Historical Cut-offs or Not

Return to Issue #36 of Laurie's News & Views

These first two letters are the original ones I discussed in my column; the ones following them came as a result of both the column and those two letters.

Jennifer Meegan (jennifer.meegan@sv.dialogic.com):
My cut-off period for reading historical romances would have to be the Regency Era. The Regency was truly the last hurrah of 'Merry Old England.' It was the last time that the British allowed themselves to have such fun! Although the Regency was preceded by the Industrial Revolution, it has all the aspects of a pre-industrial society. . . which, I think, is what makes it a likely cut-off point for many readers. You have instances of great wealth and great poverty, horses and carriages were the most common form of transportation, the stereotypical 'country squire' was still in existence, clothes were flamboyant and risque. . . these are the things that most historical romance readers are looking for in a book, the sure sign that one is a long way from the often lackluster reality of our post-modern era. By those standards, the Victorian Era just doesn't cut it.

The Victorian Era is recognizably modern. People ride around on trains and trams and take taxis to their urban, low paying jobs. Serial killers roam the cities, gangs made up of misguided children run rampant through the streets, child pornography takes off (due to the invention of photography), women and men slave away in factories, pollution contaminates the air. . . it's depressing! And all too familiar to the modern reader. If you take some of the premiere novels written during the Victorian Era, Pickwick Papers, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Vanity Fair, you'll notice that not a single one takes place in the time in which they were written. They all take place during or prior to the Regency. So, it appears to me that even the Victorians found their period to be a bit dull and unworthy! I think the strongest sign of this is seen in the resurgence of Medieval/Arthurian art and poetry (Pre-Raphaelite). Obviously Victorians were harkening back to a time of supposed innocence and passion. Hmmm. . . so, aren't we just like the Victorians?

I think one of my favorite periods would have to be, surprise, the Regency. . . but I'm also quite fond of the Georgian Era as well. I like the clothes and the music and the houses. . . and there's nothing nicer than a handsome guy with a ponytail in tight pants! My emphasis in college was Medieval Studies so, I have a difficult time reading books set in that period because I tend to get very picky about accuracy and speech and social behavior. I've rarely read a medieval romance that did the period justice...at least in my opinion.

I dislike reading historicals set in America. . .for the same reason I don't want to read a historical set in the Victorian Era. I live in the States, I know what it's like, I'm familiar with the history. . .been there, done that.

Charlotte Sellers (charlott@blitz.lme.unm.edu):
I just don't understand this arbitrary cut-off date for historicals. For me, the "fantasy" is very much alive after WWI. The time between WWI and WWII is filled with the stuff of romance: bootleggers, Flappers, Paris with the artists and novelists, expatriate Americans living in Europe, rebels, divided loyalties, gangsters, the emotional turmoil following WWI. . .

How about a romance with a Gatsby-type hero (now there's a tortured hero) during the Jazz Age? Or how about stories in the same vein as an Indiana Jones movie?

What about the Romance of WWII Europe? The music, men in those dashing uniforms, women doing their part for the cause, the danger, the intrigue, and the utter chaos surrounding the wars are all elements of a great romance novel. Perhaps a novel with the same ideas as in Casablanca - but with a happier ending. WW2 was a very romantic era for the British and Americans. And men looked extremely sexy in those WW2 uniforms (much sexier than uniforms of prior ages with those silly hats!). Who couldn't fall in love with this dashing hero as he flies away to fight the enemy and you don't know when or if you'll ever see him again?

It's too bad that these exciting periods of history are considered "unacceptable." This exclusion of such exciting times is slowly turning me away from being the devoted historical romance reader I once was. With the exception of a few authors, many historical romances are boring because nothing new is being introduced. Unfortunately, historical romance novels are becoming formulaic: insert hero and heroine in (fill in the era), watch them fight, watch them separate, watch the evil villain attempt to destroy our hero and heroine.

I'm not as bitter as I sound, but I do get frustrated at the limitations placed on authors as well as readers due to this notion of a cut-off date. We're really missing out on some great stories!

LLB responds: Thanks for your comments on whether more recently-set historicals work for you. Obviously we disagree on this. So far the readers who have written in are more along the lines of my thoughts, but I'm sure that you are not the only one who enjoys more current historicals. Evidence the success of Pamela Morsi, Judy Cuevas/Judith Ivory, and some of LaVylre Spencer's recent-past romances.

Personally, WWII love stories don't really work for me, although I did enjoy Armageddon by Leon Uris, which had a very bittersweet love story in it. Generally, I can't get beyond the genocide.

Dalia Hedfi (DaliaDH@aol.com):
I'm curious to know how you feel about settings. I personally dislike most books set in the West and South (US), Scotland (hate them!!!!), France (ironically one of my favorite books is set in France - Bliss by Judy Cuevas), made up European principalities, and Scandinavia (viking).

I would like to see more books set in Russia, India, Spain, Mexico, South America, Australia, the far East, and New Zealand but I don't think I've come across any in a very long time.

I also wish that authors (I'm generalizing) would show more respect towards other cultures and portrayed these characters as real people instead as stereotypes. However, it really annoys me when writers do not accurately portray social circumstances in historicals. I think this is why I don't enjoy historicals set in the US.

As to cut off dates, my favorite romances are unquestionably set during the Regency. I think I've really bonded with this time period which to me embodies an almost surreal sense of make believe (Now this is the stuff of fairy tales). I don't particularly like the Georgian or Edwardian periods, but I like historicals set during the Victorian era very much as well (Bronte time!!!).

I have a lot of difficulty swallowing medievals and tend to avoid them. I guess I just can't stomach all the violence and political intrigue which always seem to overpower the romance. I also hate any book dealing with the crusades ( it is simply unimaginable to me how an author can possibly portray an invading army sympathetic - I find them absolutely repugnant). I also tend to enjoy books set on ships regardless of the time period but as a rule I don't like road romances.

As far contemporary romances go, I usually don't read them although I have nothing against them. I tend to like those that have an element of mystery or the supernatural (but not in historicals!! - but I do read historical mysteries).

LLB responds: Dalia, to answer your question, I would say that my favorite settings are generally England and Scotland. My favorite time period is probably the regency era, although I enjoy a good Georgian thrown in as well. While I don't generally go for westerns, they occasionally work for me. The medieval period is probably my second favorite time period, but I am very picky in terms of what I like in a medieval. Less Court life, politics and intrigue, more life at the keep. For some reason, if a medieval doesn't work for me, reading becomes like torture. And, I don't generally like the mixing of historical figures, although that's not a hard and fast rule either.

I'm just beginning to enjoy contemporaries, but I imagine I'll be setting myself parameters for those too once I've read enough to decide. I indicated more about my preferences in column #36, in case you haven't read it.

Mary McArdle (mcardle@ozemail.com.au):
Regarding historical periods, of course the author makes all the difference, but there are favourite periods for me - these are medieval (I have been a long-time fan of Roberta Gellis, but the books proir to the Rosalynd Chronicles and those about imaginary characters rather than those who did exist (even though little was known about them) although I really enjoy the fact that she writes about both sides of the civil strife and you see the honour of both sides. I also like Jo Beverley's medievals. I also read a lot of Patricia Veryan in my late teens and early twenties and so have a soft spot for Georgian and Regency times: Georgette Heyer was a must-buy (in the days when the bulk of my reading was through libraries and buying a book was an extravagance). Therefore my formative years of romance reading have probably affected my reading preferences now. I watched a lot of westerns in the same years and now read some romances set in similar situations. I am gradually becoming able to read contemporaries, as long as the situation is far removed from the realities of my life. I think I also prefer the historical settings precisely because the heroines are in such constrained social stiuations that are so different from out lives today (which have different social constraints). I can accept arrogant, macho, alpha males to whom I would not give the time of day in real life.

Being an Australian, I have read some Australian historicals, but they tend to be more historical than romance although there are some romances set in the Australian past. However, the setting is pretty grim and the times and conditions were harsh. It is also very hard to accept any British lord or soldier as a hero (I have yet to get hold of Carol Proctor's book) as we have been brought up to see the military as oppressors and corrupt as well as aristocratic. If ever you get the chance to see a serial that was made in the 70's, called Against the Wind, then you will have a sample of the type of picture we generally have of the British who ruled the early days of the colony. Another short story they has been a staple of our early reading is a story called The Drover's Wife by Henry Lawson. It is the epitome of a grim life! If you are interested I would be willing to type it out and send you a copy. Australia is approximately the same size as the main part of the U.S. but today has only about 18 million people. So imagine the enormous difficulties and distances involved in the initial years - in a country that had an unfamiliar climate, plants and animals, as well as an indiginous population.

I'm sorry to have rambled on again, but these things just have to break out occasionally.

Regarding the mid-list crisis, it is worse here as most stores have multiple copies of favourite authors (which now seem to be also full of re-issues) and not mid-list authors at all. One of our biggest department stores that has a fairly big boo section would have about 20 authors in the whole romance section. However just last month a small store devoted soley to romance books has opened in Melbourne and is offering books not available elsewhere in Australia (to the best of my knowledge). I have spent a fortune there buying books that might be good because they are not long on the shelves and so you cannot afford to wait and see. Books are going up in price her also and now average between $10 - $13 for each paperback.

Rose Light (zo47oz@myriad.net):
I agree that there are some historical periods that are easier to digest that others. For me, though, my interest in a certain era is directly connected to the location of the story, too.

For instance, when it comes to the good old USA as a setting, I don't pick up a book that takes place either before or during the Civil War. For me, the years between around 1867 and 1885 are optimal. Much after 1885, the story becomes too "modern" for a historical.

On the other hand, if the story takes place in England or Scotland, (two of my favorite settings) the only time period that turns me off is 1000 AD and before. I don't discriminate against the Regency period (unless it is a Regency romance, and not a historical). IMHO, I think the strict conventions of those times makes for some great situations.

If you could stand just one more comment on a closed subject, namely Tortured Heroes, I wrote earlier that I had no use for them, but thanks to a reminder from Cinemax this weekend, I became reacquainted with one of the all time great tormented men in literature - Ben Quick of The Long, Hot Summer. This weekend, he was portrayed by Don Johnson, who did a great job. But in the original, the too-beautiful-for-words Paul Newman is wonderful as the son of the most notorious arsonist in the South, hiding from his past but too proud to run from it. How could I have forgotten about him!

Lee Brown (Marlee7@aol.com):
I have been reading and mulling over the comments made about likes and dislikes of different periods in romance novels, and agree/disagree with 'em too. I like just about any time period; it isn't the era that attracts and holds my interest, it's the story, the characters, and the way the author has presented them. I have more 'favorite' authors than I care to list, usually buy at sight because of the author, and sometimes find I don't like the book not for the period but the style and the story as it's presented. Darn, but that came out so disjointed, didn't it? Hm-m-m, let me try again. I read regardless of the era, drawn by the story. If I can't stand wasting my time anymore because the story is lousy, it's wallbanger time and I toss it. It isn't because I don't like the time it's written about, it simply didn't engage my imagination and keep me turning those pages. I can't say I am drawn to any particular time in history, because I have enjoyed 'em all... I enjoy fiction set in Britain, in America, wherever, past and present.

Maureen Kearney (MNDP43D@prodigy.com):
IMHO, there shouldn't be any cutoff dates. I have never seen any "historical" romances set in the time period of 1911-present, and I would really like to read some of these!

Besides that, is there a "starting date" standard in historicals? The earliest I've ever seen was 78 AD. I mean, hey! There were 4000 years of human history before the birth of Christ - do we just ignore that or what? I mean, sure, there's prehistoric romances, some of which I've really enjoyed, but we didn't go right from prehistory to the Greeks and the Romans!

Phoebe Imel (plimel@nltc.net):
I just finished reading your column on the vanishing midlist, tortured heroines, and favorite settings and timelines. Very informative, but I have some different takes on some of the points.

About settings and timelines. I do like regency and Scottish books, but do we have to have so darned many of them! It seems like every other book on the shelves features one of these settings and sometimes both at once!

I don't usually like Viking settings, mailnly because of the cliche's that are used by most of the writers. The heroine is always captured, a slave of the Viking Warror. He has a sister/fiance' that is so jealous she'll pay someone to kidnap/murder the heroine. If someone would write a book with Vikings that didn't use the cliche's I would probably read it and enjoy it. It's not the culture I dislike the cookie cutter storylines within certain settings that are used time and time again. This is probably the same reason I dislike Pirate books and Indian Romances.

You see, although I dislike Pirate novels I did love Marsha Canham's Across a Moonlit Sea. Because it wasn't the same 'ol kidnapped woman forced into tight quarters with a roguishly handsome Pirate. And quite frankly, after I read my fourth Indian romance and realized. "Hey, this is the same book I just read!" I stopped buying those as well, even at the UBS.

I'm from the South, so Civil War dramas depress me. Such a senseless war with humdreds of thousands of young men dead. That's pretty hard to glamorize, unless you're Margaret Mitchell and even she had the sense to go forward in time with the tale a good fifteen years to finish it off with a bang. Within the novels set in this time period, time and time again we see the cliche' storyline of Yankee soldier/Rebel Bride.

Here are some time periods I would like to see more of. Georgian -- which has been neglected of late due to the surge in regencies. I don't think the georgian's were as frivolous as the regency folk and the heroine can show signs of intelligence without the danger of looking bad to society. I love medievals...the history is so fascinating and there are many sublteties within the different reigns of different monarchs to explore. I also like Irish and Welsh settings.

Now something I would like to see are some books set in the early part of this century. The 1920's would be a fabulous time to set a novel with the rich clothing, cars, jazz, speakeasy crowds, and jet set lifestyle of many new millionaires. Not to mention the gansters and Private eyes. How could anyone say that isn't romantic? Case in point...Jude Deveraux's 'Sweet Liar . although this was technically a modern romance many elements were pulled from the jazz age to flavor the novel.

One great novel I just reviewed, is Alice Alfonsi's, Eternal Love. It's a paranormal romance with two ghost Private Eyes from the 1920's who help the H/H get together and solve the mystery. In the proloque, Alice gives the reader a glimpse into Daisy and Dan Doyle's romance before she launches into the contemporary part of the book. This well-writen and thoroughly moving prologue convinced me that publishers and writers are missing out on a rich untapped area for fiction. Do try this book. It's a Jove, Haunting Hearts and will be released in Jan. 98. I think you'll end up putting it on your Desert Isle list - the writing is simply beautiful!!!!!

I also like books with English, American, or French characters that are set in other parts of the world - like Egypt, India, or Australia. I don't like Russian novels though, but this is simply because I cannot pronounce all the names and the political structure is soooo convoluted.

Return to Issue #36 of Laurie's News & Views

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