By Damini Kulkarni
I was 19 and playing at being a grown-up, when I sat alone at a café with a romance novel in my hand, a cup of coffee at my elbow, and an air of self-importance on my shoulders. Since I considered the title of the book — and its smoochy couple cover — an impediment to my pursuit of looking like a respectable adult, I attempted to hide it with a series of awkward motions that would have put the average contortionist to shame.
A few years ago, I was 22, feminist, and still not an adult, browsing the romance novel section with new-found ease when I found Julia Quinn’s regency era romance novel, A Night Like This. I bought it because it had a great first chapter and a thankfully smooch-free cover (feminist or not, smutty covers continue to embarrass me). Roughly 18 hours later, I was charmed by the book, enamoured with the author, and in love with the genre.
Regency romances straddle contrary positions with enjoyable ease (double entendre intended), balancing historical accuracy and modern sensibilities, fact and myth, propriety and non-conformity, sexual frankness and societal constraints.
Characters in regency romances deftly, and sometimes defiantly, negotiate strict ideas of propriety, actually engaging in some form of courtship before they leap into bed and at each other. The language is endearingly ornate and the humour, wonderfully absurd, wry and British. Consequently, regency romances are as decadent and softly sweet as hot chocolate, and can be just as addictive.
Although novelist Jennifer Crusie referred to romance novels ‘feminist fairy tales’, regency romances fit that description most literally. They borrow images associated with fairy tales — castles, ball gowns and fancy carriages — and wrap them together into stories about feminist heroines and heroes.
Regency romances deliver entertaining and enlightening snippets about feminism with a deft and light hand. They’ve taught me how timeless, dynamic, flexible and simple feminism can be, in practice as much as theory.
Elizabeth Essex’s The Scandal Before Christmas is a lovely instruction about how feminists come in all personalities, ranging from brazen and fearless to timid and shy. Loretta Chase’s Lord Perfect illustrates that worry for a runaway child’s safety does not render a mother incapable of being sexually aroused by a man and certainly does not strip her from the right to act on it. Julia Quinn’s What Happens in London is a reminder that even as society places an enormous importance on female beauty, beautiful women are rarely considered intelligent or taken seriously.
These books also sensitised me to the fact that a single rigid feminism has been replaced with multiple feminisms that can manifest in wonderful and interesting ways. Feminism resonates in gaudy, loud and unfashionable clothing worn with the purpose of thwarting social expectations, like Jane does in Milan’s The Heiress Effect. But it also reflects equally in immaculate and chic attire worn to intimidate and impress, like dressmaker and businesswoman Marcelline does in Chase’s Silk is for Seduction.
It peeks through when a rich and accomplished woman, like gossip columnist Penelope in Quinn’s Romancing Mr Bridgerton, tells her husband that she will loan him money to so that he can publish his diaries or when a man like Rupert in Chase’s Mr Wonderful holds the hand of a woman and soothes her as she succumbs to menstrual pain (unlike the unreal women in commercials who prance about wearing white pants and angelic smiles when shark week strikes). These little moments seem even more defiantly subversive and inspiring because they are set in an era where women were so free, they made handcuffed convicts look like frolicking birds.
Regency era romances drive home the inescapable fact that the more things change for women over time, the more they remain the same. In Sarah MacLean’s A Scot in the Dark, Lillian poses nude for her beau, but when he humiliates her publicly and attempts to make the painting public to enhance his artistic reputation, Lillian is faced with the possibility of irredeemable disgrace. In an interview to Huffington Post, MacLean revealed that the book is inspired by the public reaction to Jennifer Lawrence’s leaked nude photos. “We slut shame even as we honour the rake. And there’s nothing about it that’s new. It was easy to lift this conversation from 2016 and set it down in 1833 — too easy.” she said.
And yet, these novels are reminders of the many battles feminists have won over the years and the monumental social changes they effected. Although feminism is obviously still relevant, it is sobering to take a look at how insanely important it was to women who were fighting for the most basic human rights. In Julia Quinn’s The Secret Diaries of Miss Miranda Cheever, for instance, Miranda struggles to purchase Le Morte d’Arthur because the shopkeeper deems her unworthy of such a book because of her gender.
Although the problems these heroines face are more acute, and isolating than the difficulties a contemporary feminist might face, they remain relentlessly relatable. In Courtney Milan’s The Suffragette Scandal, Frederica is the editor of a feminist publication campaigning for women’s suffrage. The hero points out that her fledgling efforts are as futile as an attempt to “empty the Thames with a thimble”, because men are socially wired not to see women as equals. He is terrified for her safety when he says that her goal is unattainable, and therefore not worth the risks she takes. Frederica tells him the regular rape threats and abuse she tolerates makes her more aware of the dangers than he could ever be. And then she proceeds to make this point:
She raised her chin and looked him in the eye. “You see a river rushing by without end. You see a sad collection of women with thimbles, all dipping out an inconsequential amount.”
He didn’t say anything.
“But we’re not trying to empty the Thames,” she told him. “Look at what we’re doing with the water we remove. It doesn’t go to waste. We’re using it to water our gardens, sprout by sprout. We’re growing bluebells and clovers where once there was a desert. All you see is the river, but I care about the roses.”
Any feminist who has tussled with trolls and continues to work despite abuse would point at this dialogue and say: This! So much this!
Regency romance novels written over the years make for an insightful portrait of both, the manner in which our present affects the way we view the past, and the process of evolution of feminist ideas. For instance, Georgette Heyer’s feminism is much more pervasive than Jane Austen’s, and contemporary writers of regency era romance novels inject a more inclusive and intersectional brand of feminism into their work. As feminism becomes relevant to a wider range of subjects and activities, regency era reconstructions are likely to become even more fun in the coming decade.
I was talking to a friend about how about how feminist ideas are tucked inside regency romances and I concluded (with the pompousness that is second nature to college students) that feminism, like all wisdom, comes from unexpected places. It never struck me to question why I thought of regency romance novels as an ‘unexpected place’ at all. I’d shed the shifty (and acrobatic) 19-year-old within me and embraced romance novels with unapologetic gusto, but the idea that they could teach me something about feminism was still ‘unexpected’.
Is it because romance novels, much like anything that is considered traditionally feminine, have been consistently devalued? Is it because we think that the seriousness of feminism would be compromised if it were translated into something frothy, fun and occasionally silly? Or do we believe that feminism has come so far that nothing set in the past can ever carry a glimmer of hope or a wisp of learning for our futures?
If any of these reasons fit, it might be a good idea to bury our noses in more unexpected places and sniff out little lessons about feminism that we might not learn anywhere else.