When offered the chance to propose a “core curriculum” for historical romance, I eagerly accepted, knowing full well the problems I would have narrowing the list to a reasonable length. After long consideration, I have a list (in chronological order)—not of my favorites (although some are books I cherish) but rather twelve books (thanks to a gracious editor who allowed me to include two beyond the desired maximum) that seem to me to be “foundational;” that is, they either illustrate a convention or trope fundamental to historical romance (representative book) or mark a significant change in the subgenre (unique contribution), and they all provide rich material for discussion on key issues.
1. Pride and Prejudice (1813), Jane Austen
Technically, of course, Jane Austen did not write historical romance, but many of the elements familiar to readers of historical romance in the 21st century can be traced to this book. Pamela Regis asserted in A Natural History of the Romance Novel (2003) that “the courtship makes the romance,” and Pride and Prejudice is a courtship book, a courtship that involves a heroine with intelligence and humor who is no beauty but has “fine eyes"; an arrogant, wealthy hero humbled by love; relatives, embarrassing and interfering; a wicked deceiver; a pompous suitor; sisters, dear and not so dear; a best friend; a bungled proposal; appropriate groveling; and a happily ever after ending that includes true love and an enviable income. I’ve only scratched the surface of what romance fiction owes to this book.
2.These Old Shades (1926), Georgette Heyer
Heyer was heavily influenced by Austen, but Heyer was writing historical romance. In fact, she is often called the mother of the historical romance. Almost any of her Georgian or Regency romances could serve to show how pervasive is her influence, but These Old Shades is the book generally credited with launching her career. Justin Alastair, the Duke of Avon, is the prototype of countless heroes whose exploits fill the pages of popular romance novels of the 20th and 21st centuries. Avon is arrogant, seemingly omnipotent and omniscient and more gratified than dismayed to be called Satanas. He is redeemable because the heroine awakens in him the capacity to love deeply. She is, as Heyer has a character say directly, his “salvation.” Heyer uses other elements in These Old Shades that those who followed her would make common in historical romance—a cross-dressing heroine, a best friend who sees good in the harsh hero, a ditzy secondary character—but none is more important than the cynical rake who became a pattern to which other authors would faithfully cut, and sometimes modify, their heroes.
3. The Flame and the Flower (1972), Kathleen Woodiwiss
With the release of The Flame and the Flower, the age of the modern romance began. This paperback original sold more than 2.3 million copies in its first four years. It began the age of the bodice rippers, a term that should be more accurately applied to the dozens of Woodiwiss imitators who made “forcible seduction” standard, but more importantly, the popularity of Woodiwiss’s debut novel showed that women were eager to read about heroines whose sexuality was an explicit part of their characterization. It also proved that a book with two strikes (genre and format) against it in the eyes of critics could reach the bestseller lists. Woodiwiss went on to write another dozen novels before her death in 2007, some of them wildly popular, but The Flame and the Flower stands apart as the romance that started a revolution.
4. Whitney, My Love (1985), Judith McNaught
More than a decade after Woodiwiss started a revolution, Judith McNaught wrote what has been called the first Regency historical. Traditional Regencies were popular, but they were, by and large, short, sweet, and subtly sensual. Whitney, My Love was long, intense, and consciously sexy. Reviewers praised the skillful writing, and readers declared it a “classic.” As McNaught herself has pointed out, at the time the first readers were avidly reading about the relationship of Whitney Stone and Clayton Westmoreland, Duke of Claymore, bodice rippers still ruled sales and while the riding crop scene and the rape scene may have raised a few eyebrows, the scenes were not out of the ordinary for the period. But as violence against women became an issue of greater concern within the culture and the enthusiastic analysis and discussion of romance novels in online communities grew, these scenes and the “Big Misunderstanding” made the novel one of the great controversies of the genre. When Whitney, My Love was reissued in 1999, for the first time in hardcover, McNaught “toned down” (her words) the scenes. The introduction of a new subgenre and a controversy that still flares up now and again—how could I not include this one?
5. Libby’s London Merchant (1991), Carla Kelly
6. One Good Turn (2001), Carla Kelly
Readers who know traditional Regencies only by reputation sometimes have the idea that these books were all formulaic comedies of manners. I can think of a dozen or more authors of books in this subgenre who prove this assumption false, but I can’t think of anyone who proves it false as perfectly as does Carla Kelly. This pair of related books, published ten years apart, demonstrates a number of things traditional Regency authors did, sometimes working within conventions and sometimes subverting the very conventions they helped to establish. In Libby’s London Merchant, Kelly gives us a duke, but a drunken, disreputable duke who soon becomes a duke in disguise. Kelly turns from the predictable path by having the duke lose both his heart and the hand of the fair lady. The true hero is even more of a twist. There is much humor in the book, but there are also serious ideas and many surprises. In One Good Turn, the same duke begins as a drunk with a broken heart, but a meeting with a stranger and her small son leads to the transformation that his experience in Libby’s London Merchant started. The stranger’s courage and resilience in the face of brutality and wrenching loss change the hero in ways that allow him to become noble in character as well as in linage. And Kelly accomplishes all this in books that contain 224 pages.
7. Flowers from the Storm (1992), Laura Kinsale
If Kelly’s books take surprising turns, Kinsale makes astounding choices in a book that I have heard described in superlatives more often than any other romance I know. Susan Elizabeth Phillips termed it “probably the best historical romance ever published.” With a stroke patient as hero and a Quaker heroine whose faith is more than a description, it’s also among the most unusual romances. It takes emotional intensity to a level close to unique. Kinsale’s lush style is admired by many devoted to a degree that evokes the origin of the word “fan.” She is also often mentioned as an influence by younger romance authors such as Sherry Thomas and Meredith Duran.
8. Keeper of the Dream (1992), Penelope Williamson
Not all historical romances are set in Regency England. Medieval romances have declined in popularity since the 1980s, but they still have a solid fan base among romance readers. Set between 938 and 1485, these books offer readers tales of knights and quests and fair ladies, the latter usually strong and independent enough to appeal to modern taste without ignoring the constraints under which women in the period lived—a delicate dance that. Keeper of the Dream, set in 12th century Wales, works well to establish comparisons between popular medieval romance and literary medieval romance. It also offers invading warriors, political intrigue, a bastard son, a tournament, a fierce heroine, and a surprising degree of realism along with an almost painful emotional intensity mixed with flashes of humor. It has the added benefit of supernatural elements in the form of a heroine who is a seer and a secondary character, a visionary bard.
9. The Wives of Bowie Stone (1994), Maggie Osborne
Few readers think of American romances first when they list favorite historical romances, but Westerns and frontier romances have a significant place in the history of historical romance. The Wives of Bowie Stone serves as a representative of these romances. With its dirty, hard-drinking heroine and bigamist hero, this novel turns the marriage of convenience trope on its head in several ways; it also offers a second storyline with an Eastern mail-order bride. Osborne is a splendid example of an author working within genre conventions to create characters and stories that are decidedly unconventional.
10. Lord of Scoundrels (1995), Loretta Chase
This book may be the most popular historical romance ever. It’s almost a given that it will show up among the top ten on any group list of favorite romances. Discussions of great scenes in romance always seem to include one or more from Lord of Scoundrels. (The scene in the rain would likely win by popular acclaim, but I’d cast my vote for Dain in the bathtub). The hero is not a handsome charmer. The heroine is not a wide-eyed innocent. The novel is a textbook in how to create delightful dialogue, sigh-worthy love scenes, and intelligent, heart-stealing characters. Frankly, I can’t imagine a survey of the best of historical romance that omits this one.
11. The Duke and I (2000), Julia Quinn
Connected books have been popular in romance fiction since I started reading it decades ago, but never more so than now. Any given month, at least half of the new releases in historical romance belong to a series. Few can match the popularity of Julia Quinn’s Bridgertons, and The Duke and I is the book that started the series. It illustrates how a good writer introduces a series with a large cast of characters and still keeps the focus on the H/H. Quinn also set the standard for light romances with sparkling dialogue and character-based humor, but she manages to weave some serious stuff into those light books—death of a spouse, clinical depression, PTSD. The Duke and I displays her deft touch with humor, but with a hero who was a childhood stutterer with an emotionally abusive father, it also shows that lightness and froth are not synonyms in romance fiction.
12. A Kiss at Midnight (2010), Eloisa James
For many romance readers and writers, their love of romance fiction began with fairy tales. It’s not surprising then that so many romance novels use elements of fairy tales. I know Beauty and the Beast topped the Heroes and Heartbreakers fairy tale poll recently, but if we determine popularity by the number of versions of the tale in existence, scholars tell us that Cinderella is the winner. A Kiss at Midnight uses most of the elements of the classic tale—heroine with a good and loving heart, dead mother, absent father, heroine as a target of stepmother’s venom, and, of course, The Shoe. But this heroine is no passive miss waiting for her prince. She is active, even embattled at times. James also gives the wicked stepsisters a twist in the name of true sisterhood. The heroine, with the help of her godmother and her mother’s legacy, saves herself. The prince, who is much more interesting than Cinderella’s, adds to her life, but she doesn’t need him for validation. This is a fairy tale with a decided feminist twist. If I were actually teaching this book, I’d pair it with Jennifer Crusie’s essay, “This Is Not Your Mother’s Cinderella: The Romance Novel as Feminist Fairy Tale.”
I taught one world literature course more than thirty times, but the required book list was never the same. And my required book list was always different from those my colleagues teaching the same course developed. I’m sure that the historical romances on this list would be different had they been chosen by another reader, or even if I had compiled the list next week or next year.
Janga spent decades teaching literature and writing to groups ranging from twelve-year-olds to college students. She is currently a freelance writer, who sometimes writes about romance fiction, and an aspiring writer of contemporary romance, who sometimes thinks of writing an American historical romance. She can be found at her blog Just Janga and tweeting obscure bits about writers as @Janga724.