I’m not here to try to convince you to read a historical romance if romance isn’t your bag. Mind you, I think there is some outstanding writing in the romance genre, where the emphasis on creating characters that live and breathe has been honed and perfected. No, I am instead trying to make the case to romance readers for the superiority of the historical subgenre. I have a few contemporary romance authors that I enjoy immensely. Jill Shalvis and her Gilmore Girls-ish Lucky Harbor books, the FBI/US Attorney books of Julie James, and the romantic comedies of Susan Elizabeth Phillips and Jennifer Crusie all count as favorites. But as a whole, I prefer Historical Romance, particularly Regency romance, although I can go a little earlier or a little later. And here’s why:
- The history. It is a blend or romance and historical fiction. When done well, even if the romance is the main narrative thread, there is something of the historical fiction experience. You get to visit another time, learn something of the way people lived and loved, and pick up lovely little details that help to immerse you in the time. Sure, there are historical romance writers who seem to have only done research by reading other historical romances. But I’ve learned about things like estates and entail, social clubs and circulating libraries. I’ve loved the portrait regency romances have painted for me of the pump room at Bath and the ballroom at Almack’s. While we sometimes get a look at the leisure activities of men, historical romances are especially good at showing the private lives of women. I actually found myself so intrigued by many of the historical details I read in regency romances that I bought a book called What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: From Fox Hunting to Whist-the Facts of Daily Life in Nineteenth-Century England by Daniel Pool. It’s a handy guide to the era for those who can’t seem to get enough.
- The clothes. Seriously, I love the clothes, especially Regency era romances with day dresses and evening dresses and riding habits and pelisses. I dress like a slob in real life and hate to shop, so I don’t really know why the description of a gown of sprigged muslin does it for me, but it really, really does.
- The dialogue. The old fashioned, formal way of constructing a sentence does tend to transport me as a reader. The painfully polite society-speak such as this from Georgette Heyer’s Sylvester: “It was growing late, and though one might stand on the brink of a deep chasm of disaster, one was still obliged to dress for dinner.” I think Regencies also have the best banter and swearing. Men were never supposed to swear around ladies in the 19th century and ladies were certainly not supposed to use any kind of colorful language, so I sort of love the ridiculous swearing and apologizing for swearing that goes on in historicals. The insults are also far better than in a contemporary romance. It just seems more entertaining to call someone a “bracket-faced harridan” or a “mutton-headed sapskull”. I’m not sure why you would call someone a toad-eater, but it seems really mean. And if someone called me a prattling ninny or a rum doxy, I would certainly know I had been insulted.
- The aristocracy. While I love that many historical writers are trying to mix things up and show more of a diverse historical picture, I can’t help it: I love the dukes, earls, and even the lowly baronets of the landed gentry. I’ve read so many regencies, that I could easily rattle off the ranks amongst the British peerage. I love the trappings of the ton with their country estates and houses in town. I love the carriages and the balls and the ridiculous amount of servants running about. The rich are fun to read about because it is lovely to think about having that kind of luxury. This is wish-fulfillment literature, after all. But it is also interesting to read about the aristocracy because their lives are just so constrained by their station. It makes for delightful conflict in a romance.
- Obstacles. That leads me to the number one reason I prefer historical romances to contemporary ones. The obstacles. Honestly, in a modern romance, the obstacles tend to be ridiculous misunderstandings and bad timing. Historicals throw real problems in the path of true love. Inequality in rank or wealth is a big one. You really were supposed to wed someone picked out by your parents and they were always supposed to be of the same social strata as your own family. When you fall in love with someone who society says is inappropriate, that’s kind of a big deal in a historical. While I would find it perfectly ridiculous if this was a reason to keep the hero and heroine apart in a contemporary, if a Duke wants to marry a dressmaker in a regency, that’s a problem. Not that it is easy to find love in the modern age, but we have tools to help the process along. Women can meet men in a variety of ways: through work, at school, online. Regency heroines have to be introduced to potential husbands through tortuous social ritual. And they were not expected to fall in love. That is not required for a successful society marriage. One of the most satisfying thing for me about reading historicals is that is about a woman with no natural agency gaining control of her own happiness and defying convention to demand love in her relationship. Women really had a constrained existence in the early 19th century, even if they were of the upper classes. They were not allowed to even walk the streets of London without adequate chaperones. Much of their value was tried up in making a successful match, but the beauty of the regency romance is that somehow, impossibly, the girl always gets the man she wants in the end. For me, the happy ending achieved by regency women is so much more satisfying than in a contemporary. It feels like they really had to earn it.
If I had to give a historical romance to someone to try to show why I love them so, I have a few go-to authors and titles.
- Georgette Heyer (see yesterday’s post if you need to know why)
- Julia Quinn (try The Duke And I, the first of her Bridgerton books and then try to stop)
- Mary Balogh (her Slightly/Bedwyn series books are great, but I also enjoy her more recent Survivors Club series)
- Tessa Dare is amazing. Try A Week to Be Wicked
- Loretta Chase, most especially Lord of Scoundrels
- Sarah MacLean, who excellent Scoundrels series starts with A Rogue by Any Other Name
- Lisa Kleypas, my favorite being The Devil in Winter