Bodice Ripper

Discussing Bodice Rippers and Historical Romance #1

“Bodice ripper” can be used as a pejorative term by those not too familiar with the romance genre or those readers & authors of romance who try to distance themselves from those older “problematic” books. In defense of the bodice ripper–the true bodice ripper, not just historical romance–it was that genre that heralded the new era of romance, creating something never seen before. 

Up until Avon released The Flame and the Flower, romances were limited to books like Barbara Cartland’s vast stable of saccharine stories, Georgette Heyer’s light regencies, mild Mills and boons/Harlequins, medical romances, Gothics, and historical romantic fiction. If a female reader wanted a little bit more raciness, there was the grandmother of the bodice ripper, Edith Hull’s The Sheikh and its sequels, lurid pulp-fiction books released by prolific paperback distributors, or authors like Harold Robbins, Jacqueline Susann, and Jackie Collins who had come on the scene in the 1960s.  

Mainstream romance and raciness just didn’t mix. They were always sweet, ending in kisses of fade to black love scenes.  

Then in 1972 came the now-reviled bodice ripper, which at the time was a vaunted expression of women’s liberation. Thanks to Kathleen Woodiwiss, Rosemary Rogers, and the women (and men) who followed in their footsteps, romances took on larger scope, as heroines went through the fires of hell and back to get her love, and yes, the books could be violent, including issues like forced seduction or even rape. Sometimes the heroine had multiple lovers, in other stories, the hero would be her one and only lover.  

Personally, I’m all about the bodice ripper. Too many modern romances don’t do it for me.  I have little interest in reading about the Dukes, Marquises, and rest of gentry who inhabit most contemporary historical romance, with scoundrels who aren’t really scoundrels at all, and book titles that allude to unnecessary guides to seduction, since half the heroines have no sense of historical propriety and willingly take on the heroes as lovers yet refuse to get married because he doesn’t love her. So interested in becoming a critique of manners or society a la Jane Austen–just with more explicit sex scenes–many books forget to be first and foremost, fun. 

I’m a fan of the old-school, schlocky, purple-prosed-written historical romances & vintage Harlequins Presents, and proud of it. Like good B-movies, they never pretended to be more that what they were. Maligned as chauvinistic junk (and admittedly, some were, but so what?) most were historically accurate, adventurous epics that had plots that (sans sex) would make Zane Grey or even Sir Walter Scott proud.  

Thanks to romance authors, like Roberta Gellis or Deana James, and many others, I know more about medieval politics, the American Old West, nautical terms, archaic social mores, and wars (Napoleonic, American and English Civil, the Crimean, and the American and French Revolutions) than I ever learned in school. Of course, I got my information from other sources, but the older romances were often quite historically authentic in facts and mindsets.  

From what I’ve seen on romance forums and blogs is that among a substantial number of readers, there’s a yearning for a return to the best of “retro,” just not necessarily bringing back the raped-by-every-man-the-heroine-meets plot lines nor the absolute requirement of a pure, virginal heroine who stays faithful while the hero sleeps around). There’s a desire for more variety, for different characters; for heroes who have more depth than just being the required alpha rake (which has become a watered-down trope); a heroine who grows from the first page to the last; a variety of locations and historical settings besides Georgian, Regency & Victorian Great Britain; fewer wallpaper historicals; more adherence to cultural norms than inserting modern mindsets; and more than just sex to a love story.  

Good writing doesn’t hurt, too. Although, readers seem very forgiving in that regard if you give them an engaging story. The story is paramount; it is for me, anyway. That’s one of the reasons why I love older romances so much; they knew how to keep a reader turning the pages to the very end.  

What do you think about this topic? Are old-school historicals and bodice rippers relics of a by-gone era, interesting to look at as one would museum artifacts, but of no worth to today’s readers? Do you wish more romances would be like they were in the 1970s, 1980s, or even the 1990s, or you satisfied with how the historical romance genre has transformed to what is today?  

Please drop a comment and let’s talk about romance novels! 

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Please drop a comment and let's talk romance!