A person like me would not have a life worth living in 19th century Britain, and yet I am enthralled by romantic fiction novels exclusively set in this era. This predicament doesn’t keep me up at night, per se, but it does take up a lot of my headspace. Sitting down to write this article, I think I’ve finally figured out why: it’s the stringent social mores which encapsulates both the Regency and Victorian era.
The rules of the time make the romantic pay-off all the more interesting. Finding out the heroine isn’t a virgin is hardly a plot point in any other sub-genre of romantic fiction but it is much more entertaining when all the characters are 19th-century gentry. The setting makes the stakes much higher, for the heroine especially. Any misstep on her part inevitably leads to her social and sometimes financial ruination. There are some stakes for the men in these novels as well: matters of honour can quickly become grounds for a duel, usually in Hyde Park at dawn. Backing out was seen as cowardly and ungentlemanly, so they often ended in bloodshed or even death.
These novels are as entertaining as they are anachronistic. I really doubt that many people in 19th-century nobility were having oral sex, but it’s nice to imagine. A lot of historical romance is historical in setting only, with authors making fair use of their creative licence to overcome the unsexiness of using a chamber pot, bathing once a week, and rampant racism. The protagonists of these novels are unrealistically progressive. I’m not complaining; these books would be unreadable if these details weren’t omitted.
If you’re still hesitant to start reading historical romance, that’s completely understandable. Most are very white and heterosexual. Thankfully, that is now increasingly not the case, with authors like Cat Sebastian writing stories of love between queer people, people of colour, and queer people of colour. The great thing about those is that they aren’t even that anachronistic, because we know that those people definitely existed within that time and space. The only thing anachronistic is their happy ending. Once again, I’m not complaining.