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?

Honoring the Queen of Regency Romance

Today is Georgette Heyer’s birthday!

Georgette Heyer is hailed by scores of fans as being the quintessential Regency Romance novelist. Most people credit her for creating not on the genre called Historical Romance, but its subgenre, Regency Romance. Heyer had a  brother who was chronically ill, so to amuse him, she wrote a series of stories. Reportedly, Jane Austen inspired Heyer to write stories that took place in England during the Regency Era. Since she lived a hundred years later than Austen, Heyer had the disadvantage of having to research the manners and mores of the time. She also knew that since her readers did not live in the Regency Era, and probably knew little about it, she had to add a great deal about the setting. Some critics find the novels were filled with too much detail, others considered her detail to be some of her greatest asset, with her wit coming in as a close second. She wrote not only Regencies, but other historical novels including one about William the Conqueror which is hailed as one of the most historically accurate writings about the long ago King of England. She also wrote contemporary novels and thrillers.

Since today is the anniversary of Georgette Heyer’s birth.  So, to celebrate, I’d like to ask those of you Heyer fans to name your five favorite Heyers.

I admit I haven’t read all of hers, but I plan to. Of those I have read, here are my favorites:

Cotillion, The Corinthian, A Civil Contract, Venetia, and Beauvallet.

This question came up in my Regency historical research group, and here were our group answers:

10 — Venetia

9 — The Grand Sophy

9 — Devil’s Cub

8 — Cotillion

7 — The Unknown Ajax

7 — Sylvester

6 — Frederica

6 — Arabella

4 — The Nonesuch

4 — Faro’s Daughter

3 — These Old Shades

3 — The Talisman Ring

3 — The Reluctant Widow

3 — Masqueraders

2 — The Toll Gate

2 — The Quiet Gentleman

2 — The Convenient Marriage

2 — Spanish Bride

2 — Regency Buck

2 — Black Sheep

1 — The Corinthian

1 — Lady of Quality

1 — False Colours

1 — Civil Contract

1 — An Infamous Army

1 — Why Shoot a Butler?

If you’ve read any books by Georgette Heyer, what are your top 5 favorites?