Beautiful dresses. Stately homes. Titled aristocrats. Wealthy yearly incomes. Those are usually the things that readers love to fantasize about when they read historical romance.

The best-selling books on the market are not about the miserable lives in the Regency or Victorian era. Readers would rather not think about the squalor 90% of the population in nineteenth-century England experienced. Nevertheless, the authors who lived in those eras – like Dickens and Gaskell – had no qualms about penning reality in their stories because they were important social issues.

Toil Under the Sun is a historical fiction book I wrote loosely based on my ancestors who were from Manchester. It’s somewhat Dickenish in a few chapters for which I make no apology. There are no beautiful dresses, stately homes, or wealthy characters. Instead of dukes in canopy beds, most people slept on hard, lumpy horse-hair mattresses set on a platform or the floor. Those with no home slumped over a rope in a doss house to get some shut-eye or paid a few shillings a night to share a wooden hay-filled box with a lice-ridden individual. 

There was no running water, so people bathed at washhouses if they could afford to pay the price. Public fountains were around town to fill up your buckets for water and carry them home but were a cesspool of germs. I’ll spare you the gory details about where and how people relieved themselves because you’ll die from the stench alone or some related disease. Some parts of Manchester were called hell on earth in those days. (Read More Here)  I was shocked to learn that my third great-grandfather, Henry Holland, lived two blocks away from the slum area in this article during 1851, and he was a journeyman bricklayer that could make a wage.  It broke my heart.

“The lowest, most filthy, most unhealthy and most wicked locality in Manchester is called, singularly enough, ‘Angel-meadow.’ It is full of cellars and inhabited by prostitutes, their bullies, thieves, cadgers, vagrants, tramps and, in the very worst sties of filth and darkness…” (Angus Reach, a London Journalist 1849)

When Elizabeth Gaskell wrote North & South, she lived in Manchester. (I’ve visited her home and you can read about here on my author blog.) Even though she chose Milton as the make-believe town where Mr. Thornton had his cotton mill, the hell as penned by Margaret to her friend was described as, “I’ve seen hell and it’s white.” Perhaps that was true inside, but outside the air filled with smoke from the chimneys of factories, and the brick buildings were blackened with soot.

The idea of children being cared for by nannies and brought up by governesses is a far cry from the reality of young children who worked in factories to help with family finances. Rarely, did a child have the opportunity to learn to read or write. The boys were taught more often than the girls even in the middle class. Quite a few of my ancestors, including my second great-grandfather, merely put an “X” on the marriage bann because he couldn’t scribble his own name.

Nevertheless, out of poverty, one person can rise above and build an empire of wealth for his family and descendants. My second great uncle, Robert Holland, in Manchester came home to find his mother had hung herself using a nail in the wall. In 1862, the newspapers reported the incident. “Suicide of a Female. On Thursday morning, a woman resident in Bamber Street, named Phoebe Holland, was found dead, hanging from a nail in the wall of the house. An inquest was held on the body the same day before J. Taylor, Esq., and a verdict of Self-hanging, whilst in a state of unsound mind, was returned.” Phoebe is my third great-grandmother, and mother to Robert Holland. At the time of her death, she lived with Robert in his household.

A few years later Robert married and somehow managed to drag himself from the slums of Manchester to become a wealthy brickmaking and construction company by 1920. He was also a political success, having run and won, serving many terms as Alderman for the City of Salford (just outside of Manchester). He died a rich man, but his sons squandered their inheritance. (Certainly a story to be told there).

How my second great uncle accomplished the task of making a success of his life in the world described above is beyond my comprehension. The one ability he possessed was to read and write, which certainly worked in his favor. He is undoubtedly what they call a self-made man. In my ancestral research, I have had the pleasure of meeting a few of his descendants and visiting his twelve-bedroom home from 1882 that still stands today.

It is because of him that I use the name of Red Brick Media as my acknowledgment of his accomplishments and success in spite of the poverty to which he was born into.

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Historical Romance Books

Romance Writer’s of America gives guidelines as to what constitutes the genre of “Romance” and the many sub-genres that go along with it.  It’s basically two points, and I quote:  A central love story and an emotionally-satisfying and optimistic ending. 

You get the drift.  Boy meets girl.  They fall in love.  Have a few obstacles along the way, and live happily ever after. 

What about historical fiction with romantic elements?  Are they worth the read too?  If you’re willing to take the “central love story” but not kill the author for the ending, they can be a satisfying read. Not all historical fiction books have happy or optimistic endings. Stories of kings and queens and the people they loved were largely influenced by their inherited duties and roles. Two of Isabella’s daughters, for instance, were married off for political alliances to men in other countries.  One of those daughters was Catherine of Aragon, the first wife of Henry VIII. 

One particular book recently released by C. W. Gortner, The Queen’s Vow, has caught my eye.  It’s about Isabella of Castile as a young woman.  I read an earlier work of his entitled The Last Queen about Joanna of Castile, who was one of Isabella’s daughters who married Philip the Handsome (yes that was his name) the Duke of Burgundy.

A few years ago, I got caught up in Joanna’s story of undying love for her adulterous husband.  Definitely not a happy ending, so don’t put it on your historical romance shelf if you think you’ll throw it against the wall when you read the last page. If you’re curious about her, just Google her name and read her sad story of going mad because of her love for Philip.  And if that piques your interest, there is a wonderful foreign movie, Juana la Loca (Joanna the Mad).  It’s dubbed in English, but well worth the watch.  It’s a difficult movie to find, but I’ve seen a few copies on eBay for sale. There are also clips on YouTube if you want to check them out.

Well, in any event, I’ve come across another great Virtual Book Tour site that deals exclusively with Historical Fiction.  It’s the Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours.  We will be receiving promotional updates for tours, and I’m going to include them in our blog.  I occasionally read historical fiction, so I may focus on a few of those in my reviews.  There is also an Amazon widget at the bottom of the page that will showcase recent releases or books on tour.

In the end, I will confess that I am more of a realist when it comes to stories. There are many personal reasons in my life that have forged my thinking and writing that way.  My Legacy Series books are historical fiction with romantic elements.  I’ve been crucified a few times over the endings in those books, but I’ve received even more positive responses for writing stories of love that deal with stark realities.

Nevertheless, I thought I would spread our wings and offer you new reads to add to your shelf.  I’ll be reading The Queen’s Vow.  I love the cover.  From what I’ve read, it leans more on the romantic side and Isabella’s love for Ferdinand.  This could prove detrimental to finishing my latest book.