Do Contemporaries Ever Become Historicals?

Lately I’ve been thinking about the boundary between contemporary and historical romances as I try to place new submissions for the Special Title Lists appropriately. Although not a romance, my reading of the Flavia de Luce mysteries also has me thinking of this boundary.

The Flavia de Luce mysteries, set in post-World War II England, are considered historical mysteries. But what if they were romances? According to Wikipedia and numerous other Web sites, contemporary romances are set after World War II, while historical romances are set before or during World War II; by that criterion if Flavia grows older and falls in love her book might be considered a contemporary romance. I say “might,” because Wikipedia also notes that contemporary romances are generally “set in the time when they were written, and usually reflect the mores of their time.”

So far the boundary issue isn’t a major problem as romance authors aren’t flocking to write books set in the 1950s through 1970s. On the other hand, a lot of romances were written in the 1950s and 1960s and some appear on the Special Title Lists. Are they really “contemporary romances,” just because they were written Post-World War II or because they were contemporary to the author when written? I’m talking about something very different than a contemporary romance written in the last 10 to 15 years that just feels dated (Anne Marble wrote a great piece on the old At The Back Fence in 2008 on this topic). I’m talking about “contemporary” romances that completely embody their time period, a period that occurred 50 or more years ago.

As we move further from World War II, does the definition hold, or do we need a category for Post-World War II Historical romances? World War II ended in 1945 over 67 years ago. The world is a very different place than it was in 1945, or even 1955 or 1965. A heroine who was 25 in a romance written in 1955 would be 82 today. Is this heroine’s life the same, or contemporary, with a woman who is 25 today? Think of one of your relatives (mother, grandmother, great-grandmother) who was 25 in 1955; is the story of how she fell in love in the 1950s a contemporary romance? Would she fit as a contemporary heroine?

Let’s think about our 1955 and 1965 heroines. In 1955, the launch of Sputnik I and the start of the Space Age was still two years away. Our 1955 heroine would have been nearly 60 before home computers were easily available. Nearly 50 years before the September 11th attacks our heroines didn’t fear terrorists; enmeshed in the Cold War, they feared nuclear attacks from the Soviet Union.

On a personal level, our 1955 heroine didn’t yet have access to birth control pills, while our 1965 heroine did. The notion of “safe sex” to prevent HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases is years in the future. Both personally and societally, the world was very different for our 1955 and 1965 heroines than it is today, and this is reflected in some wonderful romances written in the period. I love some of D.E. Stevenson’s romances, in particular Katherine Wentworth (1964) and The Marriage of Katherine (1965) but they don’t feel like contemporary romances. They have a quaint, historic feel. These two books are on my DIK shelf but I haven’t written DIK reviews of them for AAR; I just don’t want to call them contemporaries.

Many of Mary Stewart’s “contemporary” romances were written even earlier. Five of Ms. Stewart’s romances are listed as contemporary romances in the Special Settings List: * Madam, Will You Talk? (1955) * The Moon-Spinners (1962) * My Brother Michael (1959) * Nine Coaches Waiting (1958) * This Rough Magic (1964)

I love all of these books by Ms. Stewart, but they don’t feel contemporary. I recently re-read This Rough Magic and was jarred by the Cold War overtones involving Albania (the book is set on Corfu).

I’ll have to be honest. I’m not sure if I’m ready for a romance – written today – set much before 1990. I know too much about the time period and the limitations many women faced. On the other hand, I won’t reject it outright. There’s potential for some interesting explorations of the postwar period. But I don’t want them to be considered contemporaries, and I’d feel more comfortable if we could call romances such as those by D.E. Stevenson and Mary Stewart Post-World War II Historicals. After all, Jane Austen wrote romances about her age. They may have been contemporaries in the 1800s, but we clearly label them historical romances today.

What do you think? Are we ready for a new category of historical romances? And have you read any interesting romances written in the 1950s or 1960s that stand the test of time?

– LinnieGayl Kimmel

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24 Responses to Do Contemporaries Ever Become Historicals?

  1. HJ says:

    I’ve always thought that the distinction is in how the author wrote the book i.e. that Jane Austen wrote contemporary romances (assuming that you accept that they are romances). After all, science fiction doesn’t become contemporary when the date catches up. Seriously, there is an important difference between someone writing a book in their present, who assumes that the reader will know how everything works (from society to technology), and definitely knows her period, and someone writing a book about their past and being careful to add verisimilitude and who may get the language and other matters slightly wrong

    Mary Stewart was the other writer I was thinking about as I read your post. I re-read her books often, and like the fact that they encapsulate their time so well. But I can understand how someone who didn’t realise that they were written decades ago may be surprised.

    It’s all about definitions. Maybe we should use a different term for books written in the last decade, say. Maybe “modern contemporary”? I don’t think that’s tautologous, because I think a book written as a “contemporary” stays a contemporary for ever!

  2. Judith says:

    I first started reading romances in the late 1960s – Powder and Patch by the divine Georgette was my first, and I devoured her entire output (which was still coming out at the time). I quickly found Barbara Cartland, one of the few authors of romance available in my area, and becam a big fan. At the time, many of her early works were in print in paperback, and I bought every one I could find. These were written in the 1920s and 1930s, and were contemporaries when written – all about the debutante and yound womens’ social world in London between the wars. And far from the timid virgins of her later work, they were rather racy – at least for teenaged me – and fascinating historically. I lost my taste for her novels as I caught up with her prolific writing – the books she produced contemporaneously (written as historicals) with my reading never really appealed.
    I think “contemporary” can become “historical” quite quickly. After all, our parents’ lives, and even more our grandparents’ lives, are all historical stories for most of us. I remeber my grandmother telling stories about Hungary before the first World War, when after taking the train to the country, all transportation was by horse-drawn carriage.
    The same phenomenon happens with mysteries, such as Dorothy Sayers or Margery Allingham – contemporaries when written, but now charming glimpses into a past world.

    • LinnieGayl says:

      Judith, good point about the Dorothy Sayers books. And I agree, “contemporary” can switch to “historical” rather quickly.

  3. LinnieGayl says:

    Good point about science fiction HJ. I agree about the difference of someone writing in their present and their past. I just think there’s a point when a book, written 50-70 years ago is no longer our contemporary. Hmmm… “modern contemporary?”

  4. Leigh says:

    LinnieGayl you stated “I’ll have to be honest. I’m not sure if I’m ready for a romance – written today – set much before 1990. I know too much about the time period and the limitations many women faced.”

    It is funny that you say that because this is my biggest issues with historicals, Because the women act like 21st century women.

    • LinnieGayl says:

      Good point, Leigh, and it’s a problem for me with many historicals as well.

    • Joane says:

      When I read that line, I realized why I have so many problems with historical romances. I like History and I read a lot of non-fiction books about history. So I also find the characters as 21st century people disguised as medievals or Regency people. Thnk U. At last I have found the reason why I dislike so many historicals adored by other readers.

  5. Lynn M says:

    My first reaction to reading this was something you pointed out – that “contemporaries” that become dated do not automatically become historicals even though details clearly indicate that we are no longer working in the present time period. Whenever I read about a character using a payphone or listening to albums or tapes, I am reminded vividly that the setting is in the past even though when the story was written, it was contemporary for the time. However, to continue to call books that were written in the recent past (mid-20th century) “contemporaries” is a complete misnomer, to me. They are not contemporary in that they are not current, and this is how I define contemporary. Yet I agree with HJ in that if a story does not use its time and setting as very specific story elements, I wouldn’t call it an historical. If a story set in WWII can be picked up and moved forward in time without any affect, then it’s not “historical” in my mind. If the novel/romance is truly historical, the time period has to affect the story in some way, IMO. I guess we do need a new way of describing “time-free” books versus those that are written in the most current time, with the expectation that “current” will eventually pass into that “time-free” zone.

  6. farmwifetwo says:

    Then you think that anything before 1995 or so should be historical due to the fact we survived without our internet and smartphones.

    Elswyth Thane would then have written historical romance and then the last 3 of her series would have been contemporary romances since she was alive and writing them during WWII.

    For me, historical’s tend to be regency and before. It’s not a firm timeline but just one when I think “historical” what pops into my head. Anything after 1900 is “the past” but not “historical”. Could simply be that I remember my grandparents, I remember the stories, and it was history but in some ways reality as I grew up so I don’t have that “historical” view of WWI and after.

    I have no answers nor suggestions except to simply have your catagories listed as “books set in…. date..” and maybe within that title 2 subtitles about authors writing about the past and those writing about the present that is now the past to their readers.

  7. Carrie says:

    I agree about Heyer’s “contemporary” mysteries, which are doubly fun to read since they are accurate portrayals of life then. The same with Sayers and Allingham, as Judith pointed out. But I’m not ready for books written in the 50′s and 60′s to be labeled historicals. Although I admit that might be because it makes me feel “historical,” too. :-P

  8. Mark says:

    There are two separate issues here.
    I think it would be nice to have labels to distinguish books set at the time they were written from books set prior to the time they were written. This might be “contemporarily-written” vs. “historically-written”.
    The second issue is when the present becomes history. Strictly speaking, anything that is described in past tense is history, but I wouldn’t insist on that usage. My suggestion is that anything a new generation is learning in school rather than from news reports is history. The only question is what grades of school you choose: elementary (events c 6-12 years ago), secondary (c 13-18), or college (19+ years ago).

    • Lynnd says:

      I agree with this perspective. A contemporarily written book for me is one that is written in the time period which is contemporary to the author. A historical is a book that is written about a time-period some time before the period in which the authori is writing and a futuristic is a period after the author is writing.

      With respect to what a writer’s time period is, for me it’s about 10 years (or maybe less given the way things are changing so rapidly) but YMMV.

  9. maggie b. says:

    It’s interesting to read this since I recently finished a story about the 1980′s and debated whether or not to call it a historical. I went with contemp but it was weird to think of any time without cell phones as contemporary.

    As a rule of thumb I consider historical a generation, which is typically between 25-40 yrs. So anything around the 60′s is at this point history to me. Just my .02 of course.

  10. Eggletina says:

    I use the historical label for novels written about a period before the author’s own lifetime, so as long as I know when the author lived I can be consistent. Therefore, Jane Austen gets tagged as General Fiction in my library rather than historical, but Heyer’s Regencies are historical. I know some who don’t consider anything within living memory (which would include older relatives such as grandparents) as historical. Near-past is how I think of it, but I don’t really have a label for it outside of noting the period when I’m categorizing my books.

    I wonder which feels dated faster: books set in the near past or those set in the near future?

  11. Audrey says:

    For reading purposes, the definitions for me are setting only, the author doesn’t come in to it. So Pride and Prejudice for example would be a historical.

    Contemporary to me is something set within the last maybe ten to twenty years, and thinking over the last century, it starts to feel like a historical about a hundred years ago. So I need a label for anything set in between – maybe recent past or last century?

  12. Sue Stewart says:

    This becomes an issue in other genres, as well — I first noticed it in regards to a book that I found truly terrifying when it was issued: Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon (a precursor to Silence of the Lambs and the other Hannibal Lector books). What was so frightening about it was how the villain chose and learned about his victims —

    And then, over an amazingly brief period of time, that whole issue essentially DISAPPEARED, and a terrifying book became a well-writeen thriller with no current application. :D Boom. It was over.

    There’s no longer a chance that a serial killer is learning all about your family, your home, your pets, everything about you, because he works in a lab that … processes your home movies.

  13. LeeB. says:

    To me, your blog brings to mind movements in art, e.g., what’s the difference between post-modern art and contemporary art? Ummm…

    I suppose to me contemporary romances are those written by authors in the time they are set. But someone reading that book set in the past would consider it historical.

    Lots of theories provided above by others and they all make sense. I guess it’s a subject that doesn’t have a clear answer.

  14. CindyS says:

    I was grappling with the same issue but for me, it’s even earlier. I was born in the 70′s but now books written in that time do feel at the very least dated and to some part historic as well. Like you said, there were different ideas on war, family, politics and religion.

    I hadn’t thought in the terms of a writer writing a historical as opposed to someone writing about their own place and time in what is now history.

    I’m not afraid to list things as historical because I studied history and even though WWII should still be fresh in our memories it was classified as historical when I was in university 20 years ago. So to me, anything set in WWII I would call a historical even if the writer wrote the book in 1944. The piece itself is historical and would be something we call a primary source of information. As a historian these are true artifacts of the time and have value as a source of information.

    So if the writer was alive in 1960 but wrote about the 1920′s would that have been considered historical fiction? I know it would not be a primary source of information for historians but it can help them understand the thoughts, feelings of people in 1960 towards their own history.

    Yep, I’m now confused. I knew that was going to happen. I’m suddenly in the chicken or the egg predicament.


  15. Carrie says:

    I’ve been thinking about this some more and realize part of the difference in opinion might be the age of the person commenting. In other words, I was born in ’55, so I grew up without cell phones, computers, microwave ovens, video players, or cable TV. I didn’t have a cell phone until I was 40. Since I was married and having children in the ’80′s and 90′s, those decades still feel contemporary for me, as does the 60′s and 70′s. I lived them, so they don’t feel like history. When IO read a romantic suspense written in the 80′s it feels just fine since I remember clearly not having cell phones, modern forensics, or computers.

    I guess we’ll all shelve books where they make sense to each of us. For me, anything written after WWII, or at least after 1960, feels more contemporary than historical. But for those born later, especially in the 80s and 90s like my own children, the game-changing 60′s and the cold war are definitely history. ;-)

  16. Liz says:

    I’d love to see a new category of “modern historicals,” “20th century historicals,” and think this might be a great Special Title Listing topic. (Hint, hint). While this would include recent books set in the near-past, it might also include those that offer a glimpse of the era in which they were written.

    Last year, I read “Message From Absalom,” a Cold War-era romantic suspense published in the early/mid 1970s. The hero is a Russian KGB agent, everyone smokes, and it’s full of references to womens’ lib, etc., yet it didn’t feel anymore dated than your average historical romance. The author painted a vivid picture of that time, and characters that fit it beautifully. I think that sense of time and place is what sets a so-called modern historical apart from a dated contemporary.

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  18. maggie j says:

    Oh, boy, what a topic! As a woman who is trying to be contemporary as she slips into being historic, this is a real rats’ nest!

    I began reading romance in the mid-60′s… Mary Stewart, Phyllis A. Whitney, Barbara Cartland, Georgette Heyer. Most of these authors I still re-read today. But some authors of that time are too (unintentionally) accurate to the gender bias and limitations of the era … writers like Betty Neels, whose books I loved passionately at the time.

    I think that Ms. Neels’ and others of the mid 20th Century accurately portrayed society at the time… with heroines with limited career and life options whose success as women depended on marraige to successful men. These, to me, are more like Austen’s then-contemporary, now historical novels.

    In the early 80′s the romance genre exploded… with authors like Carla Neggers, Linda Howard, Heather Graham, Nora Roberts, Debbie Macomber, Joanne Ross, Iris Johansen, Jayne Ann Krentz, Linda Lael Miller, Barbara Delinsky. And they, along with a few earlier authors like Diana Palmer, Fern Micheals, Anne Stuart, Catherine Coulter, have been much better at changing their plots and heros and heroines to reflect changing social mores and contemporary themes. But then by 1985 women had a lot more options overall and the novels began to reflect this. So, Linniegayle… I agree…I’m not ready for romances set much before 1990!

    I would like to know how some of these authors with long, successful careers would categorize their early work! I’m fairly certain most would go with the “when written as contemporary, always contemporary”.

    I first began reading regencies in the 60′s because the heroines often overcame the biases of the time to find happiness. Their audacity may not have been historically accurate, but it was a darn-site more hopeful!
    The biases of the mid-century contemporaries are simply too painful.

    -maggie j

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