15 Old School Historical Romances That Revolutionized the Genre

15 old school romances

Must-Read Old School Historical Romance

Sweet Savage Flame has compiled a list of 15 old-school historical romances that we think are absolute must-reads for those wishing to understand the genre’s roots. Published before the 2000s, they caused radical changes in the industry.

Detractors of these books may disparage them as mere bodice rippers.

To us, “bodice ripper” is a term of endearment. It’s a pivotal subgenre of romance. Although many books on this list are bodice rippers, some are not.

Most of these picks are seminal works in the genre. Others are so notable or unforgettable, that they merit special appreciation.

Please note, that we at Sweet Savage Flame haven’t yet reviewed all of these. However, we recognize their importance to romance history. Our aim is to review all books on this list in the upcoming year.

The List In Chronological Order

The Flame and the Flower

#1

flame and flower

Kathleen E. Woodiwiss changed the romance novel industry with this book. It included “explicit” sex scenes between the protagonists. Though the hero of The Flame and the Flower forces himself upon the heroine, some readers would now refer to it as “forced seduction.”

In other words, this was a plot device for an unmarried virgin heroine to be sexually active. All the while, she would still be considered a “moral” girl.

The closed-door love scenes for “good girls” were now a relic of the past. Even though we now call it old-school historical romance, the modern era of romance had arrived. The bodice ripper was born. And the romance genre, overall, would never be the same.


Sweet Savage Love

#2

sweet savage love

Capitalizing on the success of The Flame and the FlowerRosemary Rogers‘ first book ratcheted things up to another level. Rape, forced seduction, multiple partners, cheating, and violence were prevalent. 

Sweet Savage Love sold millions of copies, spawning several sequels.

This pivotal epic showed the heroine could enjoy sex with men besides the hero. It seemed that this type of ultra-sexual romp would mark historical romances for the foreseeable future.


Moonstruck Madness

#3

moonstruck madness

Moonstruck Madness was Laurie McBain‘s second outing. It was the novel that made her an Avon “Queen of Romance.”

This swashbuckling romance was a huge hit and the first in a popular trilogy about the Dominic Family. The plot differed from Woodiwiss’ and Rogers’ works in that lovemaking was consensual. There was no bed-hopping and the violence was not gratuitous.

Moonstruck Madness was a kinder, gentler offering with no bodice-ripping in sight.

Fans flocked to the more tender romantic style. It ultimately produced long-term success.


The Silver Devil

#4

the silver devil

The Silver Devil‘s Duke Domenico is possibly the most extreme anti-hero ever written in an old-school historical. Teresa Denys‘ first-person-POV romance about an Italian beauty is still one of the highly-talked-about bodice rippers. She is purchased by the powerful Duke and his obsession over her reigns supreme.

The prose in The Silver Devil is magnificent. The scenes of violence and brutality are intense. The hero is…a complicated man, to say the least. The novel ends HEA. But it’s hard to see a happy ending lasting beyond the pages of this book.


Fires of Winter

#5

fires of winter

Johanna Lindseys third novel, Fires of Winter, was a Viking romance about a captive Welsh slave and her Nordic owner. This bodice ripper is all about the battle between the sexes.

Although there is forced seduction/ rape, there is no cheating, which makes a lot of difference to many readers.

Lindsey cemented her status as one of romance’s best-selling authors with this bodice ripper. The Robert McGinnis artwork is legendary for featuring the first naked man on a romance cover.


Skye O’Malley

#6

skye o'malley

Skye O’Malley is “The Queen of Erotic Romance” Bertrice Small‘s piece de resistance, her magnum opus. In this Tudor-era set romance, the beauteous Irish lass Skye O’Malley amasses husbands, lovers, and enemies.

This is the lustiest of bodice rippers. Skye experiences the most rollicking adventures any heroine in Romancelandia could only dream of.


Savage Ecstasy

#7

savage ecstasy

Savage Ecstasy wasn’t the first Zebra historical romance. It wasn’t even the first successful book out of Kensington’s flagship imprint. But it was this Western historical that put the largest US independent publisher on the map. 

Zebra was a dominant force to be reckoned with in the romance field.

Janelle Taylor‘s Savage Ecstasy sold over a million copies. So did its sequel, Defiant Ecstasy.

Savage Ecstasy spawned a sub-genre of Native American romances, which romance readers consumed in droves.


Stormfire

#8

stormfire

Christine Monson’s Stormfire is perhaps one of the genre’s last true hardcore bodice-rippers. Stormfire made some books of the 1970s appear tame in contrast. This tale of vengeance is extreme in its brutality.

From the moment the heroine is kidnapped and violated by the hero, we can see this is not a romance for the faint-hearted.

Like The Silver Devil, Stormfire transcended its seemingly sordid content through thoughtful, superb writing, and intense characterization.


Whitney, My Love

#9

whitney my love

Whitney, My Love by Judith McNaught is the story of a gawky, coltish girl in love with a charming young man who barely notices her.

She goes off to finish school and returns a beauty. Then Whitney Stone finds herself forced into marriage with the dark Duke of Westmoreland. After a tumultuous beginning, they slowly learn to love one another.

Whitney, My Love is a beloved classic to this day. It reinvented the Regency romance by making it more sensual and increasing the page length and scope.


A Knight in Shining Armor

#10

a knight in shining armor

Jude Deveraux’s A Knight in Shining Armor is a tear-jerker of a travel romance. The heroine, Douglass, is transported back to Tudor-era England and falls in love with an Elizabethan knight. Things take a twist when she returns to the future.

And so does the hero! But now he doesn’t recognize her.

The pair fall in love both in the past and the present eras. Will they ever find their forever somewhere in time?


Gentle Rogue

#11

gentle rogue

Yes, Johanna Lindsey appears twice on this list, and for a good reason. Lindsey’s Gentle Rogue might not be historically accurate. Yet it’s so whimsical, romantic, witty, and the best of her Malory series, it’s a gem!

James Malory is an absolute cad. The tables are turned on him when he falls in love with a beauty disguised–quite poorly–as a cabin boy. Then Georgina abandons him at a port.

He’ll have to deal with the wrath of her five older brothers to get things straightened out.


Outlander

#12

outlander

Although Diana Gabaldon has said that Outlander is not a romance novel, it does qualify as one if you consider it a standalone.

It has the two elements required for the genre: a central love story that ends HEA. Although the subsequent books in the series would separate the lovers through time and space, the first entry is pure romance.

Outlander–or Cross-Stitch as it’s known elsewhere–at its core is a historical romance that features time travel. The married-in-the-future heroine, Claire, comes off as improbably perfect. Jamie Frasier, on the other hand, is a favorite hero of many romance readers.


Flowers from the Storm

#13

flowers from the storm

Flowers from the Storm by the talented Laura Kinsale is an absolutely unusual romance. A disreputable rogue of a man succumbs to a stroke.

The Earl of Jervaulx is mainly paralyzed and incapable of speech. A Quaker mathematician takes on the daunting task of rehabilitating him. There’s a secret baby from his married mistress.

This emotional, exquisitely written romance deserves a look.


Dreaming of You

#14

DREAMING OF YOU

Although we prefer its predecessor Then Came You, the Regency-era romance Dreaming of You by Lisa Kleypas is a monumental book that catapulted the author to superstardom.

Readers adore the hero, Derek Craven. The sexy, snaggle-toothed London rough pulled himself up by his bootstraps. He now runs a gaming hall and brothel.

Craven falls for a curious, bespectacled young woman named Sara. She turns his entire world asunder with her wondering innocence.


Lord of Scoundrels

#15

LORD OF SCOUNDRELS

The Marquess of Dain grew up thinking himself worthless. So he now engages in a life of debauched chaos. Dain meets his match in Jessica Trent, who initially seeks vengeance, and then finds love with him.

However, after he dishonors her, Jessica shoots Dain. This makes Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels a controversial romance in some eyes and a must-read in others.

While the rippers of the 1970s were now a remnant of the past, the power dynamics between males and females still remained paramount in romance.


Your Opinion

We want to hear from you. What historical romances do you think we left off this list? Do you agree or disagree with our choices? If you were creating a must-read list of contemporary romances, which books would you choose?

As always, please drop a comment, and let’s talk romance!

8 thoughts on “15 Old School Historical Romances That Revolutionized the Genre”

  1. The Windflower by Sharon and Tom Curtis writing as Laura London is my all time favorite historical. Beautifully written. If only this amazing duo would bring us more!

  2. Love’s Tender Fury by Jennifer Wilde was from the 70’s and 80’s and actually written by a man, Tom E. Huff. It was the first in a trilogy series about heroin Marietta Danver. The story brings us from the Newgate jail cells of England to the New Orleans and the old plantations in America. Then the pirate islands of the Caribbean and ending with a trek through the wilds of Russia and the court of Catherine the Great. Marietta goes through many lovers but Lord Derek Hawke and Jeremy Bond are the heroes switching back and forth and one does not really know which man she will be with at the end of the Trilogy. Rosemary Rogers called it her kind of book, bold racy and exciting- couldn’t put it down. She was right!

  3. Just read A Knight in Shining Armor by Jude Deveraux. My sister recommended it to me and she said it was the only book she ever rereads. I love HR. Not this one. I was pulling my hair out! The constant crying really made me lose it.
    Others on the list I enjoyed and recommend today. Laura Kinsale’s Flowers from the Storm is excellent as are some, not all, of her others. Lord of Scoundrels. Yessss! Love her writing.
    Tried Woodiwiss but couldn’t get into.
    Appreciate the list.

  4. I’ve been reading romance since the early 80’s and my first was Flame and the Flower. The romance genre would not be what it is without these pioneering authors who had the vision to understand that romance needed to evolve.
    You hit on a trend with what I call the epic novels. The romance sees the hero and heroine through out many years with devastating separations and other partners. The Black Swan (sadly I cannot remember the author) as an example.
    Really enjoyed you list and to have a chance to talk about books.

    1. The author of The Black Swan is Day Taylor. One of the best HR I’ve ever read. It’s no longer in print. I’m so thankful I still have my copy.

  5. Thanks, Jacqueline. Interesting list.

    Much as I love vintage contemporary romances, I wouldn’t presume to compile a comparable list. I doubt my favorites would be on anyone else’s list. Or vice versa.

    W. H. Auden once wrote, “Pleasure is by no means an infallible critical guide, but it is the least fallible.” I take this to mean that a reader should go by what she’s already enjoyed in determining what to read next and in what to recommend to others. Not what made literary/publishing history. Or sold best. Or won prizes. Or attained the most prestige. Or influenced the writing of other books.

    But not every reader agrees with me. So here are your recommendations. As for mine, well, follow your heart!

    1. Oh, Mary Anne, I agree! To a certain extent, however. If I had made a list of my personal favorite 15 historical romance novels, some books from this list would be included, but most others would not be. It would be a list tailored to my peculiarly personal tastes, probably 90% featuring blond heroes, lots of historical authenticities, heroines true to their times, and most set during the medieval era.

      In an attempt to show no favoritism, I compiled this list, as it features books “an academic” studying the genre might want to be familiar with. Or possibly, give a novice to the genre a place to start.

      I plan on making more lists, none of them definitive or absolute, but to encourage discussion.

      If you’d ever like to post a list of your favorites, in no general order, just for fun, that would be great. It doesn’t matter how personal, obscure, or whatever, I’m truly interested in what different books strike different readers’ fancies and why. If a reader likes a book or not, that opinion is as valid as the critics’ or bestseller lists.

      These lists are just that: lists of books that may or may not strike interest. I think they merit some talking about. For example, I put Flowers from the Storm on this list, as it’s such a game-changer in that it made the hero basically an invalid for the entire book who could barely speak. The heroine uses her resourcefulness to help rehabilitate him. It begins with him knowingly impregnating his mistress. A hard character to like and root for. But it’s a book I’d like to hear other people’s opinions about.

      I enjoy talking about the romances people love and why, even if I differ in opinion.

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