History of the Romance Novel
Romance novels have been around for almost as long as published books have. Maybe even longer, since many scholars point to the oral traditions of telling stories about the power of love to conquer all as being early forms of romance fiction.
As a literary form, the romance novel probably first appeared in the nineteenth century, as a class of popular literature known as “domestic fiction,” which were novels written by women for women. The books, which featured a poor but feisty heroine and little emphasis on a hero, sold extremely well, although the critics usually panned them.
Another precursor of the modern romance novel is the gothic. Popularized by authors like Ann Radcliffe, gothics featured spooky castles with secret passageways, mad relatives locked away in attics, and the occasional vengeful ghost.
Remember the fairytales you heard as a child? Beauty and the Beast. Cinderella. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. At the heart of each lies a classic romance plot that can still be found in modern love stories — granted, the hero might be the one who needs rescuing these days but the basic premise of the redemptive power of love remains the same.
For most people, however, three novels stand out as classic early romances:
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
The enigmatic Mr. Radcliffe. The brooding Heathcliff. The spunky Elizabeth Bennet. Who could forget these memorable characters? The work of Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters have stood the test of time and inspired many of the writers who came after them.
The Queen of Romance, Barbara Cartland
No discussion of the history of romance fiction could be complete without a mention of Barbara Cartland, who was as well known for her trademark pink outfits, large plumed hats, and ever-present Pekingese as she was for her romance novels. Her books — usually short, non — sexually explicit tales of a young, inexperienced woman and a worldly titled nobleman, who meet and fall in love amidst a tale of historical intrigue — thrilled generations of romance readers. At the height of her popularity during the 1980s, she wrote an average of twenty-three romance novels a year, almost all of them dictated to an assistant while Barbara reclined on a sofa.
Dame Barbara was the most prolific romance writer of the twentieth century. At the time of her death at age 98, she still had 160 romance novels completed and awaiting publication.
In 1991, Barbara Cartland received her highest career award when she was named a Dame of the British Empire for her literary contributions and volunteer work. Although she passed away in 2000, her legacy lives on in her 723 published books.
Then Along Came Harlequin …
Meanwhile, Mary Bonnycastle, the wife of Canadian publishing executive Richard Bonnycastle, had noticed a virtually untapped market for romance fiction and convinced her husband to turn their fledgling book publishing company, Harlequin Enterprises, in that direction in the late 1950s.
Until that time, Harlequin had been printing a mixture of genre fiction and nonfiction paperbacks. That changed, however, in the early 1960s, when they moved exclusively to printing romance fiction previously published in Great Britain by Mills and Boon. The staple of the Mills and Boon collection were medical romances.
Two popular forms of romances from the 1960s still published today in Great Britain — although in a modernized form — are the medical romance and the career romance. A medical romance was a romance between a male physician and a female nurse that was usually set in an exotic, glamorous locale. Career romances followed the same formula, except with professions other than the health-care field.
Rather than just offer their romance novels for sale in bookstores, Harlequin bucked tradition by making their books available in the places where women shopped most often — supermarkets, department stores, and drug-stores. It was a smart move, too.
Before long, sales of Harlequin's romances were skyrocketing. In fact, Harlequin romances, with their tales of an arrogant, older, and more financially stable male and a younger, virginal, and impoverished female — soon became synonymous with romance fiction itself.
The Heyday of Romance Fiction
While romance sales were hot, the books themselves got a whole lot hotter in the late 1970s with more sexually explicit fare such as Sweet Savage Love by Rosemary Rogers and The Flame and the Flower by Kathleen Woodiwiss. These steamier romances quickly climbed the bestseller charts and launched the careers of many talented new authors.
Harlequin Enterprises took the lead but soon publishers like Avon, New American Library, and Doubleday came on board with new lines for romance fiction. One of the most successful romance imprints of that time was Silhouette Books, an entity of Simon and Schuster. Harlequin Enterprises bought Silhouette in 1984 and it remains a strong component of the Harlequin romance empire today.
If you're like most people, when you think of a romance novel, you probably think of those historical romance covers from the 1980s and 1990s with handsome, muscular men and beautiful women in amorous — though mostly clothed — poses. Known in the industry as “the clinch,” these covers were a staple of the genre, but the books inside them were what mattered to the readers.
All of that seemed to change when a male model named Fabio Lanzoni appeared on the scene in the mid-1980s. Tall and muscular with flowing blond hair and smoldering good looks, the Italian hunk quickly became the next big thing in romance fiction, often drawing larger crowds at author gatherings than the authors did. Soon, other male hunks claimed the spot-light, but none had the lasting power of the “Great Blond One.”
Who did the cover art?
The creation of a historical romance cover was a complicated affair. First, a photographer posed the models in period costumes and photographed them. Then artists, such as Elaine Duillo, would paint the covers. The process could take several weeks. Ironically, in the case of many new writers, the artists were often paid more for the covers than the authors were paid for the books themselves.
But a romance reader's first love has always been the books themselves. Soon, the male cover models faded to the background as the emphasis again became focused on the stories inside.
Evolution of the Romance Novel
As times changed, so did romance novels. Gone were the virginal heroines and the arrogant, more experienced heroes. In their place were modern men and women, facing modern problems. Alcoholism, infidelity, abusive relationships — all become fodder for the fertile imaginations of the modern romance novelist.
Rather than being just “those silly little books,” romance novels had the financial clout needed to be taken seriously. Unfortunately, literary respect was another thing.