Palgrave Macmillan have recently published a new collection of essays on female-centred historical fiction, The Female Figure in Contemporary Historical Fiction, which includes an essay I wrote on Mills & Boon historical romances set in the Middle Ages: "Do knights still rescue damsels in distress?: Reimagining the medieval in Mills & Boon historical romance".
Based on a conference paper I gave at the Echoes of the Past conference in Newcastle, UK in 2008, the chapter focuses on Mills & Boon's Medieval Lords and Ladies Collection (2007), a set of romance texts which have been discussed elsewhere by myself and others.
In the collection's introduction the editors, Katherine Cooper and Emma Short write:
Not only can these novels be seen, as Amy Burge suggests in Chapter 5 on the Mills and Boon Medieval Romance collection, as crucial tools in understanding the relationship between gender, sexuality and marriage, but these narratives also insert fictional female figures and their desires into circumstances and historical periods from which they have traditionally been erased. [...] both Muller and Burge’s chapters interrogate the popularity of certain periods in history for narratives based around romance or sex, the critical value of these narratives in exploring the gender politics of different periods, and, crucially, what they reveal about the specific moment in which they are written (p. 9).
The fictional female figure explored in this section of the collection therefore becomes, as Burge suggests in her chapter, a way for contemporary women to re-interpret patriarchal practices, and recent historical novels provide just such an opportunity for readers to recognize the sexual ideologies with which they themselves are familiar enacted in historical settings. As Burge explains, these Mills and Boon novels often go much further than other types of historical fiction, depicting a particularly fetishized version of medieval sexuality, which allows the modern reader to indulge in fantasies about male domination and female submission that might otherwise be deemed unacceptable (p. 10).
Burge also comments upon the ways in which the past can function as a conservative force, perpetuating and consolidating norms and practices in gender politics which are consistent with the time of writing, or even representing an escape from a present which many see as having been over-complicated by those involved in a backlash against feminism. As such, these portrayals often highlight tensions within existing gender politics through challenging and subverting the conventions that underpin them (p. 10).The collection contains other essays on historical fiction, including a chapter on Kate Mosse's Sepulchre, a chapter on Kate Grenville's The Secret River and The Lieutenant Anna Gething, and another on literary representations of Anne Boleyn. The book is available via Amazon and you can read the introduction here.