Thu
May 10 2012 9:04am

Rip Some Bodices! What Do You Miss from Old Skool Romance Novels?

Most of us know what elements we are happy gone from current romance novels that were in the books of earlier decades (rape, verbal abuse, overblown language, perfect heroines), but what we want to know today is:

What elements do you miss from those earlier romance novels? Are there any authors writing today whose work evokes that time?

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18 comments
Brie Clementine
1. Brie.Clem
I think that Harlequin’s Presents books are as close as it gets to old school romance. I miss how dramatic and over the top those books were. Thing is that context is everything, so even though I enjoy old school books, they have to be old school. A 2012 book using a bunch of classic tropes like forced seduction and tiny, violet-eyed heroines, wouldn’t work for me. Even HP’s tones it down a bit.

One thing I miss is that angsty big misunderstanding. Nowadays the big misunderstanding gets resolved quick and easy, whereas before it took forever. I love that scene in Jude Deveraux’s Velvet Promise, when Judith sees Gavin with his ex and thinks he’s cheating and she falls down the stairs and loses the baby. I loved that! (I was sad for the baby, I’m not a monster!) I also love when perfect heroines clean the castle and they are all good to the servants, and the hero realizes that she’s so great even though he was forced to marry her.
Evangeline Holland
2. EvangelineHolland
I miss the meatiness of historical romances of olde--400+ pages of the hero and heroine meeting, lusting, fighting and obtaining their HEA, and with tons of amazing historical texture and adventure. Granted, large word counts don't always equal great plotting, but I like being able to sink my teeth into a story and a romance. Plus, many of the "old skool" romance were heroine-centric despite their seeming perfections. I can't think of any current romance authors who manage to retain these details, but plenty of historical fiction authors like Posie Graeme-Evans, Christine Blevins, Philippa Gregory, Kate Furnivall and Julia Gregson blend passion, historical detail, adventure, strong female protagonists, and meaty plots in a 21st century version of the much-reviled "bodice ripper".

ETA: I think the elements popular in old skool romances are found in paranormal romance and urban fantasy. Maybe high fantasy like Game of Thrones and the Kushiel series as well.
Vol Fan
3. Vol Fan
I miss how epic they were. Many of the best ones relied heavily on the history to tell the romance. They made me fall in love with various historical eras and I would begin searching for relating period pieces. They were so grand in details. So visual. You could truly feel them, taste them, smell them, see them. Sure they had elements that were bad and some of the books themselves were bad, but the good ones were fabulous! Sadly, few books today actually are able to transport me into another time the way the old bodice rippers did. Those that do, seem to encompass a lot on history in with the romance (perfect example-The Bronze Horseman). I would give anything to have more of that in todays books, but it seems as if publishers would rather have a quick, carbon-cutter book nowadays.
Wendy the Super Librarian
4. WendyCrutcher
Historical romances used to have more of a "saga" quality to them. Over time they've evolved into "courtship" novels - but a lot of those stories that came out of the bodice-ripper era tended to follow a romantic couple over YEARS. This gave some heft to the stories, and when a saga is done right - man, there's really not much better IMHO.

Also, I have to admit I miss some of the over-the-top soap opera elements. The sheer amount of tragedy that would befall the heroine. The pure eviiiilllllllllness of the villain. That sort of thing. Yes, it can get exhausting to read about, but again - when done right? Man, I love a good soap opera.
Carmen Pinzon
5. bungluna
I too miss the 'epic'ness of old-skool romances. It was great to go on an adventure with the heroine that encompassed more than a few weeks of a Season in a civilized setting. I liked the adventures and the change of venues and the cast of thousands within a large enough word count.
Kate Rothwell
6. KateRothwell
very occasionally I miss the hapless heroine. Not the TSTL woman but the one who isn't offended when rescued. Okay, okay I think I need to back-pedal: I only miss her occasionally and usually prefer the strong women in today's romances.
Time to slink back to the 21st century.
Anna Bowling
7. AnnaBowling
As with others, I miss the epic quality, the stories that covered years and continents, where part of the conflict could be another spouse, a war, natural disaster, time, distance, etc, etc, etc. I miss the details, the descriptions of other times and places, the clothes, the food, the historical figures and how the history affected the love story. Give me a big, meaty doorstopper of a historical romance, be it Tudor England, the American colonies or Canadian frontier (or Asia, South America, Australia, the high seas; I'm not picky, really I'm not) and let me go live in that along with the hero and heroine. The adventure, the dangers, the over the top convoluted vicissitudes ...that's good stuff where I'm concerned.
Vol Fan
8. LibrarianJessi
I sometimes miss a serious alpha hero (although i don't miss their rape-iness. I recently really enjoyed The Iron Duke because it seemed to me that it pitted a seriously old skool hero against a modern heroine and the tension was AWESOME
Vol Fan
9. Linda Morris
In addition to what others have said, I loved reading settings other than Regency England. I read books set in the Old West, Civil War, on the high seas, France, Germany, China, etc. and all of Jennifer Blake's wonderful New Orleans-set books. As for modern books, Sherry Thomas's "Not Quite a Husband" reminded me of those a little bit with its setting-- a trek back to England from India.
Vol Fan
10. chris booklover
As several posters have mentioned the old bodice rippers had an epic quality that is rarely found today. The novels were on average at least 20 per cent longer, and they often covered years as opposed to weeks in the couple's life.

The variety of settings is something else that I miss. Most of today's historicals are Regencies, and publishers seem reluctant to publish books set in other periods and places (the American West, medieval Europe, Restoration England, Asia, and so on). Even contemporary romances (outside of the paranormal sub-genre) tend to be restricted to a fairly narrow range of settings.

The old bodice rippers also often had more original and less formula-driven plots, probably because authors were allowed to take more chances. Sometimes the results could be disastrous, but on other occasions they could be memorable. I'm rarely surprised at anything I read in recently published romance novels.
Vol Fan
11. Annabel
A lot of good points here I agree with. I agree with KateRothwell that even in historical romance the heroines have become so modern. People are afraid to write vulnerable women or women who need to be rescued and that really saddens me because that's one of my favorite tropes. Oh, knight in shining armor, save me!

I also agree that romances these days all play it so safe. I think it's because all the readers are online now, being vocal and critical of anything controversial. Back in the day, writers just wrote for faceless masses and any angry letters came privately to the publisher. Now perhaps writers have to try a lot harder not to offend. I don't know if that's good or bad.
Jen W
12. dumblydore
It's the COVER ART I miss most (I can't believe no one's mentioned it yet :P). Some of the best artists were working in the age of the bodice ripper: Robert McGinnis, Elaine Duillo, Pino ... Real gestural paintings, not photography + Photoshop. You just need to look at cover art today to see how monotonous most of them are, whereas the old covers were blatantly teeming with hyperbolic passion. Sure, the poses were just about the same, but somehow no cover ever looked like the other. The titles were rendered in garish lettering full of flourishes and swashes, and finished with metallic foil and paper embossing. A bodice ripper was so tactile—it wore its emotion on its sleeve; it was this thick volume of paper and shininess and colour. And I love how the illustrations were composed to run across the front and back cover with visual hints at settings and subplots; it just added another level of grandeur. That's what I miss—the GRANDEUR.

Also, @Chris Booklover covers a point that particularly bothers me. It's all Regency, Regency, Regency these days. Regency is all well and good while we act out our Austen story fantasies, but the world is a big colourful place, with all sorts of terrains, cultures, histories and people, and that's just not being reflected in so-called "historical romance". This whole internalisation that the genre only covers Britain, or maybe the US and France if we're lucky— arguably the hubs of Western power, culture and influence—just smells of Eurocentrism. It's just that much more damning to observe that a lot of old school romances contained more examples of diversity and progressive attitudes than romances now.
Kiersten Hallie Krum
13. Kiersten
I agree with everything called out already. The epic grandeur of a Woodiweiss novel is sorely lacking in today's historical romances. Joanna Bourne, Sherry Thomas and Meredith Duran are bringing some of that back in their novels, but they're still hindered to weeks rather than years within which to tell their story. I fell in love with history at a young age by first falling for historical romances and I regret that newcomers to the genre don't get to experience that journey the same way.

I'm not sorry to have a less-in-need-of-rescued heroine in today's hist roms, but I wouldn't mind a good old locked-in-the-tower trope. How many of us sighed when Charming kissed Snow awake on Once Upon A Time last night? The woman's already proved capable of hunting game, fighting Trolls, and leading dwarves into battle, but it's the moment when the hero rescues her from eternal sleep that makes us all swoon. ;-)
Valerie Bowman
14. ValerieBowman
Chiming in late, but I j'adore the old-school historical romance! The literal ripped bodices, the misunderstandings, the virgin widows, the perfect heroines. The whole 9 (ok, minus rape and verbal abuse). I'm writing new school historical romance but with a nod to ALL of the good old stuff.
Vol Fan
15. Merida
I think the old fashioned boddice rippers will always be dear to our hearts because that's where most of us started. My first was a classic good hearted pirate and blonde waif who tames his wild side. I think its that little thrill we get from reading 'naughty' books and the bad boy aspect I love. Plus, they're so overly dramatic and filled with flowery stuff you can't help but like them.
Vol Fan
16. willaful
I'm not big on sagas and epics, but I do miss the intensity of older books. Historicals I'm reading lately seem bloated and blah. I also believe there was far more variety in category romance than there is now.
Vol Fan
17. gul
Yeah bodice rippers have a special place in my heart :)... i love them and thats how i entered into the world of romance and love.. first book that i read was shirlee busbee's whisper to me of love... none of the present day novels compare to them no way ;).. wish i could go back to the time of alpha heroes, pirates adventures ,villains(so evil) and amazing rescues by the heros :)
Vol Fan
18. Bibiana
You know what I miss? The old Harlequin Romance and Harlequin Presents novels! I get as many of them as I can in bookstores or thrift shops. I loved the descriptions of exotic locales, the sweet young heroines,and the wealthy, handsome older heroes. I really don't care for sexually explicit novels, and I have no desire to read anything politically correct. When I read a good book I want fantasy and escape- not reality. I can get that on the news.
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