A History of Romance Literature

by freelance writer Jane Sandwood

Romance novels have a 34% share of the U.S fiction market, comfortably beating genres such as science fiction, fantasy and the classics according to statistics published by the Romance Writers of America. Within the romance genre sits the historical romantic novel, which, with the ability to transport the reader to another time and another place, provides total escapism. With the continued popularity of the historical romance, it’s interesting to have a look back to the earliest romantic novels to see how the novels of the time have influenced today’s historical romances.

Early Romance

The first book to be printed using movable-type was the Guttenberg Bible, published around 1450. However, Don Quixote, which is frequently cited as the first novel wasn’t published until much later in 1605. The first romance was, probably, Samuel Richardson’s Pamela – or Virtue Rewarded which was published in 1740. The Pamela of the title is Pamela Andrews, a fifteen-year-old servant, who has to deal with the improper and unwanted advances of her employer. Pamela resists him and, eventually, he proposes marriage to her. She accepts and eventually becomes an esteemed member of society.

Jane Austen

No story of early romantic fiction would be complete without talking about Jane Austen and the wit with which she describes and comments upon the life of the British landed gentry at the end of the 18th century. Interestingly, this article from the New Yorker describes the influence of Samuel Richardson on Austen’s work, describing one of his later works, Grandison as “a particular touchstone” for Jane Austen. The plots of Austen’s six completed novels explore the dependence of women on marriage for social standing and financial security, and are praised for their use of irony, realism, satire and humor. Of course, they also have strong female characters who conquer adversity before settling down to enjoy a happy marriage.

Historical Romance

In the 1930s, the British author, Georgette Heyer, wrote romantic novels set in Jane Austen’s time, and Regency Romance was born. Regency Romances pay close attention to historical detail.  They include strong, handsome heroes and heroines with modern-day sensibilities such as a strange inclination to marry for love, rather than financial stability.

Historical Romances, including Regency Romances, continue to be popular today and no wonder.  They provide a complete escape from the modern world, taking you to a place of opulence, handsome heroes and impeccable manners.  How could you resist?

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