Finding Your Heroine in Historical Romance

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When I’m asked why I write historical romance, I usually give an answer like “I love history. I grew up surrounded by American history.” And that’s true. My earliest memories involve trotting along next to my parents over three-hundred-year-old cobblestones in Philadelphia. One of my first jobs was at Buckley’s Tavern, a restaurant built in an 1817 farmhouse, in Centreville, Delaware, just a few miles from my childhood home. Legend says it’s haunted, but sadly I never had an encounter despite being the employee who always had to go in the creepy basement to fetch mints for the hostess station.

However, living around old buildings is only part of the answer. Okay, here’s the full truth: I wrote Appetites & Vices because I wanted to wear a pretty dress. Fine. I wanted to wear lots of pretty dresses. More than that, I wanted to write a romance where someone like me (read: someone Jewish) got to wear lots of pretty dresses. With hoops. And corsets. And go to balls.

I adore historical romance and can get on board with heroines of all backgrounds. Nevertheless, I still wanted, at least once, to write a “me.” And I’m not me without the Jewish part. Equally, I’m not me without the American part either.

The largest Jewish migration to the US happened between 1880 and 1924. And it’s true, a lot of my ancestors came during that period. But a few came before. In fact, Jews have been in North America since 1654 and in the Philadelphia area almost as long.

The American Jewish experience is unique from that of the large Jewish communities in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, as it was never marked by expulsion, persecution and ghettoization. Even more so, in America, Jewishness has never been a barrier to political rights and privileges. For example, while the Jews of the Rhineland saw the equality brought by Napoleon revoked by Prussia after Waterloo, the Jews of Philadelphia expanded their presence and influence in the city. They established multiple synagogues, an orphanage and a plethora of charitable organizations. However, it was during the 1840s (Appetites & Vices’s period) when the Philadelphia Jewish community really began to create the foundation for what it is today, making it a great time to begin a series.

In 1838, philanthropist Rebecca Gratz (who gets a shout-out in Appetites and had an uncle named Bernard in real life) established the Hebrew Sunday School to provide religious and cultural education in addition to the regular secular studies of Jewish children in Philadelphia. In other words, she invented what many American Jews call “Hebrew School.” Or, if you will, she gave my mother yet another place to lug me and my sister a couple of days a week.

Importantly, because of Beth Shalom Hebrew School and, post bat mitzvah, Delaware Gratz Hebrew High School, I have a nice baseline knowledge of American Jewish history. I also went on a lot of field trips to the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia. From there, I had a direction to focus my research for the Truitts series.

Rebecca Gratz, who would’ve been old enough to be Ursula from Appetites’s grandmother, but lived a very long life (1781–1869), was a prolific letter writer. Many of her letters have been collected and published providing primary source insight. Though Gratz is considered a pioneer of the Philadelphia Jewish community, she had a great deal of non-Jewish friends, including Washington Irving and Thomas Sully. During her life, she was able to move in both circles, a task Ursula struggles with in Appetites.

Both women—the real and the fictional one I created—lived the delicate tango of maintaining cultural identity while being allowed to partake of the best American society had to offer. Showing that dance in a realistic way was really important to me. Moreover, I’m excited in the second book in the series (Dalliances & Devotion, coming August 26, 2019!), to introduce you to a hero who immigrated to the United States as a teenager so has really experienced the contrast between Europe and the US for nineteenth-century Jews (and, you know, give him some fun romantic times, as well. There’s a spa in that book. And a train!).

I’m so excited to bring those character experiences and stories to all of you in these books. And to squeal over some really pretty dresses. Because who doesn’t like a pretty dress?

About Appetites & Vices:

APPETITES & VICES by Felicia GrossmanHe’s her ticket into high society…

Banking heiress Ursula Nunes has lived her life on the fringes of Philadelphia’s upper class. Her Jewish heritage means she’s never quite been welcomed by society’s elite…and her quick temper has never helped, either.

A faux engagement to the scion of the mid-Atlantic’s most storied family might work to repair her rumpled reputation and gain her entrée to the life she thinks she wants…if she can ignore the way her “betrothed” makes her feel warm all over and stay focused on her goal.

She’s his ticket out…

Former libertine John Thaddeus “Jay” Truitt is hardly the man to teach innocent women about propriety. Luckily, high society has little to do with being proper and everything to do with identifying your foe’s temptation—an art form Jay mastered long ago. A broken engagement will give him the perfect excuse to run off to Europe and a life of indulgence.

But when the game turns too personal, all bets are off…

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One thought on “Finding Your Heroine in Historical Romance”

  1. Rachel Abugov says:

    How wonderful! I’ve never read about someone like me (also Jewish!) in a historical romance. Thanks for giving me this opportunity, and thanks to Carina for expanding the definition of diversity!

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