It is a truth pretty much universally acknowledged that the modern romance genre as we know it came into its own with the publication of The Flame and the Flower by Kathleen Woodiwiss in 1972. The market erupted for historical romance with fairly graphic sex scenes, giving rise to all the offshoots we cherish today—paranormal, graphic Regencies, erotica and so on.
But what did romance readers read before The Flame and the Flower to satisfy their yearning for great stories leading to a Happily Ever After?
We can, of course, reference Barbara Cartland, Georgette Heyer and the classic Mills and Boon stories, but a lot of readers wanted something more. Here’s a highly subjective, dredged from decades old memories account of what we read before Old Skool Romance.
In the middle of the 20th century there were writers whose stories gave satisfaction both in terms of craft and in delivering the idea of a HEA. Some of these authors who were bestsellers in their day are seldom read now, others continue to be enjoyed.
Even though his novels didn’t always bring a HEA to the main protagonists, Frank Yerby’s historical fiction was extremely popular with fans looking for romance reading. The Foxes of Harrow was made into a Hollywood movie in 1947 and that, along with his sales, pushed him into the history books. Frank Yerby was the first African-American to have a book purchased for a major film, and the first African-American to become a millionaire because of his writing.
Taylor Caldwell was another mid-20th Century author who enjoyed widespread popularity. While Caldwell lost readers because of her right-wing, anti-feminist politics, many a teenage girl thrilled to the descriptive-for-their-day bedroom scenes in 1968’s Testimony of Two Men. That bestseller about a post-Civil War surgeon accused of murdering his wife became a popular television miniseries. It’s still available on DVD, and might make for a great popcorn-and-wine night.
In science fiction circles, Anne McCaffrey was creating buzz with her novel Restoree in 1967. To quote from Wikipedia: “Unlike most science-fiction books of the era, Restoree’s heroine is a strong-willed, intelligent woman who is willing and able to think for herself and act on her own initiative. McCaffrey was widely quoted as saying that Restoree was intended as a ‘jab’ at how women were usually portrayed in science fiction.”
McCaffrey published Dragonflight, a novel born out of her novella Weyr Search, and the rest is science fiction history. She created a universe filled with people (and dragons) whose relationships and emotions opened a door in science fiction and fantasy writing that many others have walked through since, but she gets deserved credit for being one of the first to not be scared of girl cooties and falling in love.
Gothics were popular among romance readers, with their iconic “Woman in a nightgown fleeing across the moors while a dark ruin lit by a single candle looms in the background” covers. This year, Susan Elizabeth Phillips gave a nod to the genre with Heroes are My Weakness. Gothics often featured a trope straight out of Jane Eyre: Governesses in isolated settings dealing with dark and brooding employers who might be murderers, but clearly had Big Secrets in their past. By the end of the story the mystery was solved, the governess was saved from doom, the hero discovered he couldn’t live without her and all was happy ever after. Two of the leading authors in this genre were Victoria Holt and Mary Stewart. My personal favorites were Madeleine Brent (aka Peter O’Donnell) and Jane Aiken Hodge. Brent published Tregaron’s Daughter in 1971, a novel that still garners five star ratings and has many loyal fans, and Jane Aiken Hodge published Watch the Wall My Darling in 1966. I read that book so many times, my paperback copy fell apart. Smugglers! Spies! Highwaymen! An intrepid heroine! It was the kind of quality writing one hopes for in the best of historical romance, and a story that satisfies time after time.
Now we come to authors who did bring the heavy-duty lovemaking scenes along with a dose of history. The two with the biggest impact on readers during this period were Sergeanne Golon’s Angelique novels, and Juliette Belzoni’s Catherine novels. Translated from the French, Angelique (1956) was the tale of a young, beautiful, spirited, intelligent Frenchwoman whose clothes kept getting ripped off as she enjoyed adventures, multiple partners, and a rise through society. These books were devoured when they were translated into English and brought across the pond.
Another French import in the same vein was the Catherine novels by Juliette Benzoni in the mid-1960s. Ah, violet-eyed, golden-haired Catherine, whose beauty, a gypsy foretold, would make men “die for love!” Her passionate, tempestuous nature brought her to the notice of kings, counselors, sultans and nobleman Arnaud de Montsalvy, who rejected her even as he lusted after her.
The Catherine novels had history, exotic locales, Joan of Arc, the Hundred Years War, lush descriptions of fabrics and feasts, and they had sex, sex, sex! If not as graphic as what followed, they certainly offered more than other romance novels of the era. These books helped prepare readers for accepting the historical romances that shot to prominence in the '70s, when the genre truly emerged into its own.
And in a final trip down memory lane, a tip of the hat has to go to Katherine in 1953. Anya Seton was another author of gothic romance with a huge following, and Katherine was a fictionalized account of a true love story that changed history. Englishwoman Katherine Swynford was the mistress of John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster in the 14th century, a period of the Black Death, Chaucer, scheming among the Plantagenets and wonderful, memorable characters. Ask any romance reader of a certain age and she’s likely to say that Katherine was one of those epic love stories that lingered long after the covers were closed.
Just going back and checking the publication dates on many of these classics has given me the itch to read them all over again. What a treasure trove they were for readers yearning for solid stories about relationships, with a promise of a happy ending for the couple at the center of the story.
As I said at the beginning, this is a subjective piece culled from my own fond memories. What other authors or books, pre-1972, would you want to see on a list of Old, Old Skool romances?
To learn more about the books mentioned in this post:
|Restoree by Anne McCaffrey|
|Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey|
|Tregaron’s Daughter by Madeleine Brent|
|Watch the Wall My Darling by Jane Aiken Hodge|
|Angelique and the Sultan by Sergeanne Golon|
|Katherine by Anya Seton|
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