Is the 20th Century “Historical” Enough Yet?

gibson girl Think about it. The glamourous mood of Edwardian England and prewar Europe, captured in art and literature with a poignant mix of innocence and decadence. The days when airplanes were so rare that people would run outside to watch when one flew overhead. The urgency of wartime romances, the Roaring ’20s, the determination of people to survive the Great Depression. Compared to how we live today, it’s starting to seem more and more faraway, isn’t it?

So much of the 20th century seems to be the stuff of which great historical romance could be made. More and more authors are pushing their stories ever closer to that magical 1900 dividing line, and I hope the trend continues. I love reading books set in the far distant past, but I would love to try more set in the 20th century as well.

Inspirational historicals started moving past the year 1900 years ago. I’ve been seeing historical fiction and romance in this subgenre with early 20th century settings (particularly WWII) for quite a while, though the number of titles has increased in recent years. For example, Summerside Press has issued several books with 20th century settings from rural North Carolina in the 1920s to postwar Germany.

Steeple Hill author Renee Ryan has announced on her website that her next project will be a World War II trilogy. Julie Lessman’s Daughters of Boston trilogy is set during the 1910s-20s, and according to her website, her next series will be set during the Roaring 20s and Great Depression. And that’s just barely scratching the surface.

Secular historicals have a little catching up to do. Every now and again we’ll see a book such as Perfidia or like some of Elizabeth Lane’s more recent Harlequin Historicals, featuring a 20th century setting. In addition, Dorothy Garlock has been setting novels in the 20th century for quite some time. However, these are still outliers.

I’ve been noticing in recent years that authors using Victorian settings have been edging into the later Victorian period. Not only is this time period interesting in and of itself, but these authors, a group which includes Sherry Thomas, Laura Lee Guhrke and Meredith Duran, are exploring a world that could lead readers quite logically to 1900 and beyond just as we have seen readers follow their Regency reading on into the Victorian age.

The 20th century brims with fascinating material that just begs for good, meaty historicals. I hope to see more authors using it!

-Lynn Spencer

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32 Responses to Is the 20th Century “Historical” Enough Yet?

  1. Abi says:

    I’d be very interested in 1920s to early 1960s romances.

    It would be great to see Bringing Up Baby or Pillow Talk or every Jane Powell romantic comedy ever produced (ha ha) in book form.

    If left up to me, I would imagine every male lead looked like Peter Lawford :-)


  2. trish says:

    I’m not really interested in anything past about the Roaring 20′s. I have little interest in reading about the WWII time period as I feel I’ve had plenty of exposure to it throughout my life. Ditto the depression/30′s – too many Steinbecks were required reading in school to make me want to ever revisit the period.

    But the early 1900′s when so much was changing and being invented is fascinating to me. I love the Gilded Age of the Astors, summers in Newport, the romance of transAtlantic travel on luxury ships, the incredible rise of self-made men like Carnegie, Rockefeller. And who wouldn’t want to read about the Roaring 20′s, flappers, speakeasys, the beginnings of jazz and some major Broadway shows, perhaps early Hollywood?

    And this is COMPLETELY off topic, but I’ve always wanted someone to either write a book or do a film about the Booth family (of John Wilks fame). They were American acting royalty in their day and I think they would make for fascinating reading/viewing.

  3. Evangeline says:


    The 20th century is a goldmine for plots–particularly if you want to incorporate more than upper-class white characters and their social circles. But back to the Edwardian period proper, it’s compelling because it has one foot in the 19th century and one foot in the 20th, and so much of what we use today has its roots in this period.

  4. Magdalen says:

    I’m too damned old. That’s what it is. And my parents were even older. So pretty much all of the 20th century is too “real” for me — the atrocities of war, the deprivations of the Depression: I’ve known people who lived through these things, which makes their lives nagging reminders of how bad some of that stuff was. When my great uncle was shot down as an RAF pilot in WWI, his mother (whom I’m named after!) went rather dotty and spent the rest of her life doing seances and trying to contact him in the “spirit world.” Which is lovely period detail — a lot of people believed in that stuff in the years after The Great War — but it’s harder to get past the real pain in those stories when you know of someone who lived through it.

    Hey, never mind. I’m a curmudgeon and, as I say, too old. I’ll get over it.

  5. I used World War One as a setting for a Spice (erotic romance) novel, THE MOONLIGHT MISTRESS. I’m about to begin a second one, though that one will be heavier in paranormal elements.

    I wonder if there’s a little more freedom of setting in print erotica/erotic romance? Emma Holly recently published a trilogy set in the 1930s, just prior to WWII – it was part of her upyr series, so could also count as paranormal. Jina Bacarr’s CLEOPATRA’S PERFUME, another Spice novel, takes place over an extended 1930s-1940s period and includes WWII. Recently I noticed a couple of e-books set in the 1920s, and I found a male/male romance set during WWI.

    I blogged on 20th century historicals recently – there were some interesting comments on reasons why readers might not like them:

    I love the early 20th century and am constantly searching for more novels set in those decades.

  6. Jane O says:

    Ah me, here I am, another cumudgeon. I have to say, it gives me a weird feeling to see things presented as history when I think of them as current events. And too many of those current events are still painful.

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  8. Lynn Spencer says:

    I can see what some mean about current events still being painful. However, I can see even hard times being good settings. I think this is because I grew up with family stories of world wars, horrible losses during the 1930s (and also during the 19th century, quite frankly), but the people who rose above these things and built loving families sounded very romantic to me as a child. This includes one who had his inheritance stolen by his stepmother and half-brothers, who then turned him out. He always used to say that since he was just 17 when it happened, he didn’t have the resources to fight back, but he eventually met a women he loved and figured out another way to live a happy life. Not a pain-free story, but anyone who ever saw him with his wife would never doubt it was a romance.

  9. Pamela M says:

    I only read Thomas, Guhrke and Duran in the last few months and loved the late Victorian settings. Which led me to find a copy of “Beast” by Judith Ivory (late Victorian, cross-cultural ).

    I would love to read more romance novels set in the early 20th century, the 1900’s through the roaring twenties. The eras related to this period of time provide a whole wealth of areas of historical influence to mine deeper into such as: the trans-Atlantic crossings, globalization in its infancy, the legacy of Queen Victoria’s “empire”, more aristocrats entering “trade”, the floods of immigration, the rise of the working class man, women’s rights, the transition to “motor cars”, the yachting races, airplanes, popularization of the telephone, WWI (the need for knowledge and curiosity about “modern” Europe touched the Americans at every social level), Harlem, the jazz age and the rise of the film industry. It may even create more of an “American/European Historical” genre with new, refreshing settings, plots and characters.

    My only question is, “Why is it taking so long?” Just my thoughts, didn’t mean to rant :). Thanks for this topic, Lynn!

  10. Carrie Lofty says:

    That’s one of the most heated topics we discuss over at Unusual Historicals (, where 20th century romance is just as unusual as Sherry Thomas setting her latest in Pakistan. For some people it just isn’t going to work. That’s the chance writers take when they step away from the ton. But for those looking for a little something different, Lorelie Brown, one of our UH contributors, has been getting very good reviews for her 1920s-set JAZZ BABY (Samhain). I love 20th century romances and can’t wait to see more!

  11. A.M.K. says:

    How about Eva Ibbotson’s romance novels? They’re all set in the 20th century, I think ‘A Company of Swans’ has the earliest setting, some time before WWI and ‘The Morning Gift’ and ‘The Song for Summer’ both are set before and/or during WWII. But even though they were written in the 80s and 90s they don’t really have that modern romance feel and there are no explicit love scenes… So I guess they’re not everyone’s cup of tea. (Personally – I absolutely love them)

  12. maggie b. says:

    I love the 20th century setting! My favorite setting is actually WWII but I have read books about the Korean War (Lindsey McKenna has one), a couple about Vietnam (both were part of the “Century of American Romance”) and am looking forward to doing WWI this year. Right now I am reading “Songbird Under a German Moon”, the post war book mentioned above.

    To me, this is history. I would even love to read something about the 80′s like the “Wedding Singer.” Yes, I lived through it but I could use a trip back every now and again. ;-)

    maggie b.

  13. Shanna says:

    “The Princess” by Jude Deveraux is a romance set in 1942 with a navy officer as the hero. I read it long time ago but never forgot about it because I love the WWII era and just fell in love with JT, the hero.

  14. Bonnie says:

    I am very interested in reading anything about the 20th century. I have given up on historical romances at this point. Pretty much. They’re all the same.

    Seriously, how much can we read about the 19th century? I am sooooo over it.

  15. Anne W says:

    I think it’s a wonderful idea myself. I agree with Shanna on “The Princess” by Jude Deveraux. A delightful romance with the World War II background. How much “ton” can one take? Besides us oldies, who might enjoy a bit of our making, there are many younger readers that haven’t experienced the early 20th century. With young writers such as Sherry Thomas and Meredith Duran to lead the way, there is such a wonderful opportunity for the stories of the 20th Century to be told in a beautiful and sensual manner. I say change is good for the soul and variety is the spice of life!

  16. Jane AAR says:

    I would LOVE more WWII and post WWII romances. My favorite era in history is probably postwar Europe and America. I just think it’s all fascinating, and while I really enjoy the society element of regency and Victorian, I’m less interested in the political side of things (though it can be incorporated really well into stories). I just think there’s so much potential for setting a strong romance against the shifting political and cultural tides of the 1960s.

  17. Shauna says:

    I would also love to see romances with more recent historical settings. Skillfull portrayal of a setting and the issues that were affecting people at the time in a novel is a way more compelling illustration than most dry historical facts that we learn in school or the history channel. And I now know quite a bit about Regency England. Give us some new settings!

    One book popped to mind: Morning Glory by LaVyrle Spencer. The choices the characters made in response to the changes in the world around them really seemed to capture that historical moment (depression to WWII). I thought it was well done, thoughtful and it sticks out in my mind because of the setting.

    I also think books with 20th century settings help me understand my grandparents and older relatives better. And yes, maggie b, it would also be fabulous to see some 80′s romances like Wedding Singer.

  18. Taylor says:

    I too would love to see more diversity in historical romance time settings! The mysteries have been setting their stories all over the place from ancient times to the 60s. And not to be too rude to those who feel it is too soon or too recent for them, there are always books we don’t like. We can choose not to buy them. If authors are worried about turning off readers, it is no more of a problem than authors deciding to go the paranormal or the erotic route, both of which I don’t particularly enjoy. I haven’t read what I consider to be a good historical romance in several years b/c I think they are all copies (and pale ones at that) of other regency books or worse yet pseudo historicals that we are told are set in the past but have no connection to that time period other than the fact that the main characters go to balls or wear period clothes.

  19. LinnieGayl says:

    Interesting topic, Lynn. Some of my favorite mystery series (the Amelia Peabody books by Elizabeth Peters and the Maisie Dobbs books by Jacqueline Winspear) are set in the early 20th century, both pre- and post- WWI. I recently started reading another mystery set in the early 1950s (The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley) and am enjoying not only the story, but the time period. I would dearly love to read more romances set in these time periods, and I’m not a big historical romance reader.

  20. Kristi Astor says:

    All my latest and upcoming historicals (for Zebra and Harlequin Spice) have been set in the Edwardian era–it’s such a romantic era, and still has a lot of the ‘historical’ trappings (particularly society-wise) even while introducing a lot of modernisms (motorcars, telephones, etc.). It’s such a fascinating time period, and there are so many romantic movies set in the era–TITANIC, A ROOM WITH A VIEW, SOMEWHERE IN TIME–that I hope historical readers won’t be too put off by it!

  21. alices says:

    I read the recent E.Holly trilogy and really enjoyed it.

    I’d love there to be more early 20th century historicals, if only because there could be more chances to include characters of color that aren’t *utterly* marginalized merely by color (esp. in cities and in non-American locales).

    I read a MMF romance over spring break that took place in the 30s and was surprised at how much I enjoyed it.

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