Nicola here, introducing this month’s Ask A Wench feature. The Wenches were chatting online, as we tend to do, and one of the topics we got talking about was the first historical romances that we ever read. As you might imagine, we discovered that there was some overlap in our reading experiences but also plenty of difference. We hope your enjoy this trip down our book-lined memory lane and we look forward to hearing what your first historical romance was!
I haunted the old library in our small town in Upstate NY, with its marble floors, tall windows and polished wooden bookshelves. I worked my way from Ellen Tebbits and Pippi Longstocking to Jane Eyre and Ivanhoe and Treasure Island (Illustrated Classics for some of those, as I recall), and then I discovered Victoria Holt. Mistress of Mellyn was probably my first romance, albeit gothic, and I read as many of her books--and books like hers--that I could find. We moved and I went to high school in the DC area, and I hit a long phase of classic literature, and in college majored in art but took seminars in Melville and Lawrence and the Brontes and poetry. In graduate school I studied art history--but secretly read Victoria Holt, Barbara Michaels, Elizabeth Peters and Mary Stewart. But I was immersed in graduate work, and though I had seen those "bodice rippers" in bookstores, I had never read one.
Then I got married and we started a family--and I ended up on bedrest for months, waiting for Baby, on
strict orders to rest and not stress myself out with studies. So I immersed myself in genre fiction, trying everything from sci fi and fantasy to mysteries. Friends brought books--including The Wolf and the Dove by Kathleen Woodiwiss. Finally I was hooked--it was medieval, it was good history, and it was exciting storytelling, with a hero and heroine I alternatively loved and wanted to bean over the head. I couldn't put it down. I read Shanna and more historical romance, and although I resumed graduate school and was otherwise reading Goodnight Moon more than any other book--I never forgot The Wolf and the Dove and the fun and joy of juicy paperback romance fiction. I read more romances, and one day I realized that I wanted to write one of my own, using the medieval history I'd been studying for years…
I guess my earliest Romance love was -- and this is appropriate I suppose -- a translation from the French, the Angelique books. These were written by a husband-wife team, Serge and Anne Golon, published under the pseudonym Sergeanne Golon. This was a series of ten or a dozen Big Fat Romance Epics. (It was a time of Big Fat Romance Epics.) The books were set in the time of Louis XIV. We follow the heroine, a noble Frenchwoman, Angelique, and her husband and true love, Count Jeoffrey de Peyrac on their adventures across France, up and down the social scale, from Versailles to the back slums of Paris. Then we take a left turn at Nice out to the Mediterranean. Then we backtrack and head for . . . well . . . Canada. Golon makes even that exciting.
Dashing adventure. Good History. A series of Lusty Lovers. The king's bedroom. Pirates. Storms at sea. Escape from the harem. Sandstorms. Concealed identities.
In short, everything I like in a Romance.
My 12-year-old self was captivated.
They're still cracking good reads.
I grew up in a houseful of readers, but romances were not on any of the TBR piles. My mother, an avid fan of The New Yorker magazine tended to read non-fiction and my brothers were huge sci-fi fans. I read a lot classic history adventures—Sir Walter Scott and Kenneth Roberts’s French and Indian Wars sagas. Then, when I was in high school, my mother was surprised to hear I hadn’t read Pride & Prejudice. She got a copy for me at the library . . .and I remember staying up until 2 am reading it that night. I went on an Austen binge, but alas, as you know, there aren’t that many!
So somehow I got sidetracked again into many other genres. It wasn’t until I moved to New York City after college that I walked by an elderly street vendor selling who was selling used paperbacks. There was one called The Toll Gate by Georgette Heyer, which looked interesting. Now I was really hooked on the era. And then I discovered the Signet Regency line (and Topaz and Zebra) —Mary Jo Putney! Jo Beverley! Patricia Rice! It was reading their wonderful stories and characters, and the fascinating world of the ton that inspired me to pick up a pen and try my hand at crafting a romance.
I'm not sure what my first historical romance was, as I read a lot of historical fiction in what we'd now call YA, but they all had protagonists who were real people, and by my definition historical romance doesn't. So my first historical romance was probably The Scarlet Pimpernel, and I then inhaled Heyer, but I'm going to go for Red Adam's Lady by Grace Ingram. This sits in my mind as my first "modern historical romance." It's a medieval captured bride story, but the hero isn't one of those glowering macho dominators. He's a good guy. You can see my tastes were fixed early.
It was a British book first published in 1973 and Woodiwiss's The Flame and the Flower was published in America in 1972, but given the divide back then between the two countries, and the time it took for books to travel, plus the time to get a book written and published I suspect they were each original concepts, so I consider the two books joint originators of the modern historical romance.
Grace Ingram wrote another book, Gilded Spurs, which I don't think as good, but it seems similar to some books she wrote previously as Doris Sutcliffe Adams.
Price of Blood (1966), Power of Darkness (1967), and No Man's Son (1969)
Under either name this author is a bit of a mystery. I wonder if she was a relative of Rosemary Sutcliff, who was a childhood favourite of mine, but it seems she didn't have siblings. Anyone know more about her? I wish someone would sort out the rights and bring out a new edition of Red Adam's Lady.
As a kid I read pretty much everything I could get my hands on, and that included historical fiction. But really the only historical romance I ever read until I was in my late 30's was Georgette Heyer. I discovered her through a friend when I was eleven, and borrowed These Old Shades from my local library and I loved it for the humor and the lively dialogue and the fun characters — the hero, in his silks and satins and high-heeled shoes — but as dark and masculine as you could get, the heroine in her male garb, with her passionate devotion to her Monseigneur and her hilarious disrespect for his eccentric brother, the disreputable Rupert. It was a world I happily embraced and though I read everything else Heyer wrote, and found other books of hers I loved more, These Old Shades remains my first — and we always remember our first, don't we?
I also read authors like Catherine Gaskin, an English author who wrote Sara Dane — set in colonial Australia, and Blake's Reach, an English smugglers tale, and Madeleine Brent, a male author as it turned out, who penned wonderful romances set partially in the far flung outposts of Empire. My older married sister was a big buyer of magazines, and there I discovered Barbara Cartland, serialized. My sister also had a collection of Lucy Walker books — not historical, but still, old fashioned enough for me. They were stories set in the outback, with gentle English heroines and tough enigmatic Australian heroes. Much later — in my late 30's, I discovered American genre romance, which wasn't available in Australian bookshops. We had Mills and Boons (Harlequins) but the historicals weren't sold here. I remember coming across a small bookshop that imported romances from the US. There I discovered authors like Mary Balogh, Johanna Lindsay, our own Mary Jo Putney, Jo Beverley and many more. And I never looked back.
From Mary Jo:
As I kid, I always loved it when a book had a romance, whether it was a mystery or a historical novel or an adventure tale. A romance and a happy ending made any story better. I read and reread romantic historicals like Thomas Costain's The Black Rose and Edison Marshall's American Captain and Yankee Pasha. And Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond Chronicles--be still, my heart!
Then in college I discovered Georgette Heyer and fell in love again, but Jo Beverley has just done a blog about her, so I'll move along to the first couple of genre historical romances I read. Or more accurately, tried to read. One was a loathsome Viking "romance" where the "hero" rapes the heroine, who struggles against him like a cute, helpless kitten until she relaxed and enjoyed it. And what a woman she was! according to the rapist hero. Did I mention loathsome? I quit about two chapters in. Maybe less. Nothing could redeem that book.
The other early historical romance I recall without fondness was actually a minor work by one of the famous early names in the business. No rapes in that first chapter, but it was beyond stupid, with a bird brained heroine twittering about how good looking the hero was, how he was without flaw, and he'd be a perfect husband for her. Perhaps that book got better, but I didn't stick around to find you.
It wasn't until years later, when I was writing traditional Regencies that were too long and too complicated for the genre, that I started reading historical romance. And by then, I had a much better idea of what authors I might like!
Writing this made me think about those early romantic historicals, so I just ordered an old copy of American Captain. <G>
I’m pretty certain that PRIDE AND PREJUDICE and JANE EYRE were my first romances, proudly purchased with my allowance money through the Scholastic Library back when I was about nine. But they weren’t written as historical romances and really don’t count, although they influenced my reading and writing for the rest of my life.
I moved on to Zane Grey and fell in love with the romance of the western, but though they were historical, they weren’t romances unless man and horse counts. Almost all of my other romance reading through my teen and college years was probably contemporary. The Russian classics were romances, perhaps, but they were more tragedy than love story. ANNA KARENINA anyone? I never saw a Georgette Heyer. I was pretty much a literary snob by then, with limited reading time.
But then I got married, had kids, moved to the country, and wasn’t working. That’s when I discovered paperback romance—through Kathleen Woodiwiss. So in that perspective, THE FLAME AND THE FLOWER was my first historical romance. I loved it. I’d never read books with sex or alpha males but I adored the history, the settings, the drama, even the characterization. Since I’d been reading overwritten passionate Russian soap operas, I didn’t see anything wrong with the purple prose. Once I’d read Woodiwiss, I knew what to do with all the history I’d been researching just for fun!
I don’t remember which book exactly was my first historical romance but like so many of the Wenches I loved reading books that had a romantic thread in them such as Alison Uttley’s A Traveller in Time and The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff. It was my grandmother who introduced me to grown up historical romance (along with a lot of other useful things I learned from her such as ballroom dancing, how to grow rhubarb and how to play canasta!) She kept her romance novels locked away in a bedroom cupboard though whether this was because of a lack of space or a desire for no one to know she read them I’m not sure! She had Georgette Heyer in her collection, of course, and also Victoria Holt and Jean Plaidy and Barbara Cartland. The books I remember best though were a set of six in a gold box, one each for the wives of Henry VIII.
After that I discovered Mills & Boon Masquerade historicals and got into trouble for selecting one set in the English Civil War, The King's Shadow, as a school prize. My headmistress most definitely did not approve of romance books! But I scoured the library for them and followed Georgette Heyer with Alice Cheywynd Ley, whose books I still have on my shelf today. The Beau and the Bluestocking is an all time favourite.
What about you? When did you discover historical romance? Which were the first books you read? Come and share your memories with us!