Dear Author recently published a controversial article calling for the death of the historical romance novel. The central idea was that the historical needs to die and be born again into something less predictable and formulaic.
I’ve been mulling over this proposition for a week, trying to figure out how I feel about it. I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t love the idea. I find that with the historicals I love, I found because I want exactly what historicals have traditionally offered: the landed gentry, the restrained courtship of the day, the lovely subtlety that the Regency period in particular provides.
There are some who manage to produce amazing, vivid, beautiful, wrenching novels from these constraints. Authors like Sarah MacLean, Meredith Duran, and Sherry Thomas have lifelong fans in me. They respect the era while also delivering fresh stories. Other authors take the trope and try to infuse a modern sensibility into it and it fails. I’ve read historicals that really should be contemporaries. That’s always frustrating – I pick up historicals because I want historicals, not because I want a revised historical, sterilized of all controversy (i.e., the lack of women’s agency, slavery).
I concede that Regency novels may be overdone. But whose fault is that? The way I see it, if readers craved steampunk historicals or novels about Revolutionary America publishers would publish them.
Maybe authors are locked into the Regency period because that is such a romantic period, the low hanging fruit of lovely dresses, pretty balls, and rich, gallant dukes. Maybe it is lazy, but those books sure do go down easy.
And they’re not just fluff, at least not always. Meredith Duran’s A Lady’s Lesson In Scandal brought to life London’s East End poverty in a way I’ve never experienced before, even through my own research. I actually learned something in that book. I’m not sure I could have really pictured the grittiness of Bethnal Green without that book. That book really stands out as an example of what historical romance can be.
I’m still waiting to find a romance set in the medieval period that would affect me the same way. I’ve read a lot of time travel romance from that era, and it is nearly always disappointing, but that means the market is wide open for both authors and publishers. And how about we move away from England and look at the rest of Europe? I’ve been craving some great French historicals and have found little to satisfy. The rest of the world – from China to the Caribbean – is also untapped. Secrets of Sin by Chloe Harris, an erotic romance, took place in the Caribbean, and while I enjoyed the book, it didn’t feel very historical.
There is a lot of room for expansion and improvement in the genre, but to see it wither before that great reformation? No way. I believe that I will try my hand at a Regency within the next three years. I might not actually succeed at it, but I have an idea brewing and I’d like to try.
I just hope the genre doesn’t die before I get my hands on it.