Jun 26 2013 2:00pm

Love Isn’t Prohibited: 1920s Historical Romance

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.

Subscribe to this conversation (must be logged in):
1. HJ
I recently read two great books set in the 1920s - The Ashford Affair by Lauren Willig, and A Spear of Summer Grass by Deanna Raybourn. They were both set partly in Kenya and London. I have also been enjoying the Masie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear, which are excellent (set mainly in London).

There's a group on Goodreads called Early 20th Century Historical Romance, and its bookself has 24 books on it from the 1920s.
Jamie Brenner
2. jamieloganbrenner
Thanks for this post, Anna! When my agent was going out to editors with The Gin Lovers, the conventional wisdom was that the 1920s was not a hot era for books. I hope more and more are published and continue to dispel that notion!
Glass Slipper
3. GlassSlipper
I've never read a '20s novel, but I do have two on my radar that look like they're going to be good:

Bitter Spirits by Jenn Bennett - first in the "Roaring Twenties" series

Dollface by Renee Rosen - first in another series called the "Roaring Twenties"
Anna Bowling
4. AnnaBowling
@HJ, thanks for the tip - I'll be sure to check out that Goodreads group, and I have Deanna Raybourne's sample (and free prequel) on my Kindle right now.

@Jamieloganbrenner, it's my pleasure. Best way to dispel that "conventional" wisdom is to keep getting great stories in this setting out into the public eye.

@GlassSlipper, you've got a fantastic new setting to explore. Looks like "Roaring Twenties" is a popular series name. I'll be adding both series starters to my list.
5. Marian Lanouette
Just recently a couple of authors told me they were writing in that time period. Good luck with your books.
Anna Bowling
6. AnnaBowling
@Marian Lanouette, looks like these 1920s settings may be catching on. Best wishes to your writer friends.
7. Rae Summers
I can recommed The Gin Lovers and Vixen. Bright Young Things is next up on my list.

I also write 1920s romances - I have four novellas out (Let's Misbehave, Dear Julia, An Innocent Abroad and Prohibited Passion).

And for something a little different, try Sophie Kinsella's 'Twenties Girl', a contemporary romance in which a modern young woman is haunted by the ghost of her Flapper great aunt!
Anna Bowling
8. AnnaBowling
@Rae Summers, I'm off to check out your offerings. Always happy to find a new author in a favorite time period.

Also putting Twenties Girl on my TBR list. Sounds great.
Tiffany Tyer
9. TiffanyTyer
The Great Gatsby film version that just came out has gotten me excited all over again about this time period and genre. I have to recommend Stephanie Draven's It Stings So Sweet, an anthology with three incredibly woven stories that highlight all the lavishness of this era. The outrageous social scene and shifting attitutudes toward greater sexual freedom really parallel with modern day to appeal to viewers, so I'd love to see this genre really expand.
Anna Bowling
10. AnnaBowling
@TiffanyTyer, the outrageousness of this era would make a perfect backdrop for more stories like those in Draven's book. In an era where, suddenly, anything goes, the possiblities are limitless.
Jamie Brenner
11. jamieloganbrenner
@Rae Summers thank you!
@TiffanyTyer I loved It Stings so Sweet, too. And you are so right about the modern day parallels.
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