One of the reasons I love history so much is because it gives you a chance to journey to another place as well as another time. I studied history for so long because no matter where you turn, there is always something new to see, someone new to investigate and somewhere new to explore. And with such a vast wealth of information, the potential for historic settings in romances is incredible. Which leads me to the question—why are such a vast majority of historical romances set in England?
Don’t get me wrong—my degree was in the History of the British Imperial & Commonwealth history. I think English history, especially the 19th-century is terrific, and there’s no denying that Britain was the center of the western world for a fair amount of that time span, but let’s not forget about all the other nifty places on the map, all the other worlds to explore—and all the romance that could be had elsewhere. Some of my favorite romances feature characters who leave Britain and venture into the big wide world and find not only true love, but a new and better version of themselves along the way.
I have to start with one of my all-time favorite romance novels, Follow My Lead by Kate Noble. Not only are our leading pair intrepid historians, but their adventures (or misadventures) takes them outside the safety of England and across Europe as they search for the origins of a fabled painting. Neither character is particularly fulfilled with their situation at home—Jason Cummings is a Duke hounded by eligible young misses, but challenged by nothing and invested in very little, while Winnifred Crane cannot win the recognition her work as an art historian deserves because she is female. But neither know how decently they have it until they find themselves in the wilds of the German countryside, without money, food or proper walking shoes and at the mercy of the weather and local villagers. But as they travel, and as they are forced repeatedly to test their own strength and wits, they blossom as individuals. With the strictures of English society no longer binding them, Winn and Jason are not nobles or old maids but two individuals whose beautiful partnership develops very gradually and honestly. The description of the towns they visit and the sights they see are spectacular. Vienna is one of my favorite cities in the world, and I could feel Winn’s excitement as she looked up at St. Stephen’s Cathedral for the first time—and Jason’s awe as he looked at all that Winn has become in the course of the journey.
Another sensational pair of adventurers—and ones with marginally better foresight—can be found in Deanna Raybourn’s romantic mysteries featuring Lady Julia Gray and the half-gypsy detective, Nicholas Brisbane. The fourth installment of Lady Julia’s adventures, Dark Road to Darjeeling, sees Lady Julia and Brisbane married at long last and eight months into their honeymoon voyage around the world. Though Brisbane’s mysterious past is full of international intrigue and danger, Julia has never set foot outside of England. And despite her insatiable curiosity and taste for escapades that would cause most proper ladies to swoon, there are constant reminders in this book of the staid, confining existence Julia lived before Brisbane first stormed into her life. As their relationship has grown, Julia has insisted on nothing except that Brisbane treat her as an equal, intellectually and physically, especially when it comes to putting herself in harm’s way in order to help their investigations. The further they travel from England, the more adamant Julia becomes, throwing off the last ties of conformity to which she clung for so long and demanding a partnership with Brisbane in his detection agency. I personally think this is one of the best literary duos to be found currently. Brisbane is a mix of the best parts of some of the 19th-century’s best heroes (none more so than Mr. Rochester), Julia’s wry humor and indomitable spirit make each book an absolute treat to read, and her family of misfits and oddballs is without a doubt the best set of supporting characters to be found. Deanna Raybourn’s research makes every new location in this book a wonderland of colors and smells and textures, and her love for her characters means she isn’t afraid to let them explore both their world and their relationships. Though Julia’s new found taste for detection and thirst for danger lead to some awkward moments throughout the story, there is never a doubt that the only home she or Brisbane need is each other, and that each new adventure, no matter how strenuous, will only bring them closer together in the end.
The journey away from home isn’t always as magical, or as lighthearted, though. In Flawless, Carrie Lofty’s newest book, Vivienne Bancroft is sent by a bequest in her father’s will to Kimberley, Cape Colony (now South Africa), perhaps the most remote part of the British Empire, and a hot bed of political tension. At her side is her estranged husband, Miles Durham, Viscount Bancroft, who she left a year earlier, but who still holds the key to her broken heart. While Miles is eager for his share of the potential fortune that would be theirs if Vivienne’s father’s diamond mine turns a profit, his real need is to reclaim his wife. His only hope is that, if working in such close company doesn’t bring them together, Miles can at least make Vivie as miserable as he is himself. Instead of being freed from the confines of their society by their travel, the journey through South Africa strips these characters in a much more brutal manner. This is most likely because the barriers that keep them apart are not ones of class or entitlement, but are ones they built themselves. Away from family, friends and their vices of choice, Vivienne and Miles have no choice but to confront each other and the tension that threatens to consume them both alive. Carrie Lofty manages to convey the wildness of the Cape Colony, its sheer daunting immensity and the constant danger, without detracting from the wonder of the journey and the magic of exploring it. Miles and Vivienne are both transformed, both physically and psychologically by their travels, achieving things they never could have back in the safety of England. The history of the British colonization of South Africa is a fascinating one, and this book is one of the first I’ve read to do it justice, while giving us a pair of characters as wild, as fascinating and as compelling as their surroundings.
There are few things I enjoy more than escaping into a well-crafted historical romance, and while I love Britain and its history, it’s always nice to remember that there was a great deal more going on in the world during the 19th-century, and a countless number of adventures taking place beyond England’s green and pleasant fields. These are just some of the characters whose wanderlust equals my own and whose broader horizons make for some wonderful hours of reading. I’d love to hear what your recent literary travels have been, as well!