Unspeakable and inedible

What is it about titles that sets us all a-flutter? What is it with all those dukes and earls and pedigreed persons and why have they become such a staple of historical romance?

Maybe it’s because they’re powerful alpha males in tight pants. Or it’s a fundamental yearning manifested by a fascination with the young, rich, and pretty behaving badly (Paris, Britney et al) and attempts to establish a dynasty in the White House. We never had a chance at royalty after the unfortunate episode with the tea in Boston harbor, and now we’re trying to compensate.

I think it’s quite a reality check for Americans to realize how indifferent the English are about their great families, including the Windsors, unless they provide an excuse for a party or a really good national cry. All that anachronistic pomp and circumstance; all that inbred dullness. Yet the aristocracy still have that promise, even if it’s not fulfilled, of glamor and beauty and being bigger than life; and two hundred years ago they did have more interesting lives and more opportunities than the riff-raff. The rich and beautiful cavorting around Carlton House makes for better escapist reading than, say, trying to find firewood and cooking up the cabbage in the last smear of bacon fat.

And look at the stuff they were good at! Sports, like fencing, all dash and expertise.

Getting drunk, a favorite pastime of just about everyone in England, then and now, which I suppose takes a dash and expertise all of its own.

Hunting small furry things which apparently also enjoy the sport.

And all that good stuff with dogs and horses and art–even if the art technically didn’t belong to them but was lying around neglected somewhere classical.

So my question is, do you ever feel that we’ve gone overboard with aristos in romance? Does the appearance of yet another young, handsome, single duke make your heart sing or sink? Or do you accept it as part of the fantasy?

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Cara King
14 years ago

I guess I feel I walk the middle ground here. I’d be happy to read about untitled folks, and even (gasp!) middle-class folks (I agree that it would be hard to write an escapist romance about a Regency field worker), and there have been a decent number of such books over the years.

But apparently “the readers” strongly favor titled heroes, and I’m happy to read and write about them, too.

I confess, though, that if someone gives me a duke, I want him to be a real duke. I want him to have five estates, hundreds of servants, and own a good chunk of Mayfair. Those fictional Regency dukes who do their own bookkeeping, have two servants, and tell everyone “call me George” really just annoy me. 🙂


Elena Greene
14 years ago

Yeah, I think we’ve gone overboard. Of course it does make sense for the hero to be of the aristocracy or the gentry–better chance that he’ll be educated and doing interesting things. And there is something about an estate with “beautiful grounds” (though I also like to see heroes deal with the responsibilities that come with wealth and power).

But I’ve been seeing so many titles in the “Boinking the Duke” vein that I feel jaded before even reading them. It’s rather like those “millionaire” titles that were so popular in contemps for a while. I know the stories might be fine but the packaging seems to imply readers like a thinly veiled gold-digger fantasy. Though of course the heroine never cares how wealthy the hero is!

Anyway, I’d like to see more variety in romance heroes.

It’s just getting hard to believe in so many young, attractive peers–knowing that in reality many were about as hot as this group.

Susan Wilbanks
14 years ago

I’m one of those maverick readers who doesn’t get what’s so incredibly fascinating about dukes. For that matter, I’m baffled by the continuing fascination with royalty or political dynasties (though I’m interested enough to feel sorry for poor Prince Harry, who seems like he’d make a perfectly good officer if only he could be left alone to do his job.).

Anyway, while I certainly enjoy a well-written titled hero, I absolutely adore a good rags-to-riches story with a hero or heroine who claws his or her way to the top based on merit and raw determination. It’s not just Sean Bean that makes me love Sharpe so much! And I’d like to see more younger sons of nobles doing younger-son things like serving in the military or as diplomats.

All that said, my alternative history WIP does have its share of nobles and even royals–but I’m making the most important ones, the ones the reader is supposed to root for, work hard to get/keep their status!

Diane Gaston
14 years ago

Janet, I think you are on to something when you mention the Alpha male aspect of our titled heroes. What could (and should) be more Alpha than a duke?

And I’m with you, Cara. If the book is about a duke, I want him acting like a duke. Or acting against being a duke, like in Georgette Heyer’s The Foundling. I also don’t have patience for the heroine who refuses the duke’s proposal because she would rather run away and become a maid or something.

I like to show another side of being a titled gentleman, the part that is more like a CEO, the man who feels a responsibility for all the people dependent upon his estate.

Georgie Lee
14 years ago

I love the fantasy of a title. It brings with it a sense of elegance, large manor houses and money. Yes, the truth behind the title isn’t always so glamorous but If I can’t have my own title, then I want to read about titles.

Elena Greene
14 years ago

Thinking of dukes reminds me of a scene in Georgette Heyer’s FREDERICA. The heroine’s little brother calls the hero, a marquis, a “second-best nobleman”. 🙂

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon
14 years ago

I’m a little tired of the whole Duke thing, since for some reason there seem to be so many running around Regency England in historical romance when inactuality, Duke’s are kind of scarce. Right now, there are only like 26 non-royal Dukes. And I agree with Cara, if you are going to create a Duke, make him really a Duke with all that entails. Think Marlborough, Devonshire etc. On the other hand, I love stories of the man who has risen to money and power, coming from nothing, who then courts our aristocratic heroine, who has no money. Think John Thornton in North and South, or George Warleggen in Poldark. That is actually my favorite kind of story.

Melinda Hammond
Melinda Hammond
14 years ago

As an English Georgian / Regency author I have used very few Dukes (so far) but I do think there is something attractive about the aristocracy – and it’s not just fantasy – I always thought the late Patrick Lichfield was quite glamorous (OK he is only an earl and not a duke, but its close. In the 18th century it was probably a combination of money and power that made them sexy.

Melinda Hammond

14 years ago

Elena thanks for the picture. Too funny!

I think several of you have hit the nail on the head. It isn’t just the title. It’s the setting, the atmosphere that surrounds someone with a title. The estates and glamor, the ton, the Season all present a great backdrop for telling a romantic tail.

I like an aristocrat who acts like one, but who isn’t a complete ass about it. A story that shows that money does not buy happiness and that the richest, most blue blood guy in the world can still be terribly unhappy is very realistic to me. Family dynamics and the male/female relationship are very much the same whether a title and money are involved or not. A great writer can tell a story in any setting that addresses those truths and takes you along for the ride.

Pam Rosenthal
14 years ago

I’ll never do a duke. I dunno why. It just doesn’t feel like it’s within my grasp. But it’s almost impossible to do romance, imo, without a whiff of the idea of “natural aristocracy,” an oxymoron I’m afraid we all cherish, of a sense of inborn grace, bearing, and selfhood. I think it’s at the heart of romance and I admit to being torn about it, but there it is. I like a sidelong, ironic, smart take on it, tho, which is why I am a devoted reader of Janet Mullany and Jane Lockwood.

Susan Wilbanks
14 years ago

But it’s almost impossible to do romance, imo, without a whiff of the idea of “natural aristocracy,” an oxymoron I’m afraid we all cherish, of a sense of inborn grace, bearing, and selfhood. I think it’s at the heart of romance and I admit to being torn about it, but there it is.

There’s nothing that’ll make me throw a book at the wall harder than the fairy-tale-type plot trope you occasionally see where a supposedly common character is revealed to be an aristocrat after all, making it OK for him/her to marry his/her noble love interest, and everyone says, “We should’ve known! No one could be so smart, and tall, and move so gracefully, and have such refined features, without noble blood!” Ugh. (I know that’s not exactly what you’re talking about, Pam, but you brought back some wall-banging memories.)

Amanda McCabe
14 years ago

“On the other hand, I love stories of the man who has risen to money and power, coming from nothing, who then courts our aristocratic heroine, who has no money.”

Oh, I love these stories, too! And there aren’t nearly enough of them.

LOL, Elena! Boinking the Duke! Can I borrow that for a book title? 🙂

14 years ago

While I agree that there’s a fairy tale aspect of a hero with a title, I’ve noticed title inflation lately. It used to be okay for the hero to be a baron or viscount or even a mere Sir, but today it’s duke-or-bust. As Elena says, “It’s rather like those ‘millionaire’ titles that were so popular in contemps for a while.” Her only error is that the only reason we see fewer millionaire categories these days is that they’re all Billionaires.

Personally, I don’t want characters who are so poor that I have to worry where their next meal is coming from, but I’d actually prefer a few Mr. heroes. Even Darcy was a mere Mr. despite his aristocratic background, and some of my favorite authors (Carla Kelly comes to mind) have wonderful, non-aristocratic heroes.

Keira Soleore
14 years ago

There is rarely a story that on premise alone would become an automatic wallbanger for me. It’s almost always the treatment of the storylines that are the deciding factor for me. Then again, there are some authors, I’d go wherever they lead.

So bring on the dukes, the ingenues, the aristo in disguise, or the farmer. Keira’d read your story.

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