Ask anyone who knows me, and they’ll tell you: I love romance novels. Seriously — after signing up sort of as a joke, I fell hard for Audible’s Escape Package and binged books about everything from Vermont apple farmers to Regency wallflowers. And while some people might want their escape reading to be as far from their day jobs as possible, that’s not the case for me. As a historian, my favorites are the historical romance novels. A chance to immerse myself in another time period, complete with a hunky hero sweeping me off my feet?1 Uh, yes, please!
This is what led me to complain on Twitter recently about a lack of romance novels set during the Civil War — I mean, if I had my choice of what historical world in which to be romanced, it would be my time period. While there are dozens set in Regency England, bunches in the “wild West,” and a staggering number in various time periods of Scottish history (which, okay, fair) there are practically no Civil War romances in the Audible Escape package.
There are disappointingly few romance novels set during the Civil War. I … I think I have found my niche. *opens new Word doc*
— Sarah HandleyCousins (@sarahbelle721) May 23, 2019
I get that there are a million problematic things about historical romance novels. They’re not accurate or nuanced. I also very much get that romance novels are not lofty literature. Maybe I should be reading Jonathan Franzen or Jonathan Safran Foer (are they all named Jonathan?) but let’s face it, it’s not going to happen. I have limited reading time, and I would much rather spend it dreaming about being romanced by a kilted Highlander than being lectured at by an Intellectual White Man™, thank you very much.2
So, when I found Tamera Alexander’s new novel With This Pledge at my local library, I snatched it right up. I knew from the cover it was going to be a trip: a distressed-looking white woman, dressed in Civil War-era garb, standing before a plantation house. What’s more, a blurb on the front cover assures readers that the book “demonstrate[s] that Christ’s love and romantic love can triumph even in our darkest moments.” Alexander’s book is part of the popular subgenre of Christian romance novels, which are less steamy and more inspirational. These novels typically involve a character learning to submit to Christ as they follow the path toward holy matrimony. (Emphasis on the holy.)
With This Pledge is no different. Set at the very real Carnton Plantation near Nashville, Tennessee, the story revolves around Lizzie Clouston, a young Southern governess working for the wealthy McGavock family. When the battle of Franklin turns Carnton into a Confederate field hospital, Lizzie has no choice but to become a nurse. She encounters patient Roland Ward Jones, a Confederate sharpshooter, who asks Lizzie if she will advocate on his behalf to ensure the surgeon does not amputate his wounded leg. Roland gets to keep his leg, and later Lizzie comes to his rescue again when she convinces Union officers to let the most severely wounded soldiers stay at Carnton to stabilize instead of going to a prison camp. Over the next weeks, Lizzie becomes the angel of the hospital, tenderly caring for the wounded men, sweetly ministering to her young charges, and of course, falling in love with Roland.
But there are problems! For one, Lizzie’s engaged — but that situation is quickly cleared up when her boring fiance realizes she’s just not that into him. The bigger problem is that Roland is a slave owner (he even sends for his body servant, George, to help care for him) and Lizzie is a closet abolitionist. After a sharp disagreement with Lizzie about slavery and the Confederacy, Roland has a spiritual crisis — but, of course, he finds Jesus, who ‘changes his heart’ on the subject.3 It’s only when Roland reconciles himself to the fact that slavery is immoral that he and Lizzie can finally be united.4
On the one hand, With This Pledge is exactly the kind of thing that both historians and romance novel haters dread. It is deeply influenced by Lost Cause mythology. It’s full of the bad-faith tropes that litter Civil War pop culture: the Yankees are cold and cruel, all Southerners are good Christians, Confederates enlisted to protect hearth and home, and all slaves are loyal. Take, for instance, the scene where Roland lies in bed listening to distant gunfire and contemplating the death of the Confederacy as John Bell Hood loses the battle of Nashville.5 Roland “needed to remember what the Confederacy sounded like in its final moments.”6 You can practically hear the fiddles playing Dixie in the key of nostalgia.
But problematic as it clearly is, I still found the novel fascinating. Set in a field hospital, the medical scenes are actually historically accurate. Alexander is also a good writer, and while the prose might irritate romance novel haters, it is leaps and bounds better than some in the genre. The book is based on the letters of the real-life Roland Ward Jones and Elizabeth Clouston, and features snippets of archival material like letters and sermons. Building on her research, Alexander tries to capture what she believes the real people at Carnton might have thought and felt during the winter and spring of 1864-65. While it’s deeply gross to think about Roland weeping as he contemplates the death of the Confederacy, it also sort of seems like something that might have really happened.
The book handles slavery in curious ways. Alexander writes in a supplemental essay about the novel that “transatlantic slavery was an abhorrent evil,” but she doesn’t exactly address slavery in the very region and time period she seems to love. (Alexander has written many romance novels set in the plantation South.) Lizzie acts as the moral compass of the book, secretly harboring antislavery views while living with, working for, and falling in love with slave owners. As a plot device to demonstrate her antislavery leanings, Lizzie undertakes a plan to educate two enslaved people, housekeeper Tempy and Roland’s body servant, George. Roland and Lizzie have a fight about slavery in which Roland’s arguments seem taken directly from Southern slavery apologists. This ends up playing into the Christian redemption narrative Alexander is building. As Lizzie reads A Christmas Carol aloud to the wounded men (laying it on a little thick) Roland reflects on her words, prays, and has a change of heart.
This is a clever way to write a book that is, at least on some levels, a love letter to the death of the Confederacy. Alexander wanted to write a romantic, inspirational book set at Carnton, a plantation built on the backs of enslaved people, and she wanted to use Southerners and Confederates as her heroes but recognized that such a novel would have to walk a fine line on slavery, lest it be pilloried. It’s not clear in her description of Roland and Lizzie’s letters whether Lizzie really was antislavery, but in the novel, it’s a convenient way to both have her Southern cake and eat it too.
But is that enough? While there were things I enjoyed about the book, I think With This Pledge is still an example of insidious Lost Cause mythology. Despite its clever take on slavery, at its heart, the novel is a sentimental portrait of the old South in its final days. Roland might undergo a change of heart on slavery, and even begin to consider his role in the immoral institution, but he’s also distanced from real complicity. He reasons that it was his grandfather and father who were the real slaveowners — all he did was inherit them. Unsurprisingly, enslaved characters Tempy and George are unwaveringly supportive of their white oppressors. George even rigs up an impressive physical therapy device for his master. Lizzie plays the white savior, paying lip service to the immorality of slavery while benefiting from the wealth extracted from black bodies. At the end of the book, Roland and Lizzie congratulate themselves on their decision to turn to sharecropping at Roland’s Mississippi plantation as a solution to the financial problem of emancipation, a choice that is touted as beneficial for everyone. While Lizzie and Roland’s story might be technically true, and while Alexander tries to use her characters to say all the right things, she ultimately produced a Lost Cause novel.
Alexander’s book made me think back to my initial complaint about Civil War romance novels and wonder whether it was even possible to write a romance that got the era, with all its messiness and horrors, right. Can’t we have novels about, say, the North? Or Union soldiers? Or women who are anything other than nurses? Maybe, more importantly, is it possible to write a novel that actively works to overturn the tropes of the Lost Cause? Thankfully, there’s hope — Alyssa Cole’s Loyal League series features black men and women fighting to destroy the Confederacy as part of a Union spy ring. In these extensively researched novels, slavers are unequivocally the bad guys, and all the main characters, many of whom are free blacks or formerly enslaved people, are committed to killing the Confederacy. While I think the Loyal League unfortunately still stands alone in a field of Civil War romance novels more like With This Pledge, I hope more like it come along soon — and who knows, maybe I will start writing one of my own in that Word doc!
- But seriously though, less sweeping-off-of-the-feet in romance novels. Why are all the women in romance novels so tiny?! If someone tried to sweep me off my feet, they’d end up at the chiropractor. Return to text.
- I actually have my own kilted Scot. I highly recommend them. Return to text.
- By which I mean he decides it’s good that the Confederates will lose and Union will free the slaves – but he’s not freeing anybody until then. Return to text.
- Did I mention that Roland is also told by his doctor he might not be able to have children? Also a problem for Lizzie, and a very real problem for Civil War veterans! I wrote about it !Return to text.
- Every single character hates John Bell Hood. Return to text.
- Tamera Alexander, With This Pledge (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishing, 2019), 265. Return to text.
Cold Mountain? I too used to read civil war novels when I was a library browser in the fifties and sixties. I am racking my ancient brain for the ones I loved. Maybe Andersonville which is about much more than the prison camp. A novel where two cousins fell in love and denied themselves a relationship with one another. Of course the guy married and had children and the woman ended up a lonely spinster. or a dead nurse. but i don’t remember the name of the book.
Cold Mountain is very good, but I don’t think I would categorize it as a “romance novel.”
Romance novels, by definition, have to have a “happily ever after.” Alyssa Cole is amazing!