Ah, the '80s! A decade of big hair, Miami Vice, MTV, Duran Duran, shoulders padded out to there, and an explosion of over-the-top, lush, blooming romances that came to be known as bodice rippers.
That pejorative term for a genre we love lives on well into the 21st century, but it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on the novels that defined that decade of romance. After all, the '80s also ushered in some serious study of the genre, including Carol Thurston’s The Romance Revolution: Erotic Novels for Women and the Quest for a New Sexual Identity (1987).
It began, as we all know, with the publication of The Flame and the Flower by Kathleen E. Woodiwiss in 1972. While the '70s saw some of the biggest authors come into their own, Woodiwiss and Rosemary Rogers being two notable examples, it was the '80s when iconic authors we still enjoy today made their mark in publishing. It was also an era of books featuring words like “savage, devil, splendor, surrender” in the titles, and covers designed to get truck drivers to give them prominent placement on drugstore spinner racks. It was all about the racks, in case you’ve ever wondered why books marketed to women had so many bosomy cover models falling out of their bodices. So here is a list of ten of the top romances of that era:
1. The Windflower by Laura London (a.k.a. Tom and Sharon Curtis), Historical (1984)
For some readers, this mid-decade novel is the historical romance to end all historical romances. Now that it’s back in print, a new generation is discovering what we all loved about the book. It wasn’t just that Merry and Devon’s story was so well done, the writing flowing so lyrically, but secondary characters like Cat and Rand Morgan continued to haunt us long after we’d closed the covers.
2. Honor’s Splendour by Julie Garwood, Medieval (1985)
“I’ve come for you, Madelyne.” When Baron Duncan of Wexton—the Wolf—says this to Lady Madelyne, it’s a swoonworthy moment of the finest kind. Duncan came seeking vengeance, but ended up in love with a woman who’s his captive, then later his heart’s desire. This wasn’t Garwood’s first historical of the '80s, but it remains one of her most popular ones.
3. Hummingbird by LaVyrle Spencer, Western (1983)
Two men are wounded in the same train robbery and left on spinster Abigail McKenzie’s doorstep to be nursed back to health. One’s a gentleman, one’s possibly a robber, both disrupt Abigail’s ordered, calm, dull life. While gentle David offers Abby the marriage and home she’s always longed for, it’s rude, handsome Jesse who disturbs her dreams. By turns funny, poignant, sensual and moving, this Western romance is well worth tracking down and adding to your own keeper shelf.
4. The Duke’s Wager by Edith Layton, Regency (1983)
Signet was publishing a lot of Regency romances during this decade, and this is another book worth tracking down for its prose, and characters that take your breath away. One of the lovely things about this novel is the reader isn’t certain who the hero is, because both of the leading men are scoundrels. Sinjin, the Marquis of Bessacar and Jason, Duke of Torquay have wagered over who’ll woo fair, friendless, Regina to his bed. Neither deserves her, both are quite eager to use her, and the story is almost painful to read, but will keep you turning pages late into the night.
5. Exit to Eden by Anne Rampling (a.k.a. Anne Rice), Erotica (1985)
You young people and your 50 shades of everything on your ereaders! Back in the day, we had to walk two miles through the snow, uphill both ways, to bookstores to buy our erotica! Before Christian and his toys became a household word, we had this charming romance about a Dom and her Sub, penned by the bestselling author of Interview with the Vampire. Lisa and Elliott are at The Club, an exclusive Caribbean resort where the rich come to act out their forbidden fantasies, and the beautiful come to serve. Lisa takes Elliott to his limits, but both learn falling in love doesn’t come with safewords. There’s an absolute monstrosity of a film loosely based on the novel. Avoid it at all costs.
It’s also worth mentioning the Sleeping Beauty trilogy by “A.N. Roquelaure”, another Rice pseudonym. It’s beautifully lush erotica that helped break the barriers between romance, erotic lit and literary fiction in the early '80s.
6. Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold, Science Fiction (1986)
When you see lists of the top ten SF Romances, you’re almost certain to see this one in the top five. Bujold has won the science fiction world’s major awards more than once. While she’s best known for her Miles Vorkosigan books, that story arc takes numerous novels to get to the diminutive hero’s HEA. Shards of Honor is the story of his parents, Lord Aral Vorkosigan and Cordelia Naismith, and how they met across an interstellar battlefield and managed to scratch out their own love story. It’s got moments of darkness and humor, but what I like best about Shards is how it’s about adults, people who understand that their problems don’t amount to a hill of beans in a crazy universe, and you have to do what’s right, not always what’s best for you.
7. MacKenzie’s Mountain by Linda Howard, Contemporary (1989)
“He needed a woman. Bad.” It’s one of the most famous opening lines in romance, coming to us from ex-con and single father Wolf Mackenzie. Wolf doesn’t trust anyone, but he’s unprepared for prim and frumpy school teacher Mary Potter. So begins the saga of the Mackenzies, one of Linda Howard’s best known series. Like Anne Stuart, Howard specialized in dangerous heroes, ones the heroine couldn’t be sure she could trust, and the heroes had to work hard to show they were worthy of her.
8. A Knight in Shining Armor by Jude Deveraux, Paranormal/Time Travel (1989)
The Black Lyon was published in 1980, kicking off Deveraux’s prolific paperback romances about the Montgomery and Taggert families. Nearly 10 years later she published her first hardcover, A Knight In Shining Armor. It was a risky step, moving into the time travel/paranormal subgenre, but readers responded enthusiastically to Elizabethan-era hero Nicholas Stafford and weepy 20th American gal Dougless Montgomery. Their back-and-forth in time love affair captivated readers, so much so that Deveraux revised the book for later publication. But the original still has its fans and continues to be enjoyed.
9. Fancy Pants by Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Contemporary (1989)
A romance novel about a golfer? Conventional wisdom stated books about sports heroes or rock musicians didn’t sell, but Phillips ignored all that and introduced us to Dallie Beaudine and Francesca Day. She’s a spoiled rich girl, he’s a professional golfer whose personal demons keep him from reaching the top, and together…they’re a disaster. But when they finally connect, the sparks fly and the passion is real, funny, and memorable. Phillips went on to write about other golf and football protagonists, proving that some rules were just made to be broken, provided someone truly talented is breaking them.
10. Corporate Affair by Stephanie James (a.k.a. Jayne Anne Krentz), Contemporary (1982)
Krentz was one of the top category romance writers of the '80s, under a variety of pseudonyms for various publishers and lines. Her slim novels are notable for the strong female protagonists, many of whom were business owners or corporate executives. The heroes were generally Alpha types who weren’t intimidated by business women. We take this kind of story line for granted now, but in the 80s this was a new and refreshing direction for romance—women could have their HEA, and it could include the corporate corner office.
There are plenty of other authors whose careers soared during this period, particularly in the area of categories. This includes one author whose first book came out in 1981. Irish Thoroughbred was published by Silhouette, and carried the name of newbie author Nora Roberts. The rest, as they say, is history.
Limiting this list to ten books meant a lot of favorites didn’t make the cut. Which books would you insist should be included in the best of the 80s discussion?
Darlene Marshall writes historical romance about pirates, privateers, smugglers and the occasional possum. The Pirate’s Secret Baby is available now in print and all ebook formats, and she’s hard at work on her next novel. You can contact her and read excerpts and reviews at http://www.darlenemarshall.com