The True Bodice Ripper Defined
While many people still use the phrase bodice ripper as a catch-all term for historical romance or for the romance genre in general, the true definition is much more narrow. A bodice ripper is a specific type of historical romance that existed starting in 1972 and more or less came to a halt somewhere in the mid to late 1990s.
Julia Quinn does not write bodice rippers. Courtney Milan certainly does not. Neither does Tessa Dare, although she cheekily has bodices ripped in a few of her books. Almost every mainstream historical author writing today writes “modern” historical romance, a completely different animal.
Fifty Shades of Gray is closer in essence to what a bodice-ripper is. However, having a domineering “alpha” hero, a virginal heroine, and titillating sex scenes alone does not constitute a bodice ripper. Add a historical setting to those factors and you have an old-school historical romance. The power play dynamic between the two sexes is a paramount theme, yet that is not the only quality inherent in a ‘ripper. There are many tropes or plot points that they can include and bodice rippers can vary greatly.
In the 1964 United States Supreme Court Case that dealt with obscenity, Jacobellis v. Ohio, Justice Potter Stewart said the following about pornography:
“I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [“hard-core pornography”], and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the [“medium”] involved in this case is not that.
The same can be said for the bodice ripper. I know one when I see one and they are hard to find these days. While rare, there have been a few attempts by some modern authors to capture that style in the last twenty years or so. They write what I call “neo-bodice rippers.”
The Neo-Bodice Ripper
What is a neo-bodice ripper? It is a book written in the 21st century that takes place at any time in history before World War II and may or may not included non-consensual sex between the hero and heroine, but it does include force of some kind.
The heroine might be raped by other men or have consensual intercourse with another partner. Perhaps many months or years pass in the story or the protagonists travel to various destinations. Characters who display historically accurate mindsets are a plus, yet not an absolute requirement, although history must play a relevant role in the novel. Most important to the story is the power-dynamic struggle between a man and woman to find a complementary love, one for the ages. A bodice ripper is an epic love story.
Examples of Neo-Bodice Rippers:
Claudia Dain’s 2000 Leisure romance debut, Tell Me Lies, features a pirate who captures and ravishes the heroine. I remember it was quite controversial at the time, as many readers and critics argued that the romance genre “had moved past that sort of thing,” whatever that means.
Anna Campbell’s Claiming the Courtesan, which was also her first book, was published by Avon in 2007 and was hailed as “Regency noir.” It had both fans and detractors when it was released. The story of the Duke of Kylemore’s single-minded pursuit of his mistress Soraya/Verity certainly held bodice-ripper aspects.
Adele Ashworth’s 2010 The Duke’s Captive, another Avon release, has been categorized by some readers as a bodice ripper for its dubious consent scenes between the hero and heroine.
Phoenix Sullivan’s 2011 Spoil of War told the Arthurian tale of Guinevere’s parents. The heroine was held hostage by the male protagonist and is violated several times by men other than the hero. It seems to be out of publication, however.
Indie author Carolyn Kairns’ 2012 outing, A Viking’s Love, was an unapologetic bodice ripper, with a Viking named Joran the Hard-Hearted who falls for his captive, Allisande. There is bodice-ripping, dubious consent, evil villains aplenty, and much more to be found in this book. There is a sequel, A Viking’s Promise, but I have not read that book yet. According to reviews, it does not seem not to be written in a bodice ripper style.
Italian author Nina Pennacchi’s Lemonade, published in 2015, has been heralded for its wonderful writing. However, the book has also has caused controversy due to the hero’s forceful ways with the heroine.
Another 2015 release, Kimberly Brody’s Virtue and Vice, has been called a bodice ripper for its erotic scenes, violence, and lack of consent.
Independent author Nicole Rene’s 2016 How the Warrior Fell and its sequel, 2017’s How the Warrior Claimed, set in the ancient world, both have strong-willed alpha heroes who pursue their heroines with fury and come close to violence with their intensity.
Your Thoughts on Bodice Rippers & Neo- Bodice Rippers
Have you read any of the books listed here and, if so, what are your opinions on them? Or have you come across a new historical romance that has a hero who’s crossed the line from overbearing alpha into true bodice-ripping territory?
Do you think authors in this day and age are afraid to take chances writing those kinds of stories, or are they just repelled by them? As readers, what are your thoughts on contemporary authors writing old-school-style books? Does the thought intrigue you, or would you prefer to read something else entirely?
Please, drop a comment and let me know what you think about neo-bodice rippers!