Monday, January 9, 2012

Unwrapping: Oh My, How Historical Romance Novels Have Changed!

Franz Eybl, Girl Reading, 1850 
When I first started reading Historical Romance Novels in the mid- 1970's, they were quite different from the novels in the genre today. Perhaps it was the times, perhaps it was the introduction of the sensual romance, or perhaps it was the feminist movement - whatever it was, things had changed. Sex had been introduced into the storyline in way it had never been written before, and Romance Novels would never be just those sweet romances ending with a chaste kiss ever again. The new Romance Novel was breaking ground and traveling a much different path that the Romances of today's genres.

Romance Novels in the '70's took heavy criticism but even television trended toward the same storylines. If you remember on the soap, GENERAL HOSPITAL, Luke Spencer raped Laura Weber and later they became the love story of the decade. Why were woman suddenly attracted to love stories that were built from an act of violence? Was it possible that along with all the freedoms that came with feminist liberation came a need for an escape into a fantasy that actually made the heroine a victim of a man's lust rather than a participant? With a newfound access to birth control, abortion and free wheeling sex, why then would women turn to a form of entertainment that placed the heroine back under the control of a man? Strangely enough, after the onslaught of AIDS with sex actually becoming something that could kill you, Romance Novels actually became tamer in comparison. Is there a correlation? If so, what does it say about out society now in regards to women and their sexual proclivities? I find the Romance Novels written today to be even more daring and the heroines independant and strong. Our heroines today make it clear they have a choice and in many of the books I read, the heroine is actually more sexually aggressive than the hero.  Nothing wrong with that now, is there? [wink, wink]

What do the young women of the 21st Century think of the first sexy bodice rippers? Well, after reading some of their reviews, I get the impression they don't like them very much. Now, that's a terrible shame.  I've read several reviews that called the Romance Novels of the '70's, disgusting and misogynistic. Not quite understanding the latter since most Romances are written by women - so are the writers really the ones who are misogynistic? One review even referred to one of the most read Romance Novels from this time as not being politically correct ... I believe she said that the author had sugar-coated the way slaves were treated.  HUH? Are we really looking for political correctness in our Romance Novels?

I fell in love with Historical Romances immediately upon reading my first, which was Kathleen E. Woodiwiss' THE FLAME AND THE FLOWER. I suppose, I could have read any of the many that inhabited the selling shelves but this one was my first and it was love at first read. I fell in love with Historical Romance for the settings, the eras, the history and the dangers that usually followed the heroine. These were stories written and published before most of the young women reading and reviewing books today were even born. I understand that the young woman reading romance today were raised in a society that expresses a greater respect for women in general and openly discusses its distaste for violence toward women. I agree that violence, in any form, against women, children, or men is completely uncivilized and should be abhorred for what it is - violence! So it should be, in the real world but not necessarily in our fiction! Fiction isn't real life, remember?!

By modern standards, I suppose the books of the 1970's were very violent toward women. Nearly every story had the heroine being raped by the man who would eventually fall in love with her and protect her with his own life if the need arose. Then again it's very possible that many older women who loved those books perhaps now find Romances featuring Vampires, Werewolves, Shape Shifters and Demons bordering on bestiality and anti-Christian. Not me, of course, I love them.

What has to be remembered is that Romance Novels reflect the social morality barometer in which they are written and Historical Romances are written, if written properly, to reflect the morality of the era in which the story is set. So, what may be socially acceptable in one era is not necessarily what may be socially acceptable to another era including our own.

For example, if the Romance is set in Regency England and the Hero is a member of ton society, he's probably less likely to forcibly seduce some young girl but then again, he might do just that if the opportunity presented itself or if the man was an evil S.O.B.  
Lydia and her Mr. Wickham -
he had no real intention of marrying her.
Even Jane Austen created characters whose intentions were less than honorable. Take Mr. Wickham of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE - he was most certainly not beyond taking advantage of a young girl's innocence to satisfy his lustful desires. Nor was Mr. Willoughby of SENSE AND SENSIBILITY, a man with good standing in society and a large income, in other words - a great catch. I suppose we forgave these indiscretions because neither of our favorite heroines, Elizabeth Bennet and Marianne Dashwood, fell completely under the spell of these dastardly dudes - of course, poor Lydia did fall prey to Wickham but I guess he was forgiven because he, himself, was seduced into marrying the silly girl by Darcy's offer to pay off his debts and buy him a commission. Had he refused, poor Lydia's fate would have been far worse than she knew. The point being that in a proper, genteel Regency Romance, you won't generally find our hero forceably seducing our heroine as it was often called during this era of 'bodice-rippers' but what about other historical eras? How genteel was a man from medievel times, the Scottish highlands, or the Russian Steppe many years before the influence of British Society?

As I've mentioned many times, I am a huge fan of Kathleen E. Woodiwiss - the Queen of Romance. Her first novel, THE FLAME AND THE FLOWER, published in 1972, was a turning point for the Romance genre. It was a Historical Romance built around research, a real story, and what really happens between a man and a woman - sex.  Unfortunately, by the standards of some of the young women who read Romance today, many consider it horrible and their reviews reflect their distaste.

When we first meet our heroine, Heather Simmons, she is fleeing one man's attempt to rape her only to find herself in the hands of a handsome sea captain, Brandon Birmingham, who is too deep in his cups (drunk). He mistakes her for one of the prostitutes that frequent the London docks and when she resists, he forces himself on her. I know, this perpetuates the idea that because a gal resists a little she's really not saying no, but yes, yes! In our society, this is a major wrong but in 1799??  The next morning, Brandon discovers the truth of what he's done. In an attempt to make amends, he offers to make her his mistress (at least he tried) but she promptly declines his offer. Later, when she discovers she's pregnant, he's forced to marry her. Consequently, neither are happy about it and so the real story begins. Forced seduction + forced marriage -- something not too uncommon in those days yet strangely enough, not too common today. What does that say about our society's morals?

Speaking of THOSE DAYS - many things were much more common in THOSE DAYS as compared to today especially when we look back into history. Life could be brutal, men could be brutal and it was accepted in THOSE DAYS because that's the way it was.

One of my favorite Historical Romance novels is WHITEFIRE by Fern Michaels, first published in 1978. I was already in love with anything to do with pre-revolutionary Russia after reading DR. ZHIVAGO and seeing the movie so I was immediately drawn to this one.

It is set in 16th Century Russia during the reign of Ivan the Terrible. Men from this time in history were brutal and violent. Banyon Amur is a Mongol Prince who was accustomed to having things his way and only his way. He takes what he wants without remorse so when he brutally rapes a young girl who he believes a peasant, he and everyone around him see nothing wrong.

It's the way it was back then, folks! It was NOT uncommon for women to be treated as possessions, objects of lust, used by men for their own satisfactions and then discarded. Had Banyon acted like a society gentleman and asked Katerina "Kat" Vaschenko, a young Cossack who was well aware of how women were looked down upon, out on a date or to a ball, the story would have been totally unbelievable. Life in the Ural Mountains in the 16th C. was hard and if you weren't tough, you died.  And it certainly wasn't politically correct!

I wonder if these storylines were a way of reminding us that a woman's first sexual experience is not always a fairy tale that sometimes it's violent in nature even when consentual. It's not always an experience that without love is something a woman wants to repeat but with a man who cares and is willing to be patient, the experience can be wonderful. Romance Novels do more than entertain us - sometimes they assist us in recognizing what's right and what's wrong. Perhaps a lesson about date rape before it became a recognized crime.

I love both of these books and highly recommend them not only because they are good reads but because if you've never read anything from this then newly emerging era of Romance, they are both fine examples of what was on the shelves back then. True, today's heroines are tough, strong-minded, and not so willing to take any crap off their men but then so are women of the 21st C.  Just as the past is much different from our modern world so goes the Romance genre, in particular, the Historical Romance sub-genre. Times were different in the 1970's, women were just beginning to really understand their freedom to live their lives as strong independant women with opinions, abilities and the freedom to say "no" to a man. I'm glad of these changes but just as we are proud of the generations that came before us and paved the way for our, in comparison, blessed lives so should we be proud of the generations of Romance Novels that led the way to the broad expanse of sub-genres that now grace our shelves, our reading tables and ereaders. So to Fern Michaels and the other wonderful authors who paved the way, and in memory of Ms. Woodiwiss, I say "thank you" and "hear, hear!" to the 70's Bodice Rippers!

I'm curious - when you're reading a Historical Romance Novel, do you want it to reflect the era realistically or just be a nice love story set once upon a time, a long time ago?

Happy Reading Everyone!


The_Book_Queen said...

Wonderful post--you made some very good points!

I've read the Flame and the Flower, along with one other (I can't remember the title right now!) by Kathleene, just last year and I enjoyed them. Were they a lot different from what we are reading right now (as in current releases)? Hell yeah, but I still liked the books and they both received top ratings from me.

I haven't read White Fire (actually, the only Fern Michaels book I have read I didn't enjoy, but I think it was a newer one of hers), but I'll have to look into it. Thanks for the recommendation!


Amy Valentini said...

Thanks TBQ, I was a little worried I might offend some with my championing of the older books. I actually stopped reading Fern Michaels because she did become more tame and more politically correct. I want escapism in my reading and if it means some harsh realities, so be it. Hope you will read some of her earlier works, they were very good reads.

Beebs said...

Hi Amy

I agree with book queen, you make some very good points. I haven't read either of the books you mentioned by I did read and love Woodiwiss' The Wolf and The Dove. I haven't read many books from 70's/80's just a couple of Johanna Lindsey's and Rosemary Rogers.

The only book I have ever hated was Rogers' Bound by Desire, that one just went too far for me. I have read and loved other books by Rosemary Rogers but that one was a total miss IMHO.

Amy Valentini said...

Hi Beebs,
If you loved THE WOLF AND THE DOVE (I did, too), you'll love THE FLAME AND THE FLOWER. I was a huge Rosemary Rogers fan but stopped reading somewhere along the way when she just got too graphic.(I think it was BOUND BY DESIRE that pushed me away now that I think about it). And Johanna Lindsey is still one of my all-time faves. WHEN PASSION RULES is on my TBR list. Read the prologue and 1st Chap and was hooked.
I hope anyone who hasn't read the books from the 70's will give them a chance. Some might be hard to find now but they are worth it - they were the pioneers of the romance novels we love today. : )

Beebs said...

When Passion Rules is on my TBR too Amy. That cover! *fanning self*

Planning on keeping an eye out for more Woodiwiss, I have read some of Rosemary Rogers newer books and they're much less graphic than Bound by Desire and I loved her last book Bride for a Night. You might enjoy that one.

Just finished Anne Gracie's Bride by Mistake, awww! Left me with a smile, a sigh, and a need to read the whole series again. *g*

Amy Valentini said...

Thanks Beebs, I'll have to look for BRIDE FOR A NIGHT then. I haven't read BRIDE BY MISTAKE yet. I had pre-ordered it but then they back-ordered it, so I cancelled it. I think I'm going to get it for my Kobo. Good to know you liked it. As for the Woodiwiss books, there's probably a list of them on Goodreads and see which ones you haven't read. The grand lady is still missed but thankfully her books are still with us. Thanks. : )

Sarah L. said...

I love that I am not the only woman that feels this way! I am one of the "younger" readers (27) that enjoys-and wishes-this bodice ripper fad would come back!. I started reading romances at 15 and because most of my books were bought from second hand shops I just happened to grow up reading Johanna Lindsey, Linda Howard and Kathleen Woodiwiss. I LOVE the older, "bodice rippers." As another mentioned here, some of my favorite authors I no longer read because they became so tame. (i.e. Johanna Lindsey).

Amy Valentini said...

Hi Sarah,
I'm very glad you enjoy the "old school" romances. There was something truly grand about them. I still love them for re-reading. Thanks for stopping by. : )