Romances set at the end of the 19th century are usually westerns, taking place in the last gasp of the Old West. But in recent years, some books set in the period have moved back east, to the glittering, booming New York City of the Gilded Age. We’ve been longing for historical romances set in unique time periods and Maya Rodale, whose new book Duchess by Design is one of the most exciting new additions to the subgenre, is here to tell us what makes the Gilded Age so alluring.
Mention historical romance novels and most readers will think of a Regency-era duke, the occasional pirate or a laird in the Scottish highlands and not too much bathing. But the American Gilded Age is having a moment as authors like Joanna Shupe, Marie Force and myself turn to a subgenre pioneered by authors like Beverly Jenkins, Laura Lee Guhrke and Brenda Joyce. When it comes to irrepressible spirit, dynamic heroes and heroines, fascinating history—and running water!—nothing compares to the Gilded Age romance.
The Gilded Age—a coin termed by Mark Twain—is roughly defined as the latter half of the 19th century in America. It’s an age of massive transformation, tremendous wealth, high conflict and high drama. This is the era of Robber Barons, Dollar Princesses and also extreme poverty; it’s the era of transcontinental railroads, Fifth Avenue mansions with modern conveniences and a progressive spirit hoping to change the world for the better. Guhrke sums it up perfectly: “There was tremendous change and upheaval. That atmosphere is a storyteller’s dream.”
Legendary author Jenkins, who writes Westerns set in this period, is drawn to the “excitement, expansion and possibilities” of the era and Force notes that it’s an era of “innovation and progress.” Whether its transcontinental trains, the invention of department stores or rising skyscrapers, the world was changing dramatically, which is the perfect backdrop for adventurous characters and complicated love stories. For those who love history—and think they know American history already—a Gilded Age romance might offer some surprises. Shupe points out that stories set in this age remind us, “Our history is much more complex and diverse than we were taught in school. So many wonderful stories have been left untold and unexplored.”
The Manhattan set Gilded Age novel definitely has elements that will appeal to the lover of Regency romance—whether it’s corsets, horse-drawn carriages or romantic moments by candlelight. While the Regency has the haute ton, the Gilded Age has the Four Hundred (a coin termed to describe the limited number of people who could fit in Mrs. Astor’s ballroom, a.k.a. the highest of New York society). In both time periods there is a high society to navigate with wit and daring. As Shupe notes, “Both Regency and Gilded Age romances are full of wealthy people and scandalous behavior that shocks the rigid society around them. Carriages, balls, fancy dresses, mansions . . . both periods are brimming with glitz and glamour.” And in both time periods, there’s an emphasis on Getting Married and the tension between a marriage of wealth, status and convenience—or the love match. Classic romance conflicts!
But the novelty of the Gilded Age setting allows familiar tropes to be refreshed due to the types of heroes and heroines one finds in this era. There’s a particular kind of woman who we’ll find strutting across the pages of a Gilded Age romance. Guhrke, who writes novels set in England during this era, says, “In the Regency, a woman gained a position in the world only through marriage. It was almost impossible for a woman to gain recognition for anything in her own right. Her entire identity was based on who her father and husband were and what accomplishments, wealth and position they had.” But women during the Gilded Age, however, were embarking on higher education, becoming doctors (Elizabeth Blackwell), working as journalists (Nellie Bly), social reformers (Lillian Wald) and advocating for the right to vote and whole host of progressive causes. The heroine of my novel, Duchess by Design, rises from mere seamstress to proprietor of her own dressmaking establishment—she doesn’t land a duke so much as he lands her. The Gilded Age is a great time for historical heroines who do things and the type of heroes who find that kind of woman alluring.
Most of us read historical romance for the escape, and while the Gilded Age has so many parallels to our current world (income inequality, a progressive spirit, an ever-changing world), these romance novels provide that oh-so necessary escape to a setting where dynamic characters face high conflicts and still find life, liberty and happily ever after.