Adding Colour to the Romance Genre

When historical romance novels focus solely on white leads, it sends a message about whom the industry thinks is deserving of love

A collage featuring a still from the Bridgerton television show
The Walrus/Netflix/Unsplash

One month after its release, Bridgerton became Netflix’s highest viewed original series, with 82 million viewers. Set in Regency-era England and adapted from Julia Quinn’s romance book series of the same name, the show follows the eponymous Bridgerton family as its eight children encounter love and scandal about town. But the Shondaland-produced adaptation notably differs from its source material—as well as from the wider historical-romance genre in general—in one significant way: many of its characters are Black.

In Quinn’s entire eight-book series (and her collection of follow-up novellas), there is not a single racialized character—and only one who is queer. The show, meanwhile, features multiple Black actors in prominent roles, including Simon Basset—season one’s main love interest—and Queen Charlotte. While many fans have celebrated the increased visibility, others have complained that such representation is “historically inaccurate,” criticizing the show for not conforming to the dominant image of Regency England as all white and all straight.

Like every other romance subgenre, historical romance has traditionally consisted of a white man and a white woman falling in love and overcoming obstacles to form a relationship and live happily ever after (or, in the case of most contemporary novels, happy for now). Though a historical romance can be set in any period prior to 1950, the most popular time by far is Regency England: the era covering 1811 to 1820 and immortalized by Jane Austen.

The version of Regency England that viewers are accustomed to, both onscreen and in books, is one that excludes BIPOC and queer characters. Piper Huguley, a Black English professor and author of both contemporary and historical romance that features Black characters, believes that the genre’s popularity and homogeneity come from an unhealthy relationship between publishers and readers. “If a publisher only prints out a certain kind of thing, then the readers are only going to want that,” she says.

This leads publishers to believe “that’s what readers want,” adds Cat Sebastian, a white bisexual author who writes queer historical romance. Publishers then acquire similar books—often not factoring in the success that many self-published authors are now finding with diverse historical romance.

Authors, publishers, and readers have long tried to justify historical romance’s lack of diversity by arguing that Black, Asian, or Middle Eastern characters interacting with white characters is impossible. It often seems like, in their minds, Black and brown people did not exist in old England. And, if they did, the argument goes, then they were treated with discrimination and thus would not have come into any contact with the aristocratic characters who dominate the genre—let alone be those aristocrats. But, aside from being exclusionary, this argument in favour of “historical truth” is inaccurate. According to Huguley, the typical excuses that promote historical accuracy above all else can easily be met with questions of her own: Whose accuracy, and whose history, is being represented by depicting the past as a racial monoculture? Who are the ones telling this story?

Britain has never been the racially homogenous landscape that historical fiction would lead many to believe. After the country began colonizing India, in the seventeenth century, returning families often brought South Asian servants and ayahs with them; meanwhile, South Asian sailors, called lascars, settled in British port cities between or following voyages. Black people were in Britain during the Middle Ages and, by the late 1600s, began arriving in large numbers due to the transatlantic slave trade. The Gentleman’s Magazine estimated that there were nearly 20,000 Black servants in London in 1764. Others worked as tradespeople, sailors, and musicians. “In London, there were between 20,000 and 30,000 free Blacks living during the time of Jane Austen,” says Vanessa Riley, a Black historical fiction author whose works include diverse Regency romance. “The more I study, I find more families having mixed-race or Black son-in-laws, wives, and kids, [but] the history is written as if they are white.”

Nevertheless, Riley often receives criticism highlighting the “inaccuracies” in her books. “Oftentimes you get, ‘This would never happen,’” she explains, because readers have a preconceived notion of history based on other media and push back when it is subverted or corrected.

K. J. Charles, a white author whose work features racialized and queer characters, likens the depiction of an all-white, all-heterosexual Regency England to a fantasy alternate universe that has inadvertently become accepted as fact. “[Historical romance is] all white, and it’s been all white for so long that it looks wrong for it not to be all white.”

Purveyors of the accuracy argument are also inconsistent in the kinds of imaginative leaps they’re willing to make. If it is unfaithful to have queer and racialized aristocrats, then it is equally false to see plentiful wealthy, titled young people with perfect teeth, no STIs, and a healthy relationship with alcohol—as well as heroines with shaved bodies; great hygiene (soap, after all, was expensive); no after-effects of cholera, typhoid, or scarlet fever; and a distaste for the corset (which, as many costume enthusiasts on YouTube will tell you, was not restrictive). Charles also points out that so-called historically accurate all-white, all-straight romances rarely mention significant events in their eras, like the assassination of British prime minister Spencer Perceval, in 1812, or the Peterloo Massacre, in 1819.

Another inaccuracy that audiences seem more willing to accept is the number of eligible dukes. According to calculations by author Gail Eastwood, the Regency had only thirty-one dukedoms in England, Scotland, and Ireland combined. Yet the number of duke stories is closer to 10,000. “We can take away our critical lens to accept [that number],” says Riley. “But, if I show you one or two books where an interracial couple or Black couple who are middle class or upper class find love, you’re not going to accept that.”

When the industry designates whose presence is deemed realistic, that sends a message about who’s worthy of love—and who isn’t. “When we’re talking about romance, we’re talking about who deserves a happy ending,” Sebastian says. “It’s not just seeing yourself [or seeing] a complete and inclusive world view. It’s also like, Who deserves happiness?”

When white romance authors have featured queer and racialized characters, it has often been in an exoticizing or offensive manner. Indigenous heroes are often portrayed as bold and brutish—the word savage has even appeared in certain titles—and as wanting to either protect or possess the innocent white women. Meanwhile, Indigenous heroines are resilient and steadfast, and they heal the white hero with their love. Middle Eastern leads are characterized as barbaric sheiks and sultans of fictional countries, eventually redeemed by a white woman’s love. Their Asian counterparts—often biracial rather than fully Asian—regularly have their nonwhite ancestry erased or unacknowledged, like the half-Indian hero in Eloisa James’s 2018 Born to be Wilde. James readily admits that a half-Asian hero allowed her to add diversity “but not feel so like I am intersecting a major historical trend here, like colonialism.” Asian heroines, on the other hand, are often described to emphasize how demure, timid, and sexually submissive they are.

These depictions of BIPOC characters as exotic objects the white protagonists use to “mature,” both sexually and otherwise, are dehumanizing. White authors often reinforce the very Eurocentric rhetoric—highlighting otherness, creating a sense of threat—that attempted to justify the violence, trauma, and genocide the West wrought on the world. The consistent trope of racialized characters ending up with white partners and assimilating into British or American society also suggests that there’s desirability in proximity to whiteness through marriage.

In other instances, authors exclude BIPOC characters entirely and simply co-opt parts of their cultures to make the white leads appear more knowledgeable. The hero in New York Times bestselling author Lisa Kleypas’s Hello Stranger learns “erotic arts” from an unnamed “woman in Calcutta.” Similarly, in Mary Balogh’s 2016 Someone to Love, an unnamed “Chinese gentleman” furthers the hero’s emotional journey by teaching “martial arts” and “wisdom of the Orient.”

Elizabeth Boyle’s 2016 “Something Borrowed” sees its hero don an “Indian prince” costume, complete with a turban, for a party while the heroine makes a “beguiling and exotic picture” dressed in a sari with a bindi on her forehead and kohl-lined eyes. Boyle justifies her white characters’ appropriation of (extremely vague) Indian attire by mentioning that the heroine lived in India—a detail also used to make her seem more sexually sophisticated, as she has “seen the statutes of lovers that were commonplace in India, read Indian love stories and treatises of the boudoir.”

Spending time in India also gives the white aristocratic heroine in Mary Jo Putney’s short story “One Wicked Winter’s Night” a free pass to don salwar kameez, wrap dupattas around her face to approximate a niqab, and wear bangles to publicly perform a bastardized version of a classical Indian dance that “invoke[s] a sense of distant, fascinating lands.” Meanwhile, the hero in Evie Dunmore’s A Rogue of One’s Own, published only last year, has an appropriative tattoo, “inspired by Lord Shiva,” featuring a naked “long-haired female dancer, waving . . . multiple arms.”

The simultaneous appropriation from and erasure of BIPOC communities is a form of theft. It steals from cultures while suggesting that only certain aspects of them are appealing—and only when white people engage with them. Though Kleypas apologized and made changes to the book so future editions would be “sensitive and mindful,” this type of accountability isn’t always the response. Mary Balogh initially defended her portrayal of the unnamed Chinese man in Someone to Love by replying to a critical blog post, stating that she meant for him to look “SUPERIOR to the duke, a man of deep wisdom” and that she knew many “Indian, Native Indian, American, Canadian… (etc. etc.) people” whom she revered for the same reason. Alicia Condon, Mary Jo Putney’s editor (and editorial director) at publishing house Kensington, tells me that they “always [try] to be sensitive to our portrayal of minority groups whether written by authors within or outside of them. . . . If we stumble, as in the instance we are discussing now, we take ownership for our mistake and will learn from it.” She also maintained that Kensington “remain[s] proud to publish Mary Jo Putney’s highly respected novels, which are widely recognized for their historical accuracy.”

One reason these problems persist is that the publishing industry is slow to make space for racialized and queer authors. “We can name on two hands everyone who writes [diverse] historical romance,” says Riley. “It’s that small.” When she was younger, the only option Riley had as a reader was Beverly Jenkins, a Black author who writes historical romances featuring Black leads. It’s only recently that writers like Alyssa Cole, Courtney Milan, and Jeannie Lin have joined in making the genre more inclusive.

The Ripped Bodice, a California bookstore that deals exclusively in romance, releases an annual report that measures how many books from major publishers were written by BIPOC authors. Last year, the figure was 12 percent. It drops to 8.3 percent (the same as in 2019) if authors under Kensington—the house that has made the largest strides to date—are excluded.

The reason these inequities exist, Huguley explains, is because publishers “want the sure thing.” She recalls industry stakeholders telling her that Black people can’t have happily-ever-afters, that there was no need for more Black historical romance novels given the presence of Beverly Jenkins. Huguley says that, when her editor tried to pitch her book to one publisher, “they laughed at her.” “They told her, ‘That’s not going to sell anything. The audience is too small,’” she says. Riley cites a similar experience. “[As] my narratives have gotten browner, as I got more brave to tell stories that I wanted to tell, doors closed.” Charles also recalls that publishers repeatedly said her books “won’t sell much.” The constant rejection inspired Huguley, Riley, and Charles to self-publish.

When asked about the company’s efforts to diversify, Vida Engstrand, director of communications at Kensington, explained via email that Kensington works “like crazy to publish and support books by non-Caucasian and non-cis authors, and yet these are the books that we have the hardest time getting into bookstores and successfully selling.” She elaborates that booksellers, book critics, and readers must work with publishers to ensure the success of diverse books.

Huguley, however, is not convinced. “You have to try something and then you have to get behind it the same way that you get behind a big thing,” she says. Riley and Charles both emphasize that publishers’ marketing departments have a huge role in determining a book’s success. “If the publisher isn’t reaching enough people, it’s because they didn’t do the marketing right,” says Charles.

Both Charles and Riley add that the broader marketplace requires education. There are many people, Charles says, who read to reinforce “their own narrow view of the world.” An organization like Romance Writers of America (RWA) could help reshape reader expectations, but, Riley adds, “they’ve got a lot of other things that they’re dealing with.” Those “other things” are racism within the group’s own ranks: since 2015, all authors who have won or been nominated for awards in the RWA’s two historical romance categories have been white. According to my count, all of the nominated finalists save two have featured a white, heterosexual couple in their central romance. The RWA has snubbed books like Alyssa Cole’s An Extraordinary Union, an interracial historical romance about a former slave turned spy and a detective during the American Civil War, despite it being both commercially popular and critically acclaimed. No Black author had ever won a RITA award—founded in 1982—until 2019.

Beverly Jenkins, despite being a bestselling author and winning an RWA service award, in 2017, for her work promoting the genre, revealed in 2019 that she had never entered the RITAs because she “knew better than to open my spirit to people who can’t fathom [an author of colour] having the nerve to take a seat at the table.” According to a survey conducted by the RWA in 2017, its membership consists largely of white (86 percent), cisgender, nondisabled (79 percent), heterosexual (88 percent) women. This is the group that judges the first round of the RITAs.

Despite this homogeneity, some authors feel that the landscape is changing. “We’re seeing a pretty diverse slate of authors get big deals,” Sebastian points out, highlighting the work of Jasmine Guillory and Talia Hibbert in particular. She also feels optimistic that publishers are putting marketing money behind more diverse titles—like Uzma Jalaluddin’s recent Hana Khan Carries On—and believes those changes will be reflected across the industry. This point is echoed by Riley. “I think things like Bridgerton [help] people reimagine because the visuals do something more than even the written word,” she says. “The visuals are things that stay with folks.”

Zeahaa Rehman
Zeahaa Rehman is a Pakistani Canadian journalist whose work deconstructs everything from pop culture to politics with an intersectional lens. She has been published by Healthline, Chatelaine, Flare, The RepresentAsian Project, and more.

Enjoy What You’re Reading?

Fact-based journalism is our passion and your right.

We feature Canadian voices and expertise on stories that travel beyond our shores, and we firmly believe that this reporting can change the world around us. The Walrus covers it all with originality, depth, and thoughtfulness, bringing diverse perspectives to bear on essential conversations while setting the highest bar for fact-checking and rigour.

We’re asking readers like you to support The Walrus so we can continue to lead the Canadian conversation.
Every contribution makes a difference.
Please support The Walrus today. Thank you.
Donations of $20 or more will receive a charitable tax receipt.