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
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
Capitalizing on the success of The Flame and the Flower, Rosemary 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.
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
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
Johanna Lindsey‘s 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 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 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.
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
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
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?
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.
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
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
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
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.
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!