Saturday, October 14, 2017

Michelle Styles: Hidden Histories

In 1866 Malinda Russell self-published a cookbook containing useful receipts for the kitchen  in the hopes of raising enough money so she could return to Tennessee and attempt to reclaim her property, property she’d been forced to leave behind when she’d fled Northward due to her Union sympathies. Malinda Russell was a Woman of Color, born free by law because her mother Karon had been born after her grandmother, also called Malinda Russell, was emancipated. The US slave system was descent down the maternal line based, a particularly noxious form of slavery which still exists in some African countries (see for the definitions of  modern day slavery). It is notable that she does not mention her father's or grandfather’s status. She also doesn’t mention any aunts or uncles who might have been born prior to her grandmother obtaining her freedom and what their status was.
Her book was the first cookbook published by an African-American woman and one of the very few cookbooks which authentically details Southern plantation cooking and as such is a hugely important primary source document. While she mostly focuses on cakes, Russell also includes recipes for cordials and preserves, how to make eggs last longer and how to make various medical ointments. My love of old cookbooks is such that I spent a morning happily enthralled reading the free digital version of her book.
Malinda’s life story reads like fiction – as a teenager she tried to emigrate to Liberia but was robbed and forced to obtain work as a laundress in Lynchburg VA and there she learned how to cook. She married but her husband died, leaving her with a disabled son and so she ran a boarding house in a spa town in eastern Tennessee  and then for  6 years successfully ran a pastry or cake shop until the American Civil War forced her to start over in Michigan. Among other things she was robbed of her considerable life savings by a Guerilla band who threatened her with death if she revealed their names.  I do hope she did raise enough money to return to Greenville Tennessee and reclaim her property.
 I love reading and writing about women with indomitable spirits who struggle against the odds and succeed but Malinda's is not a story I can tell. Thankfully there are other writers who can. At the moment they are often marketed as African-American historical romance writers but they are really saga writers in the tradition of Catherine Cookson, that great doyenne of British woman’s historical fiction who famously claimed she didn’t write romance (meaning books like Barbara Cartland wrote).  Other British saga writers include Josephine Cox, Benita Brown and Penny Jordan when she was writing as Annie Groves as well as Winston Graham who wrote Poldark.
British saga writers differ from historical romance writers in that historical romance writers like me tend to focus on heroes who are of the first estate with the emotional growth of the relationship being the primary focus, whereas saga writers tend to have the heroes being working or lower middle class (the villains are often weak men of the first estate) and the romance is often secondary to the woman’s personal growth. Sagas are sometimes in UK publishing parlance known as Clogs and Shawls or Rats and Rickets books.  When I first moved to the UK, the saga reigned supreme in the UK publishing world with Mills & Boon being basically the only publisher to publish the sort of historical romance I had enjoyed in the US. It wasn’t until more than a decade after she published her last book that Cookson ceased to be the most checked out author in the UK library system. Before I moved from California to Northumberland, I read a lot of Cookson so I could better understand my new home and grew to enjoy this sort of writing.
If anyone else like me loves reading about indomitable women who overcome great odds to thrive,  Alyssa Cole and Piper Huguley write excellent historical sagas. There are other American saga writers but I really enjoy these writers’ novels. They both contributed to The Brightest Day: A Juneteenth Anthology which I was privileged to read before Alyssa Cole  received a Rita nomination for  her novella Let It Shine. That anthology can be a good place to start to get a flavour of the books available. Piper Huguley’s Milford College series is also excellent (her prequel The Lawyer’s Luck is free to download). If you enjoy reading Catherine Cookson or Annie Groves (Penny Jordan), you will love Piper Huguley.
 My only regret is that because these books are often marketed African-American historical romance and shelved in the African American section of booksellers that they can be overlooked by readers who go to the romance/women's fiction section, looking for such books which illuminate hidden bits of the American experience and feature strong heroines.  I am firmly of the view that we need diverse romance and that all romance should be shelved together, not softly segregated by skin colour.

Michelle Styles writes warm, witty and intimate historical romances for Harlequin Historical in a wide range of time periods. Her next Viking-set romance, The Warrior’s Viking Bride, will be published in March 2018. In her free time, she loves reading all sorts of romance because it affords her the opportunity to walk in someone else’s skin. You can read more about Michelle and her books at


dstoutholcomb said...

fascinating history

Michelle Styles said...

I thought it was as well which is why I posted about it. It is also why I love historical women's fiction in all its guises.