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Posts Tagged ‘Historical Romance’

“You and I are humans, and there is something complicated between us”: Untamed and queering the heterosexual historical romance
by Jodi McAlister

Untamed by Anna Cowan was one of the most keenly anticipated and polarising historical romances of 2013. A debut novel from an Australian author, it won Favourite Historical Romance at the 2013 Australian Romance Readers Awards,[1] as well as netting Cowan the Favourite New Romance Author award.[2] It attracted rave reviews from some readers, but was criticised harshly by others. This is perhaps unsurprising, because Untamed is an unusual novel: while it adheres to the structure and many of the tropes of [End Page 1] what we might think of as a typical heterosexual historical romance, it is also recognisably queer.

The popularity of Untamed and its notoriety within the online romance reading community make it an ideal candidate for study, because it raises an interesting question: what does it mean to queer the straight romance, and can it be done in a way that readers find satisfying? (This question is asked with the obvious caveat that no single text can be satisfying to all readers of a novel; however, it is certainly worth inquiring as to whether a novel can be satisfying to enough readers to position it as a “successful” text.) Romance novels are often criticised for reproducing rigid gender roles, usually because they are read as reinforcing patriarchal stereotypes. What reader reactions to Untamed show is that there is a considerable appetite for more fluid portrayals of gender, and that many readers are prepared to reject rigid archetypes. As such, I am rather more interested in readers’ reactions to the text than the text itself in this article: I do not seek to provide some kind of authoritative reading of this text, nor to argue whether this text is ultimately successful in its project or not. I approach this text with the understanding that popular texts are polysemic, containing the possibility for a myriad of different readings. It is these readings which are of most consequence to me in this article: in what circumstances is Untamed read as queer?

To briefly summarise the plot: the heroine of Untamed is Katherine “Kit” Sutherland, the eldest daughter of a genteel but poor family barely clinging to respectability. She has come to London for one season at the age of 28, where she is awkwardly and badly attempting to perform the role of marriage-minded debutante. At a ball, she encounters hero Jude, Duke of Darlington, who has disguised one of his friends as himself so that he can move around the room in relative disguise. (We should note here the gender neutrality of both protagonists’ names, one textual signal of the queerness of their relationship.) Jude needs to disguise his identity because he is intent on seducing the ball’s host and the book’s villain, Lady Marmotte, for political reasons – a sexual encounter which Kit accidentally witnesses. But although this figure of the daring rakish seducer is immediately familiar to the reader of the historical romance, the book swiftly complicates the trope. Kit recognises immediately that playing this role is self-destructive to Jude, and not an expression of his true desires. Fascinated with her ability to see through his disguises, Jude makes a deal with Kit: he will stop his sexual affair with her married younger sister Lydia if Kit will allow him to leave London with her and return to her family’s country house as her guest. What he does not say, and what Kit does not expect, is that he will travel with her dressed as a woman, a costume he wears for more than half the book.

This figure of the cross-dressing duke is, for the most part, what has endowed Untamed with its notoriety (despite the fact that Kit also cross-dresses), and it is the most discussed aspect of the book in reviews. It is certainly the factor that makes the book unusual: while cross-dressing heroines appear in historical romance with some regularity, cross-dressing heroes are comparatively rare. As I will discuss, Jude becomes the locus for many of the concerns and anxieties expressed by readers around the book’s particularly brand of queerness. But we should not make the mistake of situating Untamed’s cross-dressing duke within an otherwise “standard” historical world. To examine the book’s queerness, we must look at in its entirety. It is a book deeply concerned with performance: of performing gender, performing social roles, and even, at a deeper textual level, performing history. Ultimately, it is Kit and Jude’s failure to adequately perform the first [End Page 2] two that leads to their romantic connection; and the book’s failure to adequately perform the last that enables their union. Performance is both eroticised and ultimately rejected. Untamed appears to be a rejection of rigid archetypes, aspiring to protagonists who are individuals rather than normatively masculine or feminine: an idea that Kit expresses when she thinks of her relationship with Jude that, “you and I are humans, and there is something complicated between us.”[3] However, as I will discuss further, readers had varying opinions of the success of Untamed in this regard.

Queering the Straight Romance – Untamed versus The Masqueraders

To highlight the way that gender roles are read and queered in Untamed, it is useful to read it against another text with a similar plot which does not have the same aspirations to queerness and fluidity. I have chosen The Masqueraders by Georgette Heyer. While reading a text from 1928 against one from 2013 may seem somewhat unfair, this historical gap is in fact useful to my purposes. The time period in which Heyer was writing effectively precludes her from any aspirations to queerness, as this was hardly a concept with which she was familiar: although The Masqueraders clearly has some queer potentiality, it is just as clearly recuperated into heterosexual romantic love based in normative gender roles. The Masqueraders is also an ur-text for romance with cross-dressing protagonists, and is clearly one of Untamed’s direct ancestors. As such, reading the two texts against each other allows us to isolate the textual elements where Untamed’s project of queering becomes obvious.

For purposes of definition, I am relying on David Halperin’s explication of the word “queer”. He writes that:

“Queer is by definition whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant. There is nothing in particular to which it necessarily refers… ‘Queer’, in any case, does not designate a class of already objectified pathologies or perversions; rather, it describes a horizon of possibility whose precise extent and heterogeneous scope cannot in principle be delimited in advance. It is from the eccentric positionality occupied by the queer subject that it may become possible to envision a variety of possibilities for reordering the relations among sexual behaviours, erotic identities, constructions of gender, forms of knowledge, regimes of enunciation, logics of representation, modes of self-constitution, and practices of community – for restructuring, that is, the relations among power, truth and desire.”[4]

Halperin’s definition places emphasis on the fluidity of queerness. He does not denote a number of identities and designate them as “queer”: instead, he argues that the queer space is one of infinite possibility which cannot be contained by such rigid boundaries. The openness and fluidity of this queer space thus makes it a productive one for a freer existence than is typically allowed – one which, I contend, negates the need for performance, as one’s true identity can be expressed. It is in this space that the happy ending of Untamed takes place: a space where Kit and Jude are freed from performing the [End Page 3] gendered and social roles prescribed to them by their historical society. This is clearly anachronistic: the novel’s final scene, in which a homosexual couple, a heterosexual couple, and the complex and androgynous Kit and Jude all picnic together harmoniously and lovingly in a sort of queer Eden, is distinctly outside the realm of historical possibility. Understandably, many readers took issue with Untamed’s historical inaccuracy; however, it can be read as another way in which the novel is queered. In many ways, Untamed invokes a sort of retrofuturism, with history itself becoming a fluid “horizon of possibility”.[5]

This preoccupation with rigidity and fluidity was clearly part of author Cowan’s project when writing Untamed. In personal correspondence with me, she wrote:

“Society thought about gender very different back then, and even though in many ways it was more rigid, there was more room for men to play the woman (e.g. in school productions) – especially in the aristocracy, where male dress was only just moving away from the very effeminate.”[6]

Cowan is essentially having it both ways here: the strict rules of the historical society provide rigid gender and social norms (which Kit and Jude fail to adequately perform), although the society still contains the generative possibility for queerness, particularly in regards to masculinity. But this is a sort of performative queerness: the effeminate could only ever be a costume for a man, not an intrinsic part of his identity. This is the kind of formulation we see at work in The Masqueraders, which is arguably the most well-known romance text featuring a cross-dressing male protagonist, and a foundational text for the cross-dressing historical romance (although these texts usually feature cross-dressing heroines only, making The Masqueraders, with its cross-dressing hero, particularly apt to compare to Untamed). Hero Robin is playing the role of a woman, Miss Kate Merriot, while his sister, heroine Prudence, plays the role of Mr Peter Merriot, in service of one of his father’s schemes. However, it is clear that Miss Merriot is, for Robin, a costume only. His desires are firmly heterosexual, and when he acts on them, it is in male costume: he appears at a ball masked so as to begin a relationship with his love interest Letitia, whom he later saves from a forced marriage by playing at being a highwayman and killing her prospective husband in the very masculine ritual of the duel. He wears petticoats for utility’s sake only, and the novel ends with him casting them off forever to marry Letitia and to take up his public identity as his father’s son. His cross-dressing is, perhaps, playful, but his brand of masculinity is normatively heterosexual. Despite the admittedly unusual cross-dressing, The Masqueraders is not, I contend, an especially queer novel (which is hardly surprising, considering it was written in 1928 in a social context when “queer” was hardly a concept Heyer would have known or approved of).

Untamed, by contrast, builds on the foundations laid by The Masqueraders, but has a recognisably queer project. . Robin is clearly a man concealed in a dress, but when Jude assumes female dress, he essentially becomes his alter-ego Lady Rose. Kit describes his transformation, which she finds deeply disconcerting:

“Kit had seen her brother, Tom, assume local roles in the local, amateur productions – she’d even seen him act the woman more than once, when the number of parts required it. He always remained Tom, acting. The Duke’s transformation was absolute, down to the very marrow of his bones. There [End Page 4] wasn’t a single hint of self-consciousness about him. His demeanour, the set of his mouth, the lazy sway of his hand, all belonged to Lady Rose. The ease with which he changed his skin was frightening.

How could she ever hope to glimpse his true face?”[7]

This quote highlights the text’s preoccupation with the difference between performance and identity. It demonstrates both Kit’s discomfort with Jude’s ability to perform and her instinctive knowledge about his fragmented, wounded identity. She knows that while costumes conceal Jude’s true identity – there are many poignant and erotic scenes of her undressing him throughout the novel, unlacing gendered clothes to expose the human body beneath – they are also representations of his identity. The restrictions placed on him by society – both gendered restrictions, which force him to perform masculinity, and social restrictions, which force him to perform aristocracy – have caused his identity to become fragmented.

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has argued that shame can be defining for queer subjectivities, and we can see this in evidence in Untamed.[8] Jude’s shame at aspects of his identity has facilitated this fragmentation, causing him to desire to become his costumes. He has the following discussion with Kit:

“’I know I’m cracked – I feel it all the way through me – but there is this… thing inside. If I let him out he will – […] I need to take… him… out.’

‘Is that your plan? Kill the man inside?’

Yes.  Kill what was sick and dangerous. Be the man outside who didn’t frighten people. Be only that man.”[9]

We can read the “man inside” as Jude’s true, queer self, who is “sick and dangerous” in a rigid historical society which has no facility for expressing queer, fluid identities. However, it is arguably the “man outside” – Jude’s performance of a normatively masculine rakish aristocrat (an archetypal historical romance hero) – which is the dangerous one, in the sense that it is dangerous to Jude’s own psyche. Jude’s shame at his own identity often makes him perform an outward lack of shame (“How could anyone be so lacking in moral sense – in shame?” Kit thinks, early in her acquaintance with him, astonished by his brazenness at seducing Lady Marmotte at a party in Lady Marmotte’s own house),[10] a sort of defensive function. His journey throughout the book is one of exposure: not to the world, but to Kit. Their romance is dependent on the fact that she knows and accepts all of his identities – the outwardly performed ones, and the inner loathed ones he prefers to keep hidden. She accepts him not as man or woman, but as human. Their love enables him to construct a whole, unified and distinctly queer self.

This is almost the opposite of what occurs in The Masqueraders, where Robin casts off his feminine identity completely. When Robin informs Letitia that he has been masquerading as her friend Miss Merriot while also occasionally appearing to her as a man, it is to apologise for the deception. He does not need to reassure her that his skirts are not [End Page 5] part of his identity – his normative heterosexual masculinity goes without saying. He is not ashamed of his masquerade, nor is his masculinity questioned by either Letitia or the text: and, indeed, we might argue that Robin’s distinct lack of shame is one of the reasons that The Masqueraders is not a queer text, despite its preoccupation with costumes and performing gender – and is, in that sense, despite its queer potential, a product of its time.

We should also note here that Jude’s particular brand of androgynous masculinity is one which the text seeks to eroticise (with varying degrees of success for different readers, as I will discuss). In addition to his cross-dressing, Jude is bisexual, something which Kit finds both erotic and troubling. She is worried that, in addition to sleeping with her sister Lydia, Jude will seduce her brother Tom (who is gay) and break his heart, but also imagines, “Jude’s pale beauty… an image of his limbs hot and in movement, his chest pushing flat against another man’s chest”,[11] an image which she clearly finds sexually interesting if somewhat frightening. Tellingly, this image focuses on Jude’s naked body, with his costumes stripped away from him, signalling Kit’s romantic and sexual fascinating with Jude’s “true” self, rather than with one of the performative versions of his identity. The use of the generally feminine word “beauty” is also key here, contributing to the eroticisation of a genderfluid male body: something never evident in The Masqueraders.

One reviewer of the text read this eroticisation of Jude as “fannish”, because the figure of Jude drew on archetypes of eroticised masculine suffering common in fan cultures.[12] This reviewer argued that Jude is a “woobie”: a fandom term for a character forced to suffer who is both pathetic and (often erotically) compelling. The hero who suffers is regularly eroticised by romance; however, key to the “woobie” is, according to this reviewer, a certain fluidity:

“The woobie is an object of both identification and desire, in a fluidity of identification which I think tends to be more characteristic of women than men, or of marginalised people than privileged ones on an axis of privilege.[13]

The language this reviewer uses suggests a familiarity with thought around gender and genre, and may point to a particularly literate reading of Jude – one that would not be available to, say, the contemporary readers of The Masqueraders. It also points to fluidity not necessarily in gender but in identification: the reader can both desire the erotically suffering Jude, and identify with him as queered hero. This would seem to be a demonstration and complication of the ideas expressed in Laura Kinsale’s essay ‘The Androgynous Reader’, in which she claims that romance readers often identify with hero as well as heroine, embracing both masculine and feminine. Kinsale writes that,

“as she identifies with the hero, a woman can become what she takes joy in, can realise the maleness within herself, can experience the sensation of living inside a body suffused with masculine power and… can explore anger and ruthlessness and passion and pride and honour and gentleness and vulnerability: yes, ma’am, all those romantic clichés. In short, she can be a man.”[14] [End Page 6]

Kinsale seems to be suggesting quite a literal queer reading here: the reader, as well as the protagonists, is fluid and unfixed. Read alongside Kinsale’s essay, Jude’s gender fluidity potentially allows him to function not just as object of desire, but object of identification. This makes reader reactions to his portrayals doubly interesting. Overall, where readers read Jude as feminine, he drew criticism, but where he was read as androgynous, he was more successful. There is, it seems, an appetite for gender fluidity within romance: for a cross-dressing hero who does not simply shuck off his skirts at the end of the novel like Heyer’s Robin and recuperate himself into normative heterosexual masculinity. Kinsale argues that what romance readers savour “is the freedom to expand into all aspects, feminine and masculine, of their own being.”[15] Reader reactions to Untamed appear to prove her point: readers, it would seem, are keen to have objects of identification and desire outside the “traditional” fixed gender archetypes of heterosexual historical romance. As one reviewer pertinently puts it, Untamed is “everything I didn’t even realise I wanted from Georgette Heyer.”[16]

Performing Gender: reading Jude

While both protagonists in Untamed cross-dress, it performs different functions within the text. Kit uses cross-dressing as a symbolic way of laying claim to agency, but never passes or attempts to pass as a man. Jude, on the other hand, successfully performs gender. His disguise as Lady Rose is wholly convincing, and only Kit is able to penetrate it. Kit’s brother Tom, for example, thinks that “She [Lady Rose] changed from one thing to another so quickly it sometimes smacked the breath from him,”[17] but, as the use of the female pronoun indicates, never suspects that Lady Rose is not a woman. Even Kit herself finds herself occasionally confused: watching Tom and Jude play cards, she realises that she sees “a man and a… woman.”[18] Cross-dressing both signifies and problematises Jude’s identity: he uses clothes not just to disguise himself as, but to become the roles that he plays, whether it is Lady Rose or the Duke of Darlington. Within the text, these identities are specifically referred to as “roles”: Jude reminds himself he “still had a role to play”[19] after he meets Kit for the first time; and Kit finds his entirely believable masquerade as Lady Rose frustrating, wondering “if he was even conscious of playing a role.”[20] But at the same time as these roles are performative, they are also real. “You seem to be confused. I’m a woman,” Jude tells Kit towards the midpoint of the novel.[21] He means this in jest, but there is also an undercurrent of seriousness: Jude’s identity is simultaneously performative and real, the roles becoming the performer, the performer becoming the role. As the heroine of this particular romance novel, Kit is uniquely equipped to see through Jude’s charade – she  alone can “run a finger through the grime on a window to let some light shine through”[22] – but the person she sees beneath the costumes is not a gendered self: she sees not man, not woman, but Jude.

Marjorie Garber notes that scholars examining cross-dressing have a tendency to look not at but through the cross-dresser, which she calls an “underestimation of the object”.[23]She argues that the notion of a “third” sex created by cross-dressing, operating outside of a rigid gender binary, has been misused by many scholars, who have attempted to co-opt it for one gender.[24] She contends that this third sex is, in fact, “a mode of [End Page 7] articulation [and] a way of describing a state of possibility.”[25] Cross-dressing becomes an “interruption”, a “disruptive act of putting into question”.[26] Jude, we might argue, belongs to this third sex, his cross-dressing putting into question normative ideas of masculinity. Kit is the only person who has been able to look at instead of through him, accepting him as a human without the need to force him into performing a binarised gender role with which he is uncomfortable. As such, Jude uses her image to give himself comfort: “he remembered, like whisky pouring warm through his chest, that it didn’t matter… She didn’t love him because he was a duke,” he thinks towards the end of the novel.[27] The reference to “duke” here is, on the surface, a reference to his social position, but it is also a reference to duke as a masculine role: Kit, after all, loved him just as much when he was masquerading as Lady Rose. It is this ability of Kit’s to both look at and see through Jude that makes their romance possible.

As well as disrupting masculinity more broadly, in a generic sense, Jude also disrupts the archetype of the historical romance. While, like many other historical heroes, he enjoys a high social status and a privileged position of wealth, his cross-dressing is in many ways a rejection of the “alpha” masculinity with which so many of these heroes are endowed. While in some ways, Darlington is similar to what we might call the “dandy” hero – the man who cares about fashion, style, and clothing, and who is generally fastidious about appearance – it would be rare to find a romance hero who self-describes as not “the manly variety of man”.[28] For instance, in Anne Gracie’s The Winter Bride (2014), which like Untamed, is a historical romance set in Britain by an Australian author, hero Freddy is fastidious about his appearance and shares some characteristics, such as flippancy, with Jude, but he also partakes in stereotypically masculine pursuits, such as boxing. While Freddy certainly appreciates women’s clothing, it seems unlikely that he would ever wear it. Jude is an unusual hero, and his cross-dressing has become the novel’s most notorious aspect for this reason: it seeks to interrupt and disrupt expectations, creating a new – queered – space of possibility for the heterosexual romance narrative.

Garber ultimately concludes that cross-dressing allows for the possibility of “structuring and confounding culture: the disruptive element that intervenes, not just a category crisis of male and female, but the crisis of category itself.”[29] This exposes a vulnerability internal to society, which, she contends, is wedded to binaristic modes of thinking.[30] Lisa Fletcher, writing specifically about the cross-dressing heroine in historical romance fiction, persuasively argues that Garber’s thinking here is too Utopian. She goes on to contend that popular romance fiction largely uses cross-dressing to dispel, rather than create, threats to normative constructions of sexuality.[31] If we look at Heyer’s The Masqueraders, we can see Fletcher’s point proven: as she writes, the declaration of “I love you” is concurrent with a revelation of the cross-dresser’s true sex and a reaffirmation of their heterosexuality (true here of both cross-dressing protagonists: Prudence is revealed as a woman, Robin as a man).[32] Untamed, however, aspires to something closer to Garber’s Utopian figuration in the character of Jude. Jude’s cross-dressing is used to signify his membership of Garber’s “third sex”: to trouble the binary between masculinity and femininity, particularly the way this binary is regularly represented in historical romance fiction. It is Kit’s ability to recognise Jude for who he is – outside the binary – on which their romantic narrative is predicated.

The success of the novel for many readers hinged on whether this binary was successfully troubled, as opposed to simply flipped. There were few reviewers who disliked [End Page 8] the novel on the grounds that it attempted this queering of the hero: rather, success hinged on execution. For the following reviewer, the book was successful:

“And for me, it didn’t feel like he was just a man putting on a dress, it felt like an actual expression of an integral part of who he was – he felt genderqueer to me (even though I know that in the time of the novel, gender and sexual orientations were seen very differently than they are today). As Lady Rose, Darlington is able to put aside the social expectations and constraints on him as a duke and he’s able to deal with Kit and her family on a more level playing field. In many ways, he’s more comfortable as Lady Rose than he is as Darlington.”[33]

The appeal here of the portrayal of Jude is the way it equalises the relationship between Kit and Jude, signalling an awareness of the problematic power dynamics of heterosexuality. Jude’s innate queerness allows him to construct a relationship with Kit that, although nominally heterosexual and certainly appearing so to the historical society of the novel, mitigates these problematic aspects of historical heterosexual power. Along similar lines, another reviewer writes simply that, “[t]hey [Kit and Jude] are both very androgynous. They are both so very human,”[34] which again signals the appeal of the equalised relationship between Kit and Jude: they are the same, therefor they are equal, which addresses many of the problems of power that are often concerns of the historical romance. With these issues of gendered power set aside, Kit and Jude are able to simply be themselves – to be human.

However, for many reviewers, Jude’s queerness was not successfully portrayed. Instead of the masculine archetype of the romance hero being troubled, the book was read as simply inverting romantic archetypes, with Kit playing the role of hero and Jude the role of heroine. Jude becomes not just feminine, but, for many reviewers, negatively feminine. For example, Alexis Hall (the author of acclaimed same-sex romance Glitterland) wrote the following comment on Dear Author under the moniker AJH:

“I know Ms Cowan has said explicitly Darlington is ‘fairly queer-gendered’ and he’s living in a world full of binaries so it’s not like he has the option to understand himself as anything other than an unmanly man, but his ‘unmanly’ traits appear to be: passivity, weakness, powerlessness, fearfulness, and frigidity. I don’t particularly see those traits as gendered, I just see them as negative. Also, if you’re going to assign your genderqueer characters traits, which for better or worse, code as female, why chose such as stereotypically feeble ones? I’m not disdaining or condemning Darlington for all the time he spends cowering and weeping on the floor (truthfully, I could see why someone night be into it) but he seems to walk into the text, be briefly intriguing, have unhealthy, self-destructive sex on a piano, jump into a frock for no reason and then commence falling apart.”[35]

Similarly, another commenter wrote: [End Page 9]

“I’m all for having non-stereotypical characters, and I applaud that, but at the same time just giving your heroine the stereotypical male characteristics and vice versa isn’t something that strikes me as really playing with gender roles, especially if it’s reinforced that ‘oh he’s behaving like a woman’.”[36]

Reading these comments, we could argue that Jude’s masquerade as Lady Rose is, perhaps, too successful. He performs femininity so well that he is read as feminine – and this is a kind of femininity which is disempowered. This is arguably reinforced by the book’s epilogue, where Kit has taken on the role of captain of industry, while Jude is blissfully domestic: an inversion of the typical historical roles of man and woman. Kit has social power, which she enjoys wielding, while Jude is content to stand by her side. We can see here Fletcher’s contention that cross-dressing in historical romance can work to reinforce, rather than subvert, normative constructions of gender: Jude’s characterisation, particularly his vulnerability, is read as feminine, thus reinforcing that as a feminine quality even though he is not a woman. One reviewer highlights this explicitly, writing that she is “not sure it’s entirely the swapping of roles that makes this book subversive, since one could view this as reinforcing heteronormative archetypes, even if they are ‘worn’ by the opposite gender.”[37] Where Jude is read as feminine instead of as a member of Garber’s third sex, he becomes problematic to readers, because he is read as negatively feminine.[38] This is in contrast to Kit, who is read as positively masculine. This is something author Cowan found frustrating and sexist: in correspondence with me, she wrote that, “I never intended to write Jude as female – he’s a version of masculinity I like.”[39] However, many readers did not find that Cowan succeeded in her intentions, and read Jude as an example of a kind of pathetic femininity, even though he is male.

This perception of negative femininity in Jude seems to revolve around his emotional vulnerability, which becomes more pronounced as Kit strips his costumes from him. We might read this as a stripping of armour, and thus of power, leading to a reading of Jude as disempowered and thus taking on the feminine role in a heterosexual binary. As Jessica Tripler notes in her review of the reviews of Untamed, the vulnerable hero who needs comforting is a romance staple.[40] It is Jude’s cross-dressing, we can extrapolate, that is the complicating factor which is leading his vulnerability to be encoded feminine for so many readers: unlike Robin of The Masqueraders, who remains masculine in petticoats, Jude becomes explicitly equated with the feminine. For these readers, he has not been successfully portrayed as Garber’s “third sex”, and the horizon of possibility that Halperin argues queerness designates has not been sighted.

However, where readers do read Jude as successfully genderfluid, rather than as a male character adhering to a rigid heroine instead of hero archetype, then not only does Untamed work as a queer text, due in large part to the equalised power relations between Kit and Jude, but the erotic appeal that Cowan has tried to encode in Jude – “he is the sex symbol hero, for me,” she wrote in correspondence with me[41] – is activated. Tripler notes that there are a number of romance review websites which feature “book boyfriends” – that is, pictures of handsome men who might resemble romance heroes – but none of these websites featured Untamed, despite the fact that it attracted a considerable amount of press and attention within the romance reading world. As Tripler mentions, the focus in these reviews is on the “hotness” of the heroes, which is usually analogous with his traditional masculinity.[42] Jude appears to have been troubling for these websites. Despite [End Page 10] this, other reviewers – notably, reviewers who enjoyed the book – found him distinctly appealing. One Goodreads reviewer, who states that she “adore[s] pretty men. Especially in dresses”, uses pictures of cross-dresser Kaya to illustrate her imagined Jude.[43] Another reviewer calls Jude “deliciously androgynous” and wonders whether the character represented on the novel’s cover (a dark-haired person, apparently a woman, in lacy gloves and long dress) is meant to be Kit or Jude, hoping that it is Jude, because “that is hot”.[44] This signals the appeal of the cross-dressing, genderfluid hero for a specific audience: one that finds this particular brand of androgyny erotically appealing.

Performing social roles: reading Kit

As Jackie C Horne notes in her review of Untamed, the cross-dressing heroine has long been a staple of historical romance, with putting on men’s clothing a way for her to wield social power within a social structure that denies it to her.[45] In this sense, Kit’s cross-dressing in Untamed is much more straightforward than Jude’s. Towards the beginning of the book, she describes herself as “a narrow kind of woman with no power,”[46] and her textual journey is towards obtaining it: ultimately, she dons trousers as a way of accessing an agentic spectrum encoded masculine. For her, cross-dressing is not a way of performing gender: instead, it enables her to perform social power. This is a practice that Kit seems to learn from Jude: in their first encounter, she describes the Duke of Darlington as “a hairstyle, some tall collars, and a cravat that other men envy.”[47] This demonstrates her awareness, from the beginning of the novel, of the way clothes can create power – particularly gendered clothes, which make the wearer the object of envy to their own sex (and, by expansion, the object of desire to the other). Kit’s awareness is reinforced as correct by the text: she says this unwittingly to Jude himself, unaware that he is the real duke and that the Darlington she is describing is in fact his friend Crispin, who is dressed in Jude’s clothes as they playfully attempt to ascertain just how long it will take their peers to realise that the man in the hairstyle, collars, and cravat is not Jude at all. Crispin is thus – for a little while, at least – able to utilise the social power afforded to a man of such high status. Kit learns from this and deliberately appears in public in men’s clothing as a way of claiming the status and agency that is afforded to men in her society (not, importantly, claiming maleness as a gender).

If we return to Halperin’s definition of “queer” as “at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant”, then Kit’s cross-dressing is certainly queer. It does not necessarily express a queer sexual identity – although her normatively masculine qualities, such as physical and mental strength, are part of her erotic appeal to Jude – but it is a definite challenge to the normal, legitimate and dominant in her society: the patriarchal structures of power. This claim is one that Kit makes deliberately and consciously, something which sets her apart from many of her fellow cross-dressing heroines. Prudence in The Masqueraders does not use her cross-dressing to claim any real kind of power, nor is it allowed to her by the text in any real measure – for example, when she is goaded into a duel, she is rescued by her eventual husband Sir Anthony Fanshawe, who engages her prospective opponent in another duel the day before she is due to fight. Prudence passes as [End Page 11] a man, but Kit does not, and this lack of interest in doing so is key to her claim for power. Her first appearance in men’s clothing is in public at a ball:

“She wore a midnight-blue coat that had to have been stitched on. The shoulders were crusted with jewels that refracted candlelight from the chandeliers above. It made her look even stronger. Taller. Hard and incomparable.

She wore breeches tight as skin, her long, muscled legs on display for everyone to see, feet planted firmly in shining black boots.

Her hair was gathered in a tight knot on top of her head. Her face with its crooked nose and severe brows, was plain and exposed. Her collars were short, so that the expanse of her brown throat was clear.


She was like something new and badly understood that was going to change everything. Like electricity.”[48]

Apart from the use of the pronoun “she”, there are no descriptions of overt femininity here: instead, description relies on Kit’s physical strength – an outward representation of her emotional strength. Indeed, there is in this excerpt an implicit rejection of feminised beauty: Kit exposes her “crooked nose” and “severe brows”, as well as highlighting her “muscled legs”. However, Kit does not “pass” like Jude does: instead, she dons male clothing to access masculinised power and rituals. Her first act, upon entering the ball, is to strike the book’s villain, Lady Marmotte, across the face with her glove, challenging her to a duel.[49] Similarly, Kit ultimately plays Lady Marmotte at piquet for a significant piece of information which would ruin Jude – performing a masculine ritual (gambling), while Jude becomes the damsel in distress. When Kit dons male clothing, it is the culmination of a running narrative thread around her inability and refusal to perform conventional femininity, and a claim for social power.

It is this to which Jude is drawn, both emotionally and sexually. He eroticises Kit’s strength: while he is dressed as Lady Rose, he watches her chop wood, and thinks, “[h]er movements were heroic, articulate, economic. She was so, so strong,”[50] a moment which swiftly develops into a sexual fantasy. (The word “heroic” is particularly telling here, positioning Kit as the hero – rather than the heroine – of the romance.) At the end of the novel, when she announces her plans to become a captain of industry, his response is, “[m]y God… I cannot wait to watch you live,”[51] awed by her boldness and audacity: traits regularly coded masculine. Kit’s claim to the social power afforded men – and, in a generic sense, the romance hero – is key to her romantic and erotic appeal to Jude, perhaps because it positions her in a queer space, reaching for, per Halperin, a horizon of possibility, as well as making her equal to him. Importantly, in the novel’s two key sex scenes, Kit and Jude are dressed in the clothes of the same gender. In the first, they are both wearing female clothes, and the scene ends with Kit penetrating Jude: “[s]he learned to enter him, so that when he [End Page 12] came he rose up into her mouth and his chest drew the arcing, suspended pain of letting go”.[52] In the second (the first scene of penetrative heterosex), they both wear men’s clothes. The stereotypical tropes of virginity loss in historical romance, where the virgin heroine is initiated into sexual pleasure by the experienced hero, are almost totally absent. Instead, Kit and Jude are constructed as equal participants and desiring agents in all ways in this scene. The masculine power that Kit lays claim to via cross-dressing extends to the bedroom, where she regularly takes control, and is ultimately vital to her relationship with Jude.

Unlike Jude, Kit is generally liked by readers of Untamed. The biggest criticism of her cross-dressing is that it is anachronistic. Overall, she is a far less troubling figure for reviewers than Jude. Perhaps this is because the cross-dressing heroine, unlike the hero, is a relatively familiar archetype: as Horne writes of cross-dressing heroines in her review of Untamed, “though her peers may find her costuming scandalous, the cross-dressing heroine of romance fiction more often finds approval from readers raised to take the equality of women for granted.”[53] It is often noted that the romance is, in many ways, an expression of feminine power.[54] This may explain why Kit is generally liked even by reviewers who felt that the queering of the central relationship was not successfully achieved, and that the binary was flipped instead of problematised: a heroine ending a romance novel with more power than the hero is fairly familiar, although this is often emotional power rather than the literal industrial power Kit wields. She becomes a less problematic figure than Jude, whose more pathetic characteristics are read as reinforcing a version of femininity that is fragile and disempowered. One reviewer favourably writes: “the heroine began the story being the ‘untamed’ of the title, and she finished the book still ‘untamed’”.[55] Kit’s power is not curtailed, and whether the narrative is read as successfully queered or simply a flipped binary, her journey to power appears to be generally satisfying. She is also a less troubling figure, because her costumes are clearly performative: she never “passes” as a man.  While her cross-dressing certainly contributes to the novel’s queerness, it is in a way that does not trouble the typical narrative of the heterosexual historical romance.

Performing history: reading anachronism

As many reviewers note, Untamed is not an especially historically accurate representation of the nineteenth century. While elements of nineteenth century British life and politics are important to the plot – for example, one major subplot revolves around the Corn Laws – it appears to be informed more by a kind of historical verisimilitude than history itself. It is perhaps not coincidental that the majority of the anachronisms in the book revolve around gender: Kit’s public cross-dressing and the fact that the divorcee Lady Marmotte wields immense social power, for example, seem historically unlikely. So too does the Edenic scene that takes place at the end of the novel, where a heterosexual couple, a homosexual couple, and Kit and Jude all picnic together. Arguably, there is a retrofuturist function at play in Untamed: that is, it presents an alternative view of the future as imagined from the past. This anachronism makes the narrative – especially the queer elements of the narrative – possible. Inasmuch as history is rigid, it must become fluid in service of Kit and Jude’s romance, just as the rigid society defined at the beginning of the [End Page 13] novel becomes fluid by the final utopian picnic. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has argued that heterosexuality “masquerades so readily as History itself,”[56] because heterosexuality is privileged as a kind of organising principle due to its link to reproduction. While Untamed is recognisably a heterosexual romance, it also attempts to construct an alternative history with a distinctly queer bent: one where the link between heterosexuality and history is complicated. History becomes a horizon of possibility, and anachronism is necessary to create the queer space in which the novel’s happy ending takes place.

This makes certain requirements of the reader. They must adopt a fluid reading position, and be willing to treat the past not as fixed but as this horizon of possibility – to embrace the text’s retrofuturist aspects. Because Untamed is marketed as historical romance rather than as part of an overtly retrofuturistic genre (such as steampunk), some readers, unsurprisingly, are unwilling to do this. This reader is one such:

“I’m definitely one of the Historical Authenticity police (I believe a popular term is nitpicker), and I totally understand that not everyone cares about this or notices them the way I do. But the issues in this book were really egregious, both in their level of inaccuracy and their importance to the story. Major plot points turned on events that did not or could not have occurred.”[57]

This signals not so much a resistance to the book’s attempt to queer its central relationship, but a resistance to anachronism. This is noted as a personal reading preference, but the appeal to realism is telling: this particular reader has certain expectations of the historical romance genre, and is not open to a retrofuturist reading.

Other reviewers, however, had a different view. “I often read historical romances as a particular type of speculative fiction, so deviations from what actually happened or how things worked tend to not bother me… sometimes history must behind service to the story,”[58] one writes, signalling a clear openness to a retrofuturist reading through the reference to speculative fiction. In her review, Kat Mayo specifically identifies the fluidity of the historical backdrop as necessary to the narrative:

“I’m not convinced this is actually a historical romance. It sounds like a historical romance and Cowan uses the convenience of the historical setting and its social mores to create a somewhat familiar backdrop for romance readers, but she doesn’t let the setting get in the way of the plot. This will be a deal breaker to many readers, but it seems clear to me, by the way the story is crafted, that Cowan never really makes an attempt to be faithful to history. The setting is more like a stage in which Cowan sets up her characters, and the backdrop is fluid as it needs to be to tell their story.”[59]

Mayo’s review both highlights that historical realism – or, at least, historical plausible deniability – is something readers expect in the historical romance genre, and identifies that Untamed has a different generic project. Essentially, Untamed presents a request to the reader to treat history as malleable: something which might be uncomfortable to those reading the book with the expectations of historical romance, but acceptable to those who read it via a more speculative lens. [End Page 14]

I suggest that this request is similar to the “unhistoricism” proposed by Jonathan Goldberg and Madhavi Menon in ‘Queering History’, which they suggest refuses the “compulsory heterotemporality of historicism.”[60] Goldberg and Menon contend that a process of unhistorical reading should be open to the possibility of anachronism, as it refuses an understanding of the past that treats it as wholly other, as well as rejecting a focus on normative heterosexuality.[61] Fletcher argues that the portrayal of romantic love in historical romance (referring particularly to the phrase “I love you”) functions to link the present to the past, giving heterosexuality a “claim to universality, timelessness and truth”.[62] Untamed, however, rejects the universality of a specifically heterosexual romantic love and instead offers a picture of romantic love with queer potential against a historical backdrop in which such a thing would have been virtually impossible. As such, Untamed requires a kind of unhistorical reading from its readers, asking them to embrace anachronism so that the retrofuturistic queer space in which the romantic happy ending takes place can be established. However, given that the book has been marketed as and is largely discussed as historical romance, readers reading Untamed with the generic requirements of that subgenre in mind have not necessarily been prepared to undertake this unhistorical reading. This does not mean that they are resistant to the book’s queer project – rather, it signals that it fails as a historical romance. This, in turn, would suggest that Sedgwick and Fletcher are correct when they assert that history and heterosexuality are entangled: it is very difficult, it seems, to imagine a historically plausible queer love story that is not clandestine and private, but public.


Untamed is remarkable not because it is necessarily successful – and, indeed, arguing whether it is objectively a successful novel or not is a fraught and ultimately unproductive practice – but because it is unusual. In correspondence with me, Cowan asserted that she sought to queer the heterosexual romance,[63] and reader reactions to this are instructive when we think about the way the genre might evolve in the future. No reviewers took issue with the way the book sought to subvert normative historical social roles: while some noted that Kit’s cross-dressing was anachronistic, none were concerned about her claims on social power typically coded masculine (perhaps, as I argued, because this was an extension and exaggeration of the female victory often encoded in the romance narrative). Similarly, few readers seem to have taken issue with the project of queering the hero. Some did – “the traditionalist in me kept waiting for both characters to do SOMETHING within the normal outlines of Hero and heroine,”[64] one reviewer lamented, another derisively compared the book to the Jerry Springer Show,[65] and a third wrote that, “I guess I am just the ‘urber [sic] alpha male’ type”[66] – but these were comparatively rare (and came, in several instances, from reviewers who referenced a conservative Christian belief system). The figure of the cross-dressing duke was exciting for many readers. The fact that readers generally enjoyed the book greatly when they were able to read Jude as a fluid character, and were disappointed when they read him simply as taking on the role normally played by the heroine is particularly interesting: it signals that there is in fact an appetite among historical romance readers, even readers of exclusively [End Page 15] heterosexual historical romance, for a queered narrative. The willingness of many readers to accept the anachronisms of the book would seem to be another sign of this appetite, although the number that did not suggests that the historical romance genre encodes a requirement for realism, and that it is difficult to write a queered romance within these realistic historical requirements.

Overall, the responses to Untamed demonstrate that there is an appetite among historical romance readers, for a kind of fluidity that we might call queer, particularly in terms of portrayals of gender. Given history’s entanglement with heterosexuality, this is difficult to achieve, even where, as in Untamed, the central romance is nominally heterosexual. However, if we read Untamed against Heyer’s The Masqueraders, we can see the ways in which the historical romance has developed, mirroring modern mores. Regardless of whether or not the book was considered successful by the individual reader, the publication of Untamed would seem to signal a new horizon of possibility for the historical romance, and a growing enthusiasm for a kind of fluidity that we might call queer.

[1] Notably, this broke the stranglehold held on this category by well known (and similarly controversial) Australian historical romance author Anna Campbell, who won the award from 2008-2012.

[2] ‘Australian Romance Readers Association – Awards.’ Australian Romance Readers Association – Awards. 23 Mar. 2014. Web. 4 August 2014.

[3] Cowan, Anna. Untamed. Destiny Romance, 2013a. Kindle edition, location 1319.

[4] Halperin, David M. Saint Foucault: Towards a gay hagiography. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1997, 62.

[5] I am using the term “retrofuturism” to refer to idea of an alternative version of the future as imagined in the past. A similar function is used in steampunk novels, another popular (and pseudo-historical) genre. In steampunk, this is a vision of the future as imagined from the nineteenth century: usually a future in which the major technologies are based on steam and clockwork. Interestingly, this idea of the horizon is invoked not only in Halperin’s explication of “queer”, where he speaks about it as a “horizon of possibility”, but also in author SM Stirling’s work on alternate histories, which is drawn on by steampunk scholar Mike Perschon to describe the genre. Stirling writes that alternate history takes place in a world where “horizons are infinite and nothing is fixed in stone”. (Stirling, SM. ‘Why, Then, There’. Worlds That Weren’t. Harry Turtledove, Walter Jon Williams, SM Stirling, Mary Gentle. New York: Penguin, 2005, 151; Perschon, Mike. ‘Finding Nemo: Verne’s antihero as original steampunk.’ Jules Verne Studies 2 (2010): 179-194.)

[6] Cowan, Anna. Personal correspondence with this paper’s author. 30 September 2013c.

[7] Cowan, 2013a, locations 811-815.

[8] Sedgwick’s work on shame appears in several of her written works. Most important for this paper is her article ‘Queer Performativity: Henry James’ The Art of the Novel’, in which she identifies “shame on you” as an alternative performative speech act to the marital “I do” as one which linked to queerness, as the word “queer” cannot decouple itself from associations with shame and stigma. (4) She argues that shame and pride (a word with obvious cultural importance for queer people) are “different interlinings of the same glove”, and that both are performative (5). She writes that, “[s]hame is a bad feeling [End Page 16] attached to what one is: one therefore is something, in experiencing shame” – and perhaps that something is queer. (12).This makes shame the catalyst for “metamorphosis, reframing, refiguration, transfiguration, affective and symbolic loading and deformation” (13) – all of which speak to the “horizon of possibility” offered by queerness in Halperin’s figuration.

[9] Cowan, 2013a, locations 1880-1884.

[10] Cowan, 2013a, location 635.

[11] Cowan, 2013a, locations 3214-3215.

[12] This is particularly true in what is referred to as h/c – hurt/comfort – fan fiction. While this exists across many different fan cultures and can feature protagonists of many gender, particular pleasure seems to be generated for many readers by positioning male characters of the sufferers and object of comfort. (cf. Fathallah, Judith May. “H/c and me: An autoethnographic account of a troubled love affair.” Transformative Works and Cultures 7 (2010).)

[13] Mely. ‘Cowan, Anna: Untamed (2013).’ Coffeeandink. 23 July 2013. Web. 4 August 2014.

[14] Kinsale, Laura. ‘The Androgynous Reader’. Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women. Ed. Jayne Ann Krentz. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992, 37.

[15] Kinsale, 40.

[16] Rule, Belinda. ‘A Review of Untamed.’ Goodreads. 24 June 2013. Web. 4 August 2014.

[17] Cowan, 2013a, location 2742.

[18] Cowan, 2013a, location 1711.

[19] Cowan, 2013a, location 367.

[20] Cowan, 2013 a, location 1795.

[21] Cowan, 2013a, location 2240.

[22] Cowan, 2013a, location 648.

[23] Garber, Marjorie B. Vested interests: Cross-dressing and cultural anxiety. New York: Psychology Press, 1997, 10.

[24] For example, Garber contends that Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar attempt to co-opt the term for women when they argue that literary women persist in seeking a genderless third sex, while the blurring of gender boundaries gives literary men a kind of nausea. (9)

[25] Garber, 11.

[26] Garber, 13.

[27] Cowan, 2013a, location 5307.

[28] Cowan, 2013a, locations 1100, 1152.

[29] Garber, 342.

[30] This is perhaps especially true of nineteenth century society. Thomas Laqueur has argued convincingly in Making Sex that a major shift in thinking about gender occurred in the eighteenth and nineteenth century: there was a shift from a one sex model, where women were imagined as lesser, inferior versions of men, to a two-sex model, where women were figured as men’s opposites. Masculinity and femininity were thus figured as polar opposites. Untamed’s rejection of this paradigm is another way in which it mobilises anachronism to construct a queer space of possibility. [End Page 17]

[31] Fletcher, Lisa. Historical romance fiction: Heterosexuality and perfomativity. Burlington: Ashgate, 2008, 73-74.

[32] Fletcher, 75.

[33] Luhrs, Natalie. ‘Anna Cowan’s Untamed: Magnificent and Flawed.’ The Radish. 17 June 2013. Web. 4 August 2014.

[34] Mmeguillotine. ‘A Review of Untamed.Goodreads. 17 July 2013. Web. 4 August 2014.

[35] AJH. ‘Comment on DUELING REVIEWS: Untamed by Anna Cowan.’ Dear Author. 14 May 2013. Web. 4 August 2014.

[36] Mary. ‘Comment on DUELING REVIEWS: Untamed by Anna Cowan.’ Dear Author. 14 May 2013. Web. 4 August 2014.

[37] Pamela. ‘Imperfect? Unruly? UNTAMED? A Subversive Regency.’ Badass Romance. 4 June 2013. Web. 4 August 2014.

[38] It is also worth noting here that it was not only Jude’s particular brand of masculinity that reviewers were critical of. While Kit was generally liked and I could find no criticism of the minor female characters, some reviewers took issue with the portrayal of the other male characters in the book. Reviewer GrowlyCub argues that Kit is a “martyr heroine who is the only competent human being in the world” in a book full of “men in distress”, going on to write that she would “have appreciated at least one male who wasn’t a totally useless shitsack”. Kit’s gay brother Tom and his partner Crispin, Jude’s friend, come in for particular criticism: “all the gayboys are totally wet and hopeless”, says Alexis Hall in his review. The vulnerability of the male characters – Jude in particular, but also some of the minor characters – seems to have been a sticking point for some reviewers. (GrowlyCub. ‘Book Review: Untamed by Anna Cowan.’ GrowlyCub’s Den. 2 May 2013. Web. 4 August 2014; Hall, Alexis. ‘A Review of Untamed.’ Goodreads. 1 June 2013. Web. 4 August 2014.)

[39] Cowan, 2013c.

[40] Tripler, Jessica. ‘Anatomy of a Polarizing Book.’ The Radish. 26 June 2013. Web. 4 August 2014.

[41] Cowan, 2013c.

[42] Tripler.

[43] Lord Rose. ‘A Review of Untamed.’ Goodreads. 15 June 2013. Web. 4 August 2014.

[44] SunnyGirl. ‘Review: Untamed by Anna Cowan.’ Femdom Book Reviews. 24 May 2013. Web. 4 August 2014.

[45] Horne, Jackie C. ‘The Gender-Bending Appeal of the Cross-dressing Hero, Part 1: Anna Cowan’s UNTAMED.’ Romance Novels for Feminists. 27 August 2013. Web. 4 August 2014.

[46] Cowan, 2013a, location 695.

[47] Cowan, 2013a, location 348.

[48] Cowan, 2013a, location 4700-10.

[49] It is important to note here that although the masculine ritual of the duel is invoked, Kit is challenging another woman to fight – symbolically laying claim to agency not just for herself, but to elevate disputes between women to an important, and, in this case, political level. Lady Marmotte is shown as dangerously powerful throughout the novel: however, the book does not ultimately pathologise her as a powerful woman. At the [End Page 18] end of the novel, when Kit has taken on the masculine role of captain of industry, Lady Marmotte becomes one of her biggest economic rivals.

[50] Cowan, 2013a, location 1979.

[51] Cowan, 2013a, location 5395.

[52] Cowan, 2013a, location 3796.

[53] Horne.

[54] For example, in the introduction to Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, romance author Jayne Ann Krentz writes, that “[r]eaders understand the books celebrate female power. In the romance novel… the woman always wins. With courage, intelligence, and gentleness she brings the most dangerous creature on earth, the human male, to his knees. More than that, she forces him to acknowledge her power as a woman… Romance novels invert the power structure of a patriarchal society because they show women exerting enormous power over men. The books also defy the masculine conventions of other forms of literature because they portray women as heroes.” (5)

[55] Leighton, Leisl. ‘A Review of Untamed.’ Goodreads. 10 June 2013. Web. 4 August 2014

[56]Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Tendencies. Durham: Duke University Press, 1993, 111.

[57] Sunita. ‘Comment on DUELING REVIEWS: Untamed by Anna Cowan.’ Dear Author. 15 May 2013. Web. 4 August 2014.

[58] Luhrs.

[59] Mayo, Kat. ‘Untamed by Anna Cowan.’ Book Thingo. 26 June 2013. Web. 4 August 2014.

[60] Goldberg, Jonathan and Madhavi Menon. ‘Queering History.’ PMLa (2005): 1616.

[61] Goldberg and Menon, 1612, 1616.

[62] Fletcher, 15.

[63] Cowan, 2013c.

[64] Sara. ‘Anna Cowan – Untamed.’ The Window Seat on a Rainy Day. 14 May 2013. Web. 4 August 2014.

[65] Erytryn. ‘A Review of Untamed.’ Goodreads. 10 Sept. 2013. Web. 4 August 2014.

[66] Ann. ‘Comment on DUELING REVIEWS: Untamed by Anna Cowan.’ Dear Author. 14 May 2013. Web. 4 August 2014. [End Page 19]

Works Cited

‘Australian Romance Readers Association – Awards.’ Australian Romance Readers Association – Awards. 23 Mar. 2014. Web. 4 August 2014.

AJH. ‘Comment on DUELING REVIEWS: Untamed by Anna Cowan.’ Dear Author. 14 May 2013. Web. 4 August 2014.

Ann. ‘Comment on DUELING REVIEWS: Untamed by Anna Cowan.’ Dear Author. 14 May 2013. Web. 4 August 2014.

Cowan, Anna. ‘The Cross Dressing Duke by Anna Cowan.’ Dear Author. 14 May 2013b. Web. 4 August 2014.

Cowan, Anna. Personal correspondence with this paper’s author. 30 September 2013c.

Cowan, Anna. Untamed. Destiny Romance, 2013a. Kindle edition.

Erytryn. ‘A Review of Untamed.’ Goodreads. 10 Sept. 2013. Web. 4 August 2014.

Fathallah, Judith May. ‘H/c and me: An autoethnographic account of a troubled love affair.’ Transformative Works and Cultures 7 (2010). Web.

Fletcher, Lisa. Historical romance fiction: Heterosexuality and perfomativity. Burlington: Ashgate, 2008. Print.

Garber, Marjorie B. Vested interests: Cross-dressing and cultural anxiety. New York: Psychology Press, 1997. Print.

Goldberg, Jonathan, and Madhavi Menon. ‘Queering History.’ PMLa (2005): 1608-1617. Print.

Gracie, Anne. The Winter Bride. Melbourne: Penguin, 2014. Print.

GrowlyCub. ‘Book Review: Untamed by Anna Cowan.’ GrowlyCub’s Den. 2 May 2013. Web. 4 August 2014.

Hall, Alexis. ‘A Review of Untamed.’ Goodreads. 1 June 2013. Web. 4 August 2014.

Halperin, David M. Saint Foucault: Towards a gay hagiography. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. Print.

Heyer, Georgette. The Masqueraders. William Heinemann, 1928. Print.

Horne, Jackie C. ‘The Gender-Bending Appeal of the Cross-dressing Hero, Part 1: Anna Cowan’s UNTAMED.’ Romance Novels for Feminists. 27 August 2013. Web. 4 August 2014.

Kinsale, Laura. ‘The Androgynous Reader’. Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women. Ed. Jayne Ann Krentz. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992. Print.

Krentz, Jayne Ann. ‘Introduction’. Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women. Ed. Jayne Ann Krentz. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992. Print.

Laqueur, Thomas. Making Sex: body and gender from the Greeks to Freud. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1990. Print.

Lord Rose. ‘A Review of Untamed.’ Goodreads. 15 June 2013. Web. 4 August 2014.

Luhrs, Natalie. ‘Anna Cowan’s Untamed: Magnificent and Flawed.’ The Radish. 17 June 2013. Web. 4 August 2014.

Mary. ‘Comment on DUELING REVIEWS: Untamed by Anna Cowan.’ Dear Author. 14 May 2013. Web. 4 August 2014.

Mayo, Kat. ‘Untamed by Anna Cowan.’ Book Thingo. 26 June 2013. Web. 4 August 2014.

Mely. ‘Cowan, Anna: Untamed (2013).’ Coffeeandink. 23 July 2013. Web. 4 August 2014.

Mmeguillotine. ‘A Review of Untamed.Goodreads. 17 July 2013. Web. 4 August 2014.

[End Page 20]

Pamela. ‘Imperfect? Unruly? UNTAMED? A Subversive Regency.’ Badass Romance. 4 June 2013. Web. 4 August 2014.

Perschon, Mike. ‘Finding Nemo: Verne’s antihero as original steampunk.’ Jules Verne Studies 2 (2010): 179-194. Print.

Rule, Belinda. ‘A Review of Untamed.’ Goodreads. 24 June 2013. Web. 4 August 2014.

Sara. ‘Anna Cowan – Untamed.’ The Window Seat on a Rainy Day. 14 May 2013. Web. 4 August 2014.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Tendencies. Durham: Duke University Press, 1993. Print.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. ‘Queer performativity: Henry James’s The Art of the Novel.’ GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 1.1 (1993): 1-16. Print.

Stirling, SM. ‘Why, Then, There’. Worlds That Weren’t. Harry Turtledove, Walter Jon Williams, SM Stirling, Mary Gentle. New York: Penguin, 2005. Print.

Sunita. ‘Comment on DUELING REVIEWS: Untamed by Anna Cowan.’ Dear Author. 15 May 2013. Web. 4 August 2014.

SunnyGirl. ‘Review: Untamed by Anna Cowan.’ Femdom Book Reviews. 24 May 2013. Web. 4 August 2014.

Tripler, Jessica. ‘Anatomy of a Polarizing Book.’ The Radish. 26 June 2013. Web. 4 August 2014.

[End Page 21]


Review: Historical Romance Fiction: Heterosexuality and Performativity, by Lisa Fletcher

Review by Pamela Regis

Romance criticism often conveys the impression that it was written by a scholar on holiday, as it were, from more important work on worthier fiction. Interesting things may be said about the genre, but the formalities of intellectual rigor and theoretical sophistication have often been shrugged off, as though they were not really expected, let alone required, in this more casual context. What happens in romance criticism stays in romance criticism, this attitude suggests. No shoes, no Sedgwick, no problem.

Lisa Fletcher, by contrast, takes her project quite seriously. As she explains near the start of her important new study, Historical Romance Fiction: Heterosexuality and Performativity, “this book charts one of the many ways in which romantic love is persistently and aggressively heterosexualized in Western culture and begins to consider the extent to which this campaign of normalization and exclusion is endlessly covered over” (15). By examining the statement “I love you” as it appears in historical romance fiction, Fletcher arrives at a new definition of this genre; with this definition in hand, she proceeds to analyze a number of historical romances, considering both “popular” and “literary” texts (the distinction is Fletcher’s). The range of novels she addresses is refreshing, although their distribution in the study suggests something about her sense of their interest as individual works of art: the book ends with two chapters on John Fowles’s French Lieutenant’s Woman and one to A.S. Byatt’s Possession: A Romance, while the “popular” section devotes one chapter to a trio of Georgette Heyer’s novels (These Old Shades, The Masqueraders, and The Corinthian), and one to an assortment of novels by a dozen romance authors who published between 1980 and 2005 (Margaret McPhee, Norah Hess, Mona Gedney, Pam Rosenthal, Patricia Potter, Rita Mae Brown, Jude Deveraux, Kathleen A. Woodiwiss, Virginia Henley, Catherine Coulter, Laura Kinsale, and Johanna Lindsey).

Despite its price, Historical Romance Fiction is essential for anyone working on Heyer, and important for anyone interested in the popular romance more generally. In particular, Fletcher’s efforts to define the genre will be of particular interest to students of popular romance fiction, if only because they offer points of departure or models to dispute. It is these broadly applicable, deliberately provocative aspects of her work that I wish to concentrate on in this review.

Fletcher’s Definition

In order to define the historical romance, Fletcher sets out into the thickets of postmodern theory, employing the ideas of, among others, J.L. Austin, Frederic Jameson, Linda Hutcheon, Judith Butler, Andrew Parker, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Diane Elam, Shoshana Felman, Michael Foucault, Roland Barthes, D.A. Miller, and Umberto Eco. She seems at home in this environment: as in so many of these critics and thinkers, the compression of her exposition and professional specialization of her vocabulary make few concessions to the reader’s comfort. The determined reader, however, will be led to reexamine the idea of romance itself, and to consider the genre’s larger meanings. Certainly that was my own experience—although as the author of A Natural History of the Romance Novel, I am more than an interested bystander in the effort to define the popular romance. Fletcher’s thinking and mine intersect in our nomination of “I love you” as a key element of that definition.

In my definition of the romance novel, “I love you” is the most common expression of one essential element of the romance novel (I identify eight such elements)—the declaration (A Natural History of the Romance Novel 34-5). For me, the phrase itself is less important than its structural function in the text; another phrase might also be employed for the declaration to occur. For Fletcher, however, this particular sentence is crucial. “I love you” is, for her, “the romantic speech act”: a performative utterance characteristic of the historical romance and revelatory of its function (25). “[R]omance is a fictional mode which depends on the force and familiarity of the speech act ‘I love you,’” she explains (7). To call something a “speech act,” in J.L. Austin’s terms, means that someone’s saying or writing it makes something happen: an event or condition is actually brought about by the utterance, rather than simply described by it. Statements that begin “I promise…,” “I bet…,” and “I apologize…” are all examples of speech acts. Rejecting the idea that “I love you” is simply a reliable report of its speaker’s emotional state, Fletcher focuses instead on what the sentence does—and, by extension, on what the genre defined by “I love you” also does, as though the entire genre were also a speech act, a performative utterance, in its own right.

If Fletcher’s attention to “I love you” as a speech act draws on J. L. Austin and Roland Barthes (notably the latter’s A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments), she draws on other theorists, notably Judith Butler, to explore the relationships between the performative utterance of “I love you” and the cultural institution of heterosexuality. This brief passage from her second chapter gives a sense of how she adopts and extends Butler’s ideas into the study of historical romance—and not just Butler’s ideas, but also some of her tropes:

[T]his book takes “I love you” as a synecdoche of heterosexuality’s insistent and compulsory repetition. “I love you” is uttered as the clarifying conclusion in the paradigmatic narrative of sexual intelligibility which ties a line of causality through the points of sex, gender, and sexuality (a male who is masculine desires a female who is feminine and vice versa.) To this extent heterosexual romance fictions can be read performatively as an incessant rendition of heterosexuality’s promised but never fully achieved absolute intelligibility. (34)

Note Fletcher’s adoption of Judith Butler’s personification of heterosexuality—the ideology (heterosexuality) “is…in the process of,” it “suspects,” it imitates, and it repeats itself:

As Butler explains, “heterosexuality is always in the process of imitating and approximating its own phantasmatic idealization of itself—and failing.” … Because it suspects its tenuous position, heterosexuality—“as an incessant and panicked imitation of its own naturalized idealization” … is propelled into an endless repetition of itself. (34)

This personification does not simply make a very strong claim for heterosexuality’s force in the culture, but also allows Fletcher (like Butler before her) to sketch a sort of psychological profile of heterosexuality as a character, wracked by inner conflicts and anxieties. For Fletcher, “heterosexuality” is in a Butlerian state of unintelligibility—which I take to mean that its status as an adequate, complete account of human sexuality is never quite coherent, or “intelligible.” As a result, heterosexuality must endlessly repeat itself to reassert its as-yet unachieved (and never-to-be achieved because unachievable) state of coherence.

To read the utterance “I love you” as a performative, for Fletcher, means to accept the idea that “I love you” is less a report of the utterer’s feelings (indeed, the statement may be so devalued through repetition as to be incapable of making such a report) than it is as an assertion of heterosexuality’s rightness or “intelligibility.” In this performative interpretation, “I love you” recurs in any number of situations, including historical romance fictions, because no previous utterance of the words was—or could be—adequate to the task of making heterosexuality coherent, and thus of clinching heterosexuality’s status as both intelligible and hegemonic: a condition at once dominant, normal, and ideal.

Thus far, Fletcher’s argument might apply as well to a contemporary novel (or, for that matter, a film or popular song) as it does to the narrower case of historical romance fiction. Her turn to this particular genre comes through a discussion of the relationship between “I love you” and “history.” “Broadly speaking,” Fletcher writes, “the performative force of the romantic speech act (and of romance) depends on both a denial of its historicity, of the fact that it has always already been said before,” and on the fact that only this historicity and previous use allows it to possess such deep “familiarity and sense” (15). The phrase “I love you” thus “invokes a kind of continuous present,” but it is a present marked by a denial of any difference between that present and any other time: “’I love you’ is always said anew, but over and over again these texts insist that whenever and wherever it is said it means the same thing” (15). But if the performative effect of this utterance does not change with time, it cannot either reflect or be a distinctive part of the chronological setting of the novel, because its effect is always asserted in the now (“continuous present”). Read performatively, the “I love you” of a historical romance novel in fact belies history as it “interpellates” an ahistorical, hegemonic heterosexuality. The familiar, citational quality of “I love you,” especially in a historical romance, at once masks and (to the critical reader) reveals the anxiety with which this hegemony cites only itself, interrupting or precluding or taking up the space of (choose your metaphor) alternate possibilities in order to assert itself as an ideal. As Fletcher sums up the case, “[h]istorical fictions of heterosexual love are performative to the extent that they participate in the establishment and maintenance of prevailing ideas about the links between sex, gender, and sexuality” (15).

Romance and Claims of Heteronormativity

Fletcher’s claim is a serious one. For her, “fictional texts are intimate participants in the production and reproduction of the logical (and often, illogical) systems and matrices through which we are defined and define ourselves.” Moreover, “the importance and value of generic texts reside not just in their capacity to bear meaning,” but also in the role that entire genres play in the “ongoing construction of the [systems] by which we both make sense of and create ourselves and [our world]” (14). The system that most concerns Fletcher is heteronormativity: that part of our culture’s ideology that assumes that heterosexuality is the default or preferred condition of sexual orientation, and that any other is not just contrary to the reigning ideology, but not even an option: not on the cognitive map, as it were, of members of that culture. Heteronormativity precludes anything other, and historical romance is a vehicle of heteronormativity’s quiet interpellation—its incursion or reinstallation—into the minds of readers, authors, and the broader culture. The opportunity that this genre might provide to imagine another, better situation is precluded by heternormativity’s hegemony—its definition of, occupation of, and dominance over the situation.

This claim about the heteronormativity of romance may sound familiar. It delivers us to a place already mapped by Janice A. Radway more than two decades ago in Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature (1984; 2nd ed. 1991). Although the speech-act theory that Fletcher employs is very different from Radway’s ethnographic methodology, both critics arrive at the conclusion that romance as a genre is based on and disseminates an all-but-irresistible ideology. Radway blames patriarchy for the imposition of ideology on the readers she studied:

[W]hile the act of romance reading is used by women as a means of partial protest against the role prescribed for them by the culture [heterosexual union and maintenance of the domestic sphere], the discourse itself [i.e., the romance] actively insists on the desirability, naturalness, and benefits of that role by portraying it not as the imposed necessity that it is, but as a freely designed, personally controlled, individual choice. (208)

Both Radway and Fletcher regard this ideology as problematic, not least because it prevents our even imagining alternatives.

What, though, shall one make of the fact that romance novelists—both historical and contemporary—have also repeatedly imagined alternatives to heterosexuality that carry through to the end of the novel? The world of gay, lesbian, and other non-hetero romance fiction includes texts as generically and tonally diverse as Maurice by E.M. Forster (written 1913-14; published 1971) which depicts the betrothal of two heroes, The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith (1952) which depicts the betrothal of two heroines, and Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander by Ann Herendeen (2005), a Regency-era historical romance novel which depicts the betrothal of two heroes and a heroine. Each novel includes a declaration—everyone says “I love you.” Indeed, f/f, m/m, ménage, and other non-hetero unions are increasingly widespread in the romance genre. At the very least, the existence of these books points to a serious, unanswered challenge to Fletcher’s claims about the heteronormative significance of the “I love you” speech act and the genre it defines. True, Fletcher briefly warns us about the limitations of her study:

[M]y interest here is to draw attention to “I love you” as a heteronormative call to order; to expose the instability of this call in and of itself. While this approach forecloses the possibility of detailed consideration of gay or lesbian utterances of “I love you” in this book, hopefully my work suggests the need for and importance of such a study. (41-2)

This brief nod to the existence of other utterances of “I love you” hardly seems sufficient, however. Fletcher argues that the heteronormative hegemony of historical romance fiction precludes imagining alternative sexualities and structures of love, but now is it the critic herself who “forecloses the possibility”—and, in the process, sharply limits both the scope of her study and the persuasive force of her argument.

To be fair, I can imagine an argument about non-hetero romance novels that would view the very employment of the romance form, including “I love you”—the element that I call the “declaration” and that Fletcher recognizes as a “speech act”—as a capitulation to the reigning hegemony, and thus an unconscious endorsement of it. What seems at first as a departure from the dominant form would, from this perspective, succeed only in pointing out that form’s enduring power. In effect, simply by being a romance novel the non-hetero-monogamous romance would thus mark the desperate surrender of some always unidentified but never specified “better” version of love and relationship in return for the comfort of returning to the comfortable forms of the hegemonic culture.

On the other hand, the existence of m/m, f/f, and ménage romances—including historical romances—could just as easily be said to weaken any claim about the heteronormative ideology inherent in the form, opening an imaginative space between heterosexuality (which is no longer interpellated as compulsory or inevitable) and romantic love. From this perspective, non-hetero romance would be seen as employing the form to validate and even celebrate alternatives to heterosexual hegemony. Indeed, Suzanne Juhasz has found that lesbian romance leads to a disruption—not a reinscription—of heteronormativity:

The happy ending in lesbian romance fiction is that girl gets girl. For the happy ending to be satisfying, it has to be believable; to be believable, it has to be realistic; to be realistic, there has to be a plot and a concomitant development of character that make possible and probable what, in the world outside the novel, is more usually suppressed and/or repressed. The very literalness of the writing, the very linearity of the narrative support the fantasy or wished-for elements that this plot introduces. Yet in this fashion the romance also disrupts rather than maintains dominant social structures: specifically, heterosexuality and phallocentrism. (289).

This argument may lack the elegant unveilings and reversals of my thought experiment a moment ago, in which resistance turns out to be capitulation, and victory, surrender. It may, however, ring truer to the texts, to the lived experiences of readers, and ultimately to the historicity of romantic culture, which continues to evolve in ways that Fletcher’s study does not acknowledge or address.

I return to Fletcher’s description of her definition of historical romance fiction as “broadly inclusive.” It is significantly less inclusive than she claims. Fletcher’s sophisticated identification of heteronormative ideology in the historical romance novel is weakened by her exclusion from her analysis of the very texts that overtly—and if readers such as Juhasz are to be believed, successfully—employ the romance genre to depict non-hetero relationships. We are left with a much-reduced, albeit still-useful claim about the enforcement of heteronormativity in a narrow range of historical romance novels, if not in the subgenre as a whole.

Fletcher on Heyer and on the Late-Twentieth Century Popular Historical Romance Novel

In her chapter on Georgette Heyer, Fletcher identifies the author’s famous concentration on period dress as a key element of the novels’ way of making meaning. The critic sees “enormous symbolic and narrative importance” in “the dressing, undressing, and redressing of characters as feminine, masculine, or foppish” (58). Far from mere costume dramas, Heyer’s novels “are ambivalent, contradictory, and fascinating stories about the ‘tangle of preconceptions, conventions, and social emphases’ [the phrase is that of Heyer fan A. S. Byatt] which construct the heterosexual romantic subject” (53). Fletcher concentrates on three novels in which the heroine dresses as a boy, and uses close analysis of such passages as the opening description of the hero’s dress in These Old Shades—“He walked mincingly, for the red high heels of his shoes were very high”—to discern possible meanings of the hero’s foppery, the heroine’s masculinity, and the hero’s attraction to the boy that the heroine is pretending to be. Fletcher concludes that, in Heyer “[h]omosexual desire is both abnormal … and always already heterosexual (the boy is really a girl). Indeed … homosexual desire precedes and enables heterosexual desire. Homosexuality is imagined and pictured as a developmental stage towards, or infantile form of, heterosexuality” (67). Fletcher’s reading of the clothing in Heyer pushes beyond the usual critical claim on behalf of her concern for authentic period detail to uncover the gender and sexuality issues encoded by dress. It is a significant contribution to the study of this author.

The same cannot be said, unfortunately, of Fletcher’s analysis of a shelf-full of cross-dressing romances in “Performativity and Heterosexuality: Judith Butler and the Cross-Dressed Heroine 1980-2005,” a second chapter on the popular historical romance. As its title indicates, the chapter treats historical romances written over a twenty-five-year span, but Fletcher does not take into sufficient account the changes to this subgenre during this period, nor does she seem to have confronted, in any serious way, the methodological issues involved in choosing texts to study. All of Fletcher’s other texts—those by Fowles, Byatt, and Heyer—have attracted, and withstood, the scrutiny of earlier critics. They are on their way to being canonical romances; in fact, I would argue that Heyer is already canonical. When she turns to the “categorically unwieldy” world of less-studied popular romance novels, however—novels which are, as Fletcher explains in a footnote “too numerous and too fast-moving for scholarly researchers who are not themselves fans” to deal with—Fletcher has no canon to work with. How, then, did she choose her corpus? The note explains that she appealed via the web to those “fans” themselves, believing that “fans’ memories might be the best resource” for making the selection of study texts (73, n.1). But fans love novels for a variety of reasons, and are willing to ignore issues that Fletcher cannot set aside, including the quality of the writing, the presence of such moments in the plot as the heroine’s rape, and other material she finds “truly offensive” (90). One feels a bit wary of this chapter’s conclusions about Heyer’s heirs in the cross-dressing historical subgenre, or at least about the critic’s general statements about that subgenre, given the unconscious biases that may be at work in the selection process. Indeed, Fletcher herself seems to feel this unease, noting at the start of the chapter her sense that “projects such as my own are defied by the genre they attempt to classify” (73, n.1).


Fletcher’s difficulty in choosing study texts for this chapter illustrates a widespread and enduring problem in romance criticism. Statements about the historical romance—or any other genre—should be based on a representative sample of the range and quality of the genre. I readily agree with Fletcher, that finding such representative texts, among the “millions” of romances that only “kiss the retail shelf for a brief moment” is one of the difficulties of writing romance criticism (73, n.1). The sheer number of texts may be staggering, but perhaps that simply means that we romance critics have no choice but to set aside the dream of comprehensive, genre-wide analysis, and instead search out and study the most accomplished, most diverse selection of romances we can. The alternative, this study suggests, is to do with romance what Fletcher says that “I love you” does with human sexuality: to reassert, endlessly, a narrow account of what is natural or inevitable for the genre, one based on an incomplete notion of what romance has been in the past, and what it is right now.

Works Cited

Juhasz, Suzanne. “Lesbian Romance Fiction and the Plotting of Desire: Narrative Theory, Lesbian Identity, and Reading Practice.” Tulsa Studies In Women’s Literature 17.1 (1998): 65-82. Rpt. in Women and Romance: A Reader. Ed. Susan Ostrov Weisser. New York: New York U P, 2001. 276-91. Print.

Radway, Janice A. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1991. Print.

Regis, Pamela. A Natural History of the Romance Novel. Philadelphia: U of Penn P, 2003. Print.


Interview: Beverly Jenkins, by Rita B. Dandridge

The African American historical romance developed in nineteenth-century America but did not gain popularity as a genre until the twentieth century. Set in a specific historic time—usually during slavery, Reconstruction, or post-Reconstruction—the African American historical romance emphasizes tensions between two opposing forces, as it employs romantic elements of adventure and love. Because slavery and racism denied Blacks full political and social inclusion in American society, conflict in African American historical romances is often presented as opposition between Blacks who strive for sociopolitical freedom and the national majority who denies them full participation rights. The romance element centers in courtship and marriage that usually develop from the couple’s mutual involvement in racial uplift missions to advance the status of the colored community.

The first wave of African American women’s historical romances began with Frances Harper’s Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted (1892) and continued with Pauline Hopkins’ Contending Forces: A Romance Illustrated of Negro Life North and South (1900) and Zara Wright’s Black and White Tangled Threads (1920) and Kenneth (1920).[1] These novels contain colored protagonists[2] and have varied plots, settings, characters and romantic combinations, including interracial entanglements; each aims to disprove myths about Blacks’ moral degeneracy and their ill-suitability for assimilation into American society. For this purpose, their protagonists possess attributes that middle and upper-class Caucasians deemed worthy. Well-educated, temperate, frugal, and virtuous, they contribute to community uplift and marry respectably. As professionals, they represent the rising middle class, a rank above the Black masses. Properly armed, they possess the necessary weapons to battle the war against racism in order to assimilate into American society.

Of the novels in the first wave, Frances Harper’s Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted dramatizes the black woman’s initiative in the freedom struggle and establishes a paradigm that other first-wave novels alternately adhere to and modify. Iola Leroy, Harper’s titular character, comes from a stable family, is educated, marries well, and works for the racial uplift of her people. A respectable family background, education, marriage, and community service were hallmarks to aspire to in attempting to dismantle racial injustice. For this reason, romance in the man-woman relationship in first-wave African American women’s historical romances is subordinate to sociopolitical struggles. Nevertheless, the romance paradigm is present—man and woman meet, fall in love, marry, and live the rest of their lives together. First-wave historical romance writers, as I have written elsewhere, “found the historical romance a useful and timely genre in which to encase unresolved sociopolitical issues regarding African American rights and status in nineteenth-century American society” (Black Women’s Activism 3).

Beverly Jenkins is the twentieth century’s (and, so far, the twenty-first century’s) best-selling African American historical romance writer.[3] She launched the mass-market second wave of African American historical romances with her first novel Night Song, published by Avon Books in 1994. Similar to first-wave novels, Jenkins’s historical romances evolve from particular moments in nineteenth-century American history and are shaped by confining conditions of race, gender, and class. With a strong revolutionary impetus, Jenkins’s novels reveal African Americans in the freedom struggle to secure their civil rights and assert their gender and class privileges in American society. Despite some similarities to the works of her foremothers, however, Jenkins’s eighteen published historical romances[4] extend the paradigm found in first-wave African American women’s historical romances in several ways.

First, Jenkins manifests a fuller view of history. Approximately a century removed from the historical periods of slavery, Reconstruction, and post-Reconstruction that she writes about, Jenkins carefully dramatizes that history and documents it, appending a bibliography to each of her novels. In Vivid, for instance, Jenkins revisits the post-Reconstruction era and details the difficulties that confronted Black female physicians, as illuminated in the life of Dr. Viveca Lancaster, the novel’s heroine. Dr. Lancaster enters the medical profession at a time when the racist theory of “negritude,” proposed by physician Benjamin Rush (1754-1813), was still prevalent. Rush’s theory, which Jenkins mentions in Vivid, hypothesizes that the color of black skin is a form of leprosy. As a result, Black physicians were limited to medical practice in the Black community. Another difficulty facing young Black physicians was the shift in the medical profession from bleeding patients in order to rid them of diseases to using antiseptics in order to prevent disease. This medical change is represented in the violent confrontation between Dr. Wadsworth Hayes, the elder white county physician who applies Benjamin Rush’s bleeding technique to a young Black child, and Dr. Lancaster, who applies the more modern cleansing methods of Dr. Joseph Lister (1827-1912) and fights to remove Dr. Hayes from his patient. Other details in the history reveal Dr. Lancaster’s engaging in difficult tasks outside her profession. She buries the dead, locates relatives of the ill, and performs household chores of her female patients; for her services, she often receives pay in the form of vegetables and farm animals. Dr. Lancaster is the fictional representative of Caroline Still Wiley Anderson, a black woman who received her medical degree in 1878 from the prestigious Woman’s Medical College in Philadelphia, but, because of her race, was restricted to a limited practice in the Black community.[5]

Second, Jenkins’ historical romances consistently celebrate nineteenth-century Black women who engage in racial uplift efforts in the public sphere. Jenkins depicts Black women in cohesive plots rather than in the digressive and episodic intrigues of her literary foremothers, offering a more comprehensive and sustained view of the Black woman engaged in racial uplift efforts. Sequential plotting aids the depiction of heroines in their tireless efforts; in their urgent and constant endeavors, Jenkins’s Black heroines seem to take their cue from Maria Stewart, a Black feminist who goaded Black women to action. In her 1832 “An Address Delivered before the Afri-American Female Intelligence Society of America,” Stewart urged Black women to “possess the spirit of men, bold and enterprising, fearless and undaunted” (53). Stewart’s message was heeded throughout the nineteenth century as African American women assumed public positions as abolitionists (Harriett Tubman), preachers (Jarena Lee), and teachers (Anna Julia Cooper). Black women in Jenkins’s second-wave historical romances engage in constructive activism as they assume responsible public positions as abolitionist (Hester Wyatt in Indigo), teacher (Cara in Night Song), and physician (Viveca Lancaster in Vivid).

Third, Jenkins revises the image of the mulatta heroine found in first-wave novels and depicts the darker-hued heroine who triumphs in public spaces. The darker-hued beauty in second-wave novels possesses masculine vigor and often dons pants. She is the antithesis of Frances Harper’s mulatta Iola Leroy who, despite her public service as nurse and teacher, relies on her husband to make decisions. Jenkins’s heroines also differ from the weakened heroines which African American male historical romance writers create. Clotel in William Wells Brown’s Clotel, or The President’s Daughter (1853) commits suicide by jumping into the Potomac River, and Desiree Hippolyte, the quadroon mistress in Frank Yerby’s The Foxes of Harrow (1946), depends on the handouts of Stephen Fox, her white lover who abandons her during her pregnancy.

Fourth, unlike first-wave novels, second-wave novels present Black women fighting for self-determination in romantic liaisons with Black men. These men were often unwilling to concede public space to black women. As I have noted elsewhere, “Black men who [were] equally oppressed by race claim[ed] domination of women as their right” (“The Race, Gender, Romance Connection,” 185-186). The woman-man conflict is evident in Night Song, wherein Chase Jefferson, Cara Henson’s paramour, consistently intrudes upon her public space until she loses her teaching position.

Fifth, unlike first-wave novels that avoid sex in romantic relationships, Jenkins incorporates the more explicit treatment of sexuality found in the works of white European and American women writers. In part, she does this to indulge her ardent readers; in part, to satisfy her publisher’s demands. Avon Books, Jenkins’s publisher, broke new ground in the 1970s by publishing such erotically explicit historical romances as Kathleen Woodiwiss’s The Flame and the Flower (1972) and Rosemary Rogers’s more violently sexual Sweet, Savage Love (1974). The passionate sex scenes in Jenkins’s novels, however, always take place between consenting black men and black women; there are no rapist heroes or “forced seductions” in her work.

As I sum up the genre in Black Women’s Activism: Reading African American Historical Romances, second-wave historical romances “offer a fuller view of specific historic moments, an expanded look at Black womanhood, a more complex and emphatic involvement of Black women in historic settings, and heated romance” (4). In addition to Jenkins, other Black woman historical romance writers in the second wave include Francine Craft (The Black Pearl, 1996), Roberta Gayle (Moonrise, 1996), Gay G. Gunn (Nowhere to Run, 1997), and Shirley Hailstock (Clara’s Promise, 1995).

My interview with Beverly Jenkins came in stages over the past eighteen months. I first sent a written copy of my questions to her in August 2008. She responded weeks later with a telephone call; we continued the interview by telephone and email in December and January of 2008-9. In preparation for this interview’s inclusion in the Journal of Popular Romance Studies, I emailed Jenkins a final set of questions in late January 2010, which she answered and returned a few days later.

RBD Why did you choose to begin your writing career with the historical rather than the contemporary romance?

BJ It wasn’t my choice really; it was the publisher’s choice. The first manuscript I sent out was a contemporary that was rejected, but the historical Night Song sold. Ironically, that rejected contemporary was published many years later as Edge of Night.

RBD How difficult was it for you to publish Night Song?

BJ It took me fifteen years to publish my first novel, which has since gone through six printings. The start was rough. My editor, Ellen Edwards, then Executive Editor of Avon, sent me a fourteen-page revision letter. She said she didn’t know if I could do the revisions. I did the revisions. The draft went from the editor to a freelancer. Scenes were changed. The scene where Cara’s grandfather appears, “nigger, nigger” replaced his name. Characters were depicted as “black as coal.” I was devastated when I received the galley. I called Vivian Stephens, my agent, and told her that she should return the advance on the book. I did not want the book published like that. The editor called. She cried and apologized. For four and a half hours, the editor and I were on the telephone going over the revisions. There should be trust between editor and author.

RBD There are so many more contemporary romances published than there are historical romances. Why is that?

BJ Money drives the publishing business just like every other business. Back in the seventies and eighties, historical romances held the biggest share of the market, so publishers pushed that genre. But over time, the tastes of the readers changed, the times changed, and contemporaries began to be embraced. Now contemporaries rule. Romance can be very cyclical, though, so, who knows where the genre will be ten years from now.

RBD You are more than a century removed from the nineteenth century that you write about. How do your historical romance novels bring this era alive for your twenty-first-century readers?

BJ I bring the nineteenth century alive—I think—by placing my historical characters in the context of their everyday lives. Our bittersweet history in America is just that, but it didn’t stop us from building colleges or raising families or continuing to get up every day and put one foot in front of the other so life could be better. All the bullshit America threw at the Ancestors, we as a race survived, and by showing how we bent but didn’t break, how individuals coped in spite of [oppression], gives my readers a truer look at how we got over. Telling history through the lives and actions of a story’s characters as opposed to beating folks over the head with dates and boring lectures makes the history more accessible. It personalizes. Whether I’m dealing with the Exodus of 1879, the Seminole scouts, the Black Civil War vets, or the Black and Brown lawmen of Indian Territory, breaking the history down into stories seems to work well with the readers.

RBD How do your historical romances link to those of your nineteenth-century literary foremothers, Francis Harper and Pauline Hopkins?

BJ I do know that what these illustrious foremothers stood for—justice, equality, education, a commitment to community and the desire to push the envelope on race and gender—is something I consciously place in each of my heroines. I “borrowed” the concept from the great historian Dorothy A. Sterling. Her book, We Are Your Sisters: Black Women in the 19th Century, is my bible. In it, she states that nineteenth-century Black women had three gifts: a strong work ethic, a commitment to community, and a penchant to push the envelope on race and gender. Whether it’s schoolteacher Cara Lee Henson, journalist Kate Love, or banker Grace Atwood, I try to bestow at least one of Sterling’s gifts on them. Nineteenth-century Black women changed the world not only for themselves and the race but for women of other races as well. Women like Black abolitionist Maria Stewart, who in 1832 became the first woman in America of any race to lecture to a mixed audience; Rebecca Lee and other pioneering Black doctors of the late 1860s were often not only the first Black doctors, but many were the first doctors of any race in their communities. Their experiences helped shape crusading Dr. Viveca Lancaster, the heroine in my second novel, Vivid.

RBD The neo-slave narrative, another African American historical genre, has gained prominence. Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Sherley Anne Williams’s Dessa Rose come to mind. What is your opinion about this kind of historical novel? What are your thoughts about the relationship of your historical romances to this body of work set in the same period as your novels and deal with similar issues of race, gender, and sexuality?

BJ I have read both of the titles referenced. Our novels are similar in the sense that all touch the African American experience. Mine differs in the model upon which it is based. Genre romance novels are based on the gothic tradition set forth by authors Daphne du Maurier[6] and Georgette Heyer,[7] and American authors Kathleen E. Woodiwiss[8] and LaVyrle Spencer[9]; but I have taken that model, given it a new spin that makes my work FUBU—for us, by us. I also include a bibliography at the end of each novel to help readers further their knowledge of the historical event/s featured in each novel, be it the Great Exodus of 1879, the Brown and Black outlaws and deputy marshals of Indian Territory, or the gens d’coleur of antebellum Louisiana, etc.

RBD By gothic model are you referring to the romance template in which an inexperienced young woman meets and falls in love with a mysterious older man, marries him, and then encounters awesome circumstances that potentially jeopardize their union?

BJ Yes. Your description was closely followed during the early days of romance, but now the model has advanced. Man-woman conflicts are the main elements. The man can now be younger than the female, and the woman no longer has to be a virgin. The genre has morphed with the times.

RBD What do you think of other African American authors’ use of genre fiction in pursuit of, perhaps, comparable goals (i.e., to revisit the past and accumulate cultural memory)? Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred, for example, is a time-travel science fiction narrative that takes the heroine, Dana, an African American, back in time to nineteenth-century Maryland, a slave state.

BJ Genres. It has been interesting watching African American writers flip the switch, so to speak, on the traditional genres from romance to horror and begin to be accepted and successful in areas where we were not allowed to be fifteen years ago. L. A. Banks[10] is a prime example. Her Minion series has a vampire theme that is FUBU. Anytime small, evangelical/fundamentalist African American churches in the south embrace a vampire series, and they have, as said to me, Ms. Banks has hit upon something that in its own way speaks to the race and is viewed with value.

RBD While your novels contribute to the historical romance tradition in African American literature, they also break new ground. Would you comment on this point?

BJ I only see it as breaking new ground in the sense that you can now buy my books, and books by Brenda Jackson[11] and L. A. Banks and others, all over the world. FUBU books have been around since before the American Revolution, but being accessible to the market is the thing. Not sure if this is what you mean, but this is my first thought on the question.

RBD Global mass marketing certainly plays a big role in a book’s accessibility to the public, and I agree that in this sense your books have broken new ground. Moreover, some nineteenth-century Black women’s historical romances were serialized in small magazines such as The Christian Recorder, that had a small readership. But, I was also thinking about how you have expanded the concept of desire in your novels to embrace not only the agape longing to participate in racial uplift but also the erotic craving for one’s mate. The public and private manifestations of desire give your audience a fuller appreciation of Black women’s lives in the nineteenth century. Could you say more about erotica?

BJ Erotica is what romance fiction is all about. Romance started with erotic gothic and Kathleen E. Woodiwiss’s The Flame and the Flower. Erotica is required to have romance fiction published. I read some of the romances by writers in the white canon, and I flipped the paradigm man-woman sex conflict to include relevant Black history. Our history puts meat into the novels. People outside the genre have no idea how important all books by African American authors are to their readers. Finally a whole slew of books about us—in every genre.

RBD Who buys and reads your novels?

BJ Black women. They love erotica. Before my books were published, they read white women’s erotica.

RBD Do Black men read your novels?

BJ Not many. A brother once told me that he didn’t read romances. He didn’t believe in romance. I told him, “You’re here! There must have been romance. Something must have been going on.” (Chuckle)

RBD What do you think are your major contributions to the historical romance genre?

BJ My contribution/s. It seems that I have been given the charge of telling our history in a way that is new and different, but also fills our racial soul.

RBD Thanks to you and your contemporaries Francine Craft,[12] Gay G. Gunn,[13] and Shirley Hailstock,[14] the African American historical romance has made considerable progress since the nineteenth century. Why do you think literary critics have not given more attention to your work?

BJ It’s that old double edged sword—and in our case, the sword has three edges: one, we write romance—which critics sometimes don’t look at as a “serious” genre; two, we’re female writers of romance, and the big one—we’re Black female writers of romance. Makes for a lot of crap to wade through sometimes.

RBD Most of your historical romances have strong public-service–oriented Black women characters: Cora Lee Henson, teacher, in Night Song; Dr.Viveca Lancaster, physician, in Vivid; Sable Fontaine, contraband camp worker, in Through the Storm; and Zahra Lafayette, Civil War spy, in Winds of the Storm. These women find themselves in conflict with outside forces, but they manage to resolve their problems with their self-esteem intact. What message do these novels send to your reading audience?

BJ The message is: Don’t tell a Black woman there’s something she can’t do. Goes back to Sterling’s gifts—particularly pushing the envelope on gender and race. Never tell us there’s something we can’t do.

RBD Your male-female characters express love for each other in your novels, but they also long for and celebrate freedom. Could you comment on the intersection between love and freedom?

BJ To be able to love is freedom. Poet and essayist bell hooks, who I’m looking forward to meeting one day, is a big romance fan and has written the best take on the intersection of freedom and love. I’ll have to run it down and get back to you on this one.

RBD Since our last correspondence, have you had an opportunity to read bell hooks’ essay “Love as the Practice of Freedom”? If so, do you have a possible interest in or reaction to bell hooks’ ideas about love as a “practice of freedom”?

BJ Rita, I apologize, but I still have not had time to read Ms. hooks’ work. The example I always go back to about love being the “practice of freedom” is a reference in the book Bull Whip Days[15] to “a man named Wyatt who was free and sold himself into slavery for the love of a woman.” It was a reference that took my breath away. The power and commitment of Wyatt speaks to a love that is both astounding in its depth and heart-breaking in its ramifications. He freely chose to make this decision and to me it is the ultimate example of love as the practice of freedom. I’m not sure if this is what Ms. hooks meant, but this is what it says to me.

RBD Does your position as an Episcopal lay minister have any bearing on the values and responsibilities evident in the characters you depict in your novels?

BJ Other than that the church [African Methodist Episcopal] is at the center of the community in many of my books, no.

RBD You have written more than a dozen historical romances from 1995 until the present time. Explain the evolution of your writing in terms of character development and relationships.

BJ Golly. Not sure how to answer this. The character development and relationships. There is no real evolution in the sense that the two factors have changed over the years. Both have [been] and continue to be strong—I hope. Sounds like a question for the readers.

RBD If there is one lesson that you wish the present generation to obtain about male-female relationships in reading your novels, what would that lesson be?

BJ Cherish each other—tomorrow is not promised.

RBD What do you consider to be the three most important themes in your historical romances?

BJ Love. Legacy. Endurance.

RBD What do you expect your legacy as an African American historical romance author will be for those historical romance writers who succeed you?

BJ Hopefully that I supplied my readers with edutainment. Education and entertainment.

Works Cited

Dandridge, Rita B. Black Women’s Activism: Reading African American Women’s Historical Romances. New York: Peter Lang, 2004. Print.

—. “The Race, Gender, Romance Connection.” Doubled Plots: Romance and History. Ed. Susan Strehle and Mary Paniccia Carden. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2003: 185-201. Print.

Stewart, Maria. Maria W. Stewart: America’s First Black Woman Political Activist: Essays and Speeches. Ed. Marilyn Richardson. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1987. Print.

[1] I discuss first-wave African American women’s historical romances in greater detail in Black Women’s Activism: Reading African American Women’s Historical Romances (New York: Peter Lang, 2004), 2-4.

[2] Prior to Frances Harper’s publication of Iola Leroy, African American women novelists published romances with white protagonists. These writers and their novels are Emma Dunham Kelly’s Megda (Boston: John H. Earle, 1891) and Amelia E. Johnson’s Clarence and Corinne; or God’s Way (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1890).

[3] In addition to her historical romances, Beverly Jenkins has published contemporary romances, romantic suspense novels, romance novelettes, and juvenile fiction. She has won prestigious awards, including the distinguished Golden Pen Award (1999) from Black Writer’s Guild; the 2008 Emma Award for Romantic Suspense, Favorite Hero, Book Cover, and Book of the Year for Deadly Sexy; and Author of the Year Award at 2008 Romance Slam Jam for Deadly Sexy. She is also the recipient of six Best Seller Awards from the Waldens/Borders Group and two Career Achievement Awards from Romantic Times Magazine. Jenkins has her own website at

[4] Producing one novel, sometimes two, each year, Beverly Jenkins’s historical romances include Night Song (New York: Avon Books, 1994), Vivid (New York: HarperCollins, 1995), Indigo (New York: Avon Books, 1996), Topaz (New York: Avon Books, 1997), Through the Storm (New York: Avon Books, 1998), The Taming of Jessi Rose (New York: Avon Books, 1999), Always and Forever (New York: Avon Books, 2000), Before the Dawn (New York: Avon, 2001), A Chance at Love (New York: Avon Books, 2002), Something Called Love (New York: Avon Books, 2005), Winds of the Storm (New York: Avon Books, 2006), Wild Sweet Love (New York: Avon Books, 2007), Jewel (New York: Avon Books, 2008), and Captured (New York: Avon Books 2009). Her historical romances for juveniles are Belle and the Beau (New York: Harper Teen, 2002), reprinted as Belle (New York: Kimani TRU, 2009), and Josephine and the Soldier (New York: Avon Books, 2003), reprinted as Josephine (New York: Kimani TRU, 2009).

[5] For a discussion of Dr. Caroline Still Wiley Anderson, see Darlene Clark Hine, ed. Black Women in America. Vol. 1 (Brooklyn: Carlson, 1993): 28-29.

[6] Daphne du Maurier is a British writer who wrote about adventure and romance in Cornwall, England. Her historical romance Frenchman’s Creek, first published in 1942 and reprinted with Virago in 2003, was made into a film with the same title in 1944. A television version of the novel was made in 1998, in which Tara Fitzgerald starred as Dona, the novel’s protagonist. See Richard Kelly, “Daphne du Maurier: Overview.” Twentieth-Century Romance and Historical Writers. Ed. Aruna Vasudevan. 3rd ed. New York: St. James P, 1994. Twentieth-Century Writers Series. Literature Resource Center. Web. 10 Feb. 2010.

[7] Georgette Heyer (1902-74), a British romance writer, authored thirty-eight historical romances, most of which were set in the years of the Regency (1811-1820), the reign of the Prince of Wales who became George IV.

[8] Kathleen E. Woodiwiss authored The Flame and the Flower (New York: Avon Books, 1972), a novel whose content and marketing transformed the romance publishing industry. “Launched in 1972 as an Avon Spectacular, with all the promotion and advertising support usually given to bestseller reprints,” Carol Thurston explains, this novel “not only proved the commercial viability of paperback originals but also opened the door to a new American publishing enterprise”: specifically, “the erotic historical romance as a mass entertainment phenomenon.” See Carol Thurston, The Romance Revolution: Erotic Novels for Women and the Quest for a New Sexual Identity (Urbana and Chicago: U of Illinois P, 1987): 48.

[9] LaVyrle Spencer is an American novelist whose historical romances and other romances have made the New York Times best seller list a dozen times. Her writing career began with the publication of The Fulfillment (New York: Avon, 1979), a historical romance which her inspiration Kathleen E. Woodiwiss read and sent to her own editor at Avon. Spencer’s other well-known historical romances include, but are not limited to, Hummingbird (New York: Jove, 1983), Twice Loved (New York: Jove, 1984), and The Gamble (New York: Jove, 1987). Emphasizing family situations rather than male-female relations, Spencer has published twenty-four books and is a five-time winner of the RITA Award, the highest award Romance Writers of America gives to romance writers. Spencer’s 1988 induction into the Romance Writers of America Hall of Fame distinguished her at that time as one of twelve women to have received that award. See Carol Thurston, “LaVyrle Spencer: Overview.” Twentieth-Century Romance and Historical Writers. Ed. Aruna Vasudevan. 3rd ed. New York: St. James P, 1994. Twentieth-Century Writers Series. Literature Resource Center. Web. 10 Feb. 2010.

[10] L. A. Banks is one of several pseudonyms for African American author Leslie Ann Banks. Banks has written more than three dozen novels in various genres including contemporary romance, suspense thrillers, and paranormal. Minion (New York: Griffin, 2003) is the first of twelve novels in the Vampire Huntress Legend Series. (Rita B. Dandridge, email interview with L.A. Banks. 7 February 2010).

[11] Brenda Jackson began her writing career with the publication of Tonight and Forever (New York: Kensington Arabesque, 1995), and to date has published more than sixty novels. Best known as a multicultural writer, she is the first African American author to publish under the Harlequin/Silhouette Desire imprint. A full-time writer, Jackson “is the first African-American writer to make the New York Times best-seller list with a romance.” See Patrick Huguenin, “African American Romance Writers Come into Their Own.” New York Daily News, 23 May 2009.

[12] Francine Craft has published only one historical romance The Black Pearl (1996) with the imprint of Pinnacle Books, a subsidiary of Kensington Publishing, with whom she signed a contract.  She now owns the novel outright and plans to reissue it.

[13] Gay G. Gunn has published only one historical romance to date and that is Nowhere to Run (Columbus, MS: Genesis, 1997).

[14] Shirley Hailstock has written only one historical novel to date, Clara’s Promise (New York: Pinnacle Books, 1995), about Blacks’ settlement in the Old West. For this novel, Hailstock was given the Utah Romance Writers Heart of the West Award. Hailstock’s idea for a second historical romance about cosmetology for Black women in the 1890s has not yet materialized. At the time she wanted to write the historical romance, Arabesque decided to accept only contemporary romances, the genre that Hailstock has been publishing since 1995. See Gwendolyn Osborne’s interview “Meet Author Shirley Hailstock.” The Romance 1 Dec. 2000.

[15] This reference is to Bullwhip Days the Slaves Remember: An Oral History, ed. James Mellon (New York: Quill, 1990), 445.