Just in the past year I’ve started reading Historical Romance novels. They’re known colloquially as “bodice rippers,” but even though the covers are ridiculous, harkening to the golden age of Avon and Harlequin, the stories inside are often intelligent, educational, funny and delightful to read. They’re not just sexy! You just have to find the right authors to read within the genre and then you’re in for a great time.
Let me introduce you to a few of my favorite authors in the genre!
A Prolific Historical Romance Writer » Lisa Kleypas
My most-read author within this genre is Lisa Kleypas. She’s been writing Historical Romance since the 80’s, and her catalogue is enormous. This is the main reason why I like her. You can gorge on her work. She’s had a few misses, but I’ve read almost every single novel she’s written, and she nearly always puts out solid books. I like her writing style — smooth with old-fashioned quirkiness. She concocts juicy plots and somehow makes them believable. Despite the craziness, you feel like her characters really deserve to be happy in love.
Kleypas’s main problem is that she can play around with consent in troubling ways. More than a handful of times, her heroines have said “no” or “don’t” when the hero is pawing at her, and the hero doesn’t stop or respect her boundaries. Instead, he’s all, “I shall tup you so well that you won’t know ‘yes’ from ‘no.'” And then he invariably succeeds in his seduction. I don’t like that at all.
Another thing — her heroines are virgins nearly every time. With a catalogue so large, it’s kind of odd. Because she insists on populating her romance novels with female virgins, there is almost always the “sex education” scene, where the hero teaches the heroine the carnal ways of the world. If you read enough Kleypas back-to-back, you’ll be astounded at the frequency and similarities of these scenes.
Oh! she invariably gasps. But it’s so large! It will never fit!
It will, he growls. I promise you.
It’s funny the first time, but then you’re like, again? And then all the subsequent times, you just roll your eyes.
Mostly though, Kleypas romances are unobjectionable, despite many of them starting up in lurid situations, featuring a lot of deals, bargains, and blackmail between desperate people. The luridness is the fun part, most of the time. My favorite books of hers are:
- Where Dreams Begin, where an in-crisis lady is employed as a manners coach for a gruff, newly wealthy businessman.
- I Will, A Christmas Novella, where a dissolute noble seeks to improve his reputation by having his friend’s prudent sister pose as his fiancé.
- Suddenly You, where a talented, yet inexperienced author begins her first love affair with a publishing mogul.
- Devil In Winter, where a shy young lady with a speech impediment coerces London’s most infamous debaucher into marrying her.
Tessa Dare » A Historical Romance Writer Similar to Kleypas
So far, I’ve just read within Tessa Dare’s Spindle Cove series, but I look forward to reading more of her books. Tessa Dare is a lot like Kleypas, except less problematic and more modern. She, too, has crazy premises, but tends to write more overtly feminist heroines.
Dare’s top series, Spindle Cove, has romances stemming from a town where “odd” young ladies go for education and retreat. My favorite books within that series are:
- Any Duchess Will Do, where a duke and his mother, who like to play games with each other, sweep up a country barmaid in their machinations.
- Do You Want to Start a Scandal, where a bright-eyed girl tries to remove her forced engagement to a spy. I will also mention that the audiobook for this novel is superb.
- A Week to Be Wicked, featuring a lady paleontologist who coerces a troubled lord into taking her, and her cast of a dinosaur fossil, to Scotland for a science symposium.
My one complaint about Tessa Dare is that sometimes her novels can have boring parts. This happens when she splits the narration and takes you from the most interesting story to another, less fascinating sub-plot. For the most part, though, her stories are great.
A Popular Historical Romance Novelist I Can’t Fully Get Into » Julia Quinn
Julia Quinn is well-known for her Bridgertons series, which details how each child in a huge family falls in love and gets married. Meanwhile, there is a ‘Gossip Girl’ in their midst, who is reporting everyone’s secrets and embarrassments in the newspaper. The book that actually reveals the gossip columnist’s identity (not the fake reveal) is perhaps my favorite. It’s definitely the most memorable.
Julia Quinn started her series with a more modern-day tone, as if she were narrating historical events with a modern voice. There was also a distinctly satirical and comedic element to her writing which made it hard to get truly swept away in drama.
I also wish Quinn were less interested in writing about each Bridgerton sibling. Because she focuses on the same family with each book in the series, a lot of characters and settings become repetitive or just old news. I much prefer when romance series skip to more peripheral characters with each installment.
Overall, while Quinn is a very popular HR writer, I just can’t get into her style of writing. Perhaps, too, her books aren’t lurid enough for me. That’s one of the best part about Historical Romances. When they get super dishy.
Lenora Bell » A Historical Romance Author I Recently Discovered
I recently found Lorena Bell and have just started to devour her books. I’ve only read 1.5 of her novels so far, but what I’ve seen is good! I’m working on her series, The Disgraceful Dukes. The three books so far are all about young ladies who fall in love with unusual nobles. What I really like about Lorena Bell, so far, is that her heroines are sexually curious people. More than that, if they aren’t already physically experienced, they outclass their love interests in some other way.
In How the Duke Was Won, the hero starts out thinking he’s so much more informed than any English woman could hope to be, because he’s traveled the globe, seen slavery and abusive work environments up close, and has a racially-mixed daughter. The heroine, Charlene, may not have traveled extensively or been in a relationship before, but she has worked to improve her mind and body. She has opinions and skills. He teaches her things, sure, but she educates him as well, and shows him a thing or twelve.
Now I’m on my second Bell book, Blame It On the Duke, and Alice, the heroine, is awesome. She makes an agreement to enter an in-name-only marriage with a nobleman, so that she can travel to India to return the fragment of the Kama Sutra that her wealthy family had gotten a hold of. Alice has a knack for languages, and has taught herself enough Sanskrit to translate the document. She is fascinated by the many types of pleasure the Kama Sutra describes, and how all of the senses can be engaged in the pursuit of them. The man she agrees to marry is known for his hedonistic, elaborate parties, but Alice is the one who intellectually engages with the idea of pleasure. I think it’s fascinating how Bell’s heroines (so far) have an element of expertise that somehow unlocks part of the hero. It’s very different from Kleypas, in a good way.
The Covers, My God…
The thing about these Historical Romances, is that the packaging is very often misrepresentative of the book inside. They nearly always have corny titles and ridiculous covers. I understand that both the titles and covers are part of the history of the genre. They follow a precedent that lets readers understand what kind of setting and story they’re getting. But I think there has to be a way to update.
For instance, they could go crazy and actually have historically accurate clothing on the covers! That would be kind of, you know, interesting. I love going to museum exhibits where they have period clothing. It would be cool to see that kind of thing on a cover. Not this stupidity…
I bet you would not believe how many of those covers came out in the last five years. They all look dated.
There is a way to keep the over-the-top-ness and still have the cover be sophisticated and fresh. I like the cover for the YA book, The Luxe, as an example.
It’s insane, but in a good way. Instead of being cheesy and predictable, this cover focuses is on the decadence of the dress and uses oversize type to embellish the design. It’s more intelligent and innovative. The dress may not be entirely accurate, but at least it’s a feast for the eyes, and not an 80’s slip. Historical Romance needs more unexpected, gorgeous covers, not just the same concept rehashed over and over.
As for the titles, I don’t know how many HR books I’ve read where the hero is not a duke, but it says “Duke” somewhere in the title. This upsets me. However, I’m more okay with the standard HR titles than I am the standard cover designs.
For Me, Historical Romance Was an Under-Appreciated Genre
Before I dove into these books, I had a lot of bias about Historical Romance. I thought it was all stupid, cheesy porn. And bad porn at that. Well, not only can Historical Romance be good porn, but it can also have great historical content, hilarious situations, snapping dialogue, and wonderful writing. It’s a shame I missed out all these years, mostly because the lame covers put me off.
The best part of Historical Romances, I think, is how emotionally charged they are. The business of matrimony back in the Regency and Victorian times was very often that — a business transaction. There were tons of rules regarding society and class, too. It was incredible restrictive for both men and women. That setting provides so much angst, and HR writers are right to use that to their advantage. Beyond everything, I love an emotional read.
So, if you haven’t already read widely in the HR genre, I encourage you to give it a shot. You might be pleasantly surprised.