of Americans over other minorities in HRs, when their actual numbers in population (often cited as being the reason why HR is white-heavy) is smaller. The class and area of residence do constrain the level of exposure, but my point is who cares? Historical romance is not about accuracy because it’s never been accurate and we need to stop acting like it’s meant to be!

    Perhaps the best way to say it is this: The line between historical accuracy and historical fantasy are often blurred in HR, but usually to the disadvantage or exclusion of various minority groups.

    Also, if we’re able to suspend reality with regards to the aristocracy being venereal-disease free or having perfect teeth all the time, I’m sure we can do the same with regards to the lower classes. The upper classes are given so many deux ex machina, but not the lower ones? The selective suspension of reality is what I’m getting at, just as you said about expecting things to be consistently realistic.

    Lower classes can’t be made interesting? Tessa Dare’s Any Duchess Will Do and several of Rose Lerner’s & Elizabeth Hoyt’s books (I’ve read a few others that I can’t recall at the moment) have the lower classes portrayed in less realistic but fantasized ways, and their books are still popular. Which is why, taking away the assumption that “historical romance is about accuracy” from the writers, readers, and publishers’ minds gives everyone more room for interesting stories and characters.

    Also, mixed-ethnicity individuals do not represent all POC experiences, just as how English characters don’t represent Scottish experiences. The nuances in POC & mixed-ethnicity characters have to do with their skin colour, facial features, etc. Mixed-ethnicity characters can often pass for White or they have been shown to hide their mixed-heritage in stories (which creates other kinds of issues for them).

    Not all POCs and mixed-POCs have or had that benefit, which is why Courtney Milan’s Anjan having his own chapters resonated with many people. He can’t hide his non-White ethnicity, just as many of us around the world, and he was a whole person despite it. Anjan as a character was real, one that from the reviews, many non-POCs were able to empathize with, nevermind that his romance story was somewhat fantasized. I think his character (and a few others) have shown that you can have meaningful POC characters, without being bogged down by so-called “issues”.

    @G.Rich: “It’s because people who can decide not to venture into situations where they might interact with people who are different than they are, often do.” – yes yes yes! It’s definitely a challenge to get across why multicultural exposure is needed and why the lack of diversiy in fiction writing is so jarring.

  7. Mimi says:

    While I believe that there could be more POC in HR (there can ALWAYS be more POC in literature – period) I don’t think it is a problem of not having diversity in HR, but rather a problem with having it in trad pubbed books. Many of us Indies write – and have been writing – POC in our historicals. However, unlike our traditionally published friends, most of us don’t have the platform they do. That contributes to the idea that POC characters don’t exist, or are very rare. Take for example my second novel, Twice Redeemed, a historical western romance about a Mexican woman and American man. It reached #1 in Hispanic American fiction. However, when I saw a list put together for suggested reads, the only ones on there were all traditionally published novels. I think that says a lot about the truth regarding gatekeepers. Yes, the publishing industry is changing and authors have more options. However, publishers are still holding the reigns and they are not promoting diversity in literature – specifically historical romance.

  8. In terms of interracial romance in history, I think the question is not whether a particular couple’s HR story is probable (e.g. how likely is it that they would have met) but possible at all. And, of course, they are possible. If you look through the lens of micro-history—the study of small units of history, like an individual, village, school, or guild, for example—you find that there are lots of interesting outliers out there. Are they average? No. Are they common? No. But they really existed, like Sake Dean Mohamed. And they are so much more interesting than what’s average or common. I am grateful for independent publishing because authors can now write about the outliers without being told that (majority white) publishers do not “know how to market their work.”

  9. Carcolcita says:

    “Historical” romances are romantic fantasies projected on a “popular” imagined past, which is a past that emerged from nationalist projects with the goal to erase or marginalize POC roles in history. The message being sent is that only the “right” people are capable of high, idealized love. I appreciate Ganesan’s appeal to accuracy as one path to upending norms, but this requires some deep reflection on writers’ and readers’ culturally constructed erotic fantasies. People write and read about what they think is sexy, but sexy is a cultural fabrication.

    People also tend to practice endogamy–within group(read: race, class, religion) marriages. Ganesan highlights examples of exogamy in her post, because HR are frequently about exogamy, when people of different backgrounds meet, face conflict because of differences, and find love. I think there needs to be BOTH HR POC exogamy and endogamy stories, specifically from mainstream writers. Writers need to seek the challenge of thinking and empathizing with with POC and marginalized main characters. They can help us readers find empathy and awareness of our culturally constructed erotic fantasies. Writers need to be aware of this power, and yeah, write the books to pay the bills, but also push themselves as artists and their readers. It goes without saying we need more POC writers, but publishers need to be shown that POC romances are profitable (they are), and mainstream writers and readers can do that and help create more space in the genre for everyone.

  10. Amanda says:

    @Deb: Your comment to me embodies the attitudes and perspectives amongst HR readers and writers that this post is making a convincing argument against. The stats you provide don’t make a difference in what Asha has argued here.

    @Barbara: “I also think the majority of writers, serious and devoted to putting books out there in the romance genre don’t deliberately leave people out as much as work within what they know.” I this is the issue, though. Throughout history, the gatekeepers of knowledge have been predominantly white men (and of course white women when it comes to “mainstream” feminism and the history of women’s rights). Just as “white history” is not a true reflection of history, white media and culture is not a reflection of actual society. Not aiming this at you, but I honestly wonder if the writers AND readers who get really defensive about diversity in lit (I see this all over discussions on GR/Twitter) only have white friends? White coworkers? White SOs? White family members? Do they only ever consume white media (tv, books-romance and nonromance, movies, etc.)? Do they only patronize white businesses? I’m serious. I wouldn’t be surprised if the answer to all of those is “yes.”

  11. Asha Ganesan says:

    @Barbara: Re Australian romance: I’m no expert in it by any measure, but I believe Harlequin has a few stories/series about Italian-Aussies? However, the same question you asked about Italian-Aussies, is one we all need to ask about representation for ALL minorities, not just one group. What about the representation of Aboriginal Aussies from NQ and NT? They are almost non-existent in mainstream romance stories about Australians (though locally you can get a few).

    @Amanda: Your last part is what I was hoping the take away would be, which is that if you surround yourself with people who look/are just like you (and not just ethnicity, but body size, sexual orientation, religion, class, etc), you don’t really see that people outside of your own group have very different experiences (this applies to any part of the world, not just White-majority ones)… then, you resort to stereotypes about those groups to fill in your gaps in knowledge.. Where do those stereotypes come from? Old timey family stories, books, TV, movies etc.

    I’m really glad to have this opportunity to share my viewpoints, but I’m not the first to raise, nor will I be the last. My apologies for not being able to respond to all your comments, but they have given me food for thought as well as ideas for my own research work. If anyone would like to follow-up personally, I’ve linked my school’s website with my email 🙂

  12. Melissa says:

    My interest was greatly piqued last night and I started researching some potential romance novel H/h fodder. I found Scipio Kennedy, Joseph Antonio Emidy (composer, married to a white British woman in the Regency era), Albert Mohamet (for an inspirational, also quite the looker in his photo), Cornelia Sorabji, Pablo Fanque, and I already knew that two of the most popular authors of the 19th century were of mixed African descent-Pushkin and Dumas. If we have battlefield romances between nurses and soldiers, why can’t one of the nurses look like Mary Seaton? And these are just a few examples from an hour or so of Googling. These sites are very resourceful, and I am thinking that as a Majaraja, Duleep Singh was probably richer than most Dukes/titled heroes in books. In addition to the over-proliferation of dukes, another historical untruth that seems to be glossed over a lot is the differences among religion, even denominations. Everyone seems to be some sort of generally benign Anglican, and this during a time when the Prince Regent caused a scandal with a Catholic ‘wife’, Maria Fitzherbert. We have had prizefighter/boxer heroes, what about Daniel Mendoza? The argument about, well there was only x percentage of non-white people in England does not hold any water when you realize how long POC have been there, and in various social classes. One of the Medici princes had a black mother, and that was in the 1500s. And speaking of the Medici, Renaissance Europe had a lot of exchange and trade with the kingdom of the Kongo. I think the lack of representation could also be lack of writing outside one’s bubble in fiction in general (see also mystery novels where everyone in a major city is white….a model which fortunately we seem to be moving away from on TV crime shows). Theresa Romain also has a part Indian hero in Secrets of a Scandalous Heiress. In HR, we have characters interacting with Cockney coachmen and French modistes and Continental pastry chefs. And as we see from actual history, what is to stop them from being Caribbean, or Egyptian, or Turkish? And these would be normal interactions, not just characters defined by their exoticness or their tragic mulatto-ness.

  13. Vivian Sadow says:

    @Amanda: Anglicanism was the dominant and official religion of Great Britain; Catholic worship was legalized in 1791; The Emancipation Act, which restored most civil rights for Catholics, passed in 1829. Other Protestant denominations were referred to as Dissenters (actually, until fairly recently).
    There were Jewish communities in Britain for centuries (except when they were being exiled). Daniel Mendoza was a Sephardic Jew of Portuguese antecedents. David Liss based his character, ex-pugilist thief-taker Benjamin Weaver, on Mendoza. Except for Rose Lerner and Liss (whose novels are not romances), Jews rarely make an appearance in tales of the 17th-19th centuries, although London had thriving Jewish communities. They show up as peddlers or converts who wish to better themselves in Christian society. They are as invisible in HRs as other minorities.

  14. Vivian Sadow says:

    I think I meant @ Melissa; sorry!

  15. Anne Westcarr says:

    This is a great post!

    I remember during the press tour for Belle, Gugu Mbata-Raw talked about historicals being the genre she loved but feeling like the genre didn’t love her back. I’m paraphrasing a bit, but that was the sentiment. Riz Ahmed also talked a little about how whitewashed historical shows are. It makes me sad because Poc are a part of history – hell we are history. But we keep getting erased. In books, in movies, on TV.

    For me, historical romance is one of my favorite genres but I do go into it with trepidation. There’s something I’ve noticed about a lot of historical romances that bugs me, especially considering its the regency period people seem to love the most. It’s glaring for me to read so many of the newer regencies and not one of them mentions abolition or slavery. I don’t know how the writers expect some readers to square that. Do I assume that the writer is enlightened and therefore these characters couldn’t possibly be slave owners? Or do I take it the other way and assume the characters have plantations somewhere?

    If people want to show off how enlightened their characters are I’m really starting to think more writers should include something. None of these writers can shoe-horn an abolitionist character? Nobody boycotts sugar? No one person donates to anti-slavery charities?

    As for the older regencies – yeah, as a West Indian I don’t want to read about a hero who explicitly owns plantations in the Caribbean. Just no. It’s hard to fully get into a lot of Georgian/regency romances because because it either isn’t mentioned and I can’t figure out if the character is a decent human being, or it isn’t mentioned and I’m supposed to think these monsters are heroic.

    And this is bare minimum stuff – this particular concern I have doesn’t even address the whole problem of erasing poc from history altogether.

  16. Karin says:

    Thank you everybody for your contributions to this discussion, lots to think about and good reading suggestions. I’m with @Jes$ica and @Anna Westcarr, in that I will not read an HR set in the antebellum South; or has a hero who was formerly a Confederate soldier or who came from the South and tragically lost their family plantation during the war(lots of those!) or is British but owns a plantation in the West Indies. Just no.

    Here are a couple of recommendations I didn’t see mentioned previously:
    By Susanna Fraser “A Dream Defiant”(a black hero) and “Freedom to Love”(bi-racial heroine). “To Catch a Bride” by Anne Gracie has an Anglo-Egyptian heroine, is set mainly in Egypt and other Egyptian characters who are not just wallpaper. “A Touch of Scandal” and “The Bride Wore Pearls” by Liz Carlyle, and “Forbidden Jewel of India” and “Tarnished Among the Ton” by Louise Allen have Indian or Anglo-Indian heroes or heroines.

  17. Evangeline Holland says:

    Tbh, the multiple recommendations of non-POC writers is really buttressing the argument in this post. The fact that the recommendations are instinctively given as “proof” of diversity–or whatever the reasons why these particular texts have been mentioned–is exasperating, and shows there is still a disconnect with this conversation.

  18. Asha Ganesan says:

    Thanks @Evangeline for bringing that up. It’s a double-edged sword really.. The recommendations come with good intentions (perhaps to soothe ruffled feathers?), but I don’t need soothing because I’m not ruffled. Those recommendations (again, I know they are well-meaning) could also be interpreted as “we have some diversity, so things are not that bad!”

    For every book that has a half-Anglo/POC character, there are many, many others that have appropriated or completely erased them (I swear I read a HR book once where an English MC became a belly-dancing expert overnight to entice her husband who had spent some time in the Middle East or something).

    And every instance of that erasure in “well-meaning” books is at the least jarring, or at worst like a slap in the face. So, I agree with Evangeline that the disconnect exists, in many ways. If someone is unable to empathize with the POC-reading experience, it’s parallels how many of us, regardless of ethnicity, are pulled out of the story by any unjustified sexism in HR books.

    Step outside of the world of HR and it’s the same story everywhere for an avid book reader. Things are not fine in sci-fi, fantasy, YA, and many, many arenas. I focused on HR because it’s one of the few genres that’s driven by women as writers and as readers. I and many others on this thread are asking for or energized by a change in how things operate, not recommendations. However, I hope others who want to diversify their HR reading will take those recommendations for themselves! All I’ll say is that the fight for change doesn’t end with book recommendations 🙂

  19. Vivian Sadow says:

    I think it is somewhat unfair to chastise contrbutors to this post for recommending titles written by white authors. This post began with a call to established white writers to include more diverse characters and storylines in their works. Then it moved on to express the need for more writers of color to tell their own stories and the frustrations entailed in moving an antediluvian publishing system (and, in many cases, readership). I do not believe that the books recommended were offered as a sop–“oh, look, some non-POC writers include multiethnic characters, things aren’t so bad!” I think
    these books were suggested as an answer to earlier comments–that some non-POC writers are trying to offer a more inclusive HR world. Inclusion is the name of the game–and the contributions of all peoples to the sweeping tide of history. Not to mention HEAs.

    And I am definitely with those who cannot read an HR glorifying the ante- and post-bellum South. In my Amazon review of the 1840s Mississippi saga I mentioned in an earlier post, I suggested the author include a note that the novel actually took place in an alternate universe.

  20. Svetlana says:

    I would love to read historical romance with a POC hero 🙂 i wish there were more books with Jewish heroines in them. Jews have existed even before christians came about.

  21. Evangeline Holland says:

    @Vivian Sadow: it’s unfair for these texts to be recommended without pausing to wonder if they may be problematic. Just because they exist does not mean it’s diversity–I can think of a number of historicals with biracial or ethnic characters that did not give them breathing space as biracial or POC, but to give them a touch of the “exotic” or to characterize the white characters’ as enlightened. When an outsider asks for romance recommdations or writes an article about the genre, there is no hesitation to acknowledge issues of consent or other things that concern women’s bodies, but when it comes to POC, there is little concern about possible stereotypes or misrepresentation.

    Yes, the OP wants non-POC writers to be more mindful about the rich tapestry of the past, but easiness with which one can list non-POC authored recommendations show a lack of true caring for the heart of the argument. Namely, the deliberate erasure of anything that doesn’t fit the conventions of what is and what is not considered a suitable fantasy for the genre. And why these elements–these people–are erased and continued to be erased.

  22. Vivian Sadow says:

    @Evangeline: Have you read any of the recommended books? I have not except for Milan, so cannot comment on them; I was merely suggesting that the people who offered these selections were not doing so from a blithe desire to play proxy for Polyanna.

    I, for one, did not just toss my two recommendations out off the top of my head because they filled some quota for having POC characters. I thought these were stories that presented complex characters with fleshed-out backgrounds and arresting storylines. Yes, the heroine of Mr. Ridley speaks with an accent–but she is newly arrived from India. And she is never presented as a linguistic figure of fun. The two stories I recommended do not make light of or ignore the inherent problems of the British Empire and colonialism or racism.

    You speak of the ease with which these recommendations were offered. How do you know how long these correspondents shuffled through their reading material in order to find books which they felt were of value and added to the conversation?

    I think the ease shown here is yours, for how easily you seem to discount the books being recommended and the conscious or unconscious motivations of those who recommended them.

    And neither I nor anyone posted here has ever indicated that non-POC writers adding POC characters to their HRs is in any way a substitute for writers of color creating their own stories told from their own viewpoints, histories, and perceptions. It is, I believe, a question of enrichment for us all.

    You joined a post that began with a query as to why more (white) HR writers did not include a more diverse cast of characters and storylines. Now you seem to want to question or castigate posters who recommend books they felt attempted to in some way address those issues. I don’t know how well these books succeed; as I mentioned, Milan is the only non-POC writer mentioned by others that I have read.

    But I doubt if you know either.

  23. Anne says:

    I am responding to @Svetlana – Comment #60. Nita Abrams wrote a series of books about Anglo-Jewish characters set in the Regency. I think that there were 4 books (maybe 5). They were recommended to me because of the spys and not because many of the main characters were Jewish, but I found the parts about the obstacles faced by Jewish men who wanted to serve in the army fascinating. I think that the author is/was an historian. Only 2 of the books are available on Kindle, so hopefully you can find them in the library or at a used book store.

    Ariana Franklin wrote a series of historical mysteries set during the time of King Henry II about a female doctor and some of her colleagues who solve “mysteries” for the king. At least one of her main “assistants” is Jewish and another is Muslim. I think that there are 3 books — maybe 4 in this series.

    Faye Kellerman is primarily known for her contemporary mysteries, which feature an Orthodox Jewish heroine and her family. However, she also wrote a book set during the Elizabethan era that featured a Jewish family who were conversos. It has been a long time since I read it — probably in the late 1980s or early 1990s, so it may not hold up well, but I remember finding the historical aspects of the book fascinating and doing some of my own research to discover more about this time period.

    I second the earlier recommendations about Rose Lerner’s books.

  24. P. J. Dean says:

    I know this post is about why White writers don’t write more PoC in their historical romances. I hope this thread does not devolve into US vs. THEM. But it seems to slant that way by the time the comments thread gets long. It happens when the topic of “diversity” in romance writing comes up. Blog after blog has this topic as a post, and most, not all, go in that sad direction eventually. In fact, one on this blog a few years back became quite vitriolic. The convo starts out civil then spirals down into a hot mess.
    I’ve noted the book recs given here and have heard of them; I confess I’ve only read a few. But my take on this “diversity in historical romance” thing? Okay. Why does a White writer become filled with dread at the thought of including PoC in their work? Why does this writer need so much assistance? Is this writer afraid that he/she is going to pen a stereotype? That some latent bias might pop out? All I can say is if that is how they feel, they are gonna actually have to crack the history books, read about other cultures and not rely on sensitivity readers.

    The second part to this affair is the writer of color who writes historical romance. HELLO! We are here! We are the writers who gets ignored big time in this business. Perhaps, while mainstream readers are waiting on their fav White historical romance author to read enough reference books to pen a book on the intersection of colonists, freedmen and Seminoles in Florida, maybe just maybe, they could break rank and check out what a WoC has written instead. Why? Because I am positive that book has been written already! Is that too revolutionary a concept? The seeking-out of ANOTHER author to fill that void? ANOTHER author with that historical plotline a reader has been pining for?

    The fact is even with the talented voices of Jenkins, Huguely, Cole, etc, mainstream readers are STILL being introduced to characters of color through a White lens. I do not get it. I like variety. The aforementioned ladies know their topics inside and out. Maybe that’s the problem. A mainstream reader only wants a little bit of color in their book. Not too much. Put in too much then the character has a complete life and is not background decoration.

    Writers of color see history differently than a White writer. It makes for a different story because we see through different lenses. Personally, when I write a historical I have to read TWICE as many research books. Why? Because I have to familiarize myself with the dominant culture of the time and then see where my character of color fits into the story. I have to research if my character can do the things I want him/her to do. The simplest thing like walking outside after dark might not have been allowed. I have to find out if a Black person needed a pass to be out at night in the era I’ve picked. Things like that count. These are things that a non-White writer would know to look up. I can’t just have my characters doing what they please as society told them they couldn’t. If an author does not research such minutiae, one ends up with a “historical” slapped together to show two people of different ethnicities making the beast with two backs for titillation.

    All I know is that this is a TIRED subject. A tired subject that people like to act like they don’t understand. What is so difficult? It’s simple. For the White writer of historicals who desires to write PoC into their work…Do your homework. Be big enough to take criticism if readers want to critique it. And they will. For the mainstream reader, unfortunately, if you say you want the different, YOU will have to seek it out. Indie authors are the only ones putting these works out without having to run a gauntlet of gatekeepers telling them the “right way”to write a person who looks like them. The search might be tedious because indie authors do not have the moolah to promote like traditionally pubbed authors, or have some promo covered by the publisher. But I do caution you, if it matters to you that your author be White, you will be disappointed. The indie writers of historicals with PoC will largely be PoC themselves since their manuscripts can’t get any play from the Big 5. But look at it this way, it’ll be a whole new world. That’s not a bad thing,

  25. Svetlana says:

    Thanks for suggestions, but I am seeking non-mystery writings and recommendations actually.

  26. Vivian Sadow says:

    @Svetlana: Rose Lerner is a romance novelist.
    Check her out, especially her novel True Pretenses (which features an unconventional Jewish hero) and her novella All or Nothing, whose heroine comes from a converso family and is trying to find herself in her ancestral Judaism (while also working at a gambling hell, sleeping with whoever pleases her, and falling in love with a bisexual would-be architect–a very unconventional story, but a great read).

  27. Evangeline Holland says:

    @Vivian Sadow: I have read the books mentioned–which is why I made my comments. I don’t know about you, but I don’t make blanket statements just to have something to say.

    But this little back-and-forth is doing precisely what P.J. Dean said: threads like this turn into a hot mess. And it becomes a hot mess because POC start off wanting to find common ground to make non-POCs understand the argument, but when non-POC miss the mark or pull the conversation in a different direction, we have to get firm. But then our firmness is seen as mean or belligerent, and in response, non-POC get belligerent and resistant.

    So let’s end our back-and-forth right here, because it’s not getting the whole conversation anywhere.

  28. Rhoda Baxter says:

    This is wonderful! Thank you for this. As a non-white writer, who writes mainly white characters (because I want my books to be published), I’m often annoyed by this.
    I totally agree about the Courtney Milan books too. Hooray for Mr Battacharya and Miss Sweetly too.

  29. Vivian Sadow says:

    @Evangeline: I apologize. I did not think I was contributing to a hot mess; perhaps I was. I want to read all the varieties of human experience in my HRs (and other books); I thought I was adding to a valuable discourse, and certainly never meant to come across as belligerent or defensive. I have, as a Jew, always believed that all peoples are entitled to their perceptions of their own histories and their histories of persecution, oppression, and atrocity. We cannot know exactly how others feel, but we can appreciate it and its validity and try to reach some understanding with each other.
    Heaven knows there has always been enough atrocity to go around and we cannot belttle the experience of others. If I have failed in communicating this, it is my failing, and I deeply regret it. You have given me much to ponder in how I present myself and my thoughts.

    Would you mind sharing what you objected to in the two works I cited? Did you feel the heroines were too exoticized? I would really like to know your thoughts and just how myopic I may be.

    I have read Huguely and Cole and enjoyed their work and the history (not to mention romance) that they presented.

    On a subjective note, I rarely read inspirational or faith-based romances or “clean” romances, either. I prefer religion in the background and a certain level of heat–no matter the author.

    As I have reiterated, I am very new to the HR genre and began with Jo Beverley and Mary Balogh. What I mostly ascertained from reading copious reviews was that readers seemed to be divided on sex (too much, too little), whether a rake was sufficiently redeemed, should heroines be beautiful or plain, had the hero been sexually faithful from the moment he spotted the heroine behind a hedge, even if he didn’t see her again for years, and was the heroine innocent/virginal even if a widow? I have only recently become aware of these deeper questions of inclusion and representation. Partly because of Rose Lerner’s persistence on bringing them to her readers’ attention. I thank her. I thank you.

  30. Asha Ganesan says:

    @P.J. Dean: A few years ago? The one that sparked off my ire and this write up was comments made by a few (and I stress a few, not everyone) on the discussion at SBTB about racism in Balogh’s Someone to Love last November 😉 Someone saying outright that they don’t want to read stories about anyone who is not in English, White aristocracy because their lives are too heavy or issues-oriented.. Though, perhaps we need more representation on book covers/flaps as well? Seeing N.K. Jeminsin’s picture on her book flaps always makes me smile, but I also know research shows it can go south as well :/

    @Vivian Sadow: I think yours and Evangeline’s discussion raised an important point (and I don’t think it’s a hot mess at all personally) and made me reflect on what I was reacting to in the recs (again, I know most are well-meaning). Honestly, I was reacting to the fact that most of the recs consist of “half-White” characters, which actually adds to my point that people read what’s comfortable and close to them. I understand it, but I don’t support it. And one of the most of common occurrences within POC communities (especially in Black, Hispanic/Latino, Browns where fairness of your skin color or non-brown eye color is often the determinant of your worth) is when “fair-skinned” biracial individuals’ sometimes end up erasing the experiences of darker-skinned people, as in several half-White character books I’ve read (but not all). Just to clarify, I want to read to about biracial experiences, but not just ones who are half-White since there is diversity within biracials as well.

    Evangeline herself pointed this out earlier: “It’s rare for POC in period dramas to drive the story, not be subordinate or peripheral to the plot of the white characters–which is why non-POC writers often write half-white protagonists or place them in a relationship with a white character…which then perpetuates the “tragic mulatto” stereotype, which is essentially the lack of proximity to whiteness being the ultimate tragedy or obstacle to happiness.”

    I’m learning myself (this is my first public op-ed), so hopefully I’ll do a better job in conveying the nuances in future diversity write-ups!

    @Earlier commenters: Thanks for WOC in Romance plug! I’m gleefully looking through! 😀

  31. Vivian Sadow says:

    @Asha: the heroine in Hoyt’s novella is Anglo-Indian and was brought to England by her widowed father. But in the end she glories openly in her heritage and defies her detractors. Although she marries a white man, he has traveled extensively in India (bringing home a mongoose), and has known (unbeknowst to her) almost from the get-go that she is of Indian heritage, and doesn’t quite know why that should be an issue. The Marvelle novel is centered on an Indian heroine/MC and her admittedly white hero (and a somewhat odd hero in so many ways). She is not biracial, but was helped from starvation and poverty when a child by an English scientist living in India (yeah, I guess he is another white savior). Still, I found her an optimistic, brilliant heroine.

    Thank you for not thinking we had devolved into a hot mess.

  32. Berry says:

    Thank you for this post! What lovely timing, I took a break from historicals recently after the podcast about dealing with book slumps by reading your favorite type of book. I realized that my favorite books are queer and feminist HR with POC protagonists…and I wasn’t reading them because they didn’t exist…or I couldn’t find them…or Courtney Milan is taking too long to write me another book. I happened to pop back on SBTB and found this discussion and new book ideas. Thanks. And if you think straight romances with racial diversity are hard to find, try queer ones!

  33. Jackie says:

    @Carcolcita wrote: “ ‘Historical’ romances are romantic fantasies projected on a “popular” imagined past, which is a past that emerged from nationalist projects with the goal to erase or marginalize POC roles in history.” Another, more blunt way to say this is that a large part of the fantasy that most HR are selling to readers is the fantasy of an all-white world. Unfortunately, increasing the number of POC in HR romance is not as easy as just pointing to the logical fallacy that POC did not exist in the past. Rather, we need to open discuss the racism that underlies the desire to read books set in an all white world (or a fantasy of the same). Books with dukes marrying servant girls appeal because they hold out a fantasy of class-crossing that appeals to many readers. But books with POC in main roles would threaten many white readers, who may read with the conscious or unconscious goal of erasing or marginalizing POC not only in the past, but in our very-real multicultural present.

    I would echo @Carcolcita’s appreciating of “Ganesan’s appeal to accuracy as one path to upending norms,” but agree that “this requires some deep reflection on writers’ and readers’ culturally constructed erotic fantasies. People write and read about what they think is sexy, but sexy is a cultural fabrication.”

    A great topic for research for Ganesan and other scholars of romance: what fantasies are allowed in HR romance, and what fantasies are not?

  34. Nicole says:

    This such a breath of fresh air and literally I want to cry. The timing couldn’t have at a better time. Thank you for this post. Very much needed.

  35. Vivian Sadow says:

    Jeannie Lin’s not been mentioned–her T’ang Dynasty HRs are mesmerizing; she also writes historical erotica as Lilianna Lee and the steampunk Gunpowder Chronicles about an alternative 19th century Japan and China and the Opium Wars.

  36. […] Possibly Unpopular Thoughts.” My ears immediately pricked. Might this post be referencing the other post, on Smart Bitches, Trashy books? Oh, yes, it did. Oh, good. After a week stuck in the house with my beloved family, a stomach bug, […]

  37. Jacqueline says:


    Her book The Lotus Palace was the 2nd book I ever reviewed on my channel! While the cringe is so real in those older videos MY FANGIRL IS SO REAL OVER HER! The woman does shit with words and feels and worlds and history that just makes my brain poop its happy pants.

    Oh I totally didn’t know about her alter ego Lilianna Lee! Thank you for that info! Which one of her erotica books do you like/recommend 1st?

  38. Vivian Sadow says:

    @Jacqueline: So far, JL seems to have written 3 novels about Princess Shanyin; they are available individually on Kindle, as a set for $5.98, or a boxed set for $4.98 (or $4.99). Go figure prices on Amazon. They are probably available elsewhere, but Kindle and I are yoked together. They may also be available in print; I haven’t checked. There’s a lot going on in them, sexually and otherwise, and the Princess is a snotty little shit much of the time. There are lots of sexual permutations; some of them don’t sound very comfortable, but there’ s plenty to pick and choose from! The boxed set has a bonus short story. It is the best buy–I think the whole thing goes under the umbrella title, The Obsession Saga. Lots of menage. Have fun!

  39. Jacqueline says:

    @Vivian Sadow HOLY FREAKING CRAP, GURL! I normally stay away from “main character over several books” series but your words got me so damn tempted.

    Especially since, DUUUDE THIS IS JEANNIE LIN WE TALKING ABOUT. Like, how am I gonna resist?!

    Also “Lots of menage. Have fun!” might just be my favorite ass sentence in the history of sentences.

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