At the Back Fence Issue#113

(March 15, 2001)



What Makes for a Romantic Setting?

What’s the most romantic story you have ever heard? I’ll tell you my favorite and it’s not from a romance novel. It is the story of the poets Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning.

At thirty-nine, Elizabeth Barrett was a plain, albeit talented, ailing spinster, far past the age of romance. Although her poems were internationally famous, Elizabeth herself lived quietly with her family. Much of the time she remained in bed, believing her doctors that she could never live a normal life. Depressed, dependent on morphine and under the thumb of a tyrannical father who forbade all twelve of his children to marry, Elizabeth was more tormented than any tormented heroine of whom I can think. Even in today’s far more forgiving world, it is hard to imagine such a woman finding a great romance, or any romance at all for that matter.

But Elizabeth’s poetry was as beautiful and as romantic as her life was not. Robert Browning, a young rising poet was enraptured by them and by her. He began to write to her and from the first letter he makes his feelings clear, “I love your verses with all my heart – and I love you too.”

Oh my. How must she have felt when she read that?

What amazed me, as I read about this beautiful romance in Julia Markus’s Dared and Done: The Marriage of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning was not so much Elizabeth’s reaction but Robert’s. If I read about Robert Browning in a romance novel, I might be tempted to believe that he was merely the compilation of womens’ romantic desires, not a real flesh and blood man. Browning, who was athletic and handsome in the style of the times, displayed none of the stereotypical “dreamy” characteristics that we sometimes associate with poets. As physically robust as Elizabeth was weak and frightened, he refused to fear her father. He encouraged her to become healthy and most importantly, to wean herself from the morphine that the doctors had encouraged her to take. Furthermore, in contrast to the extreme assumptions of male superiority popular in the day, Browning considered Elizabeth Barret to be a genius and fell in love with her mind before her had seen her body.

Elizabeth was enchanted by Robert Browning’s letters, even as she was afraid to believe that what he told her was true. She must have been afraid that she would be physically disappointing to him. (In these days of long cyber conversations readers are perhaps more understanding of this problem than they would have been ten years ago.)

The love between the two poets blossomed but opposition from Elizabeth’s family was obsessive and strange. Robert encouraged Elizabeth to get better so that she could come away with him a possibility that Elizabeth found amazing. Finally, in a scene that could almost only happen in a romance novel, Robert Browning went to the Barrett home on Wimpole Street in London and literally lifted her from her bed and carried her out of the house.

Sigh. They don’t write ’em like that anymore.

Popular culture, I personally believe, influences us all. Would Robert Browning have fallen in love with Elizabeth Barret in the 21st century? Yes. I think so. But it is my belief that the culture of Victorian society was a more receptive place for Browning’s romantic yearnings than today’s would be. Browning lived in a society where sex was felt but love and romance were discussed by both men and women. Romance was not just for those of us skimming the romance aisles. It was for everyone who sat down after dinner and was looking for something to do. People wrote rhyming poetry to each other. Men and women wrote long, elaborate letters . The queen of England, who probably could have been voted most likely to end up in a cold arranged marriage, fell madly in love and married her sweetheart.

I was thinking of Elizabeth Barret and Robert Browning when I sat down to write this column about what makes for a romantic period. To me, the Victorian period is the most romantic period I can imagine because the popular culture of the time was so saturated with romance. In fact, I think that there is a case to be made that Victorian culture in Europe and in America was the most romantic and sentimental of any before or since.

It is not that the Victorians fell in love more than anyone else but the period when Queen Victoria reigned seems to have been filled with a sentimental fad that by our standards today seems not only overdone, but sometimes maudlin. Sex could not be discussed in polite company, not at all. And so people talked instead of love and of all kinds of sentiment. They sang songs about star-crossed lovers who died in one another arms. Great poets like Wordsworth wrote poems like Now We are Seven, a poem where a little girls speaks of her dead brothers and sisters, arguing with the narrator that her brothers and sisters are alive in heaven. By today’s standards the poem is really “over the top,” but the Victorians seemed to want to feel things strongly and, even men weren’t afraid of appearing sentimental.

In America such sentiment was similarly popular. The romance of it is in much poetry including Poe’s wonderful Annabelle Lee in which the poet describes the innocent love of two very young for one another. My favorite stanza is the last which reads:

“For the moon never beams without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling- my darling- my life and my bride,
In the sepulchre there by the sea,
In her tomb by the sounding sea.”

I thought a lot about the way the men of the 19th century approached romance when I watched Ken Burn’s documentary on the Civil War on PBS some years ago. Here were the letters of middle-class, relatively uneducated men, pouring out feelings in words that strike us as both beautiful and romantic. To me, one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking is the letter of Sullivan Ballou, a major in the 2nd Rhode Island volunteers, who wrote to his wife, Sarah, the week before the first Battle of Bull Run. I have downloaded this letter from Napster and listen to it when I feel the need be reminded that real men, not just dukes and earls in England love the women in their lives. (A copy of the letter has also resided on this site for several years, on our page Snippets from Popular Culture.) The Ken Burn’s version of the Sullivan Ballou letter is actually edited, but the sounds of the music and the voice of narrator David McCullogh make it irreplaceable. Whenever I hear these words, my heart constricts:

“The memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and to you that I have enjoyed them so long. And hard for me it is to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years when, God willing, we might still have lived and loved together, and seen our sons grow up to honorable manhood around us. I have, I know, but few and small claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me – perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar – that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not, my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battlefield, it will whisper your name. . . . “But, O Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the garish day and in the darkest night – amidst your happiest scenes and gloomiest hours – always, always; and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath; or the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by.”

Major Sullivan Ballou died 7 days later.

When I read these words, I cannot help but think of Sarah, and how she must have reflected upon this letter later on in life and remembered her husband and how completely she was once loved.

One question that did come to mind as I was thinking about which settings and cultures were most romantic was the question of whether societies are more romantic when they are more puritanical. It does seem to me that when people, especially men, are forced to talk less about sex, they talk more about love. I notice, for example that a quick review of eighteenth century literature turns up books which are very heavy on sex, but, by later standards are not very romantic. Richardson’s Pamela, which is purportedly the first romance novel, is filled with titillating scenes of what would now be called sexual harassment. Fanny Hill is shocking, even by today’s standards. There is a lot of sex, but very little romance, though there is love at the end.

Our own times strike me as another example. Romance seems to be a thing that women, and not men, are supposed to want. Much of society seems to take it for granted that since men are from Mars, they find talking about love and romance unnatural. How out of place Robert Browning would have felt in a conversation with John Grey, the writer of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus!

AAR Reviewer Maria K, one of our European reviewers, had an interesting response to this question.



Are Puritanical Cultures More Romantic?

Maybe they are fruitful romance settings because the Puritanism easily creates both external and internal conflict for the characters. Romeo and Juliet are thought to be the epitome of romance, and why is that? Because there were several obstacles they had to conquer in order to be able to love each other. (So they did a bad job, but that’s not the point.)

Puritanical societies are just bursting with these obstacles on the road to love. When sexual attraction is frowned upon, the path of true love doesn’t run smooth. For example, the lovers have to struggle to do one or more of following:

a) to meet at all
b) to talk without having been introduced
c) to meet without a chaperone
d) to meet without a chaperone without becoming ruined
e) to see bits of skin without the full garderobe on
f) to touch said skin
g) to find a suitable spot for a clandestine kiss
h) to find a suitable spot for a clandestine deflowering session
i) to overcome guilty conscience for enjoying it
j) to ease guilty consciences after doing a, b, c, d, e, f, g, h, or j.

Then if they get caught, there’s a host of negative reactions to be expected. She’s a harlot, he’s a heartless scoundrel. They might be forced to marry, or there’ll be fear for pregnancy. The consequences of being ruined and never being able to marry or work again arise. There’s family and friends to be considered if they decide to marry, and what will happen to her reputation? Will her guardians allow the marriage, will she be accepted into his family? Class distinctions were very strict and behavior was very heavily regulated. And so on and so on.

This creates a a veritable treasure trove for a romance author looking for conflicts to take her characters further. I suppose arranged marriages are romantic because it’s the ultimate in confined situations. A couple has been forced to marry and take vows of fidelity; it is under these very strict and unlikely constraints that they try to find love and affection. It’s almost a miracle if they can make it work.

In modern contemporary times, sexual attraction and premarital sex isn’t wrought with such guilty turmoil. Outsiders don’t try to regulate our sex lives and we’re free to experiment a bit if we like. Yes, some people may still frown at premarital sex, your life will go on much as it’s gone before and your chances at happiness most likely won’t be ruined forever – unless you take your chances unprotected with a very wrong person. Authors writing in the here and now have to struggle more to create conflict, and it unfortunately often becomes “I hate you because I just do, let’s have sex,” rather than a real conflict.

Some futuristics I’ve read contain societies in which it’s okay to boink anyone who moves and honestly I don’t think that´s very romantic. It may be erotic or sexy but the idea of a romance novel for me should be that there’s a woman and a man who belong to each other exclusively.

I can’t help but notice that the Puritanism still often only concerns the heroine. She’s the one who’s labeled easy and who’s worried about her reputation and morality. The hero is a million times more likely to be a rake, even in a puritanical setting. Could it be that these puritanical settings cater for some sort of “Virgin seduced by a Rake” fantasy? He’s her one and only true love while he’s been free to sample the goods elsewhere. I don’t necessarily agree that this sort of double standard makes for good romance, but I’ve heard a lot of people say they don’t want “too experienced” heroines because they can’t identify with someone who’s promiscuous or breaks their moral standards for themselves or some such thing. Maybe that’s why those promiscuous societies are not as romantic, I don’t know.

But apropos, I think there’s yet another, simpler reason why English Regency and medieval periods are so often used in historical romance and e.g Egypt, Rome, Asia so little used, and it has nothing to do with Puritanism or how romantic the period is. People write what they know. And most people in the Angloamerican sphere have read the English classics and British history at school but they may know relatively little about what life was like in ancient Egypt. Ancient Egypt would be very romantic for me but it’s also more difficult to research. And future publishing decisions are based on what has sold well before. We may just hope we’ll get a wider range of settings in the future. Prehistoric romance…now that would be something interesting! Romantic too, in the sense “exotic, different, exciting”. Of course, the plumbing was extremely bad those days but on the other hand, if one place got too stinky the hunter-gatherers were free to move on. Could cater for the wildest cavemen fantasies too, although I suppose one can’t expect too much PC-ness those days.

There’s something romantic in a situation where the couple have to overcome external obstacles, their own or societal prejudices and internal or external constraints in order to be able to love each other tenderly, erotically and exclusively. Puritanical societies provide lots of constraints and sources of conflict and thus make good settings for romance novels, although I doubt that I’d find living in a highly puritanical society very romantic or pleasant for myself. Living according to those constraints is not romantic per se, but loving despite of those constraints is.



What’s so Special About Almacks?
Maria K’s comments about Puritanism struck me that in some ways, the Regency period has it all and that may be one reason for its incredible popularity as a setting for historical romances. The Regency era has plenty of Puritanism or at least prudishness. Here was a time when an unmarried man and woman could not be alone in the same room together without causing comment.

But running right along side the prudishness and obsessive protection of young girls in the Regency period, is the incredible freedom enjoyed by the men. There is a general acceptance of mistresses and prostitution. Of course there were plenty of mistresses and prostitutes in the Victorian period but perhaps because of the middle class sensibilities of the times, they don’t seem quite as at home. In regency settings the demimonde seem to have fun and every once in a blue moon, a heroine even considers becoming one of them, as in Mary Jo Putney’s Dearly Beloved.

In addition to the prudishness, arranged marriages and customs designed to keep men and women apart, you have incredible wealth and style. You have a world war which means you can have wounded soldier heroes, spy villains and dashing men in uniform. Everyone is speaking English and being guided by customs that are different enough from us to seem like fantasy but near enough to us to be understandable.

And isn’t it amazing how many romances are set in the Regency period considering the time span is so short (the period has a range of up to 21 years, depending upon the historian)? The characters are almost always limited to the aristocracy. Although a few novels venture to the Napoleonic Wars themselves, most are set either in London or at large estates in the countryside. And yet, in spite of this very small time and limited setting, the stories have incredible appeal. Not only do American audiences love books set in the Regency period, apparently people everywhere see the attraction. Carla Kelly tells us that some of her books will soon appear in Korea.

As Maria K. points out, one reason is probably familiarity. Once you know a period it is easy and more fun to read a story set in that time. If you read a few Regency set stories and you like them, you start looking for more. Publishers, as we know, do tend to follow trends. Most writers have little choice but to follow them. Currently the time periods and settings that seem to be favored are Regency England, Medieval England, Victorian England (though not so much as the Regency period), the American West in the 19th century and contemporary America. Other books do slip through. I have occasionally read romance novels set in 19th century and medieval Europe, colonial America, the American Civil War.

And, in addition to the pressure from readers and publishers there is the fact that many writers know their history from romance novels. Since the dominant period is the Regency, that is what they learn. Some romance writers such as Mary Jo Putney, Jo Beverley, Mary Balogh and Carla Kelly clearly love and have studied the periods that they write about. Their knowledge of the Regency period goes beyond mentioning the manufacturing date of the pianoforte and that fact that Almacks served watery lemonade. (If I read this “little known” fact in one more romance novel I will scream.) Romance writers who are not as knowledgeable or interested in history can “fake it,” a lot more easily in a Regency than in a lesser known period.

I asked AAR’s staff and the members of the canwetalk discussion list to comment on the historical settings in romance novels. I’d like to start with Denise, who does a terrific job summing up why readers of historical romance love historical romance altogether, and her comments will help us track through the rest of the discussion:

“It’s because I’ve always loved history so I’m fascinated by reading about people and places that aren’t contemporary. So many things were different than today, yet the feelings of the people involved weren’t. That’s why I think Ken Burns Civil War series on PBS was such a hit years ago. It wasn’t just the history itself – it was hearing in their own words (via the letters read aloud) how the people living all that felt. And I could imagine how I would feel in the same situation. “At the same time, while the feelings were the same, the circumstances weren’t. (Other settings) are romantic to us because those settings seem on a ‘grander scale,’ less mundane and everyday. And we humans rebel against the mundane, even while we’re slogging through it on a daily basis. Heck, that’s why people read fiction in the first place – to get swept away into another, more interesting life than the one they’re living right now. And if I’m going to live vicariously for a few hours with a romance, I want it to be in a period that has that ‘grand’ feel to me.

“Also, there seems to be an intensity to those times that isn’t the case now. So much of daily living was a struggle between life and death – literally. So much importance was put on social mores – up until the Roaring Twenties women could still be compromised with the consequence being a choice between marriage or banishment. In Sense and Sensibility, Elinor Dashwood is in agony over Edward for most of the book, because he made a promise to another; it’s binding, and he’s only set free when she breaks the engagement. Nowadays, he’d just jilt – nicely or not – the first woman and marry Elinor, no problemo. The stakes (socially) were higher long ago, ergo, more drama, more angst, higher highs, lower lows.

“At the same time, time has put a hazy gauze over all the ‘bad’ parts of those times, and depending on how real one wants the history in their fiction to be, a reader doesn’t have to pierce that veil.”

When we start to delve into the question of which periods in particular are most appealing, it seems everyone has their own opinion. The actual appropriateness or culture of the times seemed to be just one part of it. One idea that came up more than once is what one of our reviewers refers to as a “herd mentality;” keep that in mind as you read through the discussion.

Laurie wrote that many of the romance novelists who revitalized the genre beginning in the 1970’s and continuing into the early 1980’s were likely lovers of Austen and Heyer. She reminded me that Judith McNaught and Catherine Coulter, both authors who had their start during this time, and who had enormous impact on authors who followed them, are Heyer fans. Laurie writes, “It seems probable to me that those early on authors may have set their books in the periods they loved to read about, and that things then had a snowballing effect over time, affecting both publishers and later authors. We all know how the publishing industry – like other forms of media – are bandwagon jumpers.” She went on to talk about the proliferation of Regency-set historicals and why they are so popular:

“Personally, since the Regency era of 1800 – 1821 included the War of 1812, the Napoleonic Wars, as well as political and economic upheaval following those wars, life was not a bowl of cherries in merry olde England. And yet, most of the books I’ve read focused in that time frame do not mention, let alone focus, on the internal upheaval. Most romances, when they even mention the problems, we hear about smugglers, spies, and soldiers, but surely, even for the lords and ladies, this cannot be accurate. “I myself have often wondered why the majority of historicals that are not medievals are based in this slim time frame and have asked authors ‘Why is the Regency period so appealing? Why is it more appealing than 1750-1770 or 1820-1840?’ The answers are varied, but for many, it comes back to the books they’ve read and loved.

“Something similar could be said about the narrow scope of most medievals. Many medievals are set just after the Norman invasion because of the obvious dramatic tension between Normans and Saxons. But the medieval period encompassed hundreds of years, and we are treated mostly to romances set in just a few of those.”

This idea of familiarity and narrowness of scope was echoed by other canwetalk members and by our own Managing Editor Blythe Barnhill, who stated:

“Writers often go with what they are familiar with. I think this feeds on itself. Alice Aspiring Author has read and enjoyed Regencies, so when she goes to write a book she goes with a period that she already knows, or thinks she knows. Twenty other authors do the same. I think there are relatively few authors who are really interested in delving into their time periods. Those who just want a romantic story with some historical window dressing are going to go with a Regency historical or a western, or a generic and vague medieval setting.”

Blythe’s explanation is one part of the equation; writers choose those periods because they are comfortable with them. Readers then read them because they are comfortable with them. This is where Nora Armstrong and another part of the equation, regarding “emotional shorthand,” comes in:

“I think that one of the appeals of genre reading in general (and I’m thinking of Regency and medieval romances in particular) is that it’s a world the reader has entered before and finds comfortable. She wants to escape in her reading but doesn’t want to waste a lot of time getting acquainted with a different world – she wants to go to a place she knows and likes, where behavior follows a set pattern she can reasonably predict. Asking her to enter another world (a different time period, for example, or a different kind of story) often proves too much for the reader, so she sticks with what she knows and likes. That explains, in part, the appeal of certain time periods and story patterns in romances. It accounts somewhat for the appeal of Norman medievals over, say, stuff set in the 13th or 14th century, and stories set in 1805 but not twenty years earlier. “If a writer starts off in this comfort zone and builds a loyal following, she may be able to branch off into different eras – I’m thinking here of MJP, who started in classical Regencies, then branched out into Regency-set historicals and Victorian-era romances. By the time she did that, her readers were willing to follow her, because they came to appreciate the way she told a story. Heather Graham is another author who’s taken her readers a lot of places. I wonder whether many “I only read medievals and I love Heather’s writing” readers would pick up a Civil-War-era book if it were written by anyone else.

Then of course there’s the publisher’s perspective. Blythe has something when she says aspiring authors write what they know, so that’s what the publishers see in manuscript submissions. They pick (we hope!) the best ones, which sell, which the publishers perceive as demand for a tried-and-proven product, which makes them wary of accepting anything else. It becomes a vicious circle. Ever wonder why you don’t see very many unusual time periods? The pubs don’t want ’em, so new and midlist writers don’t waste their time on them – are actively discouraged from doing so. It takes a big-name author to be able to introcude a new setting. She’s a proven commodity to publishers, so they’ll take a chance on her, where they won’t with a newbie. Brenda Joyce could write a novel set in Russia; Nancy Newbie couldn’t get an agent or pub to look at one (see above).

“Sometimes – okay, it’s a rarity – a new author will come along who generates enough excitement and is so talented that even II don’t read that kind of book’ readers try her out, and are pleasantly surprised to discover that they liked the experience. Here, I’m thinking of Diana Gabaldon and, more recently, Madeline Hunter – even, to some degree, Robin Schone. How many readers had never thought of reading erotic romance until Schone came along? And I wonder how many readers will say, ‘I hate time-travel stories, but I love the Outlander series.’ “



What Resonates With You?
AAR’s staff had lots of thoughts on this subject. Specific times and places do resonate more with different people. Sandi M loves Scotland and Ireland and she wrote, “I’m not sure why but there seems to be a romance to Scotland and Ireland in almost any time period. In a way, with Scotland in particular, it can almost be a short cut for the author. How much do you have to explain about the hero if he’s Scottish. There are preconceived ideas about the Scots – he’s alpha, he’s a warrior, she’s independent and strong-willed….To me it’s similar to writing in the Regency time period, there are certain things that are taken for granted that don’t need to be spelled out.”

But Sandi doesn’t limit her preferences to popular places. She added that the conflicts surrounding the settlings of new worlds, such as the criminals sent to settle Australia or the indentured servants sent to settle America can provide wonderful romantic settings. Two of AAR’s Desert Isle Keepers are based on this Australian model: Dream Fever by Katherine Sutcliffe, and Night in Eden by Candice Proctor. Falsely accused criminals tend to make for very romantic storylines, as do indentured servants tricked or otherwise forced into service in the New World. Though Carla Kelly’s Reforming Lord Ragsdale is not set in the New World, plots revolving around heroes who purchase an indentured’s services are common, as are servant/master romances. Whether set in medieval periods like By Possession by Madeline Hunter or in the regency era like Patricia Gaffney’s Lily or in the New World like My Darling Kate by Elizabeth Graham.

Katarina Wikholm, AAR Senior Reviewer had some interesting thoughts about the reasons why we gravitate toward certain periods.

“I firmly believe that just about any period and setting can/could be romantic in the hands of skilled author. However, I think there’s a herd mentality to readers as well as what is marketed in all forms of media. I think you have a point that we like the Regency because of Austen (and then Heyer…), the medieval because of Ivanhoe and the lure of King Arthur, the pirate because of Captain Blood and its likes, the western because of all those silent Hollywood guys, and the Victorian because of the Brontes. “I neither like the Brontes nor Dickens and find the Victorian period rather unromantic because it is at once too modern and at the same time too weird psychologically. Same goes for turn-of-the-last-century settings.

“Still, I just love Civil War stories, so I can’t claim to be rational. Probably it’s the combination of the peril of war and a different culture. (Still I didn’t much like Scarlett in Gone With the Wind (self-centered like a spinning top!) so it is a very much specific book/movie kind of love.)

“My point is: for another setting to become romantic some kind of block-buster must pave the way. And by block-buster I don’t mean something within the romantic genre – it should sweep through all of us, become the source of endless imitations, paraphrases and references.”

Katarina’s comments about the Civil War did bring up an interesting thought. Civil War stories, once a staple of American romance novels, are not nearly as common as they once were. The reason, I think is that we Americans are still having a very hard time with that war and the tried and true plot of the Southern belle in love with the Northern Yankee really doesn’t work when said Southern belle lived on a plantation with slaves. Similarly, novels set in the south before the Civil Rights movement tend to have a lot of problems. Of course, great books could be written about Union soldiers and their sweethearts, but until one is written, few writers and editors will take the chance. As for the post war South, I know I had many problems with Laura Lee Guhrke’s Breathless which features black women in a Southern town joining in a boycott with white women over a whorehouse. Considering that black men caught doing anything but playing the piano in such a place would have been in danger of being lynched I thought the idea was ludicrious. But it is a tough question. If you want to write a lighthearted romance and set it in the American south during one of the worst periods of Jim Crow laws and lynchings, how do you do it without simply excluding black people?

New AAR Reviewer Rachel Potter brought up the issue of how comfortable everybody is and that “it has a lot less to do with the literature than the plumbing. Living conditions really make a difference which is why I don’t enjoy Westerns and may be a factor for why medievals don’t often work for me.” Rachel also brought up the problem of setting a romance in time and place where something awful is going to happen:

“What is the realistic probability for a HEA? I can’t read an 18th century Scotland or a Native American one without my inner voice screaming: ‘doomed, they’re all doomed!’ Even those Madeline Hunter ones; my mental calculator was cranking and whirling: how many years until 1348 (the year of the Black Death)? “The Regency period seems to be about the earliest one can count on for semi-adequate hygeine and fashion that wasn’t ridiculous. And that’s only the rich. Everyone else was still mucking about in the dirt, smelling awful, teeth falling out left and right. For me, the literature doesn’t have much to do with it, although the Regency period is about the soonest you get women writing about the human condition. Before that it was all men.”

AAR Reviewer Jane Jorgenson agreed with this assessment. She wrote, “If the romance is set in a period you know is soon followed by violent upheavals, there’s a sense of doom hanging over the relationship. You mentioned medievals and it made me instantly think of how I look at these romances.” Jane looks at happy endings differently when she knows that after ten years together, a war is going to break out. She added, “This happens a lot in Scottish or Irish romances. Sometimes I’ll even play a little mind-game with myself to make it okay, I’ll think about life expectancies of people in those time periods and tell myself that even if they only have ten or twenty years of peaceful existence, chances are they won’t live much beyond that, so they’ve still lived happily ever after (until death anyway).”

canwetalk member Raelene is with Rachel and Jane on this one. She doesn’t like to read romances set in the early 20th century because she knows WWI is around the corner and that the Depression follows not long thereafter. The Civil War is equally problematic for her because, “it was such a sad time for both sides and it lingered for many years after.” Like many readers, Raelene thinks about her heroes and heroines after the book ends and doesn’t want to realize that the HEA will be interrupted by some world calamity.

In contrast with some of Laurie’s earlier thoughts about the Regency, but more in keeping with Jane, Rachel, and Raelene, Maggie, a canwetalk list member, had this to say:

” I think the Regency and Victorian periods are popular at least in part because they are relatively peaceful Sure there was that pesky Napoleon, but the English defeated him in the end and most importantly, the action took place overseas – there were no enemy bombing missions over London. “I think believing that the unstoppable train of fate isn’t about to run over the H/H within a couple of years of the book’s ending matters I think that is why we don’t see a lot of Romances set in Russia 1911 or New Orleans in 1857. There have been books set during the American Civil War but they show the H/H overcoming the obstacles and making it through to the other side. I don’t remember a single book that ended while the war was still going strong. This is also why I have never been able to enjoy Native American Romances – I keep thinking of the non fiction books I’ve read about the period and it has so far kept me from the sub-genre.

“I think medievals are easier because most of us know less about the period. It is easier to have an oasis of peace when you don’t have the War of the Roses, the Tudor religious persecutions, or the English Civil War going on all around you.

“I think it is necessary to keep romance out of time periods that are commonly known to be hazardous unless you are going to deal with that hazard and bring the H/H through safely I’ve often noticed in regency-era romances that it is made clear that if the Hero has served in the military his service has ended due to injury or family concerns I think enough romance readers are history buffs that this has to be taken into consideration.”

Historical Cheat Sheet Editor (and AAR/DIK Reviews Editor) Ellen Micheletti loves the Victorian period. She said that though social mores dictated that a woman was to be cold and have no sexual feelings at all, diaries and letters of the time do not reflect this. She added that, “The contrast between what society said and one’s own feelings make for some interesting conflict.” She and Laurie both point to Jane Kidder’s Passion’s Kiss (which Laurie gave a good rating when she was at The Romance Reader), in which a young woman who had been frightened by her mother and her friend’s tales of the marriage bed is torn when she finds she actually enjoys sex.

When talking about certain periods in history, as Katarina alluded to, there are many readers with cut-off points in their minds. Just as certain readers read only medieval romances, others will not read a romance set after the Regency or after 1850, or in the United States. How much this has to do with the romances they fell in love with and feel comfortable with is but one consideration, just as it is but one consideration for the authors who write romance. Another consideration is the fantastical nature of romance and how removed from our own daily lives readers must feel to engage in the fantasy. This may explain why there are few romances set after 1920 and almost none set after the Second World War.

I think there is a lot to that idea when it comes romances set in the past hundred years. Judith Ivory has made a career out of crossing this tenuous line in the sand. Dorothy Garlock has written romances set in the first half of the twentieth century as has LaVyrle Spenser, but these writers are the exception, not the rule, and historical romances set after 1910 are rare.

Reading what everyone had to say, it is not surprising that the historical market is rooted in familiar English settings. I love them too, maybe for many of the reasons outlined here. I have to say that I have never put aside a book precisely because of the time or place in which it was set but it would take a great recommendation for me to pick up a Viking novel or one set in ancient Greece.

Like Ellen, a number of my favorite romance novels are set the Victorian period, though most of my favorites have Regency settings. Adele Ashworth’s Winter Garden, which won as our readers’ Favorite Romance for 2000, was set in the Victorian era, as was Robin Schone’s The Lady’s Tutor and The Proposition. Sometimes I wonder if romance novelists are as likely to be fans of Dickens as they are of Austen and if that is part of the problem. Recently I ordered the BBC 1970s television series, The Pallisers, which is based on the Trollope novels. This series is Victorian and centers around the arranged marriage of Plantagenet Pallier and his wife, Lady Glencora. It has everything intrigue, money and lots and lots of romance. Maybe if I bribed some romance writers to come watch they would feel inspired. What do you think?



Time to Post to the Message Board:
Once again, rather than provide a specific list of questions for you to consider, we’re going into our Message Board in a more open-ended fashion. After you’ve read and reflected on the topics presented here, feel free to talk about any of them. We look forward to your comments and questions.


— Robin Nixon Uncapher
in conjunction with Maria K et al



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