In Katharine Ashe's latest book, "I Married the Duke," the heroine Arabella takes passage on a ship through the English Channel and meets a rough and tumble sailor who is not what he seems.
Secret identities and characters in disguise are some of Katharine Ashe's favorite tropes. Perhaps because the writer herself is not what she seems.
Ashe has received acclaim and popular success as a romance novelist. But she leads a second life as Katharine Brophy Dubois, a visiting assistant professor in the History Department and Religion Department at Duke University.
"By day I was at the Vatican. I'm a medievalist. I did medieval religious history. I'd be at the Vatican archives during the day... And in the evenings to relax, I'd write chapters of these stories. Sometimes I'd have pirates and lords and ladies," Dubois said in an interview on the State of Things.
When Katharine Brophy Dubois moved to Duke University, she stepped back from her academic career, transitioning to a full-time romance fiction writer. She continued teaching classes at Duke part time, but kept her work as a novelist secret from her colleagues.
"I was concerned that folks who didn't know me, my colleagues who didn't know the person I was, would make snap judgments, mostly out of ignorance. I do think a lot of people don't understand what romance fiction is," said Dubois.
She elaborated by suggesting that perhaps misogyny plays a role in the critical disapproval surrounding romantic fiction.
"It's an industry that is run by and consumed by women... [The stigma] is a perhaps an indication that in our society, women's pleasures, entertainments, and sexuality [are] mistrusted or devalued. Because this is glorified in these novels," she said.
In the end, an accident led Katharine Brophy Dubois to come out to her academic colleagues. A press release for one of her author events identified her as a Duke professor. And now she lives openly in both worlds, the romance industry and academia.
Although romantic fiction is largely ignored by literary critics, it's a booming industry that largely keeps publishing afloat. According to a report by Business of Consumer Book Publishing, in 2012 romance fiction generated $1.438 billion dollars in sales, more than three times the revenue from literary fiction.