All fictional stories involve world building. Historical stories require world introduction, the conveyance of a sense of place and time that the characters are going to inhabit.
The further you go back in the mists of time, the more imaginative the knitting together of the bare (and barely available) facts needs to be to make the world seem plausible.
Take the Georgian period, which for the purposes of the historical romance novel is the mid- to late 18th century to 1811. The glittering world of the nobility in Georgian England was symbolized by lavish fashions for men and women, culinary marvels, soaring architecture, and every other excess imaginable.
Into this world, Georgette Heyer dropped her Alistair, Duke of Avon, from the story These Old Shades. He wore red-heeled shoes, carried a scented lace handkerchief in his hand, sprinkled jewels on his cravat, and powdered his hair. But no one reading the novel would mistake him for a fop. Avon was a formidable hero of strength, character, intelligence, and strong will.
Just as Jo Beverley’s Beowulf, Marquess of Rothgar, éminence noir of England was formidable. As the story Devilish shows, there was nothing of the mincing dandy in Rothgar. He may have moved in languid hauteur, allowed no emotion to mar the tranquility of his face, worn elaborate clothes fashioned from the cloth of gold, traveled in a sedan chair to court, and yet to the heroine: “He was a man who had to be engaged mind, body, emotions, and soul” in order to truly be reached.
Both Rothgar and Avon are examples of men who were ascetic in their mannerisms and behavior yet who dressed and moved about in keeping with their peers. They were both physically strong and skilled at fighting with swords and with their fists and had the wherewithal to use them. However, they rarely used physical force, because a cutting word, a chilling look, a measured tone were intimidating enough. They were alphas in their milieu.
The incongruity of a foot massage from Rothgar to Diana and of Avon allowing Léonie to jump up on a chair in front of his family notwithstanding, both men had a ruthless streak that was in keeping with their redoubtable reputation. While they were both clearly more indulgent with their heroine than with anyone else, even their siblings, there was always a part of them that was inviolate, that made them strong men who were not pushovers. “I am yours to command in all things,” Rothgar said. “My body and heart want you. Only my cursed will reminds me of other things.”
Heyer’s hero isn’t shown to be doing work for his vast dukedom, whereas Beverley’s hero is clearly involved in all aspects of the business of his marquessate. This is a stylistic difference between the authors. Beverley tries to portray more realistic characters, which has her hero doing his “job” in addition to his relationship with the heroine. Heyer, on the other hand, doesn’t let up on the focus on the hero and heroine and their relationship. Outside events influence Beverley’s characters just as they influence external events. Heyer’s characters focus on influencing outside events by and large. And yet, in every instance of the story, the reader is fully immersed in the society and culture of the time period.
Both Rothgar and Avon were clever, astute, indurate, yet always honorable men. They lived sumptuous lives and were actively engaged with their Georgian society. But the authors’ greatest achievement was to humanize them.
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Keira Soleore is an aspiring Medieval and Regency historical romance writer and the comments moderator for IASPR's Journal of Popular Romance Studies. On the web, she can found at Cogitations & Meditations, on her website, and on Facebook.