(Note: this piece contains minor spoilers for the first episode of Queen Charlotte.)
When I was a teenager, I found a battered copy of Georgette Heyers The Talisman Ring in a bookstall in the Himalayas. Step aside Austen and the Bronte sisters! Heyer was not only witty and passionate and plain good old fun, but her heroines were just as likely to dance the cotillion as throw a rope down the window to escape an annoying marriage prospect.
As a reader, I could eat, drink and sleep Heyer. I read her entire oeuvre any time life became a bit too much and could find in it an escape from boredom, loneliness and all kinds of existential questions like what will feed my hungry soul and how come chocolate isnt considered one of your five-a-day.
But as a brown writer of Indian origin, what was my place in Regency fiction?
My grandparents were active voices in the fight for Indian independence from colonial rule. Yet their bookshelves were clotted with Dickens, Hardy and Thackery. My grandad had a degree in English literature, yet would casually throw in that time he worked in Gandhis Sevagram ashram and that other time Annie Besant offered him a lift in her car. The British may have left India in 1947 but my grandparents followed them for higher education in literature and psychology.
Here I am, then, that quintessential conundrum. Increasingly aware as an adult who loves calling London home of the violence of colonialism, what Sven Beckett calls “war capitalism” that spanned the globe and connected slavery in American plantations with the East India Companys cotton trade in India. Yet my brain, my sense of rightness and wrongness, my literary aesthetics come from English literature.
Regency romance is clotted with dishy earls and dukes who, luckily for us, dont mind taking their shirts off for a bout of fisticuffs in Jacksons salon. We love them. We swoon over them. We dont worry about where their wealth, titles and privilege came from. We love Regency romance because it speaks of a time that was fun and colorful and romantic.
While Bridgerton would have us believe that people of color assimilated seamlessly into British society in the nineteenth century, Queen Charlotte hits our screens this month and Rhimes has the balls to explore empire just a little bit more deeply.
When I wrote Unladylike Lessons in Love, I injected it with everything I knew and loved about Regency romance. Lila Marleigh, the mixed-race daughter of an English earl and his Indian mistress, owns a gambling salon. In barges Ivor Tristram one night, accusing her of being his fathers mistress. The scene is set for some delicious friction in and out of the bedroom.
But I wanted to go further. Shonda Rhimes take on Julia Quinns Bridgerton novels had opened a little door for me. While Bridgerton would have us believe that people of color assimilated seamlessly into British society in the nineteenth century, Queen Charlotte hits our screens this month and Rhimes has the balls to explore empire just a little bit more deeply.
As the young Charlottes teeth, hands, and hipsand yes, skin colorare poked and prodded by King George IIIs mother, who appraises her like horseflesh, the court is already starting to do its work. “She is very brown,” the kings mother declares. The court tells her Charlotte has Moor blood. But the kings mother seems to think that Charlotte is too brown.
The answer is simple. Allow more people of color to assimilate in high society and the problem will magically solve itself.
Yes, Queen Charlotte bends and moulds the truth, but then what are stories for if not to help us insert ourselves into narratives where we never had a place before?
Earlier period dramas like Downton Abbey keep colonialism and slavery off-screen. As with King Charles IIIs coronation, the Granthams wealth and nobility are romanticized. The tiaras glitter, the ballrooms are vast, the family are all a dither when the queen comes to tea. The upper classes struggle at times with financial worries, sure, but they rally, they innovate, they embrace change. They even embrace the working classes, represented by Irish chauffeur Tom Branson.
The one thing they cant embrace, it seems, is people of color. In only one season of Downton Abbey does a Black man, Jack Ross, temporarily become a love interest for Lady Rose MacClare before Lady Mary Crawley warns him off.
Not only can I explore this multicultural character in the new Shonda Rhimes way of doing Regency, but my women of color have sexual agency.
This drama is set in the early 1900s. And it is not alone in its depiction of British society. As sci-fi/fantasy authors (like R.F. Kuang, Seth Dickenson and Tomi Adeyemi) embrace violent histories of empire as an essential part of their oeuvre, we shy away in commercial and romantic fiction . We want our stories to be romantic and romantic, apparently, means frivolous and frothy.
How could we possibly explore histories of colonialism and slavery in something so cute and inoffensive? After all, in British schools and universities, we dont even learn about colonialism. We gracefully arabesque from Henry VIII to the Beatles as if that time in-between did not happen.
William Dalrymples writing tells us that British men took wives and mistresses in India and the Caribbean in the 1700s. Before the East India Company took a more violent turn, these men assimilated into local culture and had mixed-race children, many of whom were sent to British boarding schools and made Britain their home. Unladylike Lessons, then, explores not only what we love about Regency romancethe passion, the witty banter and the wee runaway horseysbut we also meet Lila and her mixed-race sisters.
As the series progresses, we have backstories set in India and the Caribbean. In the first book, we meet Maisie Quinn, whose mother was a nanny from the Caribbean and whose love interest is from the colonies. I keep some Regency tropes but by consciously exploring the impact of colonial history and slavery on lives and loves, I bend, twist and evolve the genre. And hopefully disrupt it too.
Lila is a strong-willed character, sparkling and vulnerable, who knows that as the daughter of a “native woman” shell never be truly accepted by the London ton. She decides to play the game, but on her own terms. Not only can I explore this multicultural character in the new Shonda Rhimes way of doing Regency, but my women of color have sexual agency, and as always, to me, sexual agency isnt just about consent and choice but about a womans space to have fun in the bedroom. A thing often denied to fictional characters of South Asian descent.
Caribbean Maisie, and Sunil, originally from the colonies, take us on a ride not only into the wit and pomp of the ballrooms and gaming salons of Regency London but also the rat pits, the streets of Whitechapel and the pleasure gardens. And if there is some naughtiness under the bedsheets along the wayoh, and some of it is not under the bedsheets or in fact in bed at allthen so much the better for our new take on the ever-evolving world of the Regency.
Unladylike Lessons in Loveby Amita Murray is available via Avon Books.