Tuesday, June 28, 2011

A look at Romance through the years

If you look to the oral tradition about the power of love and it's ability to conquer all, then romance has been around for a long time.

What do classic fairytales like Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, and Snow White and the 7 Dwarfs have in common? HEA. Happily Ever After – a must in any romance novel.

The romance novel, as we know it, however, didn't appear until the 19th century. Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters wrote a class of novels known as "domestic fiction," which typically featured an impoverished, yet gutsy heroine. On the gothic side of the house, Ann Radcliffe was writing romance with castles, mad relatives locked in the attic, and ghosts. This came to be known as "gothic romance."

Jane Austen's novel, "Pride and Prejudice" has had several adaptations created for the movie and the TV screen, which speaks to her ability to create compelling romantic characters that have resonated throughout time.

In the 1950's, Mary Bonnycastle and her husband, Richard, started a fledging publishing company – Harlequin. What made Harlequin a ground breaker in romantic fiction was their distribution. They made their books available where women shopped – including supermarkets and the drug store.

However, romance wouldn't be where it is without Barbara Cartland. She had a larger than life personality with her pink clothes, large hats, and her treasured Pekingese. Her stories tended to be short and also non-sexually explicit. A titled nobleman meets a young, inexperienced woman and they fall in love surrounded by historical intrigue. In 1991, she was named a Dame of the British Empire for her body of work. She died in 2000 at the age of 98.

In the late 1970's romance up'd it a notch with more sexually explicit scenes. Many writers soon discovered "sex sells." Kathleen Woodiwiss' "The Flame and The Flower" comes to mind.

Covers evolved, too. Handsome men and beautiful ladies found themselves replaced by Fabio in the mid-80's. Currently, the pendulum has swung back in favor of covers that are now focused on the story inside.

Today's romances cover a variety of topics speaking to the sophistication that modern readers now possess. Today you have "beta" males and "alpha" females tackling modern problems, yet the emotions are the same now as they were in Jane Austen's time. You can still find greed, betrayal, happiness love, and loss – just in a different setting which is reflective of the time period and values the romance was written in.

So fess up – who is your favorite romance writer and why?


  1. Watershed moments were indeed the publication of Jane Eyre, Woodiwiss and Rosemary Roger's bodice rippers, the explosion of Mills & Boon, and not forgetting Lady Chatterley's Lover which allowed us to write about sex openly for the first time. So what will be the next?

  2. Steph--I didn't begin reading romance until about 1995--I retired early in 1991 and began on a real reading spree--all science fiction, at first, but burned myself out on that. Then I discovered women's fiction, then Janet Dailey's This Calder Range--the first real romance I'd ever read. Well, I was hooked on the Western romance --read all of hers. Do you see a pattern here? I have tunnel visions about reading.
    Kathleen Woodiwiss's books were old when I found them--like most of the others I was reading--but I read one or two. But I didn't really get hooked until I read Morning Glory by LaVyrle Spencer. Then I went crazy until I'd found and read all 26. Little did I know she's already retired by the tim I discovered her.
    Honestly, I've never found another romance author--even some of my favorite--that holds a candle to LaVyrle Spenecer. It's good that she wrote when she did, because any epress today would make her change her stories some way. And that would have been criminal.
    Good thoughts, today. Celia

  3. I agree with Celia. When it comes to pure romance, LaVyrle literally wrote the book. If I could only read one, it would have to be Nora, simply because she's written so many, so well I wouldn't run out of good reading for a long, long time.

    Good post!

  4. Freda, thank you for mentioning Lady Chatterly's Lover! That was indeed a breakthrough for Romance Writing!

    Celia, it's amazing how that one author can influence us, isn't it? Can you tell my influences are Victorian Holt, Anne Rice, and JK Rowling? *grin*

    Liz, thanks for the head's up. I've never read LaVyrle, but I'll look for Nora on my Kindle!


  5. Hi Steph,

    Although I read romantic suspense as a teen, from there I ventured into sci fi and fantasy as my choice of reading material. I wandered back toward romance by reading novels like The Shell Seekers, that made me realize I very much enjoyed books written by female authors.

    From there, I would occassionally pick up a romance or two here or there, but lots of times the covers turned me off. However, all things come around if you wait long enough. Now the covers are hardly a consideration. I'll read the first paragraph and decide if I like a romance.

    Great topic!

  6. Maggie, I think the 80's mantra was to just put a bare chested on the cover and it would sell. I'm noticing the covers are more reflective of the story within these days.

    A cover may catch my eye but very rarely does it inspire me to buy the book. I'll read the blurb. That's a big deciding factor with me.