Jul 17 2013 1:30pm

Class Differences in Historical Romance, Part 1: The Triumph of Love Over Level

The Famous Heroine by Mary BaloghPart One: Marrying the Maid (Or the Governess or . . .)

The theme of love powerful enough to overcome the boundaries of class is rooted deeply in the tradition of romance fiction. Whether one views the title character in Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740) as hypocritical schemer or moralistic prig, the virtuous maid “tames the rake” and marries the master, a decidedly upward move in the class hierarchy given Pamela’s poverty and low social status and Mr. B.’s estates in Bedfordshire and Lincolnshire and his connection with the peerage.

The class distinction between Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813) is far more subtle than the gap between Mr. B. and Pamela. As Elizabeth says of Darcy to Lady Catherine de Bourgh, “He is a gentleman; I am a gentleman's daughter; so far we are equal.”  Although Darcy is wealthier, he and Mr. Bennet both belong to the landed gentry. However, more than a difference in income separates the two men. Mr. Bennet married the daughter of an attorney, a misalliancethat is compounded by their differences in temperament and intelligence. Darcy’s father married the daughter of an earl. Charlotte Brontë held a poor opinion of Austen’s novels, but she pairs her most famous heroine with a hero who is considered her social superior throughout most of the novel. By the time the heroine says “Reader, I married him” in the first sentence of the final chapter of Jane Eyre (1847), she has reversed the inequalities that marked her position for most of the novel, but by that time the impression of Jane as poor, plain, and powerless has been memorably established.

Feminist publisher Carmen Callil, finding the plots of Georgette Heyer’s novels lacking, said “She just used Jane Eyre and jiggled it around 57 times.” Although Heyer herself acknowledged that her Mark I heroes owed a debt to Charlotte Brontë’s Rochester, Jane Austen’s influence was at least as great, and hundreds of romance writers have read and emulated Heyer’s “jiggling.” Like Austen and Brontë, Heyer dealt with cross-class relationships, most notably in Devil’s Cub (1932) and A Civil Contract (1961), a more thorough and complex treatment of a cross-class marriage. When Adam Deveril’s father dies unexpectedly, Adam is forced to leave his regiment and return to Fontley Priory, the family estate, which is heavily mortgaged. He must marry a wealthy woman, even if it means forfeiting his dream of a life with the beautiful Julia Oversley, a childhood friend and near neighbor. He agrees to marry plump, plain Jenny Chawleigh, daughter of a wealthy merchant and to see that she is accepted into aristocratic circles. In exchange, Chawleigh settles the debts and mortgages that Adam has inherited. No makeover transforms Jenny into a beauty, and no epiphany reveals her to Adam as his True Love. Instead, the two become friends who understand one another, building a life of shared interests, gentle laughter, and quiet contentment. Some readers feel that Jenny is cheated out of a grand passion and insist this novel is no romance.

Heyer established types and tropes that would become staples of romance fiction into the twenty-first century, and the cross-class romance was no exception. All About Romance lists 179 historical titles, ranging from Medievals to American historicals, by 93 authors on their list of “Across the Tracks” romances, and most romance readers can probably name favorites that are not included. Perhaps no historical romance author has written more cross-class romances than has Mary Balogh. The AAR list includes sixteen titles by Balogh, beginning with A Chance Encounter (1985), and I can think of several not on the list, including The Proposal (2012). The basic premise of A Christmas Promise (1992) is similar to that of Heyer’s A Civil Contract: Randolph, the Earl of Falloden, inherits a mountain of debt with his new title. Joseph Transome, a wealthy coal merchant, buys all Randolph’s debts and offers to forgive them if Randolph marries Transome’s daughter Eleanor. Similarities to Heyer end here, as misunderstandings and prejudices keep Randolph and Ellie from discovering any common ground. A Christmas house party that includes a group of Randolph’s aristocratic friends and two dozen or so of Ellie’s middle-class relatives proves surprisingly harmonious and provides a back drop for the marriage of convenience to become a love match.

A pair of books published the same year serve to show Balogh’s range in using cross-class plots. The Famous Heroine (1996) pairs Cora Downes, the daughter of a wealthy Bristol merchant, with Lord Francis Kneller, a leader of fashion and connoisseur of beauty. Cora is constantly plunging into disasters from which Francis saves her even as she saves him from depression and ennui. They delight in one another’s company, and the reader delights in this rare friends-to-lovers tale that recognizes the importance of shared laughter in developing intimacy. Sharing shelf space with The Famous Heroine in 1996 was Truly, a Welsh-set tale rich in the history of peasant rebellions known as the Rebecca Riots, that features Geraint Penderyn the new Earl of Wyvern, once an impoverished village schoolboy and  his childhood friend, Marged Evans, who holds him responsible for her husband’s death.

Balogh continued to make cross-class pairs her protagonists. In her popular Bedwyn series, three of the aristocratic Bedwyn brothers marry women of a lower class, and even Wulfric, the powerful head of the family, chooses a bride who is far from his equal in rank and influence. In Slightly Married (2003), Lord Aidan Bedwyn marries Eve Morris, a coal miner’s daughter; in Slightly Wicked (2003), Rannulf marries Judith Law, a poor clergyman’s daughter who has accepted a job as a lady’s companion; and in Slightly Sinful (2004), Alleyne marries Rachel York, gently bred but formerly a lady’s companion, who is living in the home of four prostitutes. In Slightly Dangerous (2004), Wulf, The Duke of Bewcastle, marries Christine Derrick, a village schoolteacher and widow of the brother of a viscount. Like Elizabeth Bennet, Christine is a gentleman’s daughter but one nonetheless considered the social inferior of the hero.

To Love a Thief by Julie Anne LongJulie Anne Long is another author who has used the cross-class trope throughout her career. Her debut novel, The Runaway Duke (2004), could be described as a faux cross-class romance. When Roarke Connor Riordan Blackburn, heir to the Duke of Dunbrooke, is wounded in battle, he seizes a case of mistaken identity to escape a life he hates. Blackburn dies at Waterloo, and Connor Riordan survives to become a groom in the stables of Baron Henry Tremaine. After five years, Connor has risen to head groom, and he has become the friend and confidant of Tremaine’s unconventional young daughter Rebecca. A misjudgment on Becca’s part leaves her betrothed to a rake interested in her dowry and incapable of appreciating her intelligence and honesty, and Connor agrees to help her runaway, planning to take her to his aunt and then leave for a new life in America. Of course, Connor ends up as a duke who wants Becca for his duchess, but for most of the novel he is a groom and she is a baron’s daughter. There is nothing faux about the cross-class romance in To Love a Thief (2005), a Pygmalion tale that pairs Gideon Cole, a successful barrister and heir to a barony, with Lily Masters, a curate’s granddaughter turned pickpocket to support her younger sister. 

At least half of the stories in Long’s popular Pennyroyal Green series involve cross-class romances. In The Perils of Pleasure (2008), Colin Eversea, youngest son of the wealthy, powerful Eversea family, is rescued from hanging by Madeleine Greenway, a widow with connections to the London Underworld. He marries her over the objections of his ambitious father, who refuses to accept the marriage through the next six books. The social distance is even greater in How the Marquess was Won (2011) in which Phoebe Vale, a slum-born teacher at Miss Marietta Endicott’s Academy for Girls, is wooed and won by Julian Spenser, Marquess Dryden, darling of the ton, and in A Notorious Countess Confesses(2012) in which Vicar Adam Sylvaine, a relative of the Everseas, marries Evie Duggan, Irish peasant, actress, fallen woman, and scandalous widow. In the most recent addition to the series It Happened One Midnight(2013), Jonathan Redmond, youngest of the Redmonds, ignores his father’s demand that he marry a suitable heiress before the end of the year and instead marries Thomasina de Ballesteros, the illegitimate daughter of a Spanish courtesan and a duke.

Stephen Sharot, who studied cross-class romances in movies released between 1915 and 1935 (The Psychology of Love, 2012), found that such romances typically feature a rich protagonist, generally male, paired with a poor protagonist, generally female. The heroine demonstrates what Sharot calls “disinterested love,” that is, she subordinates considerations of class and status to the value and emotion of love, desiring the hero for what he is rather than for what he possesses. The wealthy hero proves that he is willing to forego the approval of his family—and even disinheritance—for love of the heroine, and the romance ends successfully with marriage or the promise of marriage. Although Sharot limited his study to films from two decades, which were contemporary stories, his conclusions apply as well to most historical romances published in the last quarter of the twentieth century and the first dozen years of the twenty-first century. This rubric can be identified in the novels by Mary Balogh and Julie Anne Long cited in the earlier paragraphs in this essay and to countless other cross-class romances. What distinguishes the mediocre from the excellent among these hundreds of books is the freshness the best authors add to the familiar pattern. In addition to the novels by Balogh and Long, I include the following baker’s dozen of titles in the excellent, highly recommended category.

Reforming Lord Ragsdale by Carla KellyReforming Lord Ragsdale (1995), Carla Kelly: John Staples, Marquess of Ragsdale and Emma Costello, an Irish indentured servant. Class and ethnicity separate Ragsdale and Emma, and the HEA between a lord and a servant seems impossible. But Kelly makes the happy ending believable and satisfying.

One Perfect Rose (1997), Mary Jo Putney: Stephen Kenyon, the Duke of Ashburton and Rosalind Jordan, an orphan adopted by the Fitzgeralds and reared as a member of their acting company. Stephen, whose life has been circumscribed by his position, interacts during what he thinks are the last months of his life with the vibrant Rosalind and her vital, funny family and falls deeply in love with Rosalind whom he insists on marrying. Only afterwards are her aristocratic ties revealed.

My Dearest Enemy (1998), Connie Brockway: Avery Thorne, a gentleman and an adventurer, and Lily Bede, a bastard and a suffragist. Some readers hate that Lily sold out her anti-marriage principles when she agreed to marry Avery, but I love this book with its epistolary element, the chemistry between Avery and Lily, and a couple of secondary characters about whom I still wonder.

Tallie’s Knight (2001), Anne Gracie: Magnus, Earl of D’Avenville, handsome, titled, and wealthy and Thalia “Tallie” Robinson, poor relation and children’s nurse. Cinderella tales abound in romance, but this is the only one I know where the prince’s motive is a desire for a child—not an heir, but a child to love—and his proposal more arrogant that Darcy’s, where Cinderella almost refuses, and where the couple takes a road trip to France and Italy.

The Rogue’s Return (2006) Jo Beverley: Simon McBride, a McBride of Brideswell distantly related to nearly every and titled family in England and Jane Otterburn, orphaned daughter of a shopkeeper.  Simon, who has spent five years in Canada, marries the niece of a dying friend in order to take care of her. He is concerned about how Jane will fit into his aristocratic circle when they return to England, and then he learns that his wife’s lineage is even more humble than he supposed: she is not Jane Otterburn but her half-sister, product of their schoolmaster father’s illicit union with the promiscuous Tillie Haskett, the best of a family of wastrels and vagabonds.

And Then He Kissed Her (2007), Laura Lee Guhrke: Harry, Viscount Marlowe, a peer denounced by the queen for his divorce and successful publisher of newspapers, magazine and books, and Emmaline Dove, his super-efficient secretary who aspires to be an author of etiquette books. This Victorian take on the boss-secretary romance is the first and best of Guhrke’s Girl Bachelor series.

Proof by Seduction by Courtney MilanProof by Seduction (2010), Courtney Milan: Gareth Carhart, Marquess of Blakely, a scientist who uses reason and logic to hold the world at arm’s length, and Jenny Keeble, aka Madame Esmerelda, a young woman of uncertain parentage who earns her living as a fortune teller. Class is a topic Milan has explored in a number of her books, but this one stands out for me because Jenny’s choice of a way to survive in a world that limited a woman’s choices so strictly is so far removed from the usual choices of governess or courtesan.

Seduction in Silk (2011) and Scandal Wears Satin (2012), Loretta Chase: Gervaise Angier, the seventh Duke of Clevedon, and Marcelline Noirot, an ambitious dressmaker; Harry, the Earl of Longmore, best friend of the Duke of Clevedon, and Sophy Noirot, sister of Marcelline and partner in the dress shop, Maison Noirot. Not only is it unthinkable that a duke marry a dressmaker but Clevedon is also informally pledged to marry the sister of his best friend, a young woman whom he has loved most of his life. To complicate matters further, the patronage of his almost-betrothed is Marcelline’s goal, a vital step in becoming the “greatest modiste in all the world.” In the second book, Sophy, intelligent, competent, and something of a chameleon, and Harry, an easy-going guy a bit reminiscent of Heyer’s Freddy Standen, work together to save Harry sister Freddy from marriage to a loser who has compromised her and through Clara save Maison Noirot which is being avoided by the tonnish ladies shocked by Clevedon’s marriage to a modiste. Both are wildly improbable tales but wholly delightful examples of Chase’s wit and winning characters.

A Lady’s Lesson in Scandal (2011), Meredith Duran: Simon St. Maur, the new Earl of Rushden in need of an heiress, and Nell Whitby, a factory girl from a London slum who believes she is the by-blow of the previous Earl of Rushden and who bears a marked resemblance to a missing heiress. What sounds like another trite tale becomes something extraordinary as Duran shows Nell’s adjustment to her new life and the mix of emotions her new status evokes.

A Gentleman Undone (2012) Cecilia Grant: Will Blackshear, a younger son of an aristocratic family and a veteran of Waterloo trying to atone for an error in judgment, and Lydia Slaughter, a woman of gentle birth who becomes a prostitute. Grant has a gift for taking the conventions of romance and giving them a twist that produces something exciting and different. She does that in spades with this tale of hero who accepts estrangement from most of his family as the price of marrying the woman he loves, who not only is the mistress of another man when he falls in love with her but also actually enjoys sex with the other man (gasp!).

Ravishing the Heiress by Sherry ThomasRavishing the Heiress (2012), Sherry Thomas: George Edward Arthur Granville Fitzhugh, Earl Fitzhugh, a nineteen-year-old newly ascended to his title and in need of an heiress, and Millicent Graves, only daughter of a wealthy manufacturer of “tinned goods and other preserved edibles.” This is one of my top twenty-five all-time romances, and one reason I love it is that it feels to me as if Thomas has rewritten Heyer’s A Civil Contract and given the heroine the joyous HEA that Heyer denies her Jenny.

Any Duchess Will Do (2013), Tessa Dare: Griffin York, the Duke of Halford, who is kidnapped by his mother and taken to Spindle Cove, that haven of misfits and unattached maidens, to choose a duchess, and Pauline Sims, a barmaid who dreams of owning a bookshop. Not many authors could make me suspend disbelief and accept a duke paired with a barmaid. Tessa Dare does and makes me love it in this mix of humor and pathos.


Janga spent decades teaching literature and writing to groups ranging from twelve-year-olds to college students. She is currently a freelance writer, who sometimes writes about romance fiction, and an aspiring writer of contemporary romance, who sometimes thinks of writing an American historical romance. She can be found at her blog Just Janga and tweeting obscure bits about writers as @Janga724.

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Jennifer O.
1. Jennifer O.
Awesome post, Janga! I love this theme in literature and definitely have some new books to add to my wishlist. So glad to see you mention Slightly Dangerous, Any Duchess Will Do, and And Then He Kissed Her...some of my favorites with this topic.
Jennifer O.
2. zannerina
Great post! So many of my favorites, I have been afraid to read Ravishing the Heiress because of the similarities to A Civil Contract, a book I found depressing. Now I will give it a chance.
3. Janga
Thanks, Jennifer. I didn't realize how many romance novels used the theme until I started working on this essay. And I really found it interesting that some authors seem to be drawn to the cross-class pairings repeatedly.
4. Janga
Thanks, Zannerina. I hope you enjoy Ravishing the Heiress. I'd think it was worth reading for a single set of lines that Venetia, Fitz’s sister and heroine of Beguiling the Beauty says to Millie, who has paraphrased with some bitterness Byron’s claim that “Friendship is Love without his wings.” Venetia responds, “No, my dear Millie, you are wrong. Love without friendship is like a kite, aloft only when the winds are favorable. Friendship is what gives love its wings.” Sigh!
Jennifer O.
5. emmel
What's interesting is that for almost all of these, the man is the privileged/upperclass person, the woman the poor/lowerclass person. The only variation is the woman being of lower class but rich. I'd be curious to come up with titles where the man is lowerclass or poor but the woman--upperclass and/or rich--marries him in a historical. Her Man of Affairs, an old Regency by Elizabeth Mansfield, is one that I can think of. Others?
Jennifer O.
6. Janga
Emmel, that's part two of the post. I'm working on it. I promise.
Jennifer O.
7. Jackie Horne
Emmel, try Judith Ivory's THE PROPOSITION: educated granddaughter of a duke finds love with a ratcatcher. Really fun inverted Pygmalion story!

-- Jackie
Mary Lynne Nielsen
8. emmel
@Jackie Horne: Proposition is a wonderful book! Great recommendation.
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