Nov 13 2014 9:30am

Before The Flame and the Flower: Romance from Back in the Day

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

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1. Scarlettleigh
I've read a couple of Frank Yerby's and Sergeanne Golon's books. When you run out of books while visiting you check out your host's library. I don't remember much about them. except that in Golon's books the many men.
I am not sure how I discovered Madeline Brent but it was long after the publication date. Still I loved his women characters. Same with Mary Stewart. I remember Jane Aiken Hodge's name, but not any of the books.
2. Bookster
I read Anya Seton's "Dragonwyck" & loved it; the movie was great. Mary Stewart's books were, also, wonderful. Juliette Benzoni's novels were my first foray into romance novels. Sadly, her books are hard to find. Don't forget "Peyton Place" by Grace Metalious; that book was banned from many venues.
Darlene Marshall
3. DarleneMarshall
@Bookster--I loved Dragonwyck, the book more than the movie. I still remember the line at the climactic scene: "I can give life too." It blew me away! Really, I can't remember a bad Seton novel, but some were clearly keepers.
Megan Frampton
4. MFrampton
I read Katherine by Anya Seton SO many times. I learned so much history from those kinds of historical fiction books. Great post.
5. Nurcat
You've just written a list of my teenage reads ! Anne McCaffery was wonderful. When you couldn't find romances other than Cookson or Cartland in the UK, you could find sci fi. McCaffery blew my socks off with Restoree (still on my keeper shelf in its 4th incarnation), & carried on blowing my socks off into the 1990's. Another writer I loved, but she only wrote two novels before her premature death, was Teresa Denys. I adored The Silver Devil, and still reread it occasionally.
6. lollyjuly
Thanks for the trip sown memory lane. I read Mills & Boons by the thousands and really enjoyed KW books. I then went on a little bit later to read Johanna Lindsay with Fabio on her covers. Jude Devereaux and Judith McNaught not forgetting the wonderful Lavyrle Spencer
Darlene Marshall
7. DarleneMarshall
@MFrampton: Thanks! I have no doubt that reading all those historicals when I was younger influenced my writing career choices. I wanted to write the kind of story I enjoyed, stories where the women are strong and the men good looking.
Trish Copley
8. Vol Fan
I too read Cartland, but boy was I ever into the meaty, risque (at the time) historicals. I LOVED the Angelique stories and am still trying to find the first one. I'd love for it to be digitalized. My other big loves during my young years was Desiree by Annemarie Selinko, Forever Amber- Kathleen Winsor (I found these two again & have copies now), Gwen Bristow's books, Elswyth Thane's Williamsburg series. And yes, Frank Yerby was a must read. I recently found a copy of "The Girl from Storyville" and grabbed it up. I'm sure there were others, but these have all still stayed in my mind and would love to reread them.
Cynthia Weers
9. weerscs
Read Yerby's Judas, My Brother at a time in our history when Vietnam, Watergate and Seminex led me to skepticism about almost everything. Took years for me to regain a spiritual faith. Right about then, I also began to read the Rosalind Laker (Barbara Øvstedal) books, historical romances with a strong female lead.
10. EC Spurlock
Great list, Darlene! I was a big fan of Jane Aiken Hodge and also the similarly-named Joan Aiken. Edna Ferber's early works are dramatic, very class-conscious romances, some with happier endings than others. Many such as Showboat and Saratoga Trunk were made into very popular movies and stage shows. Later she dropped out most of the romance and leaned more toward social commentary with books like Giant (also made into a film.) I was also a fan of Norah Lofts, who did meaty, complex and often highly ironic historicals, again some happier than others but which all usually came full circle in the end. The Lute Player was one of my favorites of hers, and I still reread her Christmas story How Far to Bethlehem almost every year.
Darlene Marshall
11. DarleneMarshall
@ECSpurlock--I very much enjoyed Lofts' How Far to Bethlehem? because of how it humanized the characters from the Bible story. I still remember the Three Kings quite well, and Mary's reaction to their gifts.
12. Kareni
I'm another who read the Angelique books as well as a boatload of Barbara Cartland, Georgette Heyer, and Mary Stewart novels. I also read books by Mary Renault though I'm hardpressed now to recall just how happily those end.
13. Lynnd
I really enjoyed Catherine Gaskin's books, especially Sarah Dane, a Falcon for a Queen and The Property of a Gentleman. I devoured Victoria Holt/Jean Plaidy/Philippa Carr and Anne Marie Selinko's Desiree was one of my favourites.

I'm going to have to look for some of these other recommendations. Great list!
14. lauralee1912
This essay sure was a trip down memory lane; the neighbor girls and I used to sneak peeks at our mamas' Kathleen Woodiwiss books!
I read Mary Stewart, Georgette Heyer, and Barbara Cartland novels when I was in my twenties and sharing books with my neighbor. We also read Bertrice Small (Skye O'Malley!) and thought her rather naughty. I dated a lawyer who read a lot of science fiction and one of his favorite authors was Anne McCaffrey. Neither he nor science fiction stuck with me.
15. VickieD
Great article and lots of food for thought. Flame and the Flower was my first favorite shortly followed by some of the older titles you mentioned by authors like Stewart and Heyer. As a matter of fact I think I'll dig out some of my old favs and put them in the TBR stack for winter reading.
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