Wartime Historical Settings

Does the thought of a bond forged amidst the destruction of war make you think of hope or despair? Seeing a couple fall in love knowing that one will have to go off to war gives a sense of urgency and emotional depth to the relationship for some readers, but others find it anxiety-inducing instead. It’s a debate that springs up from time to time on various romance discussion boards (including ours), and I always find it interesting.

I’ll do the obvious and get my bias out of the way first. I don’t have a problem with wartime settings in my romances as long as there really is a romance. I can see where insensitive handling of the subject could make for a book that is disturbing far more than it is romantic. However, I have to admit that I find the partings and reunifications between hero and heroine poignant and effective in the right hands. And, even though the subject matter is depressing, I also find something hopeful in those stories of homefront deprivation and sacrifice that lead ultimately to a couple being able to build something hopeful out of despair.

I got my wartime romance fix early with a YA novel called Susannah by Candice F. Ransom, part of a now-defunct line called Sunfire. The heroine of the tale lived in a part of Virginia that suffered greatly during the Civil War. At the beginning of the story, she has a somewhat pampered existence, but the deprivations of the war and the loss of her family’s money (much of which was invested in Confederate currency, if I remember correctly) take their toll. Throughout these trials, Susannah finds support from her unlikely hero, and as the book ends, the two are prepared to embark on a life together. Though the book is filled with dark moments, I cannot help being affected by the thought of these two hopeful souls rising from the ashes to create something better out of life.

Several of the other Sunfire YA romances contained wartime plotlines (Revolution, Civil War – even the War of 1812), and as I grew more mature as a reader, I still found myself drawn to wartime settings. Heather Graham’s One Wore Blue and And One Wore Gray were favorites of mine as was Rosalind Laker’s Circle of Pearls, and even though I always feel emotionally wrung out afterwards, I have re-read Marsha Canham’s Blood of Roses many times. With characters that are (in most cases) likable and endings that are ultimately hopeful, I find these wartime romances deeply romantic. In literary fiction, where I know that a happy ending is not necessarily in the cards, it is harder to for me to let myself emotionally engage with a war story to the degree that I will with a wartime romance.

Though there seem to be fewer wartime romances out there, some still get published. Last year’s highly successful novel from Joanna Bourne, The Spymaster’s Lady, is set during the Napoleonic Wars. While many Regency historicals and some Georgians are set during times of war, the war in this novel certainly gets more than a mere background mention. The work of the spies is grittier here than in many romances and, especially during the opening sequences in France, the war feels very close to the characters and it lends a certain tension to the plot.

This tension is also present in Marrying the Captain by Carla Kelly. The hero of this novel is a naval captain actively engaged in war efforts that take him as far away as Spain. As an innkeeper’s granddaughter in a port town, the heroine hears frequent discussion of the war, and the frequent absences and tensions of the hero’s career are shown in many scenes in the book, some of them quite poignant.

Even though the darker aspects of war are not even vaguely romantic, in the hands of a good author, wartime settings can be very effective. During a time of war, great strength is required and characters in the best wartime stories show amazing growth and inner strength as people (feisty curl-tossing just won’t cut it). In addition, there is something about relationships forged in such turbulent times that seems to give them an emotional depth and great beauty, especially when contrasted with the historical events.

I’d be curious to see other takes on wartime settings. Why or why not would you read them? Do you have any favorites?

-Lynn Spencer

25 thoughts on “Wartime Historical Settings

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  5. I absolutely LOVE Coming Home by Rosamunde Pilcher, her style and the way she develops her characters against the WWII backdrop is fantastic. I especially love the really British feel to it.
    Can anyone recommend any good WWII books that are similar?

  6. hi.found this site while searching for a particular book with russia as setting..read it while i was 15(1996)and it made an impression..dont know the name of the book or the author..remember only certain details and that too are vague..a lady forced by her circumstances to travelwith a russian aristrocrat and his ward..doesnt like him very much ,but sleeps with him during the long journey to russia..finds that he also sleeps with his ward. befriends the ward..when living at his house in russia,finds him to be an unfeeling landlord,hated by his servants and tenants..she gets caught in the middle of a revolution in russia,she escapes from his manor,runs into rebels,gets rescued by an english army officer(not sure)gets out of russia with him while falling in love with him ..if anyone could tell me the name of the book and the author,i will be grateful..

  7. Some time back I had read an romance novel where it has described the heart touching love story about the couple in the period of wartime who had intense love for each other. It is hurting when you get departed from your partner whom you love the most.

  8. I have to whole-heartedly agree with LeeB about Paullina Simons Bronze Horseman Trilogy, well the first two books at least. The tension and drama of a young American trapped in Communist Russia, with an assumed identity, and fighting Germans as they build a siege around Leningrad (St. Petersburg) oozes from every page. Top it all with an epic love story for the ages. Completely sigh-worthy…and very educational. LOL!

    Sherry, I am counting down the days to Not Quite A Husband. I had to reread Private Arrangements to get a fix until May…it’s not enough. I. want. your. book. now. LOL!

  9. I love, love, love war in romance. There’s something so sweeping and majestic about it, though it can be small and contained–as seen in my absolute favorite war-time historical romance, Red, Red Rose by Marjorie Farrell.

    I figure I’m already dangling on the precipice of “unmarketable” by writing books set in the early 1900s, so I’m indulging in the impulse to write a book set in WWI.

  10. My next book is set during the Swat Valley Uprising, which I’d never heard of before I started researching. :-)

    Swat River Valley used to be part of the Northwest Frontier of the British Raj, current day Pakistan, and riddled with Al Queda. Yep, still tons of trouble going on over there.

  11. I enjoy wartime settings because they come with the tension, longing, uncertainty, action, and adventure that I sometimes want in romance. I don’t want to read them all the time, but every now and again is good. I wish there were more WWII based romances out there, though I would be very picky about selecting them.

  12. Maria, I loved “A Town Like Alice” (both the book and the miniseries, which I have yet to find on DVD!!). In general, my favorite romance novels have contained some wartime settings, whether historical, or somewhat more contemporary (i.e. World War II). As someone else pointed out, with a war as part of the plot, you have the elements of danger, and the possible (tragic) end of a relationship. Next on my “to be read” list is “Surrender” by Pamela Clare–I really enjoyed her first series which was also set in colonial America, so I’m sure this one will be good, too.

  13. Two straight-fiction books with good romances in them are Nevil Shute’s A Town Like Alice (first part set in WWII Malaysia, second in post-war England and Australian outback) and Pastoral (set in WWII, England during air war). A Town Like Alice was a BBC miniseries, but the book has more interesting character development in part two (IMHO). And he’s a good writer.

  14. I think wartime novels are quite popular and may even be gaining in popularity now. My Civil War-era novel, Shades of Gray, (Jan. 2008) was chosen the Favorite Book of 2008, across all genres, by three different book review sites, and climbed to #3 on Amazon’s Best-Seller list in the Romance/Historical category (behind Gone with the Wind).
    I think war books lend themselves to great conflict: danger, sacrifice, and of course, the fine line between friends and enemies.

  15. Lindsay McKenna used the Viet Nam war period as did Rachel Lee (in her Conard County stories) but I wonder when we will see something based around either the 1st Gulf War or maybe Iran or Afghanistan. And, here in England, I would have thought the Falklands War could make an interesting background.

  16. My favourite is Mary Renaults’ ‘The Charioteer’. The war doesn’t directly play a big part in the book – the hero is hospitalised after Dunkirk, and falls for a pacifist who has been sent to work in the hospital as an orderly, due to his refusal to fight.
    It’s m/m, beautifully written – probably not strictly speaking a romance – but very romantic, and I’d count it as having a HEA.

  17. I also love wartime romances and though they aren’t strictly romances, rather fiction with romantic overtones, I loved Coming Home by Rosamunde Pilcher and Shining Through by Susan Isaacs, both set during WWII.

    I also enjoyed Elspeth McKendrick’s Perfidia. And Paullina Simon’s The Bronze Horseman and Tatiana & Alexander were fantastic wartime books.

  18. I agree about the suspense and intensity. Books that deal with war can be very intense both in action and in emotion.

    Tina S – Some of these deal with the subject with more depth than others, but you may want to check out our Special Titles list on War for book ideas. You can find it here: http://www.likesbooks.com/war.html. I hadn’t looked at it in a while, but I got all sorts of TBR ideas when I was over there earlier today.

    LynnS.

  19. I love wartime stories, and I especially love ones that deal with the effects of war on soldiers/spies, etc. War is a life-changing thing for most people-especially those who participate in one-and I feel romance doesn’t give enough attention to what happens to these men (and women) who served their countries and suffer through Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or nightmares, and flashbacks.

    Gaelen Foley’s book (either Lord of Fire or Lord of Ice-the one with Lucien I think?) deals with it very well, and I love that.

    I just think most romance authors use the setting (especially the Napoleonic wars) just as a backdrop, and don’t really write about the actual event. I would love to read some good books about war and its effects.

  20. Pamela Clare has two books set during the French and Indian war that are really good: Surrender and Untamed.

    I usually read historical novels set during the Regency era, so these books were a great change of pace. The wartime setting leads to a lot of violent scenes, though — it was a brutal time (think “Last of the Mohicans”) — and that might put some people off. But the constant threat of death does lead to a lot of suspense and intensity.

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