For those interested in historical accuracy, I must mention a few stretches of fact I felt at liberty to take in the course of creating this fiction . . . It was pure fun making up this world from the facts, the above-mentioned having been bent a little to suit.
--Judy Cuevas, Author's Note to Black Silk
What do we mean when we call a romance historical?
Nineteenth century writers like Austen and the Brontës--writers whose work is often cited as a precursor to genre romance--were often in the habit of setting their stories a decade or two prior to the date of publication. Austen started working on the earliest version of Pride and Prejudice in the 1790s, more than a decade before the official beginning of the Regency period; Wuthering Heights, published in 1847, careens from the 1750s to about 1807. Sir Walter Scott, who wrote "romances" in the catholic sense, is usually credited with the invention of the historical novel. When Waverley, set during the Jacobite uprising of 1745, was published in 1814, it achieved a wild popularity; it would make Scott as towering a figure in the first half of the century as Dickens (or "Mr. Popular Sentiment"; Trollope's withering name for the writer) was in the latter. Scott's work would spawn countless imitations and tributes (The Brontës were fans; Mary Shelley thought about him a lot; Elizabeth Gaskell and George Eliot often felt the effects of his influence.). Prolific and popular, he was (nearly singlehandedly) responsible for establishing the reading public's taste for long-form fiction set in other time periods. In that sense, contemporary Historical romance owes as much or more to SWS as it does to Jane, Charlotte, or Emily.
But what are the uses of history in romance? There's obviously a spectrum of how history gets deployed in romance--how "historical" a piece of writing really is. When SWS was writing about twelfth century chivalry in Ivanhoe--jousts and disinherited knights and courtly love--he was also writing (in the figures of Isaac and Rebecca) through nineteenth British anxieties about the recent influx of Jewish immigrants. That is, there's not much attempt in Ivanhoe to pretend that the world of the story is an accurate picture of medieval life. The characters speak modern English, not pre-Great Vowel shift proto-Chaucerian dialect (Even Walter Scott is no Laura Kinsale.). There's Robin Hood bouncing about in merry outlawry and everyone is so bloody noble or so bloody mean they're practically archetypal. So if a gritty, precise picture of twelfth century England wasn't what Scott's contemporary readers were responding to, what was it?
My answer would be a word that primarily pops up in discussions of SF/fantasy rather than romance: world-building. Ivanhoe has a lot of flashing swords and maidens in arcane get-ups of silk and samite, of course, and window dressing of this sort has a powerful appeal. But it matters in Ivanhoe that people use swords to negotiate, the same way that it matters that manners are the weapons of choice in a Regency-set romance. What we're responding to is less history-proper than it is the completeness of an illusion--a dream of an historical period. What are the rules of the world? Are they consistent? The more consistent and complex a world the more complete it feels--dense, massy, solid, absorbing. One of the pleasures of the well-researched novel is that it's acquired and employed enough detail that the world--however far it may be from the reality of, say, London in 1880, feels as if it could have existed. A possible world.
We want worlds, as Judy Cuevas writes in the epigraph to this piece made "from the facts" because a world (as at least one nettlesome philosopher has said) is the totality of facts. But (how perverse we are!) we don't mind if the facts are bent, so long as they're bent with care and skill. Because on facts bent in just the right way, other larger truths may be built, truths about thinking and feeling and knowing, truths about how each one of us is a world and a part of a world and a maker of worlds.
A good candidate for the first major architect of SWS-style world-building in genre romance is, of course, Georgette Heyer. The Dream of the Regency on which many contemporary Historical romances draw seems to start with her finicky attention to period details of dress and deportment. That said, however, she was, in her canny way, much more of a fantasist than people give her credit for being. For instance, the Regency cant that forms the major dialect of her world was largely her own invention--inspired sometimes by historical sources and sometimes by the vibrant slang that was current among the Bright Young Things of Jazz Age London; her heroines also owe many of their characteristics to the figure of the flapper in popular imagination.
Ideology's everywhere, of course. We are creatures of our time. No matter in what era a twenty-first century writer chooses to write, she is always writing about twenty-first century concerns. This is a good thing. We need fiction that talks to us (if indeed we need fiction at all) but we also need fiction that shows us what could be and might be and may have been. Call it speculative fiction. Call it a concrete manifestation of the historical imagination. We need dreams we can walk into and inhabit, dreams where we can wander in and fiddle with all the moving parts. And this is, perhaps, what we mean when we call a romance historical.
Now all I need is for someone to write me a perfect Dream of the French Revolution romance with sans culottes and intellectuals and bourgeois revolutionaries and heaps of uninhibited sex. No aristocrats need apply. Happy Bastille Day.