In 1972, editor Nancy Coffey picked the thickest manuscript from the slush pile and took it home because of its size. The title was The Flame and the Flower, the author was Kathleen E. Woodiwiss, and the age of the modern historical romance had begun. Those of us who read and write historical romance in all its permutations owe much to that fateful delve into the slush. Whether or not Woodiwiss is to one's taste, whether the alpha male provokes happy sighs or makes one recoil, and whether "forced seduction" is a fancier term for a much uglier word, one can argue this is where "those books" began.
Certainly, romantic tales set in times past have been in existence since somewhere around one day after the first novelist found the first reader. Serge and Anne Golon treated readers to the adventures of Angelique, Dame Barbara Cartland stunned booksellers with a truly remarkable number of titles, and Georgette Heyer flung open the doors that led to the popularity of the traditional Regency. Anya Seton regaled readers with the fictionalized tale of legendary real life lovers in her classic Katherine and added an eerie twist in A Green Darkness. Still, the advent of Kathleen Woodiwiss' debut brought in a new age for those who loved to read and write historical romance and a genre was born.
As with anything new, the critics soon followed. The new genre became "those books." Bodice rippers. Porn for women, though some of the founding mothers of the genre were actually founding fathers. (Jennifer Wilde, anybody?) Interchangeable, unrealistic sex scenes strung together for bored housewives. Very little could be farther from the truth, and such comments often did (and still do) come from those who have not read much if any of the genre. As more women began to take a new look at their work in and outside of the home, the heroines of historical romance novels embraced a variety of roles and eras. A heroine might be a middle Eastern princess, a pioneer woman, Viking maiden, member of any number of royal Courts, a pirate or privateer, among only a few, and could very well go to the ends of the world to secure her own happy ending, complete with a strong hero only she can tame.
Some sniggered at the covers, though the talents of artists such as Pino Danei and Elaine Duillo created lush, vivid or ethereal images to draw the eye across a bookstore aisle. When illustrator Elaine Duillo first spotted a headshot of Italian model Fabio Lanzoni, "those covers" came into full bloom. While some readers proudly displayed their covers, others preferred to take a more discreet tactic and cover the cover, perhaps one of the inspirations for the stepback cover that offers the best of both worlds.
While much has changed in the genre and the readership, the core is still the same. We read and we write for love, adventure, enjoyment, healing, respite, excitement, hope and as many other reasons as there are individuals. Nothing to be ashamed of there. Read those romances proudly, guys and gals.