Feb 17 2013 11:00am

Keepers of the Dream: Reading the Classics in Historical Romance

Pride and Prejudice by Jane AustenWhen 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.

The Flame and the Flower by Kathleen E. Woodiwiss3. 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?

Libby's London Merchant by Carla Kelly5. 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.

Keeper of the Dream by Penelope Williamson8. 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.

Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase10. 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.

A Kiss at Midnight by Eloisa James12. 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.

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Jordan R
1. jrojrojro
I am ashamed to admit I've only read two books on this list - Pride & Prejudice and Lord of Scoundrels. But reading each multiple times counts as something, right? Love this post - I'll get to my homework straight away!
Kaye Dacus
2. kndacus
Love this list---and, surprisingly, I've read several of the books on it and count them among my favorites.

My only little quibble is the technicality of the term "historical romance" applied to Pride and Prejucide. "Historical romance" means a romance novel set during a time prior to the one in which it's written. So when I, in 2013, write a story set in 1851, that makes it historical romance. But Pride and Prejudice is contemporary romance. It was written during the time in which it's set.

Historical romance, by its very nature, takes on the hindsight that comes from seeing the consequences of what the previous time period brings. Historical romance authors bring the philosophical and political differences of their current time to the eras about which they write because they aren't involved in the events as they happen, but have the microscope of knowing how those events would unfold and affect the narrow society of his/her characters as well as the world at large.

Pride and Prejudice reveals the world of the early 19th century as it was through the eyes of someone who was experiencing it at the moment (=contemporary). Everything written about the early 19th century since that time re-imagines that world as we imagine it to have been. Because we did not experience it for ourselves, no matter how much research we do, it will always be an imaginary/fantasy setting. That, to me, makes all the difference in the world.

Diane Peterson
3. Diane Peterson
Very interesting. I have read most, but certainly not all. Some I have never heard of. Because I greatly respect your opinion I will gladly check out the ones I haven't read. Thanks for a thought-provoking article.
4. Janga
Jrojrojro, as a fellow rereader, I definiely think rereading should earn extra points. Having read only two on the list just means that you have some wonderful reading experiences waiting for you.
5. Janga
Kndacus, thank you. I'm glad you like the list.

You are right about Austen, of course, as I acknowledge in my post. However, I think Pride and Prejudice belongs on the list because its influence on historical romance is so strong. If I were actually teaching such a course, I would begin with it, dutifully explaining that it was not historical romance in a strict sense.
Kaye Dacus
6. kndacus
I know, and I hate coming across like a know-it-all when this button of mine gets pushed. I just can't help it. :-(
7. Janga
Thanks, Diane. Some of the titles (the Carla Kellys, the Penelope Williamson, the Maggie Osborne, perhaps the Eloisa James) are not as well known. I chose them because they represented certain things within historical romance that I thought deserved attention. I'm interested in learning what books other long-time readers in the subgenre would choose.
8. Janga
Kndacus, no worries. You didn't come across that way. Most of us have issues that prompt us to mount our trusty soapboxes.
Diane Peterson
9. Hopes77
Read quite a few but admittedly have never read McNaught, which I think it is high time I do that!

Great list! Loved the historical content and the books chosen
10. Kareni
I enjoyed the article -- thank you. I now have a few titles to add to the six I've already read.
Myretta Robens
11. Myretta
Sign me up for the course, Janga. I haven't read them all either, but enough to know this is a list that encompasses the changes in the genre. I perfectly understand the inclusion of Pride & Prejudice. As you acknowledge, it's a book of its time, but I don't think you can build an historical romance curriculum without it.
Donna Cummings
12. Donna Cummings
Janga, what a great post! Although I've read almost all of these books, I feel like I learned so much from your descriptions of them and their importance to the evolution of historical romance. I would love to audit your course. :)
Diane Peterson
13. pamelia
Great post. I'm surprised I've actually read the majority of these. :)
I've been meaning to read "A Kiss at Midnight" for awhile now and it's only $0.99 for Kindle -- SOLD!
Carmen Pinzon
14. bungluna
Great core list. I've read most of these. It's interesting to consider that some, while not strictly speaking PC, are very indicative of turning points in the history of popular romance novels.

I would be interested to know the rationale of including the Julia Quinn novel as opposed to Devil's Bride by Stephanie Laurens, which came out earlier and started the whole "band of brothers/friends" trend.
Shyral Hyatt
15. shyhyatt
I was also wondering why Julie Quinn and not the series by Stephanie Laurens or Johanna Lindsey. I am not familiar with Julia Quinn’s Bridgertons, I have never had anyone ask me about the series. I have people ask about Stephanie Laurens all the time and to a lesser degree Johanna Lindsey. I work in a used bookstore, part of the job is helping customers figure out which book they need next in a series.
16. Janga
Hopes77, McNaught is not for everyone, but she definitely made a major contribution to the genre. I think the fact that her books continue to show up on reader-voted favorites lists testifies to the continued popularity of some of her novels.
17. Janga
Thanks, Kareni. I hope you enjoy the ones you read.
18. Janga
Myretta, my reading twin, thank you. I can't imagine doing so either. In fact, it's the one novel on the list that I'm certain I would not change even if this were the reading list for a course I would teach multiple times. I also always found Pride and Prejudice great fun to teach, much more so than Persuasion, which is my personal favorite of Austen's novels.
19. Janga
Thanks, for the kind words, Donna. Wouldn't such a course be fun? I can imagine how lively class discussions would be. I still cherish memories of times when students were so engaged in conversations about books that I had to chase them from the classroom to make room for the next class. I think these books would provoke that level of engagement.
20. Janga
Great, Pamelia! I hope you enjoy A Kiss at Midnight. You should check out the Crusie essay too, It's on her website.
Kaye Dacus
21. kndacus
While I thoroughly enjoyed A Kiss at Midnight and thought When Beauty Tamed the Beast was entertaining, James quickly lost me with the subsequent books in the fairy-tale series. In The Duke is Mine, the heroine was not only far too anachronistic (too modern) for the setting, I didn't find her likeable. And when you feel like the hero can do better than the heroine, that's a surefire recipe for DNF for me.

Conversely, the historical innacuracies/anachronisms in Julia Quinn's The Duke and I didn't interfere with my enjoyment of that book (or the next few in the series I've already read) at all.
Diane Peterson
22. JBeck
I've read about half of these. Surprised none of Lisa Kleypas' many fantastic historicals made this list, especially in light of some that did. But, I may have to try one or two of these that I haven't read yet. Thanks for the compilation.
23. Janga
Bungluna, quite a lot of romance fiction violates current PC standards. I wonder what future generations will make of today's most popular titles. :)

Thank you for mentioning Stephanie Laurens. One of the things I hoped other readers would do in response to my post is offer the titles they would have chosen. I doubt that any of our lists would have been exactly the same, and that keeps things interesting.

My choice of Quinn was based on more that The Duke and I as part of a series. Quinn is the gold standard for a certain kind of light-hearted romance. I thought it was important to include such romances in the discussion. Jo Beverley, whose Rogues series began in 1991, and Mary Jo Putney, whose Fallen Angels were introduced a couple of years later, were on my "short list." Had I chosen to focus on the "band of brothers" books, I would have gone with one of those series. I believe Devil's Bride by Laurens came several years later. Also, with all the books on the list, I chose books I knew well and felt I could comment on with some degree of authority. I haven't read the full series by Laurens, and although I have read Devil's Bride, it has been many years .
24. Janga
Shyhyatt, I refer you to my comments addressed to Bungluna about my choice of the first of Julia Quinn's Bridgerton book. It's interesting that your customers never request the Bridgerton books. I wonder about the differences in reader tastes and how they are affected by such details as region, age, etc. The popularity of the Bridgerton books is well documented, although the list I compiled does not purport to be a list of the most popular books. I was interested in Quinn's particular contribution to the genre and in her influence on writers who followed her lead.
25. Janga
Kndacus, I've heard other readers share your concerns about The Duke Is Mine. It was a controversial book. My reaction was different. I've enjoyed all of James's fairy tale books both as an avid romance reader and unabashed Eloisa James fan and as a scholar with an interest in fairy tale revisions and adaptations in romance fiction. But various responses are part of creative reading, and they certainly make life more interesting.
26. Janga
JBeck, if I had been compiling a list of favorite historical romance, Lisa Kleypas books would have been prominently featured. Also, her proven ability to switch to a new subgenre under the same name with which she established herself as a star of historical romance and maintain--and extend--her fanbase and her bestseller status certainly merits attention. But the latter point was beyond the scope of this list. I'm interested in why, aside from loving her books, you would include Kleypas in a "core curriculum" of historical romance. As I said, I think each reader would construct a different list.
Carmen Pinzon
27. bungluna
@Janga - I'd forgotten about the '80s series. Lord, Jude Deveraux deserves a metnion in your curriculum. From "The Black Lyon" (1980) to "Holly" (2003), her families moved from the middle ages to the present! And "A Knight In Shinning Armor" would represent the time travel sub-genre very well.

The more I think about it, the more it becomes clear that 12 books are just not enough!
Kaye Dacus
28. kndacus
I took a Science Fiction as Literature seminar as an undergrad English major. We were assigned ten books and then we each had to choose two not on the syllabus but which fit in with the rules of the genre (which we were taught in the first few classes). I loved that class, and I've always wanted to do the same thing with Romance as Literature.

My only problem in trying to do this now is that I teach English for a Criminal Justice program. I probably wouldn't get many students signing up for a Romance class! But this post has inspired me to come up with a syllabus of my own just in case I ever have the opportunity to pitch it in the future.
29. Janga
Bungluna, perhaps we should make it a two-course sequence. Then we could fit in twenty-four books.
30. Janga
Kndacus, have fun with your syllabus. Perhaps you should propose a course in popular romance for a continuing education program. I bet you'd get lots of eager students in such a course, and continuing ed programs are often looking for proposals.
Carmen Pinzon
31. bungluna
@Kndacus - Maybe you could do a crime in pop lit course and sneak in a couple of romantic suspence ones? Or the ever popular sheriff. Oh the posibilities.
Diane Peterson
32. chavi
Absolutely agree with all of these. Haven't read Carla Kelly or Eloisa James.

I might have also included Deveraux's Knight in Shining Armor (classic time-travel genre) and/or The Black Lyon; Rogers' Sweet Savage Love and/or Anderson's Comanche Moon (Indian/Western); McKinney's Lions & Lace (just a classic) and/or Till Dawn Tames the Night (pirate/exploring genre); Quick's Ravished (historical suspense); Kleypas' Dreaming of You (really made lower-class heroes popular); Gabaldon's Outlander (ultimate mixing of genres); Heath's Always to Remember (awkward/virginal hero and experienced heroine); a Malory book by Lindsey and/or one of her medievals; The Windflower; McBain's Moonstruck Madness; maybe a Balogh, a Garwood, and/or a Spencer (can't decide which books); probably a dozen more I can't recall . . . wow, it's hard to choose. . . .
georgina cowell
33. pudge
Via the 'related post 'feature found this great post. Sorry I am so late to the party but wanted to say,as a late comer to romance I found it very helpful. Thank you, now how about a post on your favourite list of historicals and why limit yourself to just ten!
Jennifer Proffitt
34. JenniferProffitt
Yay! We're so glad you found it. We talk about historical a lot, so we hope a few more pop up for you. What would be your favorite historical?
georgina cowell
35. pudge
I think there is always something special about the first book in a genre if you happen upon a great one youre hooked. My first modern historical, sorry that sounds daft, but you know what I mean ,would be Carolyn Jewels 'Lord Ruin' . Just love that book! Followed closely by Lord of Scoundrels . I've loved Jane Eyre from schooldays but was more into Agatha Christie or JR Ward for my escapist reading.It was in my pursuit of paranormal and finding Carolyn's I stumbled upon her historicals and the rest as they say is history. All those wonderful new authors , I now find myself totally addicted to HEA
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