The History of Historical Romance

History of HR FlattenI don’t like history.

That’s a strange thing to hear from a person who reads (quite compulsively, even) historical romance! But it’s true. I avoided the subject at school and every time a museum visit came up, I spent the day feeling like I was trying to keep awake at 2 o’clock in the morning. Yet once I moved on from school stories and teen fiction, the first adult novel I read was a historical romance: Love Comes Softly, by Janette Oke. And I haven’t stopped reading them since. I have even written a historical romance myself.

So why the change of heart? Quite simply, because of the romance! And I’m not just talking about two characters falling in love, overcoming odds, drifting apart and then finally coming together at the end for a much-anticipated kiss. ‘Romance’ also refers to “a quality or feeling of mystery, excitement, and remoteness from everyday life” (Collins dictionary definition). I enjoy a good love story, but I also like a little adventure that takes me from the real world for a while. Historical romance does exactly that – it removes you from the mundane and takes you to a place where you can experience an entirely different way of living.

Its widespread popularity indicates that I’m not alone in enjoying these sojourns into the past. There are countless authors carrying this trend along, both mainstream and Christian authors alike: Phillippa Gregory, Lesley Pearse, Siri Mitchell, and Karen Witemeyer, just to name a handful. But it hasn’t always been this way. What, then, is the ‘history’ of historical romance? What led to its popularity? I’ll aim to answer these questions; but most importantly, I want to consider how this genre has been overtaken and used for the glory of God. To build His Kingdom and share with readers His ultimate romance with mankind.

To look at historical romance and fully understand its roots, we need to look back into the early nineteenth century, when the broad genre of historical fiction first came into its own. The very first historical novel, Waverley by Sir Walter Scott, was published in 1814 and inspired the hunger for a vast number of novels centred on the past. Many of them however were either western tales or love stories; such popular fiction was considered tasteless and with little value (anything that the masses consumed was thought of as suspicious, it seems). In fact, Author Jerome de Groot says that historical novels were once classed as “bodice-rippers with a bibliography”.

Surprisingly, this prejudice was still evident in the literature world right up until the new millennium. Of course authors were still writing about the past – such as Arthur Golden with Memoirs of a Geisha or Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient – but their eloquent language and subsequent fame meant that their novels were set apart as ‘literary fiction’ and weren’t classified as low-brow historical fiction.

It is a very different story today. Perhaps the increasing presence of depressing news within our society (brought all the closer due to the media’s prevalence) has driven us to desire an escape from modern reality. As a well-convinced convert to the genre, I find there is something delightful in reading about a simpler life – and yet, sometimes a more glamourous and refined one. For example, I love imagining the fine gowns sweeping over ball room floors, the bowing to meet a new acquaintance, and the gentlemanly manners and sweet courtship that characterise the romance of the Regency period. Perhaps this innocence and gentility is something that we, in a sex-saturated and selfish culture, are subconsciously craving.

From the general historical novel came a wide variety of ‘hybrid genres’. Writers began combining different genres together to expand their works’ appeal, and the historical romance was thus born. However, with all due respect, I have to say that the term “bodice-ripper with a bibliography” could easily describe many historical romance novels in this genre today. While they may showcase fascinating and insightful explorations into the past, these novels are often peppered with sex and vulgarity, refusing to celebrate the purity and goodness of love that God intended.

That’s where the Christian historical romance comes in. Does this simply mean a cleaner, more family-friendly version of a mainstream romance? Yes. But does it mean a glossing-over of real life issues, an avoidance of the failings and struggles that often come with romantic relationships? Not necessarily – and I sincerely hope this continues to be the case. American author James Calvin Schaap, in a 1997 article titled “On Truth, Fiction and Being a Christian Writer”, bemoans how Christian fiction is over-sanitised due to the Christian Broadcast Association’s (CBA) strict moral guidelines. He suggests that novels can be so pure in their standards that they ignore a fundamental truth of life – the sinful nature of human beings.

I am pleased to say though that this article is now well and truly out-of-date. Writers are choosing to confront sin and its consequences in their novels, and they are not afraid to create ‘fallen’ characters – take Mariah Aubrey in Julie Klassen’s Girl in the Gatehouse, or the state of Rowdy Slater before his conversion in Marcus Brotherton’s Feast for Thieves. These characters are flawed, sinful, and human – which despite the years which separate their (fictitious) lives from our own, are still able to speak to us about questions of morality, repentance, and the beautiful state of grace in which we can now live.

I wrote a historical romance last year. When I tell people my genre I fear that, although they might smile and make a polite comment, inside they’re rolling their eyes and thinking of the erotic covers of a Mills and Boon or Harlequin romance. But that is not what my novel is and that is not what Christian historical romances are meant to be. Love is not only about physical intimacy. It is about sacrifice, self-denial, and genuine care for another person’s emotional and spiritual being, despite their flaws and failures. Above all, it is a gift first demonstrated through Jesus Christ upon that bloodied cross; a love that we should all desire to emulate. Christian historical romance seeks to demonstrate this type of pure, breath-taking love, both in the relationships created on the page and in the underlying themes of God’s passionate commitment to us all.

Does this mean that we should shy away from the problems from the world? Hardly. In fact, I’d encourage writers to explore these more. But it should be done in a way that sets Christian fiction apart for Christ – that doesn’t explore history or romance through the eyes of the carnal, but rather through eyes that seek to honour Him.

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