Historical Romance

I have been giving a lot of thought lately to what some people scornfully call ‘Bodice Rippers’.  You know the sort of story I mean.  Sometimes they are called ‘Historical Fiction’, to the dismay of people like me who actually write historical fiction.     
I do not like to use the term ‘bodice ripper’ because while there are two types of stories that fit that slot, the word for, or title of, the second type of ‘bodice ripper’ does not exist, and the first term is a little too sexual.  I will be using the term ‘Historical Romance’ for both in this post because I think it fits the guidelines given by Webster Dictionary for the noun ‘Romance’: 
prose narrative treating imaginary characters involved in events remote in time or place and usually heroic, adventurous, or mysterious    

The books are always set against a backdrop of a period of history.  The period is not important; it fluctuates from year to year depending on what is in fashion.  Medieval history is a perennial favorite, though the Scottish Wars for Independence are in the ascendant.  Dark ages Europe is also gaining popularity.  Another dependable standby is the ‘Napoleonic era’ – from about 1790 through about 1816.  The American Civil War also makes an appearance.

The background research varies from nearly nonexistent to substantial.  And there may be a story line found inside the pages.  (In my opinion) what makes these stories ‘bodice rippers’ – or, rather, Historical Romances – is their focus, which is to titillate, to satisfy a hunger or a fancy, with the story line taking second place to that purpose.  To avoid a trip into semantics, here is Webster’s list of synonyms: 
charge, electrify, excite, exhilarate, galvanize, intoxicate, pump up, thrill, turn on
These stories’ descriptions are fairly similar.  The protagonists/antagonists are set forth and the basis for the story.  The dangers that lie along the path are hinted at.  You can choose to read or to pass:

The (band of heroes)  have itchy feet. Battle-hungry and tired of keeping the homestead fires burning, they are restless for action. And… action is what they get. When their homestead is attacked … the (band of heroes) promise bloody revenge. … Packed with epic adventure and bloody action…

and:

“A rollicking, dangerous and often very gory gallop through the largest land empire the world has ever known.”

Contrast that with:

For Gunnar, vengeance is all that matters. He seeks the ultimate price from his enemy’s beautiful young daughter, claiming Raina as his hostage. But the proud beauty defies him at every turn, tempting him like no other. Setting out to break Raina’s glorious spirit, Gunnar instead finds himself bewitched by her goodness, her strength. Can he seize the justice he is due without losing Raina forever.

 
 It is obvious that they are different sides of the same coin.

The covers of Historical Romances tend to hint at the items of attraction that will be delivered by the book:

 

There is no black and white in this life.  Some of the Historical Romances   of either type are close to excellent fiction – The ones whose covers I have shown have been written by people described as ‘award-winning authors’ and have received good reviews from a good many people averaging 4.5 stars.  I remember one series of romances, set in the time of the conflict between Stephen and Matilda (England) that had wonderful plot and excellent research.  The stories did involve men and women and their relationships, but they were secondary to the plot. 
Someone, speaking against his/her notion of ‘Historical ‘Romance’ of one sort expressed it in an interesting fashion.  This is a paraphrase:  



There is the man who loves his woman and longs to see her once more before he is killed on the field of battle.  Or there is the fighter who lives for war, whose love is battle and whose mistress is his sword, who satisfies his physical urges by patronizing the whores that follow in the tail of every army.

 
I think both types share a distortion of history or, more accurately, the ‘historical norm’ of the period that they concern.  Human nature and inclination has not changed appreciably over the millennia.  Most people lived at home and interacted with their families.  They had their tiresome tasks, their moments of delight, their festivals and their tragedies.  Not everyone in the Northlands  went i-Viking.  They knew about sex – that is why we are here today – and loving relationships existed as did attachments based solely on monetary payment for physical need.  A love affair between two people or a rousing fight scene does not necessarily make a novel an ‘Historical Romance’.  It all depends on the purpose and focus of the book.
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One Response to Historical Romance

  1. I have such admiration for people who write historicals. To me it's a kind of world-entering that brings a steep set of challenges…

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