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Improbable (Impossible?) Relationships in Historical Romance

I’ve heard a lot of critical murmurings about historical romances (The Duchess Hunt included) that dismiss the theme of dukes (and other lords and ladies) marrying far below their station. While many readers seem to adore the Cinderella trope, to some readers, it is unrealistic to the point of being annoying. Even ridiculous.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot (mostly at about 3 am in the morning!). To me Cinderella romances hold a strong appeal (both as a reader and a writer). But, truly, is it unrealistic for a duke to marry the gardener’s daughter? Is it impossible?

I’m the first to admit that in my writing I add a very healthy dose of fantasy to my history. I have a deep-rooted mad love for the fairy-tale fantasy—I have ever since I was a little girl (Have I told you how many times I was a princess for Halloween? My mom was so tired of my endless crowns and pink dresses!).

I also love the themes and conflicts of people marrying people who are different than they are…whether it’s a difference in race, religion, or class. I love exploring what can happen when two such people meet and fall in love and the struggles they face in their search for a happily ever after. I think one of the reasons I love these themes is because I myself married someone of a different race, class, and religion. It is a fascinating conflict to me, because it is so very personal to me.

Obviously, this is also a huge theme and conflict in The Duchess Hunt. The Duke of Trent is looking for the woman who will be his duchess. It doesn’t even cross his mind that Sarah, the gardener’s daughter, might be a candidate for such a position. Why? Because even though the duke is a man of high moral standards who always strives to do what’s right, he’s also a man of his time. In the Duke of Trent’s world, men don’t marry servants. It’s not even within the realm of possibility. It’s not something he’d even consider. Ever.

Through the course of the book, however, the duke changes. He learns that not only is Sarah a potential candidate for his duchess, but a candidate who far exceeds the qualities of any of the candidates society deems worthy of him. This is the duke’s character arc—how he changes in the course of the book. He starts off the book, very subtly, as a classist, someone who—very subtly—considers himself superior to people in Sarah’s position. He is never cruel to Sarah. He never openly demeans her and always respects her. But since birth, it has been ingrained in him that people of her ilk are not worthy of lifelong relationships with people of his. They are not worthy of marriage to someone like him. That ingrained classist in him is slowly desiccated as he learns how perfect for him Sarah is. And when the light bulb goes off, completely burning away the rest of his prejudice, then we get to see a duke who has finally risen above the inherent classism of the society he was born into. A duke who actually deserves Sarah.

Improbable? Yes, definitely. Unfortunately, most people—most dukes—of the time were far too prejudiced and entrenched in their classist society to even consider a person like Sarah as a lifelong partner. But I’m okay with that. I write fiction, after all, and writing the improbable is my job. I love realistic historicals—I love history books—but I write the fairy tales.

So a duke/servant marriage is surely improbable. But impossible? Nah. As I’ve pointed out often on this blog over the years, the truth is sometimes stranger than fiction. Last night, in the middle of the night, I started thinking of all the true historical relationships I’ve read about that break the mold. Stay tuned, because over the next few days, I’m going to try to share some of them here.

So what do you think? Do improbable duke/servant relationships (and the like) in romances rub you the wrong way, or do you love the fairy tale aspect of these relationships? And this not only applies to historical romance but romance in general. (Think of all the popular stories out right now about 20-something self-made billionaires out there with all kinds of time to woo the simple, middle-class girl next door. I admit I love these stories too!)

And can you think of any real-life historical relationships that broke the mold?

7 comments to “Improbable (Impossible?) Relationships in Historical Romance”

  1. Maria
      · August 5th, 2013 at 7:06 am · Link

    Thank you for this post about your viewpoint and the reasons behind a duke/maid romance. Personally, it does rub me the wrong way as being completely improbable. As a Jane Austen student, I recognize that even she didn’t believe a servant could marry into the aristocracy. I do enjoy reading romances about a lady POSING as a servant (Grace Burrowes’ THE HEIR for example) but cannot quite wrap my head around a true servant and a duke romance.

  2. Connie Fischer
      · August 5th, 2013 at 8:12 am · Link

    Of course it doesn’t rub me the wrong way. Quite the contrary. I think we all grew up dreaming of being Cinderella and the thought of a duke/servant marriage is very romantic. Quite frankly, as it’s not the norm that you see in many novels, as a reader, I find it means the story will be more memorable to me.

    Love your books and looking forward to reading “The Duchess Hunt” and “The Rogue’s Proposal.” Congratulations on your successes, Jennifer!

  3. blodeuedd
      · August 5th, 2013 at 11:59 am · Link

    I look forward to those stories 😀

    My brain tells me no, but my heart tells me anything is possible. Cos it has happened

  4. Cathy Henderson
      · August 5th, 2013 at 12:24 pm · Link

    I don’t mind the cinderella love story once and a while. I agree that anything is possible but in real life not sure how much that happens. I tend to like the stories where the hero is the hero!

  5. robenagrant
      · August 5th, 2013 at 12:30 pm · Link

    I enjoyed The Duchess Hunt. You made the seemingly improbable situation possible, because of the story set up. Sarah had been raised and educated within the class structure, and although a servant, she had such strong ties to the family. And you backed that up with the dowager Duchess background.
    Or maybe it’s just that I love a good fairytale. ; )

  6. Jennifer
      · August 5th, 2013 at 7:36 pm · Link

    Thanks! It’s great to hear everyone’s thoughts and opinions about this–they’re so interesting to me. @robenagrant, more about the Dowager Duchess comes out in books 2 & 3, and I think she does crazier things than her son did in marrying Sarah! I can’t wait to hear what people will think of that wild story, lol 😳

  7. Tanya Hanson
      · August 5th, 2013 at 9:12 pm · Link

    Hi Jennifer, romance simply means the way we LIKE things to be, not realistically. I doubt a duke would in real life marry a lower station …he’s gotta keep up the bloodline. But he’d probably offer her a comfy nice life as his mistress. Then again, Edward VIII gave it up for the woma he loved LOL. Best wishes with the books. Xo


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