This week’s flashback post, entitled “Fluff piece”, was originally published in September 2007.


What I’m about to say may shock you. It’s certainly not something I ever thought I’d say.

Recently, I’ve started reading romance novels. Historical ones, to be precise.

Let that sink in for a moment. Just between you and me, it’s not quite the first time I’ve done it. I’ve snuck in a few before, here and there, over the years; it was always a furtive, shamefaced admission of defeat on the part of my better judgment. However, it’s a sign of maturity, I’m told, to accept one’s shortcomings. I am ready, then, to admit that I’ve countenanced my last literary taboo. It’s rather a painful admission but, having made it, I’m not going to try to soften its impact. I’m not, for example, going to try to shrug it off as some sort of ironic-hip pastime – like knitting or watching Battlestar Galactica – because a little white lie is not going to bandage this particular rip in my self-respect. The truth is banal; one gets bored – bored enough to get curious about all kinds of questionable pursuits. Romance novels have an unfortunate reputation, mostly deserved – the writing is indifferent at best and often much worse, the plots and characters formulaic. They are also widely disseminated; the evidence is in the garage sales.

Now, as I am about to show, my latest endeavour has not been an entire waste of time. Along the way, I made certain observations of the subject matter, which I propose to share with you. The primary benefit, I would imagine, is that you will now no longer have to read such material yourself. If you ever had a passing spark of curiosity on the subject – what does lie between those gaudy covers? – it can now be satisfied without further exertion on your part.

I must note that, while this is not an academic study, it is mostly disinterested and, thus, practically scientific (or what passes for scientific in the media these days). What have I gleaned from my study? Read on.

1) The hero in the historical romance novel is always rugged, virile and over 6 feet. He is never plain and never pretty. If he is dark (and he frequently is), he is also brooding. Not surprisingly …

2) The hero is always damaged. He gambles, carouses and sleeps around, generally being indistinguishable from the villainous rogue – in the beginning. The difference, of course, is the love of a good woman. Good women are rare; in fact, they number one in every case. Our hero, for example, was previously saddled with a perfidious mother, fiancée, wife and/or mistress – who, needless to say, is mostly responsible for the aforementioned gambling, carousing and sleeping around. Thank goodness, then, that the hero meets the heroine in short order, before the tertiary syphilis has set in. It’s all really quite heart-warming.

As an aside, I have to say that I remain puzzled by women’s evident fascination with the idea of reforming the rogue, whose amenability to reformation generally ends on the page. I admit – bad boys have their undeniable appeal. But it seems counterintuitive, once one has secured such a specimen, to undertake every conceivable stratagem to house-train him. Sure, it’s a challenge – but so is climbing Mount Everest. Statistically speaking, the latter is likelier to happen. Bad boys, of course, are rarely bad through accident or apathy; it’s a vocation. So they’re hardly afraid of a little holy water. After all, the missionary’s fervour has its pleasant aspects. The romance novel merely takes some liberties with the rate of conversion.

3) The villain in a historical romance novel is typically a debonair, suspiciously good-looking fella who has either watched too many Bond movies or not enough. Unfortunately, he hasn’t grasped the fundamental principle that, having finally gotten the hero/heroine in his depraved clutches, with less than 20 pages to go until the end, he just needs to keep his mouth shut and put a bullet (or historical equivalent) between his captive’s eyes as soon as possible. However, his ineptitude is a lucky stroke considering …

4) The hero is always rich, aristocratic or a pirate. Sometimes all three. Not to be outdone …

5) The heroine is plucky, fluent in the Classics, and endowed with the bounteous assets of a swimsuit model. She needs all the assets Nature can muster since …

6) The heroine’s character, generally along with her virginity, is impugned within the first 30 pages. This leads to a charming revelation for the hero at a very delicate moment later on. [That moment is never awkward, brief or otherwise unmemorable but its depiction is, sadly, often unreadable.] Having chosen to strand one’s fierce little feminist firecracker in the 1820s, the romance writer understandably feels obliged to assiduously preserve the heroine’s virginity (for at least 100 pages or so), despite the conspicuous absence of other claims to historical authenticity. I won’t quibble about the astonishingly speedy transformation of the chaste virgin into a ravishing vixen – a couple of paragraphs suffice – since she naturally has to keep up with the hero who is, without fail, uncannily proficient in that department. What I find sort of fascinating is that the hero tends to develop an odd reaction to sex.

He gets attached.

The first sexual encounter is, as predictably as clockwork, the turning point in the romance novel courtship. Heretofore, the hero has been a cynical, questionably-intentioned wooer, befitting his outward caddishness and disillusion-hardened soul. Upon discovering, lo and behold, the heroine’s erstwhile purity (as well as her blind disregard for social norms, newly discovered unquenchable sexual appetite and telepathic ability to intuit his dirtiest fantasies), he begins to thaw. The L word is not grunted, sighed or whispered until the last 10 pages or so, but it is a foregone conclusion. He will not let his woman go. She trusts him, dammit (despite the scar, the unsavory reputation, or the history of insanity in the family). They shared a moment (and 3-pages’ worth of sexual hijinks). Somehow, she is different than his floozy of a first wife. Clearly, these are precisely the thoughts of your average male after sex. At this point, the hero is already planning on how he’s going to introduce his vivacious new bed-mate to his (haughtily aristocratic) relatives, challenge someone to a duel over her honour, throw a jealous tantrum or three, and make a heartwarming speech on the occasion of their children’s birth. Hey, it happens all the time in real life. Speaking of real life …

7) When they’re not busy having great sex in every corner of their 120-room estate, the lucky couple never fights about money; they fight over misunderstandings about how much they love each other. Mothers-in-law are either kind, absent, banished by their sons, or dead. Children are little angels, never underfoot, and precocious to boot. Conveniently, they frequently appear on the last page.

Now, it is sometimes said that women have unrealistic expectations. Clearly, if romance novels are anything to go by, that is not the case. Judging by the standard historical romance novel plot, women’s expectations are not nearly grandiose enough. Perhaps one can say that historical romance novels are chock-a-block full of anachronisms. Perhaps one might sniff at the overabundance of Byronic earls and dukes, overeducated Playboy bunnies, improbable plot devices, and the inability of any suavely degenerate, moustache-twirling villain to shoot straight. It’s too easy, though, to bash romance novels. They are so eternally hopeful, like cute little puppies. And who wants to kick puppies?

September 2012: Gosh, re-reading this post kinda makes me want to read a romance novel, know what I mean? The crap that nowadays routinely finds its way onto the bestsellers lists gives me a new-found appreciation for this much-maligned genre … and I say that as someone who’s done my fair share of maligning over the years. Not a single one of the two dozen (or more, I’m not saying) romance novels I’ve read over the years comes even remotely close to matching the literary atrocity that is Fifty Shades of Grey. [I feel compelled to clarify that my assessment of the latter is based solely on reading a few excerpts online; nothing – and I mean nothing short of a 3 or 4 figure sum of cold, hard cash – could compel me to read the whole thing.]

But speaking on the subject, I should add that, since I wrote this post, I came across a romance novelist whose books are quite delightful, albeit “tame” by modern standards. Georgette Heyer – who also wrote a series of charming, Christie-esque detective novels – penned a number of Regency romance novels that evoke the spirit of Jane Austen, with a dash of extra spice. A “dash” only – alas, for anyone looking for stronger thrills, that means no sex scenes. Definitely worth a lazy Sunday afternoon (should you be so fortunate as to get one) for anyone looking to satisfy a craving for fluff. 

4 Comments on Friday Flashback: Historical romance novels – an overview

    • I think that would be considered “high-brow lit” compared to the books I’m talking about. Also, it’s historical only in the sense that it involves time travel; it’s not a period piece. Nit-picky enough for ya? 😉

  1. I segregate my readings into three:
    – Escape into the world that does not exist,
    – Learn something new, interesting and factual, and
    – Open up some new philosophical horizons.

    Since I wouldn’t be caught dead reading sci-fi or gasping for air over some glittering vampire, the historical romance novels have always been the “escape into the world that does not exist” category for me.

    Now, I’m not sure that “historical romance novel” term has the same meaning for me as it has for you.
    On my planet (the land of trivial and vague expressions strongly supported by English as a Second, or in my case fourth, Language) the “historical” has nothing to do with the actual history per se, but rather it means that (mostly) fictional story takes place in the time long before my time: Louis the 14th France; Regency, Georgian England, (ah), the Victorian era; turn of the century and/or all the way to the end of the Second World War (handsome Jewish-communist -doctor in the arms of a passionate German vixen unhappy in the marriage to her cold-hearted-Nazi-husband, under the cloak of danger on every page = steamy).

    Contrasting my preferred readings, my real life heroes always have big blue eyes, million dollar smile and an infectious sense of humor.
    My actual hero (the one I married) dances only when he’s drank; he wears long sleeves to the beach because he burns like a marshmallow in the camp fire and he’s terrified of spiders. He is, without a doubt my ideal, larger-than-life-hero.

    Nonetheless, the unreal calls my name every few months and I can’t help but pick up a book.
    My favorite author who creates the unreal that I love to visit is Mary Balogh, a Canadian novelist whose most intriguing heroines are often not really the “lady-material”. Some of them are courtesans, some are troubled otherwise, but most of them are fallen or damaged women, the aspect of the story that really challenges the times portrayed in the background. I, for one, prefer these women to the innocent, yet worldly virgins found in most of the other historical romance novels.

    Have you ever read anything from Mary Balogh?