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Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast Episode 261 – Our F/Favorite Tropes Part 7: Aristocrats and Billionaires

Saturday, June 17, 2023 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 261 – Our F/Favorite Tropes Part 7: Aristocrats and Billionaires - transcript

(Originally aired 2023/06/17 - listen here)

This installment in the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast’s series on “Our F/Favorite Tropes” once again pairs two tropes that make an interesting “compare and contrast” set: titled aristocrats and billionaires. These two character-based tropes revolve around the premise that power and privilege is sexy, whether that power derives from a fixed social hierarchy or from extreme wealth. But these tropes intersect with gender issues in historic settings in very different ways, as we shall see.

What Is a Trope?

Let’s begin by reviewing what we mean by “trope.” In the context of romance novels, it means a conventional story element that is used regularly enough to have acquired a whole context of meaning that connects the story to others using the same trope. The trope may be a type of character—as in the current instance—or it may be a situation, or a sort of “mini-script” that the characters engage in.

In this series, we begin by examining the structure and assumptions around a trope as it typically plays out in male-female romance plots, and then reviewing how that structure or those assumptions change when a female couple is involved. The changes may depend on the specific historic and cultural context of the story. In general, I’ll be looking primarily at Western culture, and especially stories set in the British Isles, due not only to the way my research skews, but also because of the popularity of those settings.

The Aristocrat

Let’s put some cards on the table right off and note that when we’re talking about aristocrat romances, we’re talking about the fantasy of hot, young, wealthy, single aristocrats. Or at least three out of four. Within a male-female romance, the aristocrat is almost always the man (and we’ll get back to that topic in just a moment), while the female love interest is very often (though not always) not of the same class. A large part of the appeal comes from the “Cinderella” framework—a deserving woman of lower social status is given access to the world of aristocratic wealth and privilege via marriage to a duke…or whatever. Often, the plot tension comes from her rejection of the attraction of that privilege, such that the aristocrat needs to woo her on the basis of personality, rather than being able to leverage his wealth and social power to get what he wants.

In contrast to the billionaire (which we’ll get to later), there will be considerations of family status and lineage: he needs to think about producing heirs, he needs to maintain the honor and dignity of his name. These factors may either drive the plot directly, or may be explicitly violated. Or perhaps the aristocrat has taken advantage of his social privilege to get away with bad behavior and the love interest is either put off by this or is the one woman who sees through to the heart of gold within.

The romantic resolution in a marriage plot provides the love interest with two things that, in a male-female romance, come bundled together. She gets access to the social power and privilege that accompany her partner’s aristocratic title, and she gets elevated to his social rank and given her own aristocratic title.

How it Works (or Not)

But when we apply the aristocrat trope to a romance between two women, we need to separate out those two benefits because we run into two major obstacles: one merely inconvenient and one insurmountable.

The insurmountable problem is that, until very very recently, there is no social context for same-sex marriage to be a conduit for gaining aristocratic status. Now there’s a delightful emerging genre of queer “royal romance” novels that take advantage of the massive social changes in the last couple of decades. (And I’d be curious to know if there are any real-world same-sex marriages where one partner held an inherited aristocratic title, and how that was handled.)

But within the field of historic romance, it just isn’t possible. If you want to do that, you’re going to need to write a secondary-world historic fantasy, or introduce a gender-disguise element—which is a bit tricky for a character whose life will have been under the type of scrutiny that an aristocrat usually gets. I’ve been holding off on discussing how gender-crossing characters interact with tropes because I plan to cover that issue in its own episode. So forgive me for treating this as an absolute at this time.

For a same-sex aristocrat romance, the closest you can get to a marriage plot is the equivalent of an official mistress or favorite. And—mind you—some mistresses of aristocrats were de facto spouses, with a lot of power and privilege rubbing off on them. Royal mistresses might even be granted an aristocratic title for “service to the crown” though since the creation of new titles tended to reside at the top, this option wouldn’t be available for dukes and earls and whatnot. But what you can’t have is the romantic partner of a woman who holds an aristocratic title in her own right automatically being granted an equivalent title by virtue of that relationship.

The second obstacle, which is more nuanced, is the existence of your titled protagonist in the first place. The possibilities here will vary greatly by country and, to a lesser extent, by era. An aristocrat may acquire a title by inheritance, by marriage, or by grant.

Due to the sexist nature of Western history, it’s a fairly solid trend that only women acquire titles by marriage—an untitled man who marries a titled woman does not automatically acquire her title. (There are exceptions—evidently in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, the husband of a titled heiress was given a courtesy title.) And, as we’ve noted, a same-sex partner can’t acquire a title by marriage in any case. If a romance heroine has a title by marriage, then either she has a living husband, which complicates the structure of the romance plot. (It’s perfectly historic for her to engage in a romantic liaison with a woman on the side, but that isn’t a classic romance novel plot.) Or she’s a widow. And if she’s a widow, then she will hold a dowager title by courtesy, but she will not be the primary holder of the power and status of that title. So again, we’re straying from the central prototype of the aristocrat trope.

The possibility of a woman inheriting a title depends strongly on country. For example, the custom in the German states excluded women entirely from inheriting titles. In France, it was hypothetically possible if there were no male heirs available, but whether this would be carried out in practice varied from region to region and from era to era. (I found a delightfully detailed study of this question in an article that I’ll link to in the show notes.) A woman inheriting a French title would likely have no siblings of either gender, and might be best served by having no uncles. Often it would also require a specific royal grant. And legal theories began pushing back even more strongly against these exceptions in the 17th century, upholding the principle that only men should inherit titles. I’ve found references to instances of women inheriting titles in some regions of Italy.

In the United Kingdom, which is statistically prominent in historic romance aristocracy, the question of whether a woman may inherit a title in the absence of male heirs depends on the specific title in question or on the process by which the title was originally created. The largest category that allowed this was “baronies created by writ, rather than by letters patent,” which is getting far too technical for this podcast, but be aware that it was extremely rare for the higher titles such as duchies and counties to have this allowance. For technical reasons involving female inheritance, a woman can only inherit the title (as opposed to the status) if she has no sisters. So if you’re setting up your heroine for this situation, she needs to be the only surviving child of her family.

Now the third way for a woman to gain an aristocratic title is for it to be granted to her directly, either as a title for life only, or as a permanent title that could be passed on to her heirs. These creations included titles of all ranks: duchesses, countesses, baronesses, marquesses. Some monarchs seemed to hand these out like candy, other created none at all. The reasons why a woman might be granted such a title don’t always work well for a same-sex aristocratic romance plot. Being the favored mistress of a king was a popular path to a title, either for life or as a permanent title (as in Barbara Duchess of Cleveland, one of Charles II’s mistresses). Another motivation for granting a woman a title, especially in more recent centuries, would be to honor her deceased husband who had inconveniently died before being ennobled. Or, in an interesting dodge, to honor a husband who was a prominent politician in the House of Commons and would have lost that office if given a peerage directly. By granting the title to a widow or wife, she could then pass on to the man’s heirs. But there are occasional examples of women being granted a personal title, usually only for life, due to their own personal merit and service. Examples include being the mother of the king’s best friend, being governess to the princess royal, being a loyal courtier of the future Charles II during his exile, being the mother to prime ministers, or being a courtier and artist. I found no examples of grants of this type to a never-married woman, although often to widows. (Of course, in the 20th century and after, the creation of female “life peers” has become commonplace, especially as women have entered the highest levels of the government.)

So, as you can see, in order to end up with an unmarried woman holding a title in her own right, you need to do some social engineering, but it can be done. Now that you have her, what are the parallels and contrasts with a man in the same position? A common feature of aristocrat romances is the mandate to marry and produce heirs for the title. In a male-female romance, this mandate is aligned with the romance plot. But in a same-sex romance, the two are in conflict. Your titled heroine will be under perhaps more than that usual pressures to marry and produce children, but her romantic entanglement with a woman will be viewed as a distraction, even if the intensity of that relationship is not generally known. This provides useful plot developments. Rather than the marriage imperative being treated as the driver of a marriage of convenience, or as off-putting to a heroine who doesn’t want to be viewed as just a baby-maker, it becomes the obstacle course that our titled heroine needs to maneuver while trying to win the heart of her beloved. Or being won over against her wishes and perhaps even her better judgment. (And there are certainly historic cases of women who inherited titles and never married, thus leaving the legacy to a collateral line.)

So the elements of the traditional aristocratic romance that can be retained (within a suitable cultural context) are: one character with status and presumably wealth, a second character that lacks those features, the whole gamut of personality clashes that have to do with each of their assumptions and attitudes about that disparity, the usefulness of social status when flouting convention, and a resolution in which the less privileged character gains stability and protection from being associated with the titled character. It is hypothetically possible that your second heroine might be granted a personal title for her services to the state, thus elevating her to the same rank as her partner, but this approach requires a bit more suspension of disbelief unless she’s an ex-mistress of the king.

The Billionaire

When I talk about a “billionaire” trope, I’m not limiting it to a specific amount of wealth, but rather using “billionaire” to stand in for whatever resources represent complete freedom from economic constraints.

The typical heterosexual billionaire romance plot involves a character—most often the man—with extreme wealth, but who has discovered that (in the words of the Beatles song) “money can’t buy you love.” They may have a well-founded suspicion that potential partners are gold-diggers. They may have been so focused on managing their financial life that they have neglected to build personal relationships. They may simply represent a fantasy of luxurious living.

Most typically, the romantic partner contrasts greatly in financial status. They are poor—perhaps in dire need whether on a personal basis or for the sake of a family or organization. Or perhaps they aren’t desperately poor but simply of typical income, meaning that their financial life operates on an entirely different level. The billionaire represents either the answer to desperation, or access to a fantasy lifestyle. But at the same time there is a structural power imbalance that can contribute barriers to the romance.

There are variations within this structure. Does the poorer partner know about the other’s wealth? Is there a dynamic to the relationship above and beyond money that makes it difficult for the poorer partner to walk away, or for the richer partner to trust their sincerity? Do they begin with something resembling an employer/employee relationship that develops into romance? Or do they fall in love first only to find that the financial contrast causes problems? Is the billionaire’s money based on an inheritance or have they accumulated wealth on their own? (And in our current, culturally-sensitive age, we should ask how that wealth was accumulated. Are there factors that a reader might consider problematic or are we going to sweep those questions under the carpet?)

But because this is a romance, we know they work out their problems and achieve a personal merger, bringing the love interest into the world of wealth and the privileges it offers, while perhaps inciting the billionaire to achieve a better work/life balance.

My perception is that billionaire romances more typically have a contemporary setting, rather than a historic one. In historic settings, the wealthy protagonist is more often merged with the aristocratic one, unless set in a country with no aristocracy, such as the American Gilded Age or the like. But in a plot where the privileged character is female, the dynamics of wealth versus aristocracy become more relevant.

How it Works (or Not)

So using the aristocratic role as a contrast, how does a wealthy woman fit into a same-sex romance plot? A key difference is that wealth is less restricted than titles in how it is acquired and how it may be shared or transferred. If two women enter into a long-term romantic partnership, there are a variety of ways in which the wealthier woman can ensure her partner will enjoy financial benefits. While marriage may be the prototypical outcome of a heterosexual billionaire romance, it isn’t essential for the structure and function of the trope in the way that it is when a title is involved. Furthermore, while inherited wealth is universally the most common way for any protagonist to become wealthy—and while women tend to be disadvantaged under many systems of inheritance law—it’s still easier for a woman to inherit a fortune than to inherit a title, and it’s much easier for a woman to acquire a fortune through her own efforts than to be granted a noble title. So, to the extent that the aristocracy trope and the billionaire trope have strong thematic parallels for male-female romances, it’s easier for female couples to inhabit the one based on wealth.

Once we have a female billionaire (or at least, fabulously wealthy person), the dynamics of the trope can proceed in parallel as for a male-female romance. How they meet, whether the potential partner knows about the wealth from the start, what part it plays in the enticements and hurdles of the relationship, how they each feel about the disparity in their situations. The differences in the dynamics will be those present for any historic same-sex courtship as compared to a different-sex one: the lack of social expectations for marriage between them, but potential external pressures on them to marry elsewhere; the greater ease in social access to each other during the courtship; the question of how others view the nature of their relationship and whether the couple feel the need to mask it under a more acceptable non-romantic arrangement.

But we should return to the question of how our female billionaire acquired her wealth and how she maintains it, because these are issues that will be greatly affected by the specific culture and era of the setting. If she has inherited wealth, what sort of family background would be necessary for her to be a significant beneficiary? Has she inherited it from the direct line (in which case must she be an only child?) or is it a bequest from someone outside the immediate family (if so, who and why?). Or has she inherited it from a late husband? (See the episode talking about widows for this scenario.)

Presumably we want her to have personal control over her wealth, so what is necessary for this to be possible rather than having executors who have control of it. (A male heir might also have executors, especially if fairly young, but women were more likely to have only conditional access to their inheritances.) Keep in mind that when we’re dealing with an unmarried woman with significant fortune, she will probably need to deal regularly with men who see her as an ideal wife. But in many historic contexts, a married woman’s property goes under her husband’s control, so this trope doesn’t work well if you try to mix it with a husband on the side, regardless of how open-minded he may be. And for that matter, any relatives of hers who might expect to inherit from her will have a personal interest (though not necessarily a legal claim) in how she ties up her fortune to benefit a partner whom they see as a stranger.

This is yet one more situation where we can see many of the complexities play out in the relationship between Ann Lister and Anne Walker, in the specific context of England in the early 19th century.

If our heroine has earned the wealth through her own actions, what fields were open to women for this purpose? It was often much harder for a woman to establish herself in trade than for a man to do so, and often they were more restricted in what trades were available. Alternately, a business might (again) be inherited from a late husband and then managed directly by the widow. In many contexts, smart management of real estate was a path to wealth. When banking and lending became more acceptable as a practice, women could turn a small nest egg into a significant income through micro-lending among her community, thus gaining the capital to expand into other fields. Investments were always a hazardous field, with great chance of gain being balanced by risk of loss. Whether it’s investment in shipping cargos or building projects or—as previously noted—real estate, we can make allowance for our heroine to rise by a combination of luck and shrewdness.

All of these questions will be affected by the specific context of the story, or perhaps the context of the story must be tailored to make possible the particular backstory we want to give our heroine. The scope is too broad to offer more than vague outlines.


In sum, both the aristocrat trope and the billionaire trope can be adapted for female couples in historic romances, but the effects and constraints are different—more so than for male-female couples. The titled aristocrat trope suffers from the dual problems that it is far less plausible (though not impossible) for a woman to hold a title in her own right, and that it is impossible for her partner to acquire a matching title via their relationship. The billionaire trope is much more flexible and adaptable, if sufficient care is taken in setting up the source of her wealth. Both offer the opportunity to explore the romantic dynamics between a couple who have significant disparities of social status or income, while providing a wide variety of roads to that happily ever after. Even if it’s a slightly different ever after than a heterosexual couple could look for.

Show Notes

In this episode we talk about:

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

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