Friday, August 30, 2013

The Challenges of Cross-Class Romance

In romance, the most common version of the cross-class love story is the familiar trope of Cinderella. Forced into a life of servitude by a cruel step-mother, the folktale Cinderella (with a little help from her fairy godmother) rises from the ashes of her degradation to marry into the glittering world of the royalty. Yet in most versions of the folktale, Cinderella's class background is not all that different from the prince's; before her mother's death and her father's remarriage, Cinderella lived not a life of poverty or labor, but of gentility. Cinderella's rise, then, is not really much of a crossing of class at all, but rather a restoration of a class status unfairly wrested from her.

Pretty Woman's Edward comes a-wooing
via fire escape
Many re-envisionings of the Cinderella trope in modern romance dress, ones which feature lovers from truly different class backgrounds (Pretty Woman, for example) conclude with a declaration of love or a wedding, suggesting that once the cross-class lovers acknowledge their feelings, an ending as happy as Cinderella's will inevitably follow. But as two recent blog posts on the blog of Class Action, a national nonprofit group committed to exploring social class and class privilege and bias, demonstrate, tensions in a real-life marriage between people who grew up in different social classes can often stem not just from differing personalities, but also from class-based assumptions about the way the world should and does work.

In "When Love Crosses Class Lines," Jessi Streib, a sociology professor at Duke University, writes about her research into the marriages of college-educated couples, in which one partner of the couple was raised in the middle class, the other raised in the working class. Though the 32 couples she interviewed rarely mentioned class as a cause of any of the challenges they had experienced in their relationships, Streib found evidence that the disagreements couples had could often be traced to class differences, rather than simply chalked up to individual partners' characters or personalties. "Partners from different class backgrounds typically had different ideas about how they wanted to go about their daily lives, and so marriages between people who grew up in different classes required navigating these differences," Streib argues. Partners raised in working-class families tended to take a more laissez-faire attitude toward life, wanting to live in the present, assuming the future would take care of itself. In contrast, those raised in middle-class families felt more comfortable planning for the future, and organizing the flow of daily life—what Streib terms the "managerial approach." Streib found these different attitudes affected seven separate aspects of married life: finances, paid work, leisure, housework, time, parenting, and emotions—all areas in which married couples must make decisions on a daily basis.

One of the few working-class families seen on TV: cast of Roseanne
Streib's findings are echoed in the experience of counseling psychologist Barbara Jensen, who specializes in working with cross-class couples. In her Class Action blog, "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," Jensen illustrates how differing cultural assumptions lead to tension in one particular marriage. Carla, raised in a working-class family, finds husband Steve, who hails from a middle-class family, overly cold to her family. For his part, Steve doesn't understand why they have to spend so much time with Carla's relatives; aren't they grown-ups now? Steve doesn't understand why Carla shares her emotions and secrets with his boss's wife; Carla doesn't understand why they need to spend social time with his boss. Both Carla and Steve bring with them the social expectations of their class: for Steve, emotional boundaries signal respect for others, excessive emotional sharing signal rudeness, while to Carla, emotional boundaries signal coldness, reserve. For Carla, social time means spending time with equals, with friends, not with people who hold power over you; for Steve, cultivating those higher up in the power structure is an expected part of life.

Romance novels often feature cross-class couples. But rarely do the conflicts the couples experience stem from the different social expectations each member of the couple brings to the relationship. Or if they do, typically one member of the couple must give up what are portrayed as "immature" behaviors and assumptions in order to become worthy of the other partner's love. For example, in Sarah Mayberry's Harlequin Superromance Suddenly You, working-class hero Harry must give over his carefree life of living in the moment, choosing instead to take responsibility for his father's business, before middle-class heroine Pippa will accept that he's not going to leave her in the emotional and financial lurch as his best friend Steve did. Much ink has been spilled suggesting that romance fiction indoctrinates readers into patriarchal values, but little has been written about its ideologies of class. After reading Mayberry's book, I began to wonder—does romance also work to instill middle class assumptions and values in working-class readers?

As both Streib and Jensen point out, negotiating cultural differences stemming from class differences need not be an either/or. The couples with whom Streib spoke "usually reported being happy together. Class infused their marriages, but it did not extinguish them." Jensen notes that a class-conscious counselor will not simply urge Carla to adopt Steve's middle-class values, but to help both partners to understand that their differences stem not just from personal preference, but from the class-based assumptions each learned from their families of origin, and to "listen with compassion to each other's needs, dreams, and fears"—no matter whether said needs, dreams, or fears stemmed from middle-class, or working-class, values.

What romance novels can you think of that truly grapple with class difference? Do any of them feature couples, like Jensen's Carla and Steve, "learning roles and rules from both of their parents' families" and sharing "their favorite aspects of either culture" rather than one set of class assumptions ruling over the other?

32 comments:

  1. Class differances are central to Glitterland, and one of the conversations the couple has is about Darian's lack of a "career." Interestingly, this is one of the relatively few times that the easy-going Darian is obviously upset by his his lover's snobbishness, and he even asks for an apology. I think it's a good example of a book in which neither class "wins" -- Ash's perhaps comes off something the worse for being snobbish and exclusionary, but I don't think he's expected to change anything.

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    1. Just finished it, and I agree that class difference is definitely on showcase in this novel. The HforN ending, though, doesn't really address how these two men are going to negotiate their class differences, though...

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  2. Ah, this book is getting so much attention! Will have to give it a look-see soon...

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  3. Mary Balogh has a few books with class differences being an issue to an extent, although it has been a while since I have read them. In her short story A Family Christmas, the conflict between the merchant-class hero and the upper-class heroine is partially due to different behavioral expectations portrayed as part of social class (something like cold aristocracy and more emotional/demonstrative middle class, as I recall) - the resolution does encourage the adoption of the middle class attitudes, though. (I remember her book A Christmas Promise being similar, but with the genders reversed.) In The Famous Heroine, observations/assumptions are made based on class values/attitudes as well although I don't think it was really a conflict between the characters(I don't remember one class "winning" over the other either). I think A Christmas Bride does also, but it has been so long since I read that one that I really don't remember enough about what happens. I feel like I have read other historical romances that depict upper class heroes adopting what are portrayed as middle class values (i.e. the irresponsible aristocrat who sees the value of work/responsibility type), but I can't think of any examples that specifically tie this to class offhand.

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    1. Yes, I agree that Balogh does a great job of portraying cross-class romance, although in the cases you mention, romance between the nobility and the "cits" or merchant classes, rather than the middle and the working classes that the Class Action bloggers mention.

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  4. "Much ink has been spilled suggesting that romance fiction indoctrinates readers into patriarchal values, but little has been written about its ideologies of class."

    I'm not sure it's so little, but perhaps the work which has been done in this area has tended to be overlooked. I had a look and here are the items I remembered, though there may well be others I haven't remembered or haven't read:

    Batsleer, Janet, Tony Davies, Rebecca O'Rourke and Chris Weedon. Rewriting English: Cultural Politics of Gender and Class. London: Methuen, 1985. [There's a chapter on romance.]

    Cohn, Jan. Romance and the Erotics of Property: Mass-Market Fiction for Women. Durham and London: Duke UP. 1988.

    Darbyshire, Peter. "Romancing the World: Harlequin Romances, the Capitalist Dream, and the Conquest of Europe and Asia." Studies in Popular Culture 23.1 (2000).

    Fox, Pamela. "The 'Revolt of the Gentle': Romance and the Politics of Resistance in Working-Class Women's Writing." NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction 27.2 (1994): 140-160.

    Fowler, Bridget. The Alienated Reader: Women and Popular Romantic Literature in the Twentieth Century. Brighton: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991.

    Herendeen, Ann. “The Upper-Class Bisexual Top as Romantic Hero: (Pre)dominant in the Social Structure and in the Bedroom.” Journal of Popular Romance Studies 3.1 (2012).

    Light, Alison. "Returning to Manderley – Romance Fiction, Female Sexuality and Class." Feminist Review 16 (1984): 7-25.

    Melman, Billie. Women and the Popular Imagination in the Twenties: Flappers and Nymphs. London: Macmillan, 1988. [See Chapter 7, "'A Lass of Lancashire': The Mill Girl as Emblem of Working-Class Virtues"]

    Owen, Mairead. "Women's Reading of Popular Romantic Fiction: A Case Study in the Mass Media: A Key to the Ideology of Women." Ph.D. thesis, U. of Liverpool, 1990.

    Paizis, George. Love and the Novel: The Poetics and Politics of Romantic Fiction. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan, 1998.

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    1. Thanks, Laura, for sharing these citations. I'll be interested in tracking them down and reading what they have to say about issues of class conflict and class formation.

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  5. I'm not really sure they've got much to say about either class conflict or class formation. I have come across "The politics of seduction in English popular culture, 1748-1848" which explains that "the image of the poor maiden victimized by the aristocratic libertine provided a very specific symbol of class exploitation and explained familial traumas" (Clark 47) which, I suppose, might be a useful context in which to think about class in Richardson's Pamela (which Pam Regis classifies as a romance) and Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles (which I'm sure she wouldn't). That's in The Progress of Romance: The Politics of Popular Fiction, ed. Jean Radford.

    Another item of interest might be Judy Giles's " 'You Meet 'Em and That's It': Working Class Women's Refusal of Romance Between the Wars in Britain" (in Romance Revisited, ed. Lynne Pearce and Jackie Stacey), but it's about attitudes towards romantic relationships, not about romance fiction.

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    1. Yes, the research my post refers to is speaking of contemporary real-life relationships. Little of the scholarship out there seems to address class in romance in terms of contemporary-set romance fiction.

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  6. Class differences--and respect for the different ways family interact--show up in another Sarah Mayberry book "All They Need". The heroine is the sister of Henry in "Suddenly You" who has recently divorced a wealthy man who never thought she was good enough and never fit in with her family. The hero is from an upper-class background, which is the source of some of the tension in their relationship. There are several thoughtful scenes that address how they interact with and view the other's families.

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    1. Thanks, Anonymous, for the rec. I'm looking forward to reading more of Mayberry's work (SUDDENLY YOU is the first book of Mayberry's I've read), and seeing how class differences play out in them.

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  7. What about Simone Elkeles' YA books? Georgette Heyer's The Toll Gate, The Unknown Ajax, and Cotillion involve class... Cultural conflicts can also be class differences and you see that in some romances with people from different cultures.

    I can't think at the moment of true working class vs. middle/upper class romances though...

    Some of the modern Cinderella-type romances have waitresses falling in love with rich guys... I'm remembering an old Harlequin American romance with a female taxicab/limo driver and a rich lawyer but the title escapes me at the moment.

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    1. Jenny:

      Yes, I do think a lot of the newer NA/YA books invoke class difference. But they seem to do it more in a melodramatic, rather than a realistic way -- the working class (usually boy, although occasionally girl) has to deal with lots of stuff that creates plot drama (drug-abusing parent, sibling in jail, etc.) but class differences don't really impact the values or morals the lovers bring to their relationship, values or morals that have to be examined and/or renegotiated in order for the romance to flourish.

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  8. There are lots of m/m romances that address issues of class, but they don't necessarily include romances that cross the class lines you specify. Alex Beecroft's contemporary Shining in the Sun, which I just read (I was just as surprised as you probably will be to learn that she penned a contemporary), is about a relationship between a wealthy heir to a business fortune and someone who's at the bottom rung of the working class. J.L. Merrow's Muscling Through contrasts working class (and somewhat simple) with aristocratic and highly educated; the working class member of the pairing is the narrator and his lover's snooty mother is presented as just that, snooty. And Josephine Myles' Screwing the System focuses on a couple that both come from the working class, but one owns a janitorial service and the other applies for a job there in order to fulfill the requirements for government benefits.

    Then there's also Maggie Robinson's Lord Grey's List, in which the female MC is solidly middle-class even though her financial situation is probably more perilous than that because of her father's gambling and illness, while the male MC is aristocratic (hence the title). The two of them wind up working together on the scandal sheet her father won gambling; she runs it while dressed in men's clothing. I had other issues with the book, but the setup was good. And you could even look at the subject of your previous post, Untamed.

    These all are set in England. I suspect the greater awareness about the operation of class differences is why. In the US, the myth is that class doesn't exist.

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    1. Yes, I think it's very relevant that the books you cite are British. Here in the US, we're all middle class, or at least we like to think so...

      I wonder, too, if class difference is more common in m/m books, because there is a history of m/m class-crossing relationships in real life/history? I think of E. M. Forster, for example, both in real life and in his fiction (MAURICE)...

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  9. I read an interesting book by Alfred Lubrano recently called Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams. I picked it up because it was very similar to my own undergrad thesis about social mobility — looking at the experience of working class kids who “move up” into the middle or upper classes. What Lubrano found (and so did I) is that they entered this kind of no-man’s-land. They never quite fit into their new class because they hadn’t grown up there and didn’t fully understand or connect with the subtleties of language, artistic taste, or educational pedigree. At the same time, they could never go home again either. To the families and friends of their childhood, their newfound speech, behavior, style of dress and professional and artistic interests were alien and even sometimes ridiculous. They became members of both classes and at the same time members of neither, and this outsider status was a lifelong source of isolation and stress.

    One of the reasons my husband and I connected in college is that we both had this experience. It was an incredible relief to share it with someone who understood. All these years later, we often still feel like outsiders to our families on one hand and to our friends and colleagues on the other. I’d love to see this dynamic play out more frequently in cross-class romance.

    A lot of cross-class romance stories are aspirational fantasies in which one part of the couple enters poor but they both leave rich. I always find that interesting, because it suggests that people with money are happier, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my life as a NYC teacher, it's that they definitely are not. I would love to see more romances in which a working class life is embraced. I’d also love to see more stories that deal with the cultural disconnect between couples from different class backgrounds — to see that explored as part of the book’s conflict, and to see how the characters then work through it as they try to understand each other.

    I think part of the reason why we don’t see this more is that class is still so rarely discussed or acknowledged in America. It can’t be explored if you don’t admit it exists. But I think romance is exactly the place to explore it. We deal with big cultural clashes in this genre, and because our books have happy endings, we can explore how people talk about and then resolve these clashes in our everyday lives.

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    1. Lubrano's book sounds fascinating, Rebecca, and true to my own experience -- my parents grew up in working-class families, so I experienced the tight social bonds at extended family get-togethers when I was a young child. But when job opportunities took my father (and our family along with him) to a different state, we found ourselves in the middle class, far from the closeness of working-class family life. And then, after I attended an Ivy league college, I even felt estranged from my middle-class family in many ways...

      The sociology professor who wrote the blog I mentioned has a book coming out on real-life cross-class romance: The Power of the Past: Cross-Class Marriages and Intimate Experiences with Inequality. It will be interesting to see if her findings match Lubrano's in any way.

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  10. One of the limitations of exploring cross-class relationships in fiction, is that the romance novel typical ends at the wedding. You don't really get an idea of the couple's day-to-day life together. One of the biggest conflicts that I have seen in real life is parenting style. Working class people are more likely to use an authoritarian style and are more likely to believe in corporal punishment.

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    1. In historicals we often get life after marriage, but it is far more rare in contemporaries, so yes, you don't get a good idea of (contemporary) couples' day-to-day life. Parenting style is definitely a key area of conflict here...

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  11. Also, Sarah Mayberry's Suddenly You was exhaustively discussed to death over on Dear Author recently. Some of the discussion shed more heat than light, and the class differences were mostly glossed over, but it still might be worth looking at.

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  12. Re: Mayberry's Suddenly You: I'm not sure that in this book Harry’s laissez-faire attitude versus Pippa’s drive to complete her teaching degree can be read as signifiers of their class status. Throughout the book Pippa freely admits that in fact that she was exactly like Harry (and his friend/her ex-boyfriend) before she had daughter. She was not ambitious in her work life and was more interested in enjoying herself than planning for the future.

    In fact I think in many ways she was worse than Harry or even Steve, her ex-boyfriend. Harry owns his own home, has a good vehicle, holds down a regular, decent paying job. What he isn’t (or what he claims that he isn’t), is someone, who is interested in “settling down” in a committed relationship or taking over the family business with all the extra work and responsibilities that entails. Although we don't actually see Steve's home -- Mayberry hints that his life is similar to Harry's and certainly that he can easily afford the child support that he is deliberately withholding.

    Pippa, on the other hand, spent her twenties traveling and picking up mostly short-term, low-paying employment stints – she just scraped by. That's part of the problem for her, she had no savings, no house, not even a decent job or car when she became pregnant. And her mother, who was a teacher, is now retired and only has a small amount of savings. I don’t think Mayberry even mentions Pippa’s father – so I assumed that he’s probably either dead or divorced from Pippa’s mother and out of the picture. Becoming a mother forces Pippa to become responsible – both economically and emotionally. While Harry, who is already a responsible employee (and actually a fiscally responsible person), learns to become emotionally responsible and more willing to take on new challenges and commitments.

    It is Pippa, not Harry, who is in debt and who is dependent on the state social welfare system. It is Harry, who is at the end of the story going to take his capital to buy into his father’s business – he’s planning to become a small business owner, who employs others. So I guess what I’m saying is that while ostensibly Pippa is middle class (the daughter of a teacher and attending university) and Harry is working class (an auto mechanic and the son of an auto mechanic) – how class plays out in the novel and what can be read as class signifiers are complicated.

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    1. This brings up a whole other issue -- how do we define class? Is it the amount of money one has? The job one has? The attitude toward work? The level of education? Streib's take was that class related to attitude: laissez-faire about the future vs. "managerial" about the future, which were the guidelines I was using in thinking about Mayberry's book.

      I read Pippa as middle class because of her family background (her mother was a teacher), and because she went to college, at least for a while. Her laissez-faire attitude to life and work before her pregnancy was presented as an aberation (spelling?) for a girl like her, one with more education and "class" than Harry. After she has her baby, she becomes invested again in middle class values of saving and investing for the future. So in a way, Pippa's class rehabilitation has already taken place before the book starts; Harry's class transformation takes place during the book.

      Harry and Steve, though they both work hard and make good money, aren't planning for the future in the same "managerial" style. Steve, especially, spends the money he has on trips and parties and helping his friends; Harry doesn't want responsibility, he just wants to do his own thing. In terms of Streib's construction of class, Steve and Harry both struck me as working-class in their attitudes.

      (I don't remember Pippa being dependent on the state in any way -- did I miss that?)

      I agree that the class signifiers are complicated -- not just in Mayberry's novel, but in American society in general.

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  13. I am fascinated by class in romance - and love Sarah Mayberry - so very much enjoyed the post and comments.

    I find that much of romance fiction, particularly contemporary or romantic suspense land the hero and heroine in a *made-up* class that has the values of middle class with the signifiers of working-class.

    Both h and h typically value hard work, self-determination, and education (even if the working-class partner doesn't have a degree). Working-class heroes don't insist on entrenched gender roles, like a real life working-class man probably would. In contrast, the working-class hero will have more "masculine" attributes than the middle-class men in the book. Common stage-dressing may include: military background, home security fetish, boots, motorcycles or trucks, and home self-repair. The idealized social setting for the couple after the HEA involve a lot of barbecues, family get-togethers and emotional interactions. In "All They Need" the couple becomes part of the working-class heroine's family.

    Many books end in a fantasy class with working-class, simple pleasures are wrapped around a core of middle-class values that are not always verbalized in the book. We intuit that the working-class hero - to pick up on a point from an earlier commenter, which I thought was spot on - will use middle-class parenting skills, even as he's fixing his Harley and flipping burgers on the grill.

    (Again with the BBQ - there are so many BBQs! Especially in Maya Banks KGI books.)

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    1. Eliza:

      What a great insight! I really like this idea of a "fantasy class," one that combines the appeal of the working-class hero with the future, get-ahead values more common of the middle classes. Women want the bad-boy (i.e., working-class) hero, but they want him to conform at least in part to middle-class constructs of success...

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    2. This comment was in my head while I was recently reading a Harlequin Presents featuring a ruthless tycoon who's also the most hands-on parent ever.

      I think Making it Last by Ruthie Knox is worth taking a look at in this context. I'm not sure if there were class issues between the couple, but one of the conflicts was that the carpenter hero built a "dream house" for them that was more than they could afford or his wife could handle taking care of. It's one of the few romances in which money is seriously an issue, which I really liked.

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  14. Jackie, a few books that leaped to mind right away: The Derby Girl by Tamara Morgan, which I just read. (He's a save-the-world plastic surgeon; she's a barrista and lifeguard who hasn't ever managed to finish college. I particularly love the heroine & think Tamara has a gift for writing characters who aren't you're same-old, same-old.)

    Meredith Duran's A Lady's Lesson in Scandal. (I've never seen a historical handle class difference as well as this one, in fact. I'm not saying it doesn't exist, but this is the best I've read. It went much more than skin deep, as all her work does. She's an incredible writer.)

    But in both cases, its the woman who comes from a lower class. I think you would like both of them, though.

    And I haven't read Tessa Dare's Any Duchess Will Do yet, but I've heard great things about how the heroine never really becomes a swan, she stays the serving girl "duck" she is and that's who the hero falls in love with.

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  15. Oh, and was just reading another Jeannie Lin book last night (My Fair Concubine) and had to come back and mention that. Jackie, have you read her? Because I would say that class/honor/society is the essential struggle in her stories (those versus love). And I think she does it in a way that is very compelling, and in a world that is also compelling. I haven't had a chance to read The Lotus Palace, her latest, yet, but Jayne & Sunita reviewed it for Dear Author and it's clear that the class issues are again extremely well done.

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  16. Laura:

    Thanks for the recommendations. I'm a bit Meredith Duran fan, and yes, A LADY'S LESSONS IN SCANDAL is a good example of a historical that addresses class difference in a compelling way. ANY DUCHESS WILL DO -- I found it skimmed the surface, more of a fairy-tale than a deep consideration of class difference. Will have to take a look at Jeannie Lin and Tamara Morgan...

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    1. That's "big" not "bit," re Duran...

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    2. Sorry to keep coming back but was just thinking one of my favorite books by Tamara Morgan, Confidence Tricks, is inherently about class differences, too. And the heroine is also confident and take-charge (although not without her insecurities). She can beat up the hero and this doesn't make her unfeminine or emasculate him in any way. (Keeping in mind that this is a funny story, although with a lot of heart, so in the context her ability to physically best him over and over is fun. Not trying to advocate "real" violence!)

      If you haven't read Jeannie Lin yet, I think you will be really fascinated by her work, Jackie!

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  17. In the Arms of the Heiress by Maggie Robinson also has a cross-class romance. The hero is from a very working class family - all his brothers/sisters work in a factory and he was chosen by the factory owner for special treatment and educated. He took a commission in the army and went to Africa to fight in the Boer War. The heroine is a wealthy English heiress - not nobility - her... father (?) was American? Maybe it was her mother. One of her parents was from the US at any rate.

    It is interesting that even though the hero comes from a different class, he is able to "mask" it by reason of his special treatment and education etc and his service in the Army as an officer.

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  18. Thanks, Kaetrin, for the rec. I've liked Robinson's work in the past, but haven't yet read this one. Another for the TBR stack...

    Definitely interesting that the hero can perform a different class that the one in which he was born. A lot of the conduct book literature of the 19th century focused on training the ungenteel in how to appear genteel. And the fears of the British elite about class crossing stem from the fact that at least in part class can be performed; it's not just a matter of bloodlines.

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