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?
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.
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?