It’s sometimes hard to realize that romance novels, in the form we know them today, have been around since the 18th century. Before that there were 12th century medieval poems and prose that had romantic or chivalric themes, but were not what we would call actual romances by today’s definition. (Think Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot with no happy ending.) The ultimate, hard and fast rule for a novel to be a romance is that the hero and heroine must have a happy-ever-after (or more recently happy-for-now) ending to the book. So those stories are the ones I will consider in this post.
The first “romance” novel, according to most scholars, was Samuel Richardson’s Pamela—or Virtue Rewarded, published in 1740. It’s the very entertaining story of Pamela, a 15-year-old maid who must fend off the amorous attentions of her employer, known only as Mr. B. When he cannot seduce her, he offers her marriage. I read this novel in grad school and was surprised at how readable it still was, as well as racy. In one memorable scene, Pamela goes to bed one night to find Mr. B in there before her. Quite a spicy scene, although the 18th century was a rather wild era.
Less than a hundred years later, the romance novel had changed to suit the tastes and sensibilities of the Regency. The most notable and celebrated author of romance of this time is of course, Jane Austen. With her works, romance novels become much less spicy, much more focused on the mores of society and the consequences for those who disregard or break them. Austin’s most beloved novel, Pride and Prejudice, highlights these consequences both in the initial behaviors of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy toward one another, and in the scandal that follows Lydia Bennett’s elopement and subsequent ruin at the hands of Mr. Wickham.
Fast forward to 1921 and the publication of Georgette Heyer’s The Black Moth, arguably the first “modern” romance novel. It is set in the Georgian period but foreshadows the style of her most famous body of work, the Regency romance. Taking Jane Austin’s works as her inspiration, Heyer would pen 26 romance novels set in the Regency period using plot, setting, and immense amounts of detail to create the Regency world her characters inhabit. Her works, more than any other author of the 20th century, set the tone and style for the modern historical romance novel.
One more major innovation to historical romances would come at the beginning of the 1970s with the publication of Kathleen Woodiwiss’s The Flame and the Flower heralding the sub-genre of the bodice-ripper. Woodiwiss’s works would change the tone of most historical romances, bringing to the genre much more sexually explicit scenes than had been seen before. My introduction to historical romance was actually Woodiwiss’s second novel, The Wolf and the Dove, which I loved and remember vividly to this day. Her final historical romance, Everlasting, was the novel that inspired me to become a writer of historical romance.
Readers of historical romance have each of these authors to thank for the current style, tone, detail, and sexual expression found in today’s romance novels. Each era’s authors have contributed components that culminate in some of the most popular historical romance of today, such as the Outlander and Bridgerton series books. The evolution of the modern historical romance, from its Georgian beginnings, has been incredibly rich and innovative. The genre continues to change and grow as its readers demand to see not only the past, but the present sensibilities accounted for in the pages they read. As always, audiences want to be able to envision themselves in the world they are reading about and as long as readers continue to read historical romance, the genre will flourish and evolve to meet the needs of its biggest fans.
a Rafflecopter giveaway