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Romance is history
After this week’s glittering Romantic Novelist Association Awards ceremony, Richard Lee looks at the modern take on historical romance...
Monday night’s ceremony for the Romantic Novelist Association Awards (the RoNAs) very much showcased the glamour of the genre.
Here was the radiant Darcey Bussell handing out gongs, the ever-witty Helen Fielding (who took away a lifetime achievement award) making us sputter on our "fizz", and a panoply of bestsellers and industry insiders – including Chris White, Waterstones’ own fiction buyer and a competition judge - enjoying plush Whitehall rooms overlooking the London Eye. It was undeniably… romantic.
Behind the showbiz, though, the plight of historical romance is an interesting one. You’d have to go back to the seventies to find a time when it was last shouting in the mainstream in the UK. The infamous ‘Clinch’ covers (toned male torso clasps crinolined beauty) may still be possible in the US, but ‘bodice rippers’ are definitely bodice RIP-ped over here. Even hugely successful TV shows like Downton Abbey or Call the Midwife have led to only limited ‘copycat’ publishing.
So what is modern historical romance like? A look at the RoNA shortlists shows the four main categories:
1. Romance around high-born women, courts, and iconic dates in history.
Any romance, we know, for these women is scrutinized for more than its simple gossip value, and its successes and vicissitudes play themselves out on a national stage. Big name authors in this field are Philippa Gregory (The White Princess) and Elizabeth Chadwick (The Summer Queen). This year’s RoNA shortlist (chosen by readers) featured two debut novelists to watch out for: Carol McGrath writing on Edith Swan-Neck the ill-starred Handfasted Wife of King Harold, and Joanna Hickson writing a continuation of the story begun in Shakespeare’s Henry V, The Agincourt Bride.
2. Romance on a domestic scale, but rooted in accurately realized period milieus
– and drawing their drama specifically from those elements of the past that are unlike the present. Think Tracy Chevalier (The Last Runaway) and Sarah Dunant (The Birth of Venus). This year’s RoNAs highlighted Charlotte Betts, whose The Painter’s Apprentice tackles the artistic world of late 17th century London and Annie Murray whose The Women of Lilac Street charts multiple lives in between-the-wars Birmingham.
3. The romance of the exotic
- women in foreign, unpalatable, unchosen and difficult situations where, in a sense, their powerlessness underlines the romance. Amy Tan (The Valley of Amazement) and Kate Furnival (Shadows on the Nile) would be leading exponents in this strand. But this year’s RoNAs again promoted less-well-known names Christina Courtenay, whose The Gilded Fan includes a wonderful evocation of the trade routes between Japan and England in the late 17th century, and Liz Harris’ mail-order-bride story set in classic cowboy-era Wyoming at the end of the 19th century: A Bargain Struck.
The RoNAs have an entirely separate award for this, so popular it is today. They call it the "Epic" romantic – but I would call them "Who Do You Think You Are" stories. Often set in multiple time periods, they explore the buried or forgotten romances of the past. They are family-based – even genealogical – full of secrets and discoveries, by turns poignant and tragic in their quest for reconciliation. Big name authors here are many. Kate Morton (The Secret Keeper), Victoria Hislop (The Thread), Rosie Thomas (The Kashmir Shawl) or Katherine Webb (The Misbegotten) would all be good starting points for exploring this genre. The RoNA shortlist celebrated new and established authors. Most ranged across the 20th Century from a base in the UK: Lucinda Riley’s The Midnight Rose, is set in England and India; Kate Lord Brown’s The Perfume Garden, England and Spain' Mary Fitzgerald’s Love of a Lifetime, England and Burma; Emma Fraser’s When the Dawn Breaks in Scotland, France and Burma. Jessica Blair’s The Road Beneath Me and Jennifer McVeigh’s The Fever Tree track back to the 19th Century in Scotland and South Africa.
So - for all that we eschew the more obviously "passionate" tales of the past, I think we can be certain that readers still love history, and are still fascinated with the emotional stories that connect them with their forebears.
And the winners were:
Christina Courtenay’s The Gilded Fan won the Historical Romance of the Year RoNA in a tale mixing the trade routes to Japan and the English Civil War.
Debut author Jennifer McVeigh’s The Fever Tree won the Epic Romantic Novel of the Year with a vivid tale against the backdrop of diamond mining in 1880s South Africa.
The overall winner of the Romantic Novel of the Year was:
Veronica Henry, A Night on the Orient Express
For a history fan such as myself, it's clearly a poor choice, because it is not historical… even though the Orient Express is imbued with history. But I'll let it slide since the author hails from Devon.
Richard Lee, for Waterstones.com/blog