Why Do We Romanticize the British?

I have always wondered why we romanticize the British so much? This thought became even more poignant today while I was watching a mini-series made in Britain of Edith Wharton's The Buccaneers.  In the mini-series, 4 young American girls are having a most difficult time in New York society. No one will invite them to all the "right" parties because they are new money.  In one instance, the father made his money in the railroads after the Civil War. A governess suggests the girls travel to England for a bit of "polish" and when they return to New York, they will be the toast of the town.  Of course the girls never do return to New York, but that is for another time.

While they are in England, the British look down upon them.  Of course since they are quite wealthy, the titled families cannot help but regard them with a mixture of disdain and need.  Disdain because they are dreaded Americans and need because the titled families need the infusion of money the girls represent.  The lords are willing to lower themselves to marry these girls for the sake of saving the family.  The girls get a title and respectability and the men get the money they need.  A fair exchange in the world of bargaining for a proper marriage partner.

Let me just take a moment to discuss Edith Wharton who wrote this story before I delve into why we romanticize the British so much.  Edith Wharton was born into the upper class during the Civil War in 1862.  She was a natural storyteller and won the Pulitzer Prize for the story The Age of Innocence i 1920.  She was the first woman to be honored with a doctorate from Yale University. She provided an insight in the American experience with wit and humor but also with a clarity that struck people with deep honesty.  Some of her friends included Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, William Faulkner, James Joyce, Sinclair Lewis, F.Scott Fitzgerald, and even Henry James.  She lived for a time in France where she eventually died.  Her novel, The Buccaneers was published in 1938.  

So, let's go back to why do we romanticize the British?  Edith Wharton helped us romanticize the British through her novels. By the same token, her birth into the upper class showed what those who were born with money thought of those who suddenly joined the ranks.  The established money looked down on the new money as interlopers and totally unworthy of mingling.  She showed us that it was not just the British who continued to view us as uncouth Americans, but the wealthy Americans who looked down their aristocratic noses at those who did not grow up with money.  We do not just romanticize the British, but anyone who is born into money and status.

I write historical romance novels. I love to read them. I enjoy reading about far away places and the past. Why is it people are not as intrigued with our American past and culture? Is not our past history really the past history of the British as well?  And yet, when we read about this time period - the Georgian period - we are constantly reminded the Americans were nothing but a group of upstarts who rebelled about their benevolent leaders. The British were tolerant up to a point, and then when the time came, had to try to put their disobedient child into their place once and for all.

The more research I have done about this time period, the more romantic it actually became for me.  I found the American spirit in the 1700s fascinating.  I actually discovered I enjoy colonial America a bit more than England at that same time period.  I like writing about the colonists who travel to Britain and show the British their strength and tenacity. The colonists are not constrained by their titles - they have none. What they have, they have worked for with blood and sweat and stamina.  And yet, when they arrive in England, they are treated with not even the same disdain as servants.  In many instances, they are treated far worse.

And yet, when we read novels from this time, we adore the nobility.  We love to read about dukes and marquis and even earls.  Every young girl dreams of finding her prince charming - be it a duke, an earl, or a marquis.  No one dreams of marrying the baker or the insurance broker.  If you think about it, the very reason we continue to read novels that take place in England is because of these fantasies.

The fantasies are based upon the fairy tales we read as children.  We all dreamed of being Cinderella - the little girl who grew up in the cinders and yet fell in love with the prince (not knowing he was the prince) and lived happily ever after.  Historical romance novels are just fairy tales on steroids.  Nothing intrigues the reader more than the girl who falls in love with the man who later turns out to be the prince.  The prince who falls in love with the girl who loves him, not because he's a prince but because he is a man.  Discovering he is a prince later one is a bonus and we cheer the situation even more when the truth comes out.

The same cannot be said if we read a novel based in American history.  We do not have nobility.  The heroine is not going to wake and discover the hero is really a duke, an earl, or a marquis.  On the contrary, he may be the son of a wealthy landowner - a plantation owner or is related to someone of great power.  Back in colonial times, it would be highly probable for the hero to have ties to nobility in England, but if the family has been in the country for years, the chances get slimmer.  Our nobility was based on English nobility.  The Founding Fathers were distant relatives of noblemen who came to America to make their fortune.  Some were second sons or were given land grants by the king, thus giving them an elevated status.  Does this make them any less noble?

In a way it does.  We do not romanticize about our heroine falling in love with the hero who is plotting out his way in the wilds of America.  Instead we prefer to read about our heroine traveling to England finding the man of her dreams OR the hero who (comes from a wealthy American family) arrives in England, has fabulous British friends, and meets a lovely noblewoman who will give it all up for the sake of love.

So tell me - if you prefer historical novels - why do you like to read them?

Vivienne

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