Do Contemporaries Ever Become Historicals?

Lately I’ve been thinking about the boundary between contemporary and historical romances as I try to place new submissions for the Special Title Lists appropriately. Although not a romance, my reading of the Flavia de Luce mysteries also has me thinking of this boundary.

The Flavia de Luce mysteries, set in post-World War II England, are considered historical mysteries. But what if they were romances? According to Wikipedia and numerous other Web sites, contemporary romances are set after World War II, while historical romances are set before or during World War II; by that criterion if Flavia grows older and falls in love her book might be considered a contemporary romance. I say “might,” because Wikipedia also notes that contemporary romances are generally “set in the time when they were written, and usually reflect the mores of their time.”

So far the boundary issue isn’t a major problem as romance authors aren’t flocking to write books set in the 1950s through 1970s. On the other hand, a lot of romances were written in the 1950s and 1960s and some appear on the Special Title Lists. Are they really “contemporary romances,” just because they were written Post-World War II or because they were contemporary to the author when written? I’m talking about something very different than a contemporary romance written in the last 10 to 15 years that just feels dated (Anne Marble wrote a great piece on the old At The Back Fence in 2008 on this topic). I’m talking about “contemporary” romances that completely embody their time period, a period that occurred 50 or more years ago.

As we move further from World War II, does the definition hold, or do we need a category for Post-World War II Historical romances? World War II ended in 1945 over 67 years ago. The world is a very different place than it was in 1945, or even 1955 or 1965. A heroine who was 25 in a romance written in 1955 would be 82 today. Is this heroine’s life the same, or contemporary, with a woman who is 25 today? Think of one of your relatives (mother, grandmother, great-grandmother) who was 25 in 1955; is the story of how she fell in love in the 1950s a contemporary romance? Would she fit as a contemporary heroine?

Let’s think about our 1955 and 1965 heroines. In 1955, the launch of Sputnik I and the start of the Space Age was still two years away. Our 1955 heroine would have been nearly 60 before home computers were easily available. Nearly 50 years before the September 11th attacks our heroines didn’t fear terrorists; enmeshed in the Cold War, they feared nuclear attacks from the Soviet Union.

On a personal level, our 1955 heroine didn’t yet have access to birth control pills, while our 1965 heroine did. The notion of “safe sex” to prevent HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases is years in the future. Both personally and societally, the world was very different for our 1955 and 1965 heroines than it is today, and this is reflected in some wonderful romances written in the period. I love some of D.E. Stevenson’s romances, in particular Katherine Wentworth (1964) and The Marriage of Katherine (1965) but they don’t feel like contemporary romances. They have a quaint, historic feel. These two books are on my DIK shelf but I haven’t written DIK reviews of them for AAR; I just don’t want to call them contemporaries.

Many of Mary Stewart’s “contemporary” romances were written even earlier. Five of Ms. Stewart’s romances are listed as contemporary romances in the Special Settings List: * Madam, Will You Talk? (1955) * The Moon-Spinners (1962) * My Brother Michael (1959) * Nine Coaches Waiting (1958) * This Rough Magic (1964)

I love all of these books by Ms. Stewart, but they don’t feel contemporary. I recently re-read This Rough Magic and was jarred by the Cold War overtones involving Albania (the book is set on Corfu).

I’ll have to be honest. I’m not sure if I’m ready for a romance – written today – set much before 1990. I know too much about the time period and the limitations many women faced. On the other hand, I won’t reject it outright. There’s potential for some interesting explorations of the postwar period. But I don’t want them to be considered contemporaries, and I’d feel more comfortable if we could call romances such as those by D.E. Stevenson and Mary Stewart Post-World War II Historicals. After all, Jane Austen wrote romances about her age. They may have been contemporaries in the 1800s, but we clearly label them historical romances today.

What do you think? Are we ready for a new category of historical romances? And have you read any interesting romances written in the 1950s or 1960s that stand the test of time?

– LinnieGayl Kimmel

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