There’s a running joke in Romance Land that if you add up all the dukes running around (and it is, of course, a truth universally acknowledged that a single duke must be in want of a duchess), you’ll come to a number greater than the actual population of the British Isles at the time. Add in all those marquesses and earls (also in want of wives) and you have an entirely ahistorical aristocratic population explosion.
So what about all the normal people? Where are those non-ducal heroes and non-aristocratic heroines?
Part of the fun of writing The Passion of the Purple Plumeria was that Colonel Reid is a plain old army colonel (in the East India Company’s service, which was considered rather déclassé) of uninteresting ancestry, while Miss Gwen, although otherwise extraordinary in oh so many ways, is nothing more than a minor landowner’s daughter (and a landowner of mercantile extraction, at that).
It’s hard to find them through the swarm of amorous dukes, but if you like historical romances featuring non-aristocrats, you’ll probably like…
— Of course, there’s always Pride and Prejudice. Lady Catherine de Burgh may be lurking in the background, but Mr. Darcy is a gentleman and Elizabeth Bennet a gentleman’s daughter. This is romance by the gentry, for the gentry. The same goes for Emma Woodhouse and her Mr. Knightley in Emma. No dukes here!
— Georgette Heyer’s Arabella, which falls very much in the P&P mode: Mr. Beaumaris is fabulously wealthy, but not titled, and Arabella is an impecunious gentleman’s daughter.
— Carla Kelly’s Marrying The Captain, in which the hero is a naval officer and the heroine is the illegitimate daughter of a viscount.
— Lisa Kleypas’s Dreaming of You, where the heroine is a novelist and the hero, who has come up from the gutter, owns a gaming club.
— Kate Ross’s Julian Kestrel mysteries. Kestrel moves in Beau Brummel’s circle, but his birth is (deliberately) dubious. In the first book, he confides that his father was a gentleman– who married an actress. Kestrel’s position both within and without society is part of what makes these books so compelling.
— My own The Orchid Affair: the hero is a lawyer (and French!) and the heroine is a career governess of non-aristocratic extraction.
Sad as it is to say, short of continuing to list books by Heyer, Kelly and Kleypas, I’m tapped out. I can think of many novels with an aristocratic hero and non-aristocratic heroine (and a few vice versa), but I’m having a great deal of trouble coming up with books where neither of the main characters has a peerage in their past.
Who are your favorite non-aristocratic heroes and heroines?