I didn’t mean to write an American Civil War romance. Indeed, I didn’t mean to write a historical romance at all. My first book was a contemporary and so was my third. If I had sat down and decided to write something historical, surely I would have chosen another period, a more commercially-viable one, than I did. A nice Regency involving a brooding duke perhaps. (And for the record, I love a good Regency with a brooding duke as much as the next girl. In fact, probably more than the next girl.)
But writing Brave in Heart (which will be out in 2.5 weeks, if I hadn’t mentioned it lately) just sort of happened. I wanted to write a novella to experiment with different plotting, but the subject unfurled without consulting me. The first 20,000 words appeared very quickly — honestly, I could really use that sort of inspiration with the two creative writing projects sitting on my harddrive now, not to mention my still-unfinished dissertation — though the second half was more of a march. It was only when I had finished that I realize what I had done, which was to enter a very specific subgenre and one that has an almost inescapable Ur-text.
The only Civil War romance I’ve read is Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, and (spoiler alert), given the lack of a happy ever after, it isn’t really a romance. But it’s a book with a very long shadow.
Scarlett O’Hara is an early example of the spunky, never-say-die heroine that so often appear in the genre; Rhett Butler is a marvelous rogue. Drop them into an epic setting, add in some misunderstandings and history, a bit of unrequited love, the straightjacket of social expectation (which they both often flout), and colorful supporting characters, and you’ve got a recipe for success. If you’d like to learn more about Mitchell and her first and only novel, she was the subject of a good episode of American Masters, which you can watch here.
But it’s also a politically troubling book. The representation of the African-American characters falls into a pattern that finds its genesis in the pro-slavery literature of the antebellum period: happy, subservient, simple enslaved characters who are devoted to their white masters and thrive in the institution of slavery.
The character of Mammy in particular fits into a very troubling — and ahistorical — stereotype that would be perpetuated in advertising well into the twentieth century (think Aunt Jemima). And this isn’t even to get into the book’s portrait of the Reconstruction and the Klu Klux Klan.
It’s in short the most prominent example of Lost Clause ideology in literature. I’d trace this subgenre to Augusta Jane Evans‘ novel Macaria (1864), which was published as the Civil War was still being fought. It portrays Confederate causalities as sacrifices for a glorious revolution (which the book seems oddly prescient about the impending failure of) and suggests white Southern women can be most useful by keeping their (the dead men’s) memory alive.
Lost Clause texts glorify and romanticize the antebellum period, view the history of the war through a certain prism, and vilify Reconstruction and (eventually) the Civil Rights movement. Another notable entrant in the genre would be Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman, which was adapted for the screen as The Birth of a Nation in 1915.
Watching the American Masters episode I linked to above convinced me that Mitchell’s own politics were very complicated, so I don’t want to oversimplify her views or even to reduce the novel to merely being a conduit for the Lost Cause. Rhett himself openly mocks some of this myth-making in the book, for example.
But I don’t think there’s anyway to deny that Gone with the Wind does a certain kind of cultural work and has a legacy among and reputation for people who are invested in seeing the antebellum American south and the history of the Civil War in a certain way. (And for a much smarter and more sustained discussion of this, I recommend Tony Horwitz’s excellent Confederates in the Attic, which considers shifting perspectives on the memory of the war in the contemporary American south.)
What I do want to say is that if I had thought about it, I wouldn’t have wanted to write a Civil War romance novel because the politics surrounding the memory of the war are very deeply tied to contemporary racial and sectional politics. Northerners for the most part don’t seem that interested in the memory of the war, but I can promise you the phrase “the war of Northern aggression” is still in use. And who wants to get into all that?!
Once I’d realized I was writing a Civil War series, I did make a conscious decision not to read any other Civil War romances, so I can’t say whether I think the subgenre today is promoting or resisting the Lost Cause. But I can say that a stigma seems to surround books set in this time and place as if that’s what they are doing.
When I talk to people about my book, when I see bloggers discussing historical romance and they mention the subgenre, there seems to be an expectation that the setting, characters, and politics descend from Gone with the Wind. It’s almost impossible to write something set in this period that doesn’t comment on, use the tropes of, and just exist intertextually with Mitchell’s book — even if you’re trying to resist or amend her work. For some readers, this association is an immediate turn-off. For others, it’s the appeal of the genre.
Gone with the Wind, the book and the film, were massively successful. Whatever else you think of Mitchell, she wrote characters that have touched generations of readers and viewers. But for everyone else who follows her, her book is the elephant in the room. The inescapable giant that will be in every reader’s mind along with whatever we’ve created.