Is Historical Romance Alternate History?

When I became interested in writing romance, my reading predilections steered me directly into historical romance. I like a good relationship story, and I love history, so what’s not to like? But as I’ve started following the blogs of historical romance writers, I’ve started noticing something; writers referring to historical romance as “alternate history”. I’ve always shook my head at this, but I keep seeing it come up again and again, and it’s really started to feel like a burr in my boot every time I see. Do folks just not know what alternate history is? I cut my teeth in science fiction writing alternate history, and from what I’ve read of historical romance, nothing I’ve read is true alternate history.

So what is alternate history? At its core, AH is What if?. Further, Wikipedia defines it as looking “at ‘what if’ scenarios from some of history’s most pivotal turning points and present[ing] a completely different version, sometimes based on science and fact, but often based on conjecture. The exploration of how the world would look today if various changes occurred and what these alternate worlds would be like forms the basis of this vast subject matter.” So in AH, the world which we know has been changed and the resulting future is noticeably different than the one we live in.

The thing about historical romance is that, in my limited reading so far, there’s been no “what if?” and no significant altering of history. There’s a lot of taking liberties with historical figures, usually minor ones, or outright substitution of actual historical figures with made up ones, but in the end, history is not fundamentally different than we know it; the world is not changed so that Columbus never discovers the Americas or the Roman Empire survives into the modern era. History continues on in pretty much the same fashion it already did. All the historical romances I’ve read thus far miss this key benchmark of alternate history.

So, if they aren’t alternate history, then what are they? Taking a look at Uchronia’s definitions, I’d call them Secret Histories. Some aren’t even that; they’re just romance stories told in a historical setting.

But why is the distinction even important? Maybe it’s not, to anyone but me. See, I want to read actual alternate history romance, romances set within “what if” scenarios where the story is not confined by actual history, where unlikely relationship combinations occur thanks to history not unfolding the way it actually did. My own current WIP is exactly this kind of story; it takes place early in the timeline of my One World series, within a couple years of the point of divergence–the Mexica defeat and kill Cortes before the Spanish can start their march inland–and as a result, two historical figures who would have been enemies instead end up falling in love with each other. And the story is highly aware of its own alternate-ness and makes it a plot-point. These are the kinds of stories I’d really like to read more of.

Am I just missing the true alternate history romances out there? Have you read any/can recommend any? My impression is that there aren’t many–if any–out there.

4 Responses

  1. Christopher M. Cevasco

    How bizarre! I’ve not seen the term used in that way myself, but I can’t imagine what it could be referring to unless it’s the type of thing happening in your own WIP (which sounds awesome, by the way). Or I suppose the romance itself could serve as a divergence point–i.e. what if historical person x and historical person y fell in love in a way that never actually happened in our timeline, thereby leading to an alternate timeline. But I get the sense from your post this also isn’t what’s going on. I suspect it’s just the term being thrown around loosely without any real contextual meaning.

    Secret History does come closer, as you say, but that would only work if one or both of the romantic partners is a known historical figure and the romance, though not impacting the timeline, is not a romance known to have actually occurred. Also, I believe the idea in Secret History is that the secret scenario is something going on behind the scenes that unbeknownst to modern historians is what was *actually* fueling the events we know as history. So it couldn’t just be a secret romance going on in a historical vacuum…

    Anyway, interesting post!

  2. TL Morganfield

    I was quite flabbergasted by the claim as well; at first excited to hear that my favorite HR author was calling her stuff AH (which led me to look up the real history of the time period, since I was unfamiliar with 5th Tang Dynasty) but then puzzled when what she described as AH was merely playing off historical figures, giving them new names and introducing new characters, but history still unfolds in the same manner as in the actual history. Don’t get me wrong, these are great books, but it’s kind of like someone offering you a Coke and you expect Coca-Cola, but they bring you a Pepsi. Just today I saw someone else refer to HR in broad terms as alternate history, and so I just had to air my bewilderment. I have very specific ideas of what’s alternate history and so far I haven’t seen anything like it in any of the HR I’ve read.

    I do think some stories could qualify as Secret History, since they involve known historical figures. Recently I read one called The King’s Courtesan, about a mistress of Charles II of England as he tries to move her out of court ahead of his wife Catherine of Braganza, but it’s not as if they ran off together and he never married Catherine. It very much reads like a story written to match an overall history, and a good number of HR’s I’ve read do this kind of thing (and I do like them quite a bit, because of the whole secret history feel of them).

  3. Evangeline

    Some romance writers–and readers–use the phrase because for the most part, the historical part of Historical Romance doesn’t truly matter to the plot/characters. It’s just a backdrop for the types of scenarios that would seem anachronistic in a contemporary setting…well, outside of Harlequin Presents, lol. Then we have the use of Georgette Heyer’s version of the Regency era as the “world” in which most Regency romance writers base their research, Victorians that read like Regencies, and the slightly vague “Scottish” or “Medieval” settings.

    The pejorative terms for Historical Romance that seems completely excised from historical reality are “wallpaper historicals” and “mistoricals” (<–Dear Author). However, the presence and function of history in Historical Romance is a pretty controversial topic, since the most popular books in the genre are considered "wallpaper" by those who prefer a little more meat to their historicals. Nevertheless, there is a vast range of how history is used within the genre, from the lighter side (Julia Quinn, Eloisa James, Tessa Dare), to the sexier but slightly ahistorical side (Lisa Kleypas, Elizabeth Hoyt, Sabrina Jeffries), to the meaty and serious (Courtney Milan, Joanna Bourne, Lydia Joyce), to the intensely romantic use of history (Judith Ivory, Sherry Thomas, Juliana Gray). You just have to read a lot to see what works for you.

  4. TL Morganfield

    Thank you for the recommendations, Evangeline. I hadn’t heard the terms “wallpaper historicals” and “mistoricals” (but just read the Dear Author entry about the latter). Your description in the first paragraph makes perfect sense in regards to most of the references to alternate history I’ve seen made by romance writers. Things get so confusing when genres borrow each others terminology but don’t ascribe the same meanings to those terms (which of course begs the question of when I approach romance editors with my current WIP, when I say it’s alternate history, will they think it’s something else….)

    Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts!