Why I Believe that Romance in Historical Fiction Deepens the Connection Between Readers and Characters From the Past
by Sophie Perinot
Shall I tell you a secret? I am addicted to love.
My craving for romantic elements in literature (in TV or movies too for that matter) is SO strong that my fertile brain spins its own romantic plotlines into stories where they are lacking. Yep, when I finish a book/PBS series/whatever in which I’ve perceived a whiff of incipient romance left unexplored, I spend days fleshing out that relationship in my mind while burning toast, chauffeuring kids and grocery shopping. Likewise when I write, however major the historical events at the center of my story, you can bet there will also be a strong romantic plotline incorporated. I simply can’t conceive of a satisfying story without one. Is it any surprise, then, that I am more than a little bit tired of hearing historical novels with strong romantic elements dismissed as “fluff” or “beach reading?”
I believe precisely the opposite is true. Why?
What is intimate is important. If we are entirely honest with ourselves, a vast majority of us care less about who will win the election in November than we do about whether the person we love is being faithful. I don’t think that makes us “intellectual light weights.” I think it speaks to the fact that in a majority of lives the personal makes more of an impact than the political.
Love lies at the center our humanity. The desire to care about others and be cared about in return is hardwired into us. A life without love is one of the saddest things imaginable—a bleak stretch of years that would, at least for me, be gravely deficient even if I had the talent and capacity to create a world-changing invention or cure a major disease. Granted, the type of love that fulfills a particular individual’s need for affection doesn’t have to be romantic. Love of a parent, a sibling, a colleague, a pet—in other words purely platonic love—can be every bit as consuming and satisfying. Romantic love is, however, a very common human experience, shared across time, and between people who live continents apart. Thus, fictional (or fictionalized) characters who love create a point of shared humanity and common experience with the reading audience. So the inclusion of a romantic plot element should enhance a book’s ability to connect with readers on a deeper level.
This is perhaps particularly true in the case of historical fiction. Characters in historical novels don’t wear the same things we do, they don’t speak the same language, and they operate under legal, social, political and moral systems often vastly different from our own. Points of commonality with the modern audience, which abound in contemporary fiction, are limited. But the need for readers connect with characters in a historical novel still exists. A romantic plotline can bridge the time gap.
Some might argue that the sweep of history alone is enough to make a historical novel successful. But I don’t think so. True, battles are lost and won, kings rise and fall, religions and empires do as well. But the facts of those victories and defeats can be dry as dust (think badly taught high school history – long on dates and short on drama) unless we CARE about the characters involved. We care when authors make their characters fully human by allowing us to identify with feelings and thoughts. The ways we love—unrequitedly, faithfully, etc—and the ways the object of our affection can make us feel—euphoric, neglected, betrayed, etc—haven’t changed in a thousand years (or two). So we can identify with characters caught up in a romance—whether blighted or successful.
I believe that is why the historical fiction I love most has strong romantic elements in it. Love doesn’t just make the world go round, it brings the past a little bit closer.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Sophie Perinot writes historical fiction with strong romantic plotlines. Her debut novel, The Sister Queens (Mach 2012: NAL/Penguin), tells the story of 13th century sisters, Marguerite and Eleanor of Provence, who became the queens of France and England respectively. When she is not off on crusade with the handsome Seigneur de Joinville, or gallivanting around the 16th century in company with Marguerite de Valois, she lives in Virginia with her three children, two cats, and one husband.
Our review of THE SISTER QUEENS by Sophie Perinot