Regency TV series such as Sanditon and Bridgerton have sparked interest in more diverse characters in Historical Romance novels. Is it possible to be historically accurate yet also have a more diverse cast, including ethnically diverse protagonists?
In terms of black female aristocrats in the era, we do have the example of Dido Elizabeth Belle. However, it is not clear if she enjoyed entirely equal status to her white relatives, whether due to her heritage and/or her illegitimacy.
Jane Austen’s unfinished novel Sanditon features an heiress who is mixed race and does not seem to have been discriminated against – wealth seems to trump ethnicity in her situation:
Of these three, and indeed of all, Miss Lambe was beyond comparison the most important and precious, as she paid in proportion to her fortune. She was about seventeen, half mulatto, chilly and tender, had a maid of her own, was to have the best room in the lodgings, and was always of the first consequence in every plan of Mrs. Griffiths.
So it’s definitely possible to have a non-white, wealthy heroine if extremely rare. One of my future novels will feature a Regency heroine who is mixed race (due to her English father having a relationship with a “Creole” woman in the West Indies).
Perceptions of black people in the Regency era
While I haven’t researched this extensively, I don’t consider the TV adaptation Sanditon (which is mostly invented, only about the first half hour is based on Austen’s book) handled the race issues very accurately. The rudeness and racism of the hostess at the dinner scene seemed completely implausible and out of accordance with all manners and mores at the time.
From what I have read and researched, the perception of a “black” person by polite society would likely have been more one of curiosity and exoticism. People in the Regency period in England wouldn’t have had many of the same racist connotations/negative stereotypes that exist today.
Rich people would probably have been more fascinated than hostile. Many of them would never actually encounter a black person their entire lives. There definitely would have been a lot of ignorance. But there are examples of black people who were respected and celebrated.
Terminology: a thorny issue
One of the most challenging aspects may be the terminology used to describe non-white people in past eras. Many of those terms are not considered acceptable today. However modern euphemisms can be extremely jarring in a historical setting. I once came across a historical romance that used the phrase: “She was a person of colour!” to describe a black child, which simply did not work. It was not the correct terminology nor the perception of the time period.
The term “mulatto” as used by Jane Austen in Sanditon would clearly be considered outdated and derogatory today. We can all think of many other examples. Generally, my suggested strategies are:
- to simply use terms like “African” or “Indian”, eg “of African heritage”, “of Indian appearance”, obviously avoid “African American” as it’s a modern concept/term
- to write around the need for a term: “His darker complexion showed that he was not a man of English parentage”
- use less loaded, archaic terms within the speech of other characters (ie not narration), eg “No son of mine will marry a heathen!” “I believe he is an Oriental” to create a historical vibe
Be cautious with US vs UK perspectives
For American authors it is really critical to bear in mind the difference between American views and prejudices and British ones. Perceptions of black/non-white people are extremely different in each country, albeit there is racism in both countries.
The slave trade was of course happening during the 17th and 18th centuries, but ownership of slaves within Britain was minimal (and nearly always 100% illegal). There were also no segregation or anti-miscegnation laws. The UK has also never had laws banning the depiction of mixed-race couples in film, as the Hays Code did, so attitudes have typically been more open. This article gives useful background as to the very different situation in Hollywood even today.
Another dimension to the ethnicity issue is rich vs poor and the British class system, also very different in the UK than in the US. This might be almost as great a source of tension for a non-white American heiress in the Regency era than her skin colour.
These links may be a start with research into the context of it:
- Wikipedia: Slavery in Britain
- English Heritage: Black People in Late 18th Century Britain
- BBC: Britain’s First Black Aristocrats
As a final point, my advice for authors really wanting to cover themes of racism in prominent way in a Regency novel would be to consider a portal/time travel romance, or a “fantasy Regency” era similar to Bridgerton. Send a modern-day hero or heroine back into the past so you can indulge modern mores to a greater extent. Otherwise you will have to sacrifice considerable historical authenticity in your novel.