Historical Musings #11: A post for Valentine’s Day

Historical Musings I had a few topics in mind for this month’s Historical Musings post, but as it’s Valentine’s Day today I thought it would be appropriate to talk about romance…specifically, historical romance.

In one of last year’s posts I discussed the negative impressions and misconceptions some readers have of historical fiction as a genre. It seems that historical romance suffers from a worse reputation: often when I look at reviews of historical novels I see remarks like, “This is so badly written and poorly researched I consider it to be historical romance, not historical fiction.” Is this fair? Surely just because a novel is a romance it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s badly written or that the author hasn’t carried out their research. Of course, it depends on what type of books you think about when you hear the words ‘historical romance’ – and that is what I want to discuss in this post.

I have read some wonderful books over the years which I suppose could be described as historical romance (although I think I probably just thought of them as historical fiction at the time). Yet I am also sometimes guilty of complaining that books are too “romance-orientated and lacking the depth I prefer”. I said something to that effect just a few days ago when writing about Philip Lindsay’s Here Comes the King. So why do I enjoy some types of romance and not others – and why do so many of us seem to dislike reading (or admitting to reading) romance?

April Lady I’ve noticed that a lot of people talk about historical romance (and sometimes historical fiction too) as something they read as a teenager or young adult, the implication being that they consider the books they used to read as being less relevant, less important or simply less appealing than the books they read now. I’m certainly not criticising anybody who may have said or felt that; I just think it’s interesting that tastes change so much over time and that people sometimes seem to grow out of reading certain genres (in my case it’s contemporary crime and horror that I rarely read these days). I don’t feel ashamed that, as an adult, I enjoy reading Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances or that I had fun working through the first three books in Philippa Carr’s Daughters of England series a few years ago. I missed out on those types of books when I was younger, so if I don’t read them now I never will.

So what exactly is historical romance and how is it different from historical fiction? It seems to me that there are several different types of romance to think about here:

1 – Books which are specifically marketed as ‘historical romance’ and targeted at a particular readership. These books tend to follow certain conventions which readers of romance will expect; the focus will be on the relationship between the hero and heroine, and there will usually be a happy ending. The Flame and the Flower by Kathleen E. Woodiwiss, published in 1972, is thought to have been one of the first of this type of book. More recent examples could be The Duchess War by Courtney Milan, The Viscount Who Loved Me by Julia Quinn and Again the Magic by Lisa Kleypas. I haven’t read any of these novels or anything similar, but I’m sure that, as with any genre, there are some good ones and some bad.

2 – Historical fiction novels which include romance as part of the plot but not as the main focus of the story. Now, I do read a lot of this type of book. In fact, I would argue that most historical fiction does include some sort of romantic aspect. Even Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels contain a certain amount of romance – but don’t worry, I’m not suggesting that they should be considered historical romance! At the other end of the scale there are authors like Philippa Gregory, whose books often have a strong romantic element, but because they are usually based on the life of a real historical woman and follow the whole course of that woman’s life, I wouldn’t consider them to be romances in the traditional sense either.

3 – ‘Romances’ in the old-fashioned sense of the word. This would include 19th century novels like The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas and Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott. I love to read these books, but they are not really the kind of romances I’m talking about in this post.

Katherine Of course, there are plenty of books that I would have trouble fitting into any of these categories. There are novels I’ve read and loved, such as Katherine by Anya Seton and Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor, which could be described as either historical fiction or historical romance but don’t, in my opinion, belong in either category 1 or category 2 above. Then there are gothic romances by authors like Victoria Holt and Jane Aiken Hodge. And what about a classic novel like Gone with the Wind?

My conclusion, then, after all of this, is that trying to give books labels or to make them fit neatly into one genre or subgenre is a waste of time – for me, anyway. I know what sort of romances I like to read and what sort I’m not at all interested in reading and surely that’s all that matters.

What are your opinions on this month’s topic?

Do you – or have you ever – read any historical romances? Are there any you would recommend?

What do you think makes historical romance different from historical fiction?

Have your reading tastes changed over time?

21 thoughts on “Historical Musings #11: A post for Valentine’s Day

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    I don’t mind romance in a book at all, but I want it to be just one element, not the only thing. Therefore, I’d be wary of reading something described as a historical romance as I would suspect a lack of depth (but that could just be my prejudices). But then I don’t like genres and prefer to judge each book individually!

    • Helen says:

      I never used to think about genres at all until I started blogging, so I have no idea whether my definitions would be the same as somebody else’s. Like you, though, I’m happy with romance in a book as long as there are other elements to the story as well!

    • Helen says:

      I’ve had some disappointing experiences with that sort of book too. I read a novel about Richard I a few months ago where the author had created a completely fictional character as a love interest, and it just didn’t fit with the rest of the story at all.

  2. MarinaSofia says:

    I used to read a lot of Jean Plaidy and Philippa Gregory and that sort of thing, which I suppose would fall within the 2nd category you mention above. I have to get back into them again, as I found them a great way to get excited about a period and do further research. And I love all the Dumas swashbuckling stuff, so your third category. I’m not sure I’ve had any experience of the first category, if you don’t include Georgette Heyer or perhaps Victoria Holt (or Daphne du Maurier) in that?

    • Helen says:

      Georgette Heyer could be included in my first category and probably Victoria Holt too, but I’m not sure about Daphne du Maurier as her books cover such a range from romantic suspense to science fiction to straight historical fiction. The old swashbuckling romances are my favourites, though!

  3. daniellecobbaertbe says:

    I suppose quite some readers like to know in which genre a certain book belongs. A blurb that states that readers of such and such author will love the book and story in question, also meets the desire to know what to expect from the book. The more expectations are met the happier the reader is. And most people like categories. A genre is a certain category. And there can be some prejudices towards certain genres, especially when it fits our own description or feeling towards a certain genre.

    Sure most books don’t fit a certain category or are a sort of crossover between several genres. So I’m not really a fan of labels and putting books into certain genres, but I can understand its purpose.

    In my opinion, a book needs to be read. Even when it carries a label I like and prefer, that doesn’t mean I will like it. There is more to a story than just the genre. And a book that meets your expectations mostly isn’t the sort of book you care to remember.

    I don’t mind romance as long as it has a purpose or reason. I don’t like the feeling that certain themes are just put into a story to make it more attractive with regards to selling.

    And yes, my reading tastes have change through time.

    • Helen says:

      I agree with everything you’ve said here, Danielle. 🙂 I usually just read the books I want to read without really thinking about which genre they belong to. Genres and labels are obviously important to some readers, though, and it seems that people do often like to know what to expect from a certain type of book. I think I have probably read a lot of books that other readers would describe as historical romance without even realising it!

  4. piningforthewest says:

    I read a lot of historical fiction when I was a teenager, such as Norah Lofts and Victoria Holt, but not so much now. For me the history has to be correct, not just invented. I like Nigel Tranter and Winston Graham because their books were well researched, but I suspect they could still be described as historical romance. The romance isn’t so important to me. I love vintage crime too but I prefer any romance to be almost in the background. I like Heyer for her wit as much as the history and romance.

    • Helen says:

      Heyer’s wit is what makes her books so appealing to me, more so than the romance and history. I haven’t read anything by Nigel Tranter, but I did enjoy Winston Graham’s first Poldark book and you’ve reminded me that I should really continue with the rest of the series.

  5. Carmen says:

    I like Susanna Kearsley for example. She typically writes historical fiction with romantic elements. I’m OK with that. I have read romances along the years, just knowing before hand what I was expecting. Nowadays, I mostly read historical fiction (with or without romantic elements), but I gravitate towards it because I prefer stories rather than history, and historical fiction just makes a history lesson more palatable.

  6. Lisa says:

    I’m another who is fine with romance in my history, as part of the story, but I’m not usually interested in romance dressed up in some history – though I read some dreadful examples of that when I was younger! For me, Georgette Heyer gets the balance right, and Dorothy Dunnett even better.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, Dorothy Dunnett is the perfect example of an author who made the romance feel like a natural part of the story, rather than, as you say, ‘romance dressed up in history’.

  7. Lory @ Emerald City Book Review says:

    There are authors who disguise a conventional, cliche-ridden romance plot in poorly-understood period dress and wreck this genre for everybody else. And one could say that our modern notion of romantic love doesn’t really match the way people thought and felt and acted in the past, so that can cause some anachronisms. But a good love story that does in some measure feel historically respectable can be a very great pleasure, and satisfying in an archetypal way.

  8. jessicabookworm says:

    I have to agree with Carmen: I enjoy historical fiction with romantic elements. In fact with any form of fiction if the main and/or sole focus of the story is a romantic relationship you’ve usually lost me.

  9. Laurie C says:

    Our library staff genre study group has been reading romance since the fall, and historical romance was one that several people mentioned that they used to read when young but stopped reading. One thing calling a book an historical romance versus historical fiction with romance elements seems to telegraph to readers is that it’s going to have a happy ending not a tragic one.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, I think people have certain expectations of different genres. I don’t mind a bit of tragedy in a novel, but if I was reading a book purely for the romance I would prefer it to have a happy ending!

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