15 “Best” Old-School Historical Romances
Best Bodice Rippers or Just Old School Romance?
Sweet Savage Flame has compiled a list of “the best romance novels/ bodice rippers,” demonstrating the genre’s evolution in the last third of the 20th century. These are 15 old-school historicals we consider to be must-reads for those who wish to understand the roots of the romance industry.
Detractors of these novels may disparage them as mere bodice rippers. To us, a “bodice ripper” romance is a term of endearment. We embrace it without shame. Moreover, we appreciate how pivotal that (unfairly maligned) subgenre was in the era’s early years.
There are books on this list that, indeed, are “hardcore” bodice rippers–i.e., romances where the hero forces himself on the heroine. Such was the nature of the early years of the old-school romance era. But as the list goes into the late 1980s and the 1990s, they have disappeared.
This List Has Only Some of the Best Romances; There Are Many More
Sweet Savage Flame’s position on such controversial matters is never to shrink away from the past. We look back head-on and try to investigate, analyze, reflect, and understand.
Most of our picks are seminal works that transformed the industry’s evolution. A few are so notable or unforgettable we feel they merit special appreciation.
Links to our opinions and ratings are provided in the descriptions, but five of the fifteen listed are yet to be reviewed by our staff. We have read all of these and consider them essential reads. We aim to review all books on this list in the upcoming year.
Please note this is not a complete compilation of essential works. This is just a small sample of relevant texts from the thousands of paperback romances published from 1972 to 2000.
The List of 15 Romances to Read, in Chronological Order
#1 The Flame and the Flower
Kathleen E. Woodiwiss radically transformed the concept of the romance novel with The Flame and the Flower. Before its 1972 publication by Avon, romantic novels with happy endings never included “explicit” sex scenes between protagonists.
After the hero of The Flame and the Flower, Brandon Birmingham, mistakes the heroine, Heather, for a prostitute, he forces himself upon her. Too late, he discovers the girl is–was–a virgin.
Throughout this doorstopper of a book, Brandon violates Heather several more times before they mutually consent to make love. This is due to Brandon’s transformation into a kinder, more decent man, all to be worthy of Heather’s love.
Contemporary perspectives would consider Brandon’s behavior to be criminal. Nevertheless, fifty years ago, millions of readers were drawn to this love story, viewing the actions as part of the fantasy of “forced seduction.” This was ostensibly a plot device that allowed unmarried virgins to be sexually active without guilt.
The closed-door love scenes for “good girls” were now relics of the past. Although today we categorize The Flame and the Flower as old-school, it marked the start of the “modern era of romance.” The bodice ripper was born.
And the romance genre–and books overall–would never be the same.
#2 Sweet Savage Love
Capitalizing on the success of The Flame and the Flower, Rosemary Rogers‘ first book ratcheted up the melodrama and sexiness to a new level of extreme. Rape, forced seduction, multiple partners, cheating, and violence were prevalent parts of the story.
Women couldn’t get enough of it, catapulting Rogers to fame and riches.
Sweet Savage Love sold millions and millions of copies, resulting in several sequels and spinoffs.
This revolutionary Western told the tale of Ginny Brandon and Steve Morgan. Here, Rogers’ depicted a heroine who could enjoy sex with men besides the hero.
Inevitably, it seemed this type of ultra-sexual romp would mark the course of historical romances for the foreseeable future.
#3 Moonstruck Madness
Moonstruck Madness was Laurie McBain‘s second outing. This novel cemented her status as an Avon “Queen of Romance.” (Although–supposedly–McBain co-authored her romance novels with her father.)
This swashbuckling old-school historical romance was a huge best-seller and the first in a popular trilogy about the Dominick 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.
#4 The Silver Devil
The Silver Devil’s Duke Domenico is possibly the most extreme anti-hero ever to appear in an old-school romance novel.
Over 45 years after its publication, many readers frequently discuss this book still highly-talked about and consider it one of the best bodice rippers ever written. Teresa Denys’ first-person-POV romance with an Italian beauty is a gripping read from the very first lines.
The powerful and megalomaniacal Duke sees the heroine Felicia at her window, desires her, and soon purchases her from her brother. Domenico’s obsession over her reigns supreme; he goes into murderous rages at the slightest hint of jealousy.
The prose in The Silver Devil is magnificent. The scenes of violence and brutality are intense. The hero is…a complicated man. The novel ends with the typical HEA. Even so, it’s hard to see a happy ending lasting beyond the pages of this book.
If you’re fortunate enough to find the Ballantine edition with the H. Tom Hall cover, it could cost you up to several hundred dollars.
#5 Fires of Winter
Johanna Lindsey‘s third novel, Fires of Winter, was a Viking romance about a captive Welsh woman and her Nordic owner. Marauders raid Lady Brenna’s home, kill the men and enslave and ravish the women. They spare only Brenna from ravishment and violence as the Viking leader has plans for her. She is a valuable prize that he plans to gift as a slave to his youngest son.
Just over 300 pages long (half the length of Woodiwiss’ and Roger’s fat epics), Fires of Winter is a lean, action-packed lean, bodice ripper.
The theme here is all about the battle between the sexes. Although there is forced seduction/ rape, this romance has no cheating. That made quite a difference to many readers looking for monogamous love stories.
However, the couple does argue–a lot. This was a common trait of many of Lindsey’s earlier works.
Johanna Lindsey cemented her status as one of romance’s top best-selling authors with this bodice ripper. The Robert McGinnis romance novel cover design is legendary, featuring the first naked man on a romance cover.
#6 Skye O’Malley
Skye O’Malley is “The Queen of Erotic Romance,” Bertrice Small‘s piece de resistance–her magnum opus. She wrote over 50 novels, and this is her finest work.
In this Tudor-era romance, the beauteous Irish lass Skye O’Malley amasses numerous husbands, lovers, children, and enemies.
And many true loves.
This is the lustiest of bodice rippers. Skye experiences the most rollicking adventures any heroine in Romancelandia could only dream of.
#7 Savage Ecstasy
Janelle Taylor’s Savage Ecstasy wasn’t the first historical bodice ripper published by Zebra books. It wasn’t even the first best-seller out of Kensington’s flagship imprint. It was, however, the one that firmly marked the largest US independent publisher on the map as a major player.
In the decade that followed, Zebra would be a dominant force to be reckoned with in the romance field.
Savage Ecstasy sold over a million copies, as did its sequel, Defiant Ecstasy. It spawned a long-running series that told the love stories of Gray Eagle and Alisha and their children and their spouses.
Savage Ecstasy was one of the first publications of the enormously popular Native American romance subgenre. Readers consumed these romantic novels in droves until well into the 2000s.
Christine Monson’s Stormfire is perhaps one of the genre’s last hardcore bodice-rippers. Stormfire made some romantic novels of the 1970s appear tame in contrast.
This tale of vengeance is extreme in its brutality. Set in Regency Era England, Ireland and Napoleonic France, it keeps hitting the reader with action and insanity.
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.
Like that other romance, this is considered one of the best bodice rippers ever. Plus, it, too, is hard to find and expensive if you do!
#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.
#10 A Knight in Shining Armor
Jude Deveraux‘s A Knight in Shining Armor is a tear-jerker of a travel romance. Take note of the book’s cover. It was not Deveraux’s typical stepback or clinch cover but a simple design showing an encircled gauntlet holding a flower.
This was a sign of “respectability” for Deveraux, signifying that she was one of Pocket Books‘ most successful authors. A Knight in Shining Armor had been released in a hardcover edition in 1989 before being printed in paperback, extremely rare for romance writers, who had always been associated with with “pulp” genres.
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?
#11 Gentle Rogue
Yes, Johanna Lindsey appears twice on this list–for a good reason.
Lindsey’s Gentle Rogue might not be historically accurate as for a Regency romance. 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–is, at its core, a historical romance that features time travel. The married-in-the-future heroine, Claire, comes off as improbably perfect (in one scene, she fights a wolf and kills it with her bare hands!).
Jamie Frasier, however, is a favorite hero of many romance readers.
Outlander has been adapted into a popular television show, introducing new fans to this already successful novel.
#13 Flowers from the Storm
Flowers from the Storm by the talented Laura Kinsale is an absolutely unusual yet stellar romance. Kinsale’s writing is superb. Romance is at its intellectual best here.
The plot is this: a disreputable rogue of a man succumbs to a stroke.
The Earl of Jervaulx is mainly paralyzed and incapable of speech. A prim Quaker mathematician takes on the daunting task of rehabilitating him. Soon, they discover that he has a secret baby from his married mistress when the child is dropped off at his home.
How can such two disparate people be happy together?
This emotional, exquisitely written book is one of the 1990s best romance novels and deserves a look.
#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.
#15 Lord of Scoundrels
In Loretta Chase’s old-school Regency-era romance, Lord of Scoundrels, The Marquess of Dain was abused as a child for his ugliness and 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 against him. She then changes course and fall in love.
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 remained paramount in the genre.
Again, this is not a complete syllabus of the best historical books in romance. We could have made this list much longer, but we settled on only 15 books. Now we want to hear from you.
What old-school historical romance do you think we left off this list? Do you agree or disagree with our choices? Do you think any of these books rank as the best in romance?
How do you feel about bodice ripper romances? If you were creating a list of best contemporary romances, which books would you choose?
As always, please drop a comment, and let’s talk romance!
Really like those 15, keep it up!
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
Thanks, Jacqueline. I just might take you up on your offer!