Romancelandia has been eagerly awaiting Netflix’s adaptation of Julia Quinn’s Bridgertons for… oh, centuries, at least. Now the casting decisions have finally been made public, and I for one, was pleasantly surprised to see a few brown actors included.
Unfortunately, that pleasure was swiftly dimmed by predictably racist responses. Frankly, the dull, bitter, and unimaginative nature of the complaints offends me almost as much as the racism itself. I have spent my entire life dealing with, and/or observing, this illogical nonsense. Would it kill you people to get a creative with it?
Clearly, the answer is yes.
Thankfully, I’m a glass-half-full kinda gal, and there are two upsides to this situation. The first: I already had this essay handy on race and historical romance. Convenient!
And the second? Netflix’s Simon Bassett, the Duke of Hastings, is going to look like this. Drool.
Now, let’s chat about these angry demands for ‘accuracy’ and ‘realism’. Please, pull up a chair. This might take a while…
I love historical romance – especially Regency and Victorian. It’s brilliant, it’s fantastic, it’s fun. And a large part of that is down to the fact that historical romance, like all romance, is romanticised.
None of these books mention the stench of unwashed bodies, or the reality of pooping into a porcelain bowl that sits under the bed, or the lack of toothpaste and tampons. Because that wouldn’t be romantic. It’d be gross. Those things, realistic as they are, don’t need to be in romance.
Similarly, historical romance often ignores social and moral issues, giving old-timey characters more modern attitudes to suit the modern reader—which is why so many romance heroines are considered ‘originals’ by their peers, or just plain freaks. They’re modern women in fancy dresses, because that’s what readers want. And, funnily enough, no-one has a problem with that.
No-one cares about the countless series that contain more attractive and unmarried dukes than have ever existed in the history of Great Britain. No-one cares that the elegant ladies in these stories surely have their gowns pressed and aired by uneducated, exploited girls who, for all intents and purposes, may as well be your great-great-great Aunt Sally. No-one cares that the historical romance genre is built on a throne of lies, because it’s bloody romance! The clue is in the name! These! Stories! Are! Romanticised! They are, like all fiction, mere constructs of reality based on the author’s perception of their audience’s desires. And that’s okay!
Except, apparently, when it comes to people of colour.
There’s this fascinating phenomenon in the historical romance world where seamstresses can marry dukes, earl’s daughters can gad about the countryside with handsome rakes, essentially unsupervised, and simultaneous orgasms can be ordered on demand like a pepperoni pizza with fries and Coke… but people of colour absolutely cannot have any fun or happy endings, ever, amen. Sorry-I-don’t-make-the-rules, you- were-all-just-so-busy-being-enslaved-and/or-brutally-murdered, no-hard-feelings-pal, etcetera.
If you didn’t quite catch the tone of that paragraph, let me make things clear: that phenomenon pisses me off. Because it’s bollocks.
I could sit here and tell you about how Great Britain has been racially diverse for centuries upon centuries. I could tell you about the notable Black, Chinese and South Asian communities in Britain during the 1800s alone. I could point out individual Black British socialites, South Asian aristocrats, Chinese technocrats, and so much more. But I’m not going to do that, because Google is free, and because, frankly, it doesn’t matter.
That’s right. You read that correctly. The history of people of colour in 19th century Britain doesn’t necessarily matter—stay with me, keep reading—in the context of historical romance. Just like the WAY LESS EXTENSIVE history of aristocratic former servants and seamstresses doesn’t matter, either.
See, when you’re writing a story, you don’t need a thousand examples of people who are just like your main character. In fact, there doesn’t need to be anyone in the history of the world who is just like your main character. Because stories are about the improbable, the impossible, the special—and that applies to romance in particular. Romance is about the special.
So what message does it send, when entire swathes of people are effectively barred from a romantic sub-genre?
“You aren’t special like us.”
That’s what a lot of people hear, every time they pick up yet another story in which their existence is, at best, erased, and at worst, used as a yardstick for all that is ugly and monstrous. (I’m looking at you, Lord of Scoundrels.)
And that message is vile… so I reject it. I want to read about a black duke waltzing at a ball, or a brown heiress flirting at a house party, because I just bloody do, okay, and because I deserve it. We all deserve it. And now Netflix is giving us the opportunity to watch that.
If you’re not excited about that opportunity, about that growth – you are on the wrong side of history. And you’re also a raging donkey dick.
“But it simply wouldn’t have happened!” I hear the ragey racists-in-denial cry.
Well, sugar, I disagree, since it did. (Not the duke thing, but the other stuff.) However, the real point here is… it’s all a story. Stories are about taking things that might not have happened and saying, Okay, but what if it had? Please don’t conveniently forget that fact – that magic – when it allows people of colour to live their best fictional lives.
Next complaint: “The racism would make things complex and painful!”
Do you read about every dump your heroine takes? Of course not. You only read about the bathroom breaks that are relevant to her story, if any. And since this Netflix adaptation is a story, being produced for fun, about a romanticised version of reality, you don’t need to see every dirty look or racial insult, either. Not unless it’s needed, anyway. Remember: this is a story.
Finally, the dying cry of the hateful: “It’s just not realistic!”
Aha! Do you hear that sound? That siren in the distance? It’s the nonsense police, coming to arrest you! Why? Because when you trot out that inaccurate phrase, you’re actually using bollocks to hide the fact that you don’t want a diverse story.
Now, it’s one thing to prefer entirely white narratives (I’m still judging you HARD, but I digress). It’s another thing entirely to force your preferences on the rest of us by pushing a faux narrative about ‘realism’.
I mean, let’s talk about realism, my dickheaded dumpling. We already did, up there, but it’s an issue that bears repetition.
I want to ask you something, and I want you to consider the answer carefully. In the historical romances you read and enjoy, are atrocities being committed daily, worldwide? Is the society your beloved characters are a part of inherently rotten? Is the sugar in your Lady Matilda’s tea produced by slaves? Is the wealth in your Lord Sexy’s coffers a direct result of murder, rape, genocide, and enslavement?
If those books are, ahem, realistic, the answer to all those questions is yes. Therefore, you have been reading about vile, disgusting creatures who symbolise all that is wrong with the world and have no conscience to speak of.
But you haven’t, have you? Ask yourself—would your favourite historical heroine really support the abuse, forced ‘breeding’, and familial separation that transatlantic slavery required? Would your favourite historical hero really enjoy the blood money gained by the violent theft of land?
No. Because beneath the way they speak, and dress, and flirt, and so on, these characters are good and modern people. They have modern standards. Because they were written by and for modern people. Because it’s a story. Remember that?
The only logical explanation, therefore, is that the lily-white romances you’ve been reading all this time (including the Bridgerton series)… aren’t realistic at all. They don’t occur in a reality where to be wealthy and white is to harm others simply by existing. They exist in a romanticised fantasy world that allows you to enjoy a rollicking good tale about the power of love, guilt-free.
Which means that there is absolutely no reason why people of colour shouldn’t be included.
There are a variety of ways in which people of colour can be included in the historical romance genre—and I don’t mean as silent servants included to make the author feel like a decent person. Yeah, I clock that every time. We all do, beloved.
If you want to see the many ways in which people of colour can find their happy endings (heh heh) in 19th century historical romance, look no further. I have a list of authors for you here. This should tide you over until the sexiest regency duke of all time hits our screens via Netflix. You’re welcome!
Vanessa Riley’s Advertisements for Love series follows black heroines as they find their happy ever afters. Aristocracy, heiresses, and even celebrated actors feature in the series, presenting a far more realistic version of 19th century London than the shiny, porcelain version most books fall back on.
Courtney Milan’s historicals are incredibly popular, and her ongoing Worth Saga series is set to be incredibly diverse, too. Book 2, After the Wedding, is an excellent example: it pairs a long-lost member of a disgraced, aristocratic family with the black son of a businessman and a lady. The hero fights prejudice and manipulation from a loved one due to his race, and that emotional experience is just as valid in romance as any white character’s elaborately described ‘tough past’. So. Fight me, is what I’m saying here.
Tess Bowery’s Treading the Boards series explores the world of 19th century entertainment, rather than aristocracy—all the drama and glamour, fewer questionable social parameters. Book 3, That Potent Alchemy, follows a romance between two black performers. This book is also cheerfully queer (woo!).
KJ Charles writes M/M romance, and her historicals are not just racially diverse; throughout her books, there’s all sorts of representation, which I absolutely adore. Two stand out in this essay’s context, however: An Unseen Attraction, in which one hero is the illegitimate son of an Indian woman and an earl; and Unfit to Print, starring a black bookseller (also the illegitimate son of a peer) and a South Asian lawyer. KJ’s romances do not exist in the squeaky-clean, alternate universe most historical authors seem to prefer. Her characters are aware of political issues around them, and act authentically in response, referencing realities like the sugar boycott and the plight of lascars.
Lydia San Andres
Lydia San Andres is the first of three authors on this list whose books aren’t set in Great Britain. I find Lydia’s books particularly fun and fascinating because they take place in explicitly fictional settings. For example, the Ciudad Real stories are set in a city on a fictional Spanish Caribbean island. At the start of her books, Lydia contextualises the setting by mentioning neighbours such as Puerto Rico and Cuba, and the fact that the island’s people are descended from multiple races. In doing this, Lydia has formalised what most historicals have been doing (many quite lazily) forever: creating a fantasy world for best results. I wish more people would follow her example and be so bold in describing their books’ realities.
Alyssa Cole’s The Loyal League series follows characters involved in the American Civil War, so the romances are very much rooted in realism, and historical atrocities are not ignored. However, this doesn’t weigh down the books or ruin the romance, and why should it? Hardship lies at the heart of most stories—as does adventure and intrigue. The key to romance, no matter what sub-genre or niche, is human connection. Since her characters have modern morals and attitudes, just like all romance MCs, it’s more than possible for Alyssa’s black heroines to find their happy ever after.
I saved the icon until last. Beverly Jenkins has written more words than I can fully comprehend, and many of those words are badass, sexy historical romances between ethnically and culturally diverse black characters. Her books exist in the fantasy world that all romance belongs to—but despite that, they are unbelievably accurate. My personal attitude towards realism in romance can only be described as lackadaisical. Ms. Bev takes the opposite approach, and she rocks it. I don’t believe that people who oppose diverse historical romance in the name of accuracy deserve a response, but if they did… Well, the sheer power of Beverly Jenkins’s research would be answer enough.
There, now. Go forth and enjoy. Oh – and one last thing. If you’ve read this entire post and still oppose the diverse casting in Netflix’s Bridgerton series, please don’t bother contacting me to debate your ‘stance’ (AKA the worth of my existence). I already know that my response will hurt your feelings.
This article was originally shared via Patreon in 2018, but has since been edited and updated.
If you enjoyed my ramblings, you might be interested in my own sexy, diverse romance – sadly not historical, but definitely hot, emotional, funny, and good. I think. Or hope. Or pray. Check out my books page.
Tamara (Shelf Addiction Podcast) says
Well said Talia. Seriously. I’m sure you’ve taught some people a few things about diverse casting.
Thank you, Tamara!
I absoluty love the article, I had some fights for that, because some people is saying exctlay that, “is no realistic” thank you so much for your words.
Adedayo Adeyemi says
Thank you Talia.
Watching the Bridgetown brought me to your page. I am actually very upset about the way black people are presented in the series.
Amen, amen and amen! Well said, sis!
Thank you, haha! <3
I don’t agree, and here’s why. I couldn’t care less if the actor portraying Simon is black, brown, Asian or polka dot. It’s not about him, it’s about Simon. My problem is, we read about these characters and fall in love with them as the author describes them. So, naturally when we see them and they don’t look like we imagined we become irked. *Edward and Bella from Twilight rings a bell. *Lavender Brown from Harry Potter is another.
I’ve read romance books, REGENCY romance books, with an East Indian hero who had dark skin, I’ve read another about a Lady with skin the color of caramel. Another where the Duke fell for a lady of color with “light brown skin” Anyone different playing those roles just wouldn’t be right. I LOVED those stories, because they were different. So please, don’t say we are racist because we’re not being diverse.
When the imbalance in diverse representation (both in the source material and in TV/film adaptations themselves) is the result of a racist society, the anti-racist priority should be fixing that imbalance rather than preserving the least important aspect of a character – basic physical appearance. It is honestly that simple. Also, as a creative, I believe TV and film would be so much better if casting was based entirely around ability, with physical appearance left mostly by the wayside or treated more flexibly – see the recent David Copperfield adaptation starring Dev Patel. I suppose it’s all a question of priorities and what really matters to us as a society and as consumers of the art we profess to love.
I’m torn now. I read the series and fell in love with the characters. I was not sure why the casting of the Duke was not ideal for me. Was it racism? I read your initial article and agreed with you. I thought I should give it a chance. The story would be just as wonderful, the actor himself is gorgeous and really, what more could you want from a brooding duke?
Then I read Cindy’s post and realized what had bothered me. It was that I had Julia Quinn‘a description in my brain. Then your reply confused me because it seems like you’re saying authors have no need, indeed it serves no purpose, for them to describe their characters to their readers, indeed it is the “least important” part of the character. So now, it doesn’t matter? The descriptions authors give of their characters doesn’t matter? But they’re the ones creating the story. It’s THEIR story. Their characters, as they write them, are the reality. I don’t even know anymore. Why even keep the same names and settings and storylines? If it doesn’t even matter?
Cindy, I’m an African-American romance author and I hear you! When I saw the photos that were released this week (I’m late to the party.), I was not at all moved when I saw people of color in the cast. Black people lived in England during this period, so that was no biggie. What shocked me was the decision to cast a Black actor as a British duke during the Regency period. I have searched and searched and found no evidence of Black duke during this period. I can’t imagine the stuffy Brits who lived during that era would have allowed a Black man to serve in the House of Lords. It’s quite a reach, but film makers sometimes veer from the author’s original story. I’m going to have to suspend reality on this one issue and just go along with Shonda’s vision for this series.
I completely agree with you. I read the series and the casting was a let down. I am Greek and brunette and not a typical English rose myself. This is not about race but about the characters we fell in love with. I will stick to the books thank you very much.
That’s not what she’s saying though. If you don’t like the fact that Simon is black because the books don’t describe him as black and you already had a vision of what he looked like, that’s entirely different than arguing the actor should not be black based on “historical accuracy” or being “realistic”.
It’s not racist to be upset because it’s not how you imagined your characters to look like. That’s just the same uproar we always hear every time Hollywood casts a white person for an obviously ethnic role.
It IS racist though if you start arguing about “accuracy” and “realism”. Because that assume that 1) historical romances are mean to be realistic, and 2) that white people being the ONLY people in historical romances IS the default accurate world.
Neither of these things is true.
Agree !!!!!!!!!! They should stick with the story as intended or write new ones to include everybody instead of changing beloved characters!!
Hi Talia, I’m white, Jewish and I was surprised to read a black actor was playing the Duke. I wondered: were there any black Dukes in England during the Victorian era? I did a Google search and I found your blog posting. I think you make some excellent points and I thank you for that. This is a historical romance…why not invite everyone to the party so ALL can feel a part of this world? (You broke my heart when you wrote that the message is/was: you’re not special like us.) If a seamstress can marry a Duke, why can’t a Duke be Black, or Chinese or something else besides a WASP. Historical romance is all about fantasies–the perfect hair (how do women ALWAYS have such perfect curls that behave just so), everyone is clean and life is so wonderfully sterile. Problems are rarely first world problems. So thank you for your thoughtful piece. Like a lot of people, I can’t wait to watch this series. (BTW, I think Simon Bassett is universally yummy.)
There were no dukes who identified as black, but there is no way of knowing which members of the aristocracy had non-white ancestry, or how much – see the discussion surrounding Queen Charlotte. However, I feel like that reality interests me far less than the stories we choose to tell! I don’t think I would’ve gotten on with most aristocracy in real life (as I oppose the political system that maintains them) but in fiction, it’s a world we love and care about and deserve to access. Basically, exactly what you’re saying about the fantasy! And thank you for reading <3
What were you referring to in Lord of Scoundrels? I remember the hero had an Italian mother and had her coloring (dark and with a large Italiante nose), which made the father detest him, and made the hero himself believe there was something wrong with him. The journey of the story seemed to me to be that that was utter bullshit. Is there something I missed? Sincere question, not intended to disagree with your experience of the book.
And on another note – I read this genre with the view that I’m entering an “alternate universe” that resembles our own – but exists in its own plane with its own set of rules similar to, but not exactly like “real life.” Sometimes I can’t finish a book because the alternate reality is so out there that I can’t immerse myself in the story. But it’s almost always to do with the social strictures. I get pulled out of the story when ladies go walking in Hyde Park without proper escort or go on what look like modern-day dates with gentlemen (get picked up in a carriage and escorted to a ball or Astley’s or some such venue) – not when the hero or heroine isn’t white as the driven snow.
My reading experience was that everything negative about the hero’s appearance stemmed from his tan skin resembling a non-white person’s, because non-white people are undesirable – hence him being teased and bullied about looking like a ‘Blackamoor’. Brown skin was constantly associated with violence and ugliness and inferiority BECAUSE it was associated with brown people. The story eventually proved to Dain and to the reader that the hero wasn’t violent, ugly, or inferior – but it never argued against that association with people of colour. It never said ‘Actually, there’s nothing wrong with black or brownness’. It said ‘Actually, there’s nothing wrong with Dain and his tan, Italian skin’. Which is a very different message to me, and did nothing to ease the sick, hurt feeling in my stomach that comes with reading again and again how awful your skin colour is.
I like the alternate universe approach; that’s kind of how I read, too. Historical romance and its accepted tropes aren’t realistic, but that makes it more fun. I wish more people would play with that alternate universe in a way that questions the status quo.
My husband and I were having this discussion the other day! We live overseas (both Americans) and are an interracial couple so we happen upon the random movie or book or article and always discuss. We found a download of the recent Lady and the Tramp, for example, and both were surprised at the interracial casting. (We don’t watch previews or get the news, generally , so when I say “happen across” I really mean it. ) We are so used to racist casting and whitewashing, that such a thing contrary to the popular demands notice. We dove into a conversation between the “historically accurate” debate and the fact that it is, in the end, a story. Why wouldn’t and couldn’t it be inclusive? Why do stories that take place in the 60s to 70s in America ALWAYS have to be about civil rights? (See Troop Zero for a fresher perspective on what it means to tell a story that isn’t about race.)
I actually ran across your book Get a Life Chloe Brown on an China-based audiobook subscription site. I chose to listen solely based on the cover. I’m not ashamed to say. I mean, how often do I see a cover with a couple on it that looks like my husband and I. Half way through now, I just had to look you up! My mind kept playing tricks on me…. every time you describe the way both of them look, I have to pause and make sure I’m hearing correctly. Again, my brain is just so use to reading and hearing about monochromatic couples and flowing hair and blue eyes. This is actally why, as a homeschooling mom, I am constantly teaching our kids about the history of the marginalized, about the children, about the people that were subjugated to the truly unjust. There actually ARE black inventors and black business people and women who sincerly changed a worldview! I mean, I was almost 20 before I came across a list of black American inventors and of course I didn’t learn this from school. I cannot whitewash US history nor can I only talk about black people in the context of slavery. yuck. This is why your book is so incredibly refreshing; there are other people of different shades that fall in love; let us -as a society- not also whitewash our entertainment as well history! Fan for life.
So in the end, for me, it boils down to being represented. To deny a person a voice or a reflection is to ultimately deny their humanity. You said it well so I won’t repeat much but thank you. Thank you for representing and for fighting for a story that’s worth telling.
Well, I’m only now reading this and, oh God, what you wrote is amazing.
Can even begin to express how much bothers me the fact that everytime some POC is announced in an adaptation the focus and all the talk is on how that person should not be there. The range goes from stupidly vain for caring too much about physical appearance to openly racist.
Like you said now, and only now, they are all about accuracy. No one who reads a shit load of historical romance can really said that they care for the accuracy. So it’s a little bit offensive to me. And a lot sad to see all this damn backlash over and over again. It’s tiring, isn’t it?
Other than that I really should say that I love your books, love your wit and your male characters who are kind and respectfull to women. We need more of them in literature.
I came to your blog to see if there was any excerpts of the Dani Brown book and discovered that you have a book that I did not knew about, Guarding Temptation. So I’m heading to amazon now =)
Hope my english wasn’t too bad.
Ezi Chinyere says
Thank you!!! And I am so excited for the diversity on screen. Romance readers (white women, in particular) have surprised me with the things they will accept just as long it’s not a black love interest.
Shea Swain says
I agree. Unless it is a real historical figure or if race has a major significance to the story being told, give us some diversity. It is overdue. Thank you for bringing this show/movie to my attention!
Blacks are replacing historical and mythological white characters….why?
Instead of coming up with new characters and new ideas, they just take existing white characters.
As a black woman this is a trend which I loath. Why?
It feels that Black/ history/voices are being perceived as lacking and are not as interesting or rich as other cultures.
And when I saw R-J Page was going to play a white character I was furious. It is not personal, I think he is yummy. But really, REALLY playing a duke, a duke in 18th century. It makes me sad it feels that they inserted a black man for giggles and controversy and that’s all there is to it and that’s why I won’t be watching this show as much as I love the books.
Because when you create a character you tell about your own culture, your own traditions…that you can relate to. You don’t go and take somebody else’s and make it your own. It is pathetic and laughable.
Think about the future generations, is this the kind of legacy we want to leave.
The answer is absolutely not.
Sterling K Brown said that all his life he found work thanks to color blind castings, how is that rewarding?
I am going to finish by this quote made by Brown during the Golden Globes This role was written specifically for a Black man. So I am being seen for who I am and I am being appreciated for who I am. And it makes it that much more difficult to dismiss me or anyone who looks like me’
Now let’s ponder about that, shall we?
What an intelligent piece of writing. Well done.
Sorry something I wanted to add, I absolutely love your books. They are amazing.
Thank you for this great piece, Talia! I’m excited for this, and honestly, I’d like more people of color in the main cast. I’ll never understand why people suspend their disbelief and understand the romantic elements of other historical fiction or just fiction, but need accuracy when it comes to the keeping racist history in place because we are so conditioned to only expect seeing white characters on our screens. However, the key word is FICTION. Anything can happen in fictional story unless it is based on historical events, and even then, there can still be a note that modifying the story. Often times, I believe it makes stories better for modern audiences. Example: people love Clueless which is a Jane Austen re-imagining of Emma. Or when people take creative liberties in things like Reign an old CW show about Mary Queen of Scots, people can get on board for that, despite all of the historical inaccuracies there. Even the show about Emily Dickinson with Hailee Steinfeld or Enola about a fictional sister for Sherlock Holmes. People can get with the program for all of those stories, but draw the line at race? Please, it is a tired agreement. Re-evaluate why keeping a character’s skin white is the most essential part of your reading. People of color are allowed to write FICTIONAL stories that include them because they have a right to finally see themselves in different lights during a period that they might enjoy various elements of. That is not reserved for white characters despite what an original work shows because the reason white characters are allowed to be in stories where they are living these privileged lives and existing in a escapist bubble is because of their insistence of keeping People of color marginalized in real life. That is nothing to gloss over. People of color can’t be penalized for inserting ourselves in stories we want to see due to the oppressive forces that prevented our having access in the first place. That shouldn’t still be so normalized and accepted among viewers in modern society.
Maria Cristina says
People easily accept dragons and magic but will complain that black people are not realistic.
I happen to agree with your points. Who cares who plays what? Its all fictional romance. It doesn’t need to be historically accurate like a documentary on the Civil War for example.
One thing you did not address though, which I have heard from a friend who is black, that really bothers her, is that making a color blind society in aristocratic 19th century England is very dismissive of the suffering of black people at the hands of the racist aristocrats of the time. Almost like saying, who cares that people are being sold across the ocean and enslaved and abused. Lets just be happy and cheerful and pretend we are all best friends and dance at a ball together.
I guess we can technically give the same answer, its all fiction so who cares, but I am not sure dismissing black people is ok in the name of entertainment.
Curious about your thoughts. Thanks!
A great post I’m def gonna refer to if I face these racist complaints!! Exactly as you said, if this was trying to be some serious realistic history you would still find Black people from Britain, but this is not even serious, this is romance! So no need to even explain anyone the history of POC, it can just be and racists need to accept it. Im so looking forward to the show !
Jim Piaggi says
Why not native american, hispanic, vietnamese, Indian, actors etc.?
Should include ALL races.
Not just black and white.
Monica Kim says
yeah and I see no Asians (from a very fed up Asian)
As an African American and an avid reader of Interracial romance I generally have no qualms with this type of plot. But as a historical work or period piece I am not sure it rings true and for that reason it is off putting. Other than that I have no issue with the project and wish it well.
Started watching the series and researched the characters, as I didn’t read the books. Ended up here…
I actually hear what you’re saying – having characters outside the norm is great. I’d love to see more trans or queer characters in stories, for instance (and not relegated to a niche sub-genre).
However… I still want things to make sense. You mentioned yourself that “historical romance often ignores social and moral issues, giving old-timey characters more modern attitudes to suit the modern reader—*which is why so many romance heroines are considered ‘originals’ by their peers, or just plain freaks.”*
That’s the key issue. Yes, lots of heroines are outside the norm, *and they have to pay the social price for it*. There’s a consequence to their difference (even if the story always ends well for them, obviously).
So, a black duke ? Sure, bring it on. But please give me an explanation ! Make people react to it ! It’s not that hard, really. Maybe one of Simon’s ancestors was an ambassador from an African country and married a british aristocrat ? Maybe his black ancestor did a great service to the crown and got rewarded with his title ? I’d be totally fine with that. And, no, maybe we don’t need to hear racial slurs every ten seconds, but there definitely would be looks, comments and prejudice (in the same way heroine who gets compromised are treated like lepers !)
We do not want to hear about the heroes taking a dump. But we do want to hear about their struggles and personal development, and for it to mean something it has to be intricately linked to who they are, as a person. The conflict definitely doesn’t have to be all about their race, but for it to be simply ignored makes the whole setting strange. Why not whip out wands and dragons then ? If the rules of the setting don’t matter ? Or just put this in a fictional setting loosely based on victorian england ?
I’d love to see a trans character, but if everyone around them celebrated them for who they are in a victorian romance, it’d actually destroy my immersion in the story, because that’s just not how the world is. I want to identify with the characters, and with their struggles, and if they don’t actually have any struggles to fit in… they’re as meaningful as a barbie doll. Looks nice on the outside, pretty empty inside.
So, I’m happy for Simon to be black, but I’d really prefer it if the rest of the characters stopped pretending they didn’t notice or that it doesn’t matter. And in fact, if the series wanted to make a statement about black people, it’d do so way more effectively by not using this colour-blind approach – but on the contrary, have people face their own prejudice.
And, incidentally, if this is about how prejudice is wrong, then why is it okay for all the ugly characters to be evil ? (And yes, I’d actually like to have a main character who was genuinely, truly ugly, and who had to face the struggles that go with that – that would bring lots of character development. Just like I was happy to read a story about a heroine who was fat – and faced disapproval and disdain because of it).
I do agree that there’s plenty to do (and plenty of fun to have) with non-traditional settings. For instance, how about a society where white people are the ones facing prejudice ? That’d be a cool fantasy or alternate-universe kind of story.