At the Back Fence Issue #267

June 11, 2007 

From the Desk of Robin Uncapher:

The Elusive English Hero

Who is the hero we read about in historical romance novels, written by American writers? Is he really English, or is he based on the Englishmen who came to America?

If you visit England on a package trip that includes a bus ride from Heathrow into London, you are bound to share your ride with first-time visitors from America. Your companions will be wide-eyed, excited, and thrilled to be in the place where it all began. They will peer out of the bus hungry for a glimpse of English things – a pub, a shiny black London cab, stone houses, a rare red phone booth. They will listen for the accent of the bus driver and smile. And then, inevitably it will happen. Someone on the bus will mention what is on the minds of every American touching base on British soil since 1972… Masterpiece Theatre.

Ah Masterpiece Theatre! Not today’s Masterpiece Theatre which may, or may not be introduced by a fellow American: Russell Baker. American travelers to London usually mean Alistair Cooke’s Masterpiece Theatre, the one with Upstairs/Downstairs. Who does not remember Lord and Lady Bellamy, Mrs. Bridges, the cook and Mr. Hudson, the butler? Many American visitors to London also seem to be looking for Agatha Christie’s England; the one with little parlor maids who speak timidly to their betters and taxi drivers who call passengers “guvna, ” and “miss.”

I don’t mean to sound condescending, though I know I do. I’m as big a sucker as they are for the England we Americans see on PBS once a week. I love P.G Wodehouse, Dickens, and Agatha Christie. I can recite a list of old Masterpiece Theatre series that need to be released on DVD. But there’s one problem with going to visit the Masterpiece Theatre England.

It doesn’t exist.

No it doesn’t. Sorry, its not there. The days of little parlor maids and cabbies who call you “guvna” have gone the way of Brooklyn accents. You won’t find it any more than the New England of Moby Dick or the Wild West of John Wayne movies, or (sorry to say) the wonderful and romanticized New York City of Woody Allen’s Manhattan.

The real England is shockingly familiar, a democracy filled with people of all races and religions, who argue (as we do) about the price of gasoline, taxes and the capabilities of their leaders. They have that great sense of humor you have heard about and, fortunately, a lot of patience for Americans.

I don’t think the average historical romance reader will be shocked to hear that 21st century England has little in common with the one we read in romance novels. It’s true that English writers often have a better handle on writing English settings than Americans. (Well, duh.) I once attended a presentation during which Jo Beverley pointed out that basic geography is necessary in writing a story where people travel in coaches from place to place. Jo didn’t want to embarrass anybody, but she made it clear that, to someone who knows where Surrey is, it’s pretty annoying to have it suddenly make an appearance in the wrong part of the country. (picky picky)

She was followed-up by the way, by a transplanted American who proceeded first to lecture us about the terrible mistakes we Americans make with British history, and then to give us an overview of British history so riddled with errors that I suspected she had tried to learn by osmosis rather than actually cracking a book.

Real English writers have an edge, though. English school children and adults spend a lot of time reading English literature. To many English writers, its second nature to describe the kinds of settings common in Dickens, Bronte, Austin, etc. About ten years ago I heard an American biographer describe her feelings on doing presentations on Jane Austen in England. What really bothered her, she said, were those people who sat in the back of the room reciting the scene in Pride and Prejudice where Mr. Collins proposes to Elizabeth Bennet. Showoffs.

I suspect that the average American romance reader is well aware that the England in most historical American romance novels never existed but I think that is secondary in American readers’ minds to the kind of character they assign to an English romance hero. And, as most British romance writers will tell you, that hero is not Mr. Darcy. He’s a lot more like Rhett Butler.

American romance readers know it’s romanceland, and we don’t mind all that much. We love our vision of the English. And here is why. America’s Englishman, that is to say, the English hero in American romance novels, is not really English. (Okay okay, I can hear you British readers laughing from here and saying you knew it all along…)

But bear with me. Here is my theory. English heroes written by American romance writers aren’t English. They are American. And they are based not on English heroes but on our heroes – the English who came to America.

Americans are not mostly English, but much of American culture and American national memory comes from England. England – its traditions, history, even English food – are part of American history. We speak English. We identify with the English in any story that includes them and a non-English speaking power.

American culture does not descend from modern day England. It descends from an earlier England. England of the 19th century dominated the world, much in the way that America does today. In this way, I believe that Americans not only identify with 19th century English, we understand them better than many of their descendants who live in England today. Those descendants know a lot about their ancestors, but do they know what its like to be the focus of the national foreign policy of virtually every country in the world? Do they know what its like to feel, in some way, responsible for the world’s welfare?

I thought of this, last week when I was finishing Nathan Philbrick’s astonishingly wonderful history of the Pilgrims and Plymouth Plantations, Mayflower. The story of the Pilgrims in America would seem to be part of American, and not English history, but in fact it is both. And, like the England of historical romance, the America of the Pilgrims is mostly told in myth. The Pilgrims were English, not American. When you get one hundred pages into Mayflower, it might occur to you that our vision of the Pilgrims at the First Thanksgiving is less accurate than our vision of the London Season in 1810.

Philbrick’s book includes an immense amount of research on the viewpoint of both the Pilgrims and the Indians who lived with them and, mostly perished fifty years later in King Phillip’s War. A few things strike you immediately when reading this narrative. The first is that the Pilgrims did not hail from George III’s England. They came from Shakespeare’s England and might not have left had they known that Cromwell would someday impose Protestantism on their homeland. The second is that because they came here before 19th century England was a reality, the English in America evolved differently.

The English romance heroes written by Americans often do seem egalitarian to English ears. In the same presentation I referred to earlier, Jo Beverley pointed out that British aristocrats simply did not go around promoting democracy or the idea of equal rights. This is absolutely true. But many American romance writers simply cannot bring themselves to write a British romance hero who’s a snob. American history is filled with prejudice, much of it appalling, but snobbery has almost always been considered the refuge of people with no talent or drive. How could we possibly ascribe this to our beloved romance characters?

Of the American romance writers whom I admire no one makes me laugh and smile more in this regard than Lisa Kleypas. I love Kleypas heroes mainly because Lisa Kleypas goes out of her way make them smart, powerful and accomplished. It’s not enough for a Kleypas hero to be rich. Most of the time she wants him to have made at least some of his success for himself. Take Scandal in Spring, a book in which the heroine’s father announces that he will insist that his daughter marry his favorite employee…oh, the horror! Sir Ross Cannon, the hero of Lady Sophia’s Lover, was another hero based on American values. As AAR Reviewer and Editor Sandy Coleman wrote, “He is so dedicated to his position that he will even chase a criminal over rooftops – to truth, justice, and the English way.”

Kleypas, and in a similar way, Carla Kelly, write heroes who are transparently American. But even romance heroes who do have more traditional occupations often seem more American than English, at least to this reader. Mary Jo Putney’s handsome Duke of Ashburton in One Perfect Rose, meets a pretty actress and marries her thinking he is dying. The fact that this young woman is completely out of his class hardly makes a blip on the radar. In our eyes it shouldn’t. The woman may be an actress but she’s educated. To an American reader that’s most of what it takes. Give a person an education and they are equal with pretty much anyone.

Would we really love a hero who didn’t think so?

I have read English heroes for years, and loved them. But few romance heroes in English set books seem very English to me. And this includes the heroes of some excellent writers who are not American – Jo Beverley and Mary Balogh, who hail from England and Wales, respectively. Their heroes are fascinating, technically accurate (at least within the genre’s expectations) but truth be told they also have many of the aspects I associate with being an American, or perhaps, in their cases, Canadians.

So what do you think? When you read a romance hero written by an American or Canadian historical writer, do you hear an English accent?

And Now, It’s Your Turn:

Who is the hero we read about in historical romance novels, written by American writers? Is he really English, or is he based on the Englishmen who came to America? Do you notice a difference between English heroes written by authors who are not American, and if so, how so? And, particularly for those readers out there who live in the UK, which North American romance writers do best at portraying the English hero?

Robin Uncapher

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(AAR uses BYRON for its romance reference needs)