Jun 26 2012 3:00pm

Bring the Pain: Angsty Historicals from Ranney, Judith James, Spencer, and More!

Tapestry by Karen RanneyAngsty romances aren’t for everyone, but stories where the hero and heroine really have to earn their happily ever after are among my favorites. There’s a certain catharsis in following a pair of star-crossed lovers to hell and back. The romance genre guarantees that no matter what obstacles may stand in the way, our hero and heroine will triumph over war, treachery, disapproving family members, class differences or any other slings and arrows life or the author hurls their way.

The way I see it, the lower the valleys, the higher the mountaintops, and every midnight has a dawn. While a romance novel does have the promise that all will be well in the end, the harder it is to figure out exactly how that’s going to happen can keep a reader turning pages long into the night. As long as we have the happily ever after at the end, it can be well worth chewed fingernails and damp handkerchiefs.

Need proof? Try one of my favorite several-hanky reads:

Karen Ranney, Tapestry

The Angst: Ah, the classic teenage pining for a handsome older neighbor…who goes off to war. Then comes back, so severely disfigured and engulfed in despair that he wears a mask when he must be seen by others. Laura’s love for Alex still burns bright, and enters his household as a servant so that she might bring him back from the brink of death—at his own hand. Because of the loss of one eye, as well as all the time that’s passed, Alex doesn’t recognize Laura. Though strongly attracted to her, he is convinced he is a monster, unworthy of love. Laura, needless to say, disagrees.

The Passions of Emma by Penelope WilliamsonPenelope Williamson, The Passions of Emma

The Angst: Not only do we have a class difference between the artistic Emma, the daughter of a wealthy mill owner in 1890s Rhode Island and Irish immigrant Shay, but the third part of this love story, Shay’s wife, Bria, who becomes Emma’s dearest friend. Shay and Emma both love Bria, whose fate is all too realistic for a woman of her class in that time, and the pain they both share in her loss is palpable. Emma’s family commits her to an asylum due to her unsuitable passions, and Shay struggles with the burdens of responsibility to his children and his homeland, but a love that can take such slings and arrows will not be denied its triumph.

Broken Wing by Judith JamesJudith James, Broken Wing

The Angst: The key word here is “broken.” When we first meet Gabriel, he is a prostitute who knows everything about sex and nothing about love, and therein lays his journey. Gabriel isn’t merely broken, but shattered. He expects abuse, but refuses to allow his own fate to befall another boy, Jamie an English boy far from home. When Jamie’s sister, Sarah, comes to reclaim him, she sees the potential for good in Gabriel. The achingly tentative friendship that smolders into a deep and lasting love travels a long and rocky road, their separation a stab to the gut that makes their reunion all the more glorious.

Addicted by Charlotte FeatherstoneCharlotte Featherstone, Addicted

The Angst: Lindsay and Anais have been close friends from childhood, but Lindsay has another love, opium. Though Lindsay and Anais confess—and consummate—their love, opium is a jealous mistress, clouding Lindsay’s judgment so that he believes another woman is Anais. The real Anais catches the pair in an intimate moment and, heartbroken, turns to another man. Lindsay allows the opium to overtake him, because when he is in its fog, he can imagine Anais has come back to him. Soon enough, he finds that the drug is no substitute for real love, and he returns, determined to prove himself worthy, but of course it’s not that easy. There’s a fire, a secret baby, Anais’ truly horrible mother, and the sweet, painful yearning that plays off the Victorian setting to absolute perfection.

November of the Heart by LaVyrle SpencerLaVyrle Spencer, November of the Heart

The Angst: In late nineteenth century Minnesota, kitchen servant Jens comes from a long line of boat builders and knows he can design the perfect craft for the regatta wealthy Lorna’s father has vowed to win by any means necessary. Lorna finds herself impossibly drawn to Jens’ bold vision, and the two, who should never have conversed, become lovers. This does not go over well with Lorna’s family when they find out, and the lovers are wrenched apart. This is a romance novel, however, and Lorna finds within herself the boldness she needs to stand up and fight for Jens and their family.

Untouched by Anna CampbellHonorable mentions:

Anna Campbell, Untouched: Gaslighted Regency hero held captive on an isolated estate, and the only book where I ever had to email the author to make sure the dog was okay. He was.

Meredith Duran, Duke of Shadows: Hero and heroine become separated during India’s Sepoy rebellion, then stumble upon each other years later in a glittering ballroom. Plus heroine paints gory pictures to deal with her post-traumatic stress disorder.

What makes a great angsty historical for you?


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.

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Donna Alward
1. Donna Alward
Oh, the reference to LaVyrle brought me here! She wrote the most beautiful, gut-wrenching stories. I read November of the Heart when I was in university. I stayed up until 2 a.m. and then the next day did the very rare thing of skipping class to sit in the cafeteria to finish it. With a coffee and box of tissues.

Love the Angst!
Glass Slipper
2. GlassSlipper
Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers really made me bawl. The whole story is an allegory about God's enduring love for us, even when we hate ourselves and do some terrible things. He still loves us despite all that.

Angel kept making mistakes and running away from Michael, because she didn't believe that he could love her, so when, in the end, she fully realizes it and comes running to him, and he's still there waiting for her, I cried and cried. What an emotional, angsty read that book was! I don't think I'll be reading it again for a while. It tore me up.
Donna Alward
3. Blythe Gifford
Angsty historicals, love 'em. (Are there any other kind?) We cannot forget to mention Laura Kinsale, Shadowheart and Flowers from the Storm leap to mind. Megan Chance, when she was still writing romance, was a master of angst. A Candle in the Dark and The Portrait are only two. Thanks for the new suggestions. Off to the bookstore. Just as soon as I finish torturing my hero and heroine just a little more...
Nicole Neal
4. icecharm
Laura Kinsale, how I love thee. For My Lady's Heart, Shadowheart, The Shadow and The Star, Flowers From the Storm, all excellent angsty romance historicals. She's very good at those.
5. Rose In RoseBear
Years and years and years ago, I read an amazingly angsty Western --- F. Roseanne Bittner, maybe? --- where the hero, a lawman, meets the heroine, a wide-eyed innocent, on a train headed West. The train is robbed, the heroine kidnapped, and the hero severely wounded. She winds up in a brothel in Mexico; he winds up losing his dominant arm. He teaches himself to shoot agin, tracks her down, rescues her, and marries her --- and then she's kidnapped again. Does this sound familiar to anyone? Does anyone know the title?

Dorothy Garlock's heroines usually have an angsty sidekick. In particular, I recall a deaf girl, a girl missing a hand, and a blind girl. All of them find love after enduring much.
Anna Bowling
6. AnnaBowling
@ Donna Alward, I cannot blame anyone for skipping class to finish a LaVyrle Spencer book. She did some of the most beautiful angst ever, and then always made it all right in the end. Years was also an amazing ten hanky read; I get sniffly thinking of Linnea on the swing. Can't forget to mention Twice Loved, either. Did you know that was partially inspired by Barry Manilow's "The Old Songs?"

@GlassSlipper, Redeeming Love is one of my very favorites as well. Francine Rivers had me in tears from the very start, with Angel's mother and the garden, and then that ending, when Angel finds Michael waiting for her after everything that happened, and all that time. It is a book that needs some time between rereads, because the emotions are that real and that immediate.

@Blythe Gifford, I agree, the angsty historical are the best. Huge thumbs up on Laura Kinsale. I'm tearing up right now, thinking of the pain and the love all tied up in that one. Any author who can hit the mark that well on physical, emotional and spiritual levels gets high marks from me. Present company included. The Portrait by Megan Chance is another not to be missed title for the art and the angst. Can't wait to see what fires your current hero and heroine march through on the way to their mountaintop.

@icecharm, Laura Kinsale is a grand mistress of angsty romance, for sure. Seconding all the titles you mentioned. I haven't read Lessons in French yet, as I've heard that's a "lighter" outing for Kinsale. How would you rate the angst in that one?

@RoseinRoseBear, I don't recall that western offhand, but now I am going to have to track it down. Sounds like something I'd love to read. Dorothy Garlock is wonderful as well, and anybody who can use the Great Depression as a viable setting for romance deserves an award.
Donna Alward
7. Linda Hart
I loved, loved, loved 'Broken Wing'! I must give 'Addicted' another try. Every other book mentioned here deserves a re-read. Thanks, Anna! You have added to my 'to be read' list greatly.
Anna Bowling
8. AnnaBowling
@Linda Hart, definitely do give Addicted another try, and then Sinful after that. I promise, promise, promise it ends happily. Broken Wing is one of my all time favorites as well. Time for a reread, methinks.
Donna Alward
9. Aspmom
I love almost all the books on this list and wanted to know if you have read Blue Williow. It is full of angst and amazing.
Anna Bowling
10. AnnaBowling
@Aspmom, looks like you have great taste in books. I have not read Blue Willow yet, but will definitely have a look.
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