[fusion_builder_container background_color=”” background_image=”” background_parallax=”none” enable_mobile=”no” parallax_speed=”0.3″ background_repeat=”no-repeat” background_position=”left top” video_url=”” video_aspect_ratio=”16:9″ video_webm=”” video_mp4=”” video_ogv=”” video_preview_image=”” overlay_color=”” overlay_opacity=”0.5″ video_mute=”yes” video_loop=”yes” fade=”no” border_size=”0px” border_color=”” border_style=”” padding_top=”20″ padding_bottom=”20″ padding_left=”” padding_right=”” hundred_percent=”no” equal_height_columns=”no” hide_on_mobile=”no” menu_anchor=”” class=”” id=””][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][fusion_title size=”1″ content_align=”center” style_type=”none” sep_color=”” margin_top=”” margin_bottom=”” class=”” id=””]At the Back Fence Issue#92[/fusion_title][fusion_text]

 (April 1, 2000)

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Respectable Romance – Romance Novels before the Beefcake:
Quick!  When’s the last time you drank Tang (the official drink of the astronauts?)  Wore a bathing suit with a skirt?  Watched The Man from U.N.C.L.E.? Read a book about at girl who was “too thin with eyes too wide apart,” who was constantly stared at by a brooding, dangerous looking man?  If these things all sort of meld together for you, chances are you’re one of the many romance readers who got her start reading the romances of the 40s, 50s and 60s in the days when bodices stayed right where they were, thank-you-very-much.

Laurie’s ruminations on romances of the seventies and early eighties, in the last issue of At the Back Fence, got me thinking about the books that I associate with the start of the modern romance genre.  Like a lot of women, I completely missed the bodice ripper era, having been far too much of a literary snob to even consider picking one of them up. When I think of early romances I think of writers who were popular in the forties through the seventies.  These writers include Daphne duMaurier,who wrote the classic Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel, Victoria Holt, mistress of slews of Gothics, Mary Stewart, who wrote historicals and contemporary romantic suspense, Jane Aiken Hodge, Dorothy Eden and others, historical writers like Anya Seton, who wrote Katherine, Green Darkness and The Winthrop Woman and contemporary writers like Emily Loring and Agnes Sligh Turnbull.

Though others may see the seeds of Sweet Savage Love in their romances, I see the shadow of Gothic heroes, many of whom were probably inspired by Jane Eyre’s  Mr. Rochester.  The enigmatic Robert Camborne, of Laura Kinsale’s  My Sweet Folly  is one of my favorites.  At the start of this book a plain married Folie receives a series of sweet charming letters from her husband’s cousin in India.  After Folie’s husband dies, the correspondence is abruptly halted and when Folie finally meets Robert, he is dark, brooding and really terrifying.  Robert is strange, hostile and not just a little bit weird. Now that’s a Gothic hero!

When I took this idea to the At the Back Fence Message Board, I quickly discovered that many other readers had similarly fond memories but wondered how these books  would hold up today. Ky, for instance, wrote:

“Wow. Victoria Holt. I have to say that she was the one that got me hooked on romance novels. I loved her. The first book of hers I read was….um….about the daughter of a vicar who marries an Egyptologist and almost gets murdered in a dig??? Excitement, mystery, adventure – all heady stuff to a 13-14 year old. However, after about 5 of her books, I realized there was a formula with minor variation. Poor young woman falls in love and marries a man above her station; she’s not sure if he loves her and it takes an almost murder experience from which he saves her for her to realize that he does in fact love her. Victoria Holt did take me to some exotic places and her heroines were educated and able to think for themselves. And there’s always passion, if not love.”

Ky’s point about the formula is well taken.  Critics who don’t read romance often accuse romance writers of following a formula.  Part of the reason may be that many of those older books really did follow much more closely to a formula  than today’s romances.  The heroines were always young and innocent, the heroes always a good deal older.  Most stories were told in the first person like Rebecca, often in an other-worldly and disembodied voice.

This may be one reason why I don’t remember people reading the early romances with the loyalty of today’s romance readers.  The books were not actually classified as romance; many of the early ones were reviewed by the New York Times and were read by men.  As an adolescent I loved these books. Not only were they romantic – they were the only books around that centered on female characters.  Hard as it may be to believe, literary fiction at this time boasted only a few women writers.  Many women my age remember Mary McCarthy’s The Group, precisely because it was one of a tiny handful of serious books about female characters.

Until Laurie and I began to talk about this, it had been a good thirty years or more since I had actually read an old romance  so I felt the need to refresh my memory before giving my sermon about how much better they were than bodice rippers  Okay I thought, time to show these readers what they missed.  I’ll just read a few of those books and they will see just how much more in common the 90s writers have with the earlier writers.

So, I trooped down to the best place I know to buy old romances, the Bethesda Thrift Shop.  I went whole hog intending to read lots. Anything that looked really ancient and beat up went onto the pile.  I added them to previous thrift shop hauls and found I had found a number of well remembered favorites, including My Cousin Rachel (1951) by Daphne DuMaurier, The Bride of Pendorric (1963) by Victoria Holt, Katherine by Anya Seton, The Wedding Bargain (1966) by Agnes Sligh Turnbull,  as well as books by Barbara Cartland, Georgette Heyer, and Phyllis Whitney.  I also had some curiosities like Woman Doctor by Hannah Lees (1940) and  Living a Sane Sex Life by W.S and LK Sadler.  This was a marriage manual portending to advise couples “before and after” marriage, and I thought it might be illuminating.

What did these books seem to have in common?  How are they different from today’s romances?


One thing that hits you right off is the absence a hero on many of the covers.  Publishers seemed to be wanting to tell girls and women, “This is a book for you.”  As I look through my stack I do see the occasional hero but he is often off center with the heroine looking away from him.  Here, courtesy of our own resident Gothic expert, Anne Marble, are three samples of the kind of covers I’m talking about:

What I found out in my new old books could and may fill many columns.  The historicals by Anya Seton and Regencies by Georgette Heyer really deserve special attention and the range of difference between Daphne DuMaurier and Barbara Cartland is tremendous.  For this reason I’m going to focus on just a couple of books:  Victoria Holt’s Bride of Pedorric, a popular 1960s Gothic and Agnes Sligh Turnbull’s The Wedding Bargain, a contemporary marriage of convenience story.  Both of these books were favorites of mine when I was a young girl.  Both revealed quite a bit about the young girl I was as well as in the strange world that all of us lived in at that time.

I sat down the first night with Victoria Holt’s BOP savoring the cover picture of the young girl standing on a rocky cliff with a mansion in the distant background.  Holt’s story is of a English young girl, Favel Farington, who has lived most of her life on the island of Capri .  Favel tells the story of how one day a handsome man comes to her father’s studio and discusses buying some works of art.  The man, Roc, soon gets to know Favel and her father.  To the reader he sounds a bit suspicious.  Every time Favel comes upon the her father and Roc in conversation they seem to be arguing.

Another thing that might seem a bit troubling is Roc’s reticence about touching Favel.  They spend weeks going out and Favel has no idea what he thinks of her.  He never so much as holds her hand until the day that he proposes.

Now I suppose you are wondering about that wedding night.  All I can tell  you is that Favel tells us that marriage is wonderful because they get to be together all of the time.  The rest of it is written in such a way as to be completely non-illuminating to a curious twelve year old:

“Roc was, as I had known he would be, a passionate and demanding lover: he carried me along with him; but I often felt bemused by the rich experiences which were mine.”

I have been married for twenty-three years this August and, after two children I think it is fair to assume that I am no longer an innocent maiden.  Whatever on earth this woman is talking about, it is beyond me.

Not long after they are married Favel and Roc go to his home, Pendorric, on the Cornish coast and for a number of reasons it starts to look as though Roc has married Favel for her money and is trying to kill her.  Of course, this is not the case and the book ends with the requisite suspicious husband saving the heroine and confessing his love.

So, what did I think?  Boy am I ever glad romance has changed!  BOP like so many of  books of this era, is a book about a child who gets married.  No, I am not talking about chronological age here, I am talking about the difference between the way children, especially girl children view love and marriage and the way adults do.

Favel is a child because she does not understand the difference between love and lust.  Early in her marriage Favel comes to the realization that her husband is a stranger to her, but she clings to the idea that she is in love with him anyway.  The truth is, like many young girls she has no idea that there is a difference.  She sees her husband’s handsome face and she thinks that because she wants to make love with him, that she loves him.

It seemed to me, the more I thought about it, that the forties, fifties and early sixties were decades when prudishness got so out of hand that even the existence of lust was denied.  Sexual excitement for a romance heroine in the those days had to be love.  There could be no scenes, now common in romance novels, where the heroine fights her desire for the hero because she believes she does not love him.  In fact these heroines, like many young girls who have been “sheltered,” or kept ignorant depending on how you look at it, were completely incapable of understanding their own desires and the signals that there bodies were giving them.

This is something quite different even from some Victorian novels which at least acknowledged the existence of lust.  Sexual excitement is palpable in Jane Eyre and even more in Wuthering Heights, not to mention Anna Karenina where the heroine actually gives in to her feelings.  Even in Gone With the Wind there is a joyous sequence, early in Scarlett’s marriage to Rhett when she realizes it it “fun” to be married to Rhett.  Scarlett may think she’s in love with Ashley but it doesn’t stop he from feeling passion when in bed with Rhett.

I had thought that these books i.e.. the Gothics and romances of the 1960s,  had more independent and liberated heroines than the bodice rippers, but the more I thought about it the more I realized that the bodice rippers may have been a breakthrough.  After all, in those books the heroine is at least allowed to enjoy sex without kidding herself every minute that the lust she is feeling is love.  Or, as Diedre wrote, “As much as current readers might decry the excesses of the Sweet Savage period of romance writing it did make more explicit sexual scenes acceptable in other romances where the scenario was less outrageous.”

Another thing that was off-putting to this modern reader was the way that the heroine in BOP assumes that that her husband is her Lord and Master.  There are a number of odd circumstances that indicate that the bride is surrounded by her husband’s former lovers.  Does she ask him about this?  Of course not.  She is determined to show him that she is not “a jealous wife.”  What a wimp!

I put BOP aside and started flipping through the other early romances I’d picked up.  Yipes – it was true!  These women were wimps.  Time and time again they suspected their partners of everything from infidelity to murder but were too shy to say so.  No wonder I admired Jane Eyre after reading these cowards.  In fact for all of the complaining about alpha males in modern romances,  these early books suffered from a far more serious problem, sexist heroines.

No matter how alpha a romance hero gets in today’s books, heroines don’t let them get away with much.  In Bride of Pendorric, Favel is too frightened of her husband’s disapproval to ask him the most basic questions such as “Did you kill my father?” for fear of being seen as a shrew.

Compare this with the couple in Linda Howard’s Duncan’s Bride. He is such a sexist that at one point he tells her that she isn’t allowed off the ranch.  Her reaction?  She pours a bucket of water over his head!  Duncan could have been a hero in any romance novel for the last hundred and fifty years.  Its the Bride who is a child of the 1990s.

This all brings me to the second book I want to talk about, Agnes Sligh Turnbull’s The Wedding Bargain.

I was so thrilled to find this book that my hands really did start tingling when I opened it.  The Wedding Bargain (1966) was the first contemporary romance that I ever read and, at the time I thought it was a wonderful story.

Reading it in the year 2000 I learned just how far romances (and women) have come.  This is a story where not only does the heroine does not feel sexual excitement, the hero doesn’t seem to feel it either.

WB opens when long suffering secretary Eliza Hanford is called into the office of her demanding employer “Mr. Morgan.”  Eliza has long loved Mr. Morgan from afar.  She has turned herself into the perfect old maid secretary eschewing makeup and pretty dresses to please him.  On this day Mr. Morgan calls Eliza in and says “I want to talk to you Miss Hanford, on a very personal matter.”  Miss Hanford, being the paragon that she is, sits down and listens to Mr. Morgan explain, in the coldest of terms, that it is inconvenient for him to remain single because of all the young attractive women who have been throwing themselves at him. Fortunately Miss Hanford is more sensible than that and so he wraps up his little speech with, “Well, so, what I’m leading up to Miss Hanford, is this.  Will you marry me?”

Miss Hanford then asks Mr. Morgan the question we have all been waiting for, “Since this would be a marriage of convenience would it be what we would call a marriage in name only?”

Mr. Morgan then gives what has to be the oddest reply in all of romance literature:

He looked over her head.  “Well, no,” he said slowly, “I didn’t mean that, I guess.  It might not be fair to either of us.  Perhaps the blood doesn’t run as hotly through my veins as that of many men, but I’m still a perfectly normal human being, if that answers your question.”

And there we have the dream man of the 1960s contemporary romance, one with a low sex drive!

What comes through in WB is that sex was assumed to be absolutely meaningless to female readers.  We are told that Eliza and Dan have sex but we are also told that because there is no love it is far to mechanical to enjoy.  The two have separate bedrooms but Eliza seems to assume that her husband’s lack of sexual interest is lack of love.  There are all kinds of silly twists in this story including a murder trial.  In the final pages Eliza writes Dan a letter, confesses her love, and runs away.  On the last page Dan catches up with her folds her into his arms and tell her that he loves her.  And, of course its supposed to be all better.  As I closed the book I could not help but wonder about the exciting night these two had ahead in the days before Viagra.

The relationship between Eliza and Dan, is in many ways similar to that to Favel and Roc in the sense that neither heroine feels she has the right to question her husband or object in the slightest.  Enormous amounts of time are spent wondering what a husband could be thinking.  Asking the hero is almost always useless.  In the case of Favel and Roc, Roc’s reaction was to laugh at his wife’s silly fears.  In the case of Dan and Eliza, Dan’s reaction was to completely withhold the tiny bit of affection that he had grudgingly extended.  Of the two heroes Dan is the more cruel, controlling his wife with coldness when she makes even the slightest criticisms of his behavior.  Furthermore it is fairly obvious that although Dan loves Eliza in the end, the relationship will always be unequal, which is all Eliza expects.  Dan’s love for Eliza seems to be the kind of love you give to a child as opposed to a life partner.

This all leads me to my final point.  The reason that modern romance novels are so much more popular than the earlier ones is that romance novels written today, like literary fiction, are written expressly for experienced adult women.  No, I’m not talking about explicitness here.  I’m talking about mature emotions, women who know the difference between love and lust and relationships that go far beyond “Will you marry me.”.  They also know that a healthy man can be attracted to a woman and want to have sex without being in love.  Similarly if a man is married to a woman and chooses not to have sex with her, there is very little chance that he will suddenly discover that she is the love of his life.  Grown men are not thirteen year old girls who think that its not fun to kiss a boy if you don’t want to go steady.

I could not help but compare WB’s tepid approach to the marriage of convenience with that of today’s historical romances. Even in Regency Romance, where most authors avoid explicit sex, they do not avoid explicit emotion. What makes an historical marriage of convenience fun is the dilemma of two people, often strangers coming together.  I’ve read many wedding night scenes where the participants barely know each other.  I never get tired of them.  They can be funny as in Mary Balogh’s The Famous Heroine or Julie Garwood’s The Prize.  They can provide a dramatic turning point as in Barbara Samuel’s The Black Angel.  Sometimes, as in Adele Ashworth’s My Darling Caroline, the couple put off the night but, because they are married we know it could happen at any time.  Often the words “I love you,” are held hostage while the couple give in to desire.

Pitting love and lust against each other makes for wonderful, complex and adult love stories.  Why didn’t mid twentieth century authors writers write them?  My theory is that society at that time was so prudish that women were simply not allowed to have sexual needs.  Heroines were not allowed to have sex without love and so we have stories where the tension has to be maintained by the heroine suspecting the hero of murder – not the most romantic thing in the world.

Also, while this situation might seem, on the surface to be repressive only to women, men were shortchanged too as they were continually told that the women they loved had with them sex only for affection and babies.  For some men at least the idea that being paired with a beautiful but dependent child is less than interesting. Consider for a moment David’s comments:

“I prefer to read about heroes and heroines who are interesting people, JD Robb’s Eve Dallas is a delight, Parker’s mystery hero Spencer is an interesting character who is nicely balanced by a smart, insightful, professional female who doesn’t ‘need’ him for validation. Or as my partner/wife once said, ‘I want to live with you, I don’t need to.’ “

How glad I am to live in a world where romances are written for women, not girls and where I can safely explain to my daughter that wanting to sleep with a man is not the same thing as wanting to marry him. How else can I also explain that while wanting to sleep with him may be fine actually sleeping with him is not such a good idea?

I enjoyed reading these old books for what they told me about how I’ve changed but I can’t really say that I admired them.  Its fine to be innocent and to wait for love.  Its something else again to be ignorant of the way we are made.  As for heroes who could wish for a man who greets his wife’s timid questions with the refrain that she is “being silly” or would willingly take a man who happily goes to a separate bedroom .  Neither  Rhett Butler nor Mr. Rochester would put up with that and I can only say that I for one would take Rhett over “Mr. Morgan” any day.

Having said all this I have to admit that I am less than an expert when it comes to Gothic romance, especially when we are talking about books written after 1969.  Gothics did influence later romance writers, though perhaps differently than I had originally thought.

Because I’m not well versed in the subject I am especially grateful to Anne Marble for giving us the benefit of her knowledge in the area of Gothics.  Take it away Anne!


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The Lure of the Gothic Romance

A sinister old house. A family with more secrets that could kill. A heroine thrust in the midst of it all. Is this the plot of a classic Gothic from the 1960s or 1970s? Not necessarily. Covers with heroines escaping decaying mansions may be a thing of the past. But the lure of the Gothic still haunts many romances today.

This Gothic influence didn’t come out of nowhere. Many of today’s hottest writers loved Gothics and read them voraciously. Some even wrote them. Anne Stuart’s first novels were Gothics, and her more recent novels have explored Gothic sensibilities in new ways. Jennifer Blake also wrote several Gothics under the name Patricia Maxwell. Catherine Coulter admitted that her first novel was a Gothic disguised as a Regency Romance, and she took full advantage of those Gothic vibes for the expanded rewrite, The Countess. Even Susan Howatch got her start writing Gothics – this influence can be seen in Penmarric and Wheel of Fortune.

Another current author steeped in the Gothic tradition is Joan Wolf. After having written both historical novels and Regency Romance, she began to write historical romance a few years ago. In novels such as The Pretenders and The Gamble, Wolf didn’t simply drip atmosphere into a historical romance. She wrote her books in the first person, capturing the “heroine-centric” atmosphere of the older Gothic. Only with the more recent Golden Girl has she started using the third person again. The jury is still out on what readers prefer in a Joan Wolf novel, but it appears she captured many readers’ imagination with those first-person romances.

But what about romantic suspense, you may ask? How does romantic suspense compare to the Gothic? How are the subgenres different? I’ve been reading both types of novels for years, and I’m still not sure. The biggest difference seems to be that Gothics rely more on setting, while romantic suspense stresses an exciting plot. Think of Gothics and romantic suspense as sisters. Sometimes, they get along well, and sometimes, they get into terrible fights. Sometimes, they even borrow each other’s clothes. What they have most in common is that they’re both carved from the nightmares of women. Maybe reading about these terrifying events helps us control our fears.

When I was young, I was afraid of everything. I started watching mild horror movies to get over my fear. My favorite movie was Claude Rain’s version of The Phantom of the Opera. A tormented man with a suave voice living in the spooky sewers. Is it any wonder I was drawn to the dark heroes and decaying old homes of the Gothic? Ironically, I later saw Claude Rains play the villain in The Unsuspected, an adaptation of a Charlotte Armstrong suspense novel sometimes published as a Gothic. Now, my favorite movie is Thirty-two Short Films about Glenn Gould. A tormented, moody pianist with a wonderful voice. Hmm. Maybe I haven’t changed all that much.

The Gothics lured me with their settings, their mysterious titles, and their characters. Settings? I’ve read Gothics set in Southern mansions, Irish castles, manor houses in Cornwall, and even in the middle of New York City. They can also be set in old theaters, museums, even on old ships. They can be contemporary or historical. Titles? Who can resist a book called Castle of Closing Doors? Characters? Like any other novel, Gothics live and breathe based on their characters. You can have the coolest setting in the world. But if the characters don’t ring true, even the “Nurse of Brooding Mansion” can’t save the story. (Yes, that’s a real title. Aren’t you glad they later changed it to “Brooding Mansion”?)

The typical Gothic hero was arrogant and brooding – think of him as a precursor to today’s alpha hero. These heroes were clearly modeled after Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre. One example would be the tormented hero of Virginia Coffman’s Moura, who was not just suspected of murder, he was condemned to the gallows for it. Yet there were many atypical Gothic heroes, beta heroes. One of the most famous examples is Max De Winter from Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca. One of my favorites was the delightful Dominic Desmond from Cecily Crowe’s Abbeygate, who looks more like a businessman than a famous actor.

The typical Gothic heroine was. . . well, define typical. Yes, some Gothic heroines were young and naive. For example, the heroine of Rebecca allowed herself to be pushed around by the housekeeper for much of the book. The heroine of Elisabeth Ogilvie’s Bellwood  leaves home after her boyfriend commits a crime and implicates her instead of defending herself. But that’s nothing. In Clarissa Ross’s Phantom Wedding, the heroine married a mysterious man. When he disappeared on their wedding night, did she start looking for him? Nope. She waited around for a year until he showed up with an explanation. Like I said, Gothics live and breathe based on their characters, and Phantom Wedding needed asthma spray.

Yet some authors weren’t afraid to write about heroines who were older, even sexually experienced. In Evelyn Berckman’s A Finger to Her Lips, the heroine is an adulterous duchess who is forced to rescue her son from his evil father by disguising herself as a servant. In Cecily Crowe’s Northwater, the heroine comes home after a failed marriage and a glitzy yet empty life. Elsie Lee also wrote about wonderfully independent, well-educated heroines who tossed around references to everything from Shakespeare to Abbie Hoffman. Is it any wonder Elsie Lee is still a highly collectible author?

The best Gothics featured strong heroines – or at least heroines who became strong in the face of adversity. “Brooding Mansion” isn’t a place for sissies.

In the past, the most popular Gothic plot was about a heroine who finds herself drawn to a dangerous man. Carrying on this tradition, Anne Stuart often writes steamy stories about women drawn to dangerous men. In Nightfall, the heroine becomes attracted to a man who may be a serial killer. In Crazy Like a Fox, the heroine finds herself a part of her late husband’s wealthy family. She fights her attraction to a hero who may be an insane murderer.

Another writer not afraid to walk down the shadowed halls is Megan McKinney. Many of her earlier novels, such as The Ground She Walks Upon, explored Gothic themes. One of her more recent books, Till Dawn Tames the Night, featured a spooky garden, a nearly irredeemable hero, and an evil governess.

Before becoming better known for emotional books such as Fire in the Heart, Katherine Sutcliffe wrote a Gothic. One of her first books, A Heart Possessed, was a part of a line of sensual Gothics issued in the 1980s. Her later book, Love’s Illusion, enthralled readers with its enigmatic magician hero. Yes, of course he was suspected of being a killer! It was one of my first keepers.

Too dark for you? Try Kay Hooper’s books instead. Both Amanda and Finding Laura teem with Gothic atmosphere and mystery. Not to mention dysfunctional relatives. All this and a contemporary setting.

And don’t forget Barbara Michaels, who got her start writing Gothics in the 1960s. Many of her original Gothics can now be found in the Suspense or Horror section. Susanna Kearsley, author of The Shadowy Horses, seems to be following in her footsteps. While these authors don’t emphasize the romance as much, they still reward the reader with suspenseful plots.

For those interested in my trip down memory lane, I’d like to give you some recommended writers from the good old days:

  • Joan Aiken
  • Evelyn Berckman
  • Virginia Coffman
  • Cecily Crowe
  • Jane Aiken Hodge
  • Victoria Holt
  • Anne Maybury
  • Mary Stewart
  • Phyllis Whitney

And, if you’re interested, here are my Gothic Buried Treasures:

Wingarden by Elsie Lee – Racial unrest in the South in the 1960s. I’ll bet you didn’t expect to see that in a Gothic romance. Wingarden also has a thing or two to say about the way society treats women. The witty heroine, Chloe, inherits a mansion from the grandmother she never knew. At first, she hates both the mansion and her late grandmother. Buth then she starts uncovering the truth about both the house and her ancestor. Not only that, but she is forced to choose between two attractive men. . . .Northwater by Cecily Crowe – After a failed marriage, Althea North leaves behind her glamorous, jaded life to come home to die. Althea and her sister are haunted – not by a ghost, but by memories of their horrid mother. Only by facing her past can Althea truly grow. Yet can she cope with the truth about her mother’s death? And, what will she do about her growing attraction to her married doctor?

Finger to Her Lips by Evelyn Berckman – Married to a callous duke, Sybilla-Marie ended up in the arms of a lover, and then endured a scandalous divorce. She disguises herself as a servant and returns to the castle to rescue her youngest son. The world of the servants is just as dangerous, and just as stratified, as that of the nobility. Meanwhile, the duke and his minister plot about what to do about the son. This novel shows remarkable use of multiple viewpoint.

Clara Reeve by Leonie Hargrave – This novel reads like a Victorian novel. It even begins with the young heroine becoming an orphan. After a rigid childhood, the innocent Clara marries her cousin Niles Visconti and finds herself thrust into a bizarre world of secrets she just can’t quite grasp. Her husband’s family is full of secrets. And her husband has a big secret. Speaking of secrets, it’s a well-known secret that this novel was written by Tom Disch, a poet and writer of SF, mystery, and horror novels.


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Wrapping it up:
Anne’s discussion of current Gothic romances and their influence on the romance genre made me eager to pull some of the books she referred to from my tbr pile. It seems to me that the setting of a Gothic, that old mansion or castle can often serve to heighten drama in that the places are often empty, spooky and have lots of places where a hero and heroine can end up alone. Similarly, the classic Mr. Rochester style hero will never go out of style.

It’s nice to see that modern romance authors can go back to these settings without dragging with them the cultural issues of the mid twentieth century. Romance writers today are far more used to describing the step by step interactions between two people. They are also accustomed to describing the hero’s point of view, which humanizes him considerably.


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Time to Post to the Message Board:
Here are some specific questions to think and post about:


histbut When is the last time (if ever) you read one of the romance novels published in the midtwentieth century? What are your memories of these books?

histbut How do today’s “sweet” romances compare with the romances of the past?

histbut What do you think of older books that equate physical attraction with love? Are these books sending a message?

histbut What do you think of the idea that it was sexist heroines not sexist heroes that makes these stories appear outdated? Can you think of any sexist heroines in today’s romances?

histbut Anne mentions Anne Stuart and Megan McKinney as two historical romance writers with Gothic influences. What do you think of these influences? What do you feel is the relationship between the older Gothics and today’s romantic suspense novels?

histbut Do you wish that more romance writers were influenced by Gothics? Did we lose something when we lost the “heroine-centric” world of the old Gothic? What do stories that are told in the first person do for us? Would you like to see more of the first-person point of view in new romance novels?

histbut What would you like to see in an updated Gothic romance?


— Robin Nixon Uncapher

In conjunction with Anne Marble


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