Hidden Gems: Plenty of Romance, Just as Much History

Hidden Gems FlattenMuch like Sara, I didn’t fall in love with historical romance straight away. In fact, I remember picking up a couple of romance novels in high school and struggling to make my way through a whole volume. I gobbled up YA novels, mysteries and chick-lit by the dozen, but romance just didn’t do anything for me back then. In spite of this, I did love history. I’m not talking military history, with the dates of battles and statistics about weaponry, but social and cultural history. This adoration continued into my time at university, where I finally succumbed to my love of history and decided to split my degree jointly between English Literature and Modern History. I studied classes with titles like The Victorians: Religion and Responsibility and The Weaker Sex?: Women in Scottish Society. I wanted to learn about what it was like to live in these time periods, the struggles that individuals faced while battles were raging around them. What was it like to be an ordinary person, not a famous politician or military hero?

I was well into my second year of university when I began reviewing novels on NetGalley (a poor student will do anything in exchange for free books, right?) and to my surprise, most of the titles I was approved to review were Christian romances. Initially, I was sucked into the genre by Amish novels, but gradually historical romance began to grab my attention. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that no matter how heavy the romantic element in these books might be, many of them didn’t skimp on the historical details. These authors didn’t just click on a couple of Wikipedia pages—they must have studied just as much as I did at university, if not more, in order to make these novels realistic.

Without further ado, here are some of the gems I’ve discovered over the years; the novels that contain plenty of romance, but just as much history. These novels aren’t merely peppered with fleeting references to chamber pots and gas lanterns, but full of well-researched historical details.

 

Lady of Milkweed Manor by Julie Klassen

I read this novel in the days after my son was born, and perhaps that’s why this tale of motherhood struck such a cord with me. Charlotte Lamb is an unwed mother, but she doesn’t get immediately swept away by a hero who is willing to raise the child as his own. She finds herself in a home for unwed mothers, and is quickly made aware of the few options she has at her disposal. This novel depicts the stark reality of unwed motherhood in the early nineteenth century, of foundling hospitals, and even the art of wet-nursing. Given that I read this book while nursing my own newborn, this topic was particularly intriguing to me! This isn’t a novel for those who want an easy, fluffy read. Yes, there is romance, but it doesn’t come easily or quickly to our heroine. Julie Klassen beautifully captures the sacrifices many mothers had to make for their children. For new mums like myself, keep tissues at your side while reading this one!

 

The Rose of Winslow Street by Elizabeth Camden

Sometimes I feel like there’s very little ethnic diversity in Christian Historical Romance. We love our Amish, and there’s often a token Native American character, but even novels dealing with recent settlers to North America focus primarily on German or Swedish characters. It was a refreshing surprise to discover that the principal characters of The Rose of Winslow Street were Romanian (some of them aristocrats) fleeing the tumult in their homeland. Elizabeth Camden’s novel brings up a lot of issues I haven’t previously seen dealt with in this genre, including a dyslexic character (in a time when this condition was largely understood), and an inventor. This novel also deals with rape in an incredibly sympathetic and realistic manner. This topic isn’t brushed neatly under the carpet, so this novel may not be for those who find this subject particularly sensitive, but I do commend the way in which it is approached. With so many interesting topics, you’d think this novel would feel disjointed, but all of the issues blend together seamlessly to make a fascinating and compelling story.

 

Through Rushing Water by Catherine Richmond

This novel features another protagonist of atypical heritage: Sophia Makinoff is Russian, but spent most of her life in France and has worked for many years as a teacher in New York. Sophia’s background and experiences of other cultures brought an angle to Through Rushing Water that just couldn’t have been explored with an American heroine without seeming too forced or modernised. Her interactions with the Poncas felt authentic, as did the depiction of her work in the mission field. Anyone familiar with this period of history will know that Sophia cannot be the knight in shining armour who saves the Native Americans from being relocated, but her gradual realisation of how little her friends and neighbours know about the local tribes and her decision to educate them and break down stereotypes makes for a fascinating and empowering read.

 

The Wings of Morning by Murray Pura

We all know that the Amish are pacifists, but just how difficult was it for them to maintain this stance during wartime? Murray Pura explores the issue of conscientious objection during WWI from the perspective of an Amish man who is a skilled pilot. I know, this sounds a little crazy—but this novel is set during the period in which the Amish were still trying to figure out which modern inventions they would allow into their communities. Having recently banned telephones and motorcars, many Amish groups were still undecided about aeroplanes and electricity. If you’re tired of modern Amish novels, this one might hit the spot for you. And even if you aren’t a plane enthusiast, the details about the role that aeroplanes played in WWI are fascinating, and the flight scenes are incredibly detailed. The Wings of Morning depicts the realities of pacifism in the face of war, and makes for a refreshing break from many of the more patriotic war romances that I’ve read.

 

The Shape of Mercy by Susan Meissner

This dual-time narrative focuses on the Salem Witch Trials. I know, I know, this topic has been covered in countless other novels. The subject matter isn’t exactly new, but the novel’s approach intrigued me. Lauren Durough is given a once in a lifetime opportunity to transcribe the diary of a woman who was tried as a witch during the trials in Salem. As a student of history, not only was I jealous of Lauren’s chance to examine a previously unknown primary source, but fascinated by the questions the novel thrust upon me. How reliable are the narrators of our primary sources? Can we rely on them to show us the true picture? Is it possible to set aside our modern worldviews when approaching these documents? Lauren may not have been the most likable protagonist, but I definitely related to her frustrations with the diary, and her desire to research what she could not learn from within its pages.

 

The Pursuit of Lucy Banning by Olivia Newport

Entirely unintentionally, my final year of university focused almost primarily on the representation of women in history and literature. While I’ve come across some novels that skim over the issues women faced in history, I’ve been overwhelmingly impressed with the number of books that grasp just how limited women were in their opportunities and representation. Life in the Gilded Age wasn’t all about attending balls and buying pretty dresses (in spite of what this cover might suggest), and this novel perfectly depicts the restrictions placed upon women by a male-dominated society. The villain isn’t your two-dimensional brainless menace, but a man who takes advantage of the control that any man had over a woman in this period. Olivia Newport didn’t slip into stereotyping with her villain, and also managed to teach some lessons about mental health. And if this all seems a little too heavy for you, there are some fantastic descriptions of some recent inventions that came about during the Gilded Age, as well as the beginnings of the World’s Fair in Chicago.

 

Words Spoken True by Ann H. Gabhart

You wouldn’t think that a novel containing details about the printing press would excite me so much, but there are only so many opportunities for me to put to use the facts I learned in MO3219: Print Culture in Britain 😉 That said, you don’t need to be fascinated by the history of journalism to enjoy this book. In addition to the details about running a newspaper, this novel also tackles the issues of immigration, the Know Nothing party and political unrest in the mid-1800s. Although I’ve read many novels that discuss abolition and slavery, I wasn’t particularly familiar with the issues Catholic-Irish immigrants faced during this period. The characters in this novel aren’t politically correct in the modern sense, but they also aren’t depicted as being completely evil, which made for a particularly refreshing change.

 

There are many, many more novels I’d love to introduce to you. Want to read about a home for reformed prostitutes? Check out All in Good Time by Maureen Lang. A romance between female Quaker spy and a crippled war veteran who runs a pub during the Revolutionary War? Definitely don’t miss The Messenger by Siri Mitchell. Or maybe you’d just like to read about British high society during the Great Exhibition from the perspective of an American outsider? That would be Follow the Heart by Kaye Dacus.

Whatever novel you do pick up, I hope that it quenches your thirst for romance and piques your interest in history.

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