Believe it or not, the 1920s are nearly a century in our past. With Baz Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby splashed across the big screen, and Downton Abbey getting ready for Season 4, is this the time for historical romance to add a new setting to its repertoire?
There’s certainly enough historical material to fuel a whole library. The First World War is over, the second still yet to come, and things get a little...crazy. Women get the vote, Prohibition in the U.S. gives birth to an underground industry of speakeasies and bootleggers, while the new music called jazz sings a siren tune nobody has heard before. Men and women from all levels of society find that courtship is a whole new game due to the changing social mores and the availability of the automobile.
Currently situated at the edge of living memory, the 1920s can serve as a bridge of sorts between historical and contemporary romance. The '20s are far enough removed from the present to have that historical cache, yet still have enough of a modern edge that contemporary readers don’t feel entirely out of their element. Cars, telephones, recognizable music and fashion influences that continue on today—it all makes sense.
YA writers get it. Anna Godbersen’s Bright Young Things brings the classic Midwestern ingénue into the seamy world of Jazz Age New York, where dazzling sights may conceal danger beneath the surface. The Flapper series by Jillian Larkin, beginning with Vixen, cautions that jazz, booze and boys are a dangerous combination, and that’s as true today as it was back then. The sparkling air of anything-is-possible, the heady lure of wild parties, and a life away from the watchful parental eyes speaks to teens then and now, making this era a natural for readers curious about dipping a toe in historical waters.
More adult readers may want to have a look at Jamie Brenner’s The Gin Lovers. Changing sexual standards give heroine Charlotte choices and temptations her Victorian mother never dreamed possible, and that, too, is part of the appeal of this era. The contrast between the outward buttoned-up Victorian age and the freewheeling Jazz Age couldn’t be sharper. Where one age covered even piano legs, and the other uncovers female limbs in broad daylight, well, that’s a big change, and the repercussions are vast.
The 1990s brought a few romances that bridged modern times and the '20s. Romance mainstay Jude Deveraux’s Sweet Liar involves a contemporary couple in a '20s-era mystery revolving around the disappearance of the heroine’s infamous grandmother, and Judith O’Brien’s Rhapsody in Time whisks heroine Liz back to 1920s New York, where she finds love with a dashing composer. Rita Clay Estrada’s Interlude in Time sent modern heroine Parris into the arms of a historical hero, forcing her to fight flirtatious flappers and menacing mobsters to hold onto her love. Fayrene Preston’s Swansea Destiny provided a prequel to her contemporary Swansea series, whisking readers through the high points of the tumultuous age.
Harlequin Historicals gets it, too. Their Undone line has brought us A Dance With Indecency, by Linda Skye, and Amanda McCabe’s The Girl in the Beaded Mask. There’s room for more. Beyond the glitter of the speakeasies and flapper fashion, the 20s meant big changes for those on every level of society. A 20s era western? Why not? Having a new era in the historical romance repertoire can only mean exciting new horizons ahead.
Anna C. Bowling considers writing historical romance the best way to travel through time and make the voices in her head pay rent. She welcomes visitors to her blog, Typing with Wet Nails and to follow her at Twitter.