Progress Is Not Straight Lines: On Happy Endings in Diverse Historical Romance

At RT, I was on a panel about historical romance set in America. One thing that came up from the authors who write romances with characters who aren’t white is that readers often react with, “I don’t believe these people could have a happy ending.” As someone who has written LGBT characters in historical romance, I’ve gotten this quite a bit, too.

I think we as Americans struggle with our own history, because we know the bad stuff (or think we do). I think that’s one of the reasons there are so few American-set romances right now. And while I do agree that one can’t set a book during the Civil War, say, and not address slavery, I don’t agree that it would be impossible for two African American people to find a happy ending during this era.

I think this idea that POC or LGBT people couldn’t have had happy endings comes from two misperceptions. The first is that, unless you were straight and white, everything has always been terrible. This contributes to the other misperception: that progress only ever moves forward, in straight lines.

The reality is that progress is circular, or it’s two steps forward and one step back. For example, African Americans made tremendous strides in the immediate wake of the Civil War that were undone by the abrupt end to Reconstruction and the creation of Jim Crow laws. But even before that, free men and women were activists and writers, held jobs from which they drew salaries, owned businesses.

Or, in the 1920s, women gained the right to vote. The invention of the bra meant they took off their corsets, which literally allowed more freedom of movement. They were allowed to patronize bars for the first time, to drink and smoke in public. Women got jobs they’d never had before. And a lot of that progress was undone by World War II and a return to traditional gender roles in the 1950s. The women’s movement didn’t begin in the 1960s, or even with Susan B. Anthony in the 1870s. Sojourner Truth, herself born a slave, gave her landmark “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech in 1851. Mary Wollstonecraft wrote “A Vindication of the Rights of Women” in England 1792, and she drew from the same philosophical writings that Jefferson did when writing the Declaration of Independence.

Every time a group makes progress, there is always pushback. And how we think about history is colored by how we’re taught it and who wrote it. (American history was written by white men, mostly, and the textbooks we all read in school are manipulated to tell a certain narrative. See also Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States or James W. Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me.)

Our idea of romance is relatively modern; marriage for love rather than as a business or practical transaction is fairly new, although love as an emotion has existed for centuries, obviously. But I think if we can be moved by a story of love between, I dunno, a rakish veteran of the Napoleonic Wars and a shy bluestocking, in an era when most women married for financial security, we can also believe in a love story between two men or a man and a woman who aren’t white. And people have always defied the odds to find happiness. As humans, we thrive on hope, on the idea that everything will work out. Rebellions and political movements are built on the hope that we can change the world, are they not?

Newlywed couple, ca. 1900

So when a reader says, “I don’t believe two African Americans could have had a happy ending in antebellum America,” I find that problematic. For one thing, some states abolished slavery well before the Civil War. (Slavery was gradually emancipated in New York beginning in the 1790s and ultimately ended in 1827, for example.) This doesn’t mean African Americans didn’t face racism and adversity—they definitely did and still do—but there were places they could settle, make good marriages, have children. (“We’re all here, aren’t we?” is how Beverly Jenkins responded to this question on my RT panel.)

Or, take LGBT people. I had someone tell me once that LGBT people didn’t exist before the mid-20th century, which is of course completely false. LGBT people have existed as long as people have. To give a small example, performing in drag is hardly a new phenomenon. Female impersonators have been dancing on stages in New York City since at least the early 19th century, if not earlier. While it is true, even, that LGBT identities as we now think of them are relatively new—”homosexuality” was coined as a term in the 1880s around the same time scientists became interested in same-sex attraction—homosexual relationships are recorded in history going back millennia.

Walt Whitman and Peter Doyle

I’ve had readers tell me, “I don’t like gay historicals because I don’t believe a gay couple could have had a happy ending in the past.” We assume that life for gay people was terrible and oppressive for all time. And, sure, it was not always easy. In London in the 1830s, for example, more men were hanged on sodomy charges than murder charges. Laws in New York City made it illegal to be gay and drink at a bar until the Stonewall riots. Sodomy laws remained on the books throughout the country into my lifetime.

But! From the late 19th century until about World War II, there were thriving gay communities in New York City, particularly in Greenwich Village, Times Square, and Harlem. (Other cities, too, but I’ve been primarily researching NYC.) The Hotel Astor in Times Square had a gay section of its famous bar during Prohibition, in fact, a little area that was roped off where men seeking men could find each other. (And drink “coffee,” because Prohibition.) There have been gay bars in New York for 200 years, even. By the 1880s, there were dance halls where men were encouraged to play around with gender, and patrons donned makeup and gowns. (And LGBT people were always creating art and new ways to express themselves. The companion book to the Museum of the City of New York’s Gay Gotham exhibit lays this out nicely.)

(I don’t mean to exclude the women, but society generally didn’t consider women to have sex drives, so it wouldn’t have occurred to many people in the 19th century that the two women sharing a house down the road were, in fact, carrying on a sexual relationship. Lesbians have also existed since the beginning of time, but flew under the radar to a certain extent. Men who had sex with men and anyone who was gender non-conforming were more frequently prosecuted.)

(And this is really all tip of the iceberg; I’m not being comprehensive here, just trying to make a point. For example, some Native American tribes had completely different ideas about gender. How amazing would it be to see an Own Voices narrative about that? And other groups have historically faced oppression in the US, everyone from the Irish to the Chinese to Eastern European Jews, and they should have happy endings in romance novels, too.)

But this is what I mean by circular history. George Chauncey, in his fantastic book Gay New York, argues that acceptance for LGBT people was more widespread prior to World War II than after, that what we think we know about how people have been treated historically is short-sighted or incorrect. The progress of LGBT people has not been a straight line, but rather a push-pull of circular progress over the last several centuries. Same for people of color.

The bottom line is that readers who struggle to accept happy endings in historicals for people of color or LGBT people could take a closer look at history, or could reexamine their own assumptions, particularly since so few readers think much of the proliferation of dukes in historical romance (particularly those who end up marrying governesses or maids). More to the point, if romance is the literature of hope, please believe that there was always hope.

(And none of this is to knock British historicals. My love of them is well-documented. But I’d love to see a lot of new American historicals, too, and I think it’s possible to write these well and still incorporate concerns about American history. I am a history buff who loves historical romance, and I’d like to see these integrated!)

But plausibility issues aside, if we can embrace stories about women owning businesses in Regency England or time-traveling Vikings or what have you, why can’t we believe all people could have happy endings in historical fiction? Is there an underlying belief that only some kinds of people could have (or are deserving of) happy endings? At the end of the day, a good story is a good story, so if we can buy werewolves and vampires, why not POC or LGBT people falling in love in the past?

Because I believe Hank and Nicky from Ten Days in August and Eddie and Lane from Such a Dance lived happily ever after—that Charles and Isaac from “Rebels at Heart” retired to their little farm in Pennsylvania to spend the rest of their days together—and I hope you do, too.