Ask Your Pop Culture Concierge - Should I Be Reading Historical Romance Novels?

It's hard to look away from the news right now, but when you can tear your eyes away, you might find historical romances a fun escape.

Bridgerton is a new Netflix Original Series, part of Shonda Rhimes' production deal with the streaming giant. It is based on a series of books by Julia Quinn, an extremely prolific author of (mainly) historical romances. Each book in the series features one sibling of the aristocratic Bridgerton family. The eight episode first season is a fairly close adaptation of book one, The Duke and I. I won't do a full review of the show here, except to say that I liked it (but the books were better!) For a few quick notes, the costumes and sets were amazing, the translation of a few characters from page to screen far exceeded my hopes (specifically the Duke of Hastings, played by Regé-Jean Page and Lady Danbury, played by Adjoa Andoh) and the narration by Julie Andrews was of course, delicious. The story follows Daphne Bridgerton as she and the Duke stage a fake romance but, of course, fall in love. I think it's pretty entertaining even though I prefer the source material.

*Note* In case you haven't read ANYTHING about this show, I have to warn you it's legit steamy, starting early on in E1. While some romance novels are called "closed-door" (meaning sex happens off the page and is only referred to euphemistically), Bridgerton is decidedly NOT that.

Maybe you've already watched Bridgerton, you enjoyed it, and are wondering if you might like romance novels. Welcome to Romancelandia! What is that, you ask?  It's the term used to describe everything related to romance novels - the different genres available, the place of romance in the publishing world, and the community of readers and writers who discuss it all passionately. My own interest and appreciation of romance novels started just five years ago, when I listened to this episode of Pop Culture Happy Hour. The panel was so enthusiastic about the different authors and novels discussed, it really peaked my interest. In the years since I've become a big fan of many romance authors and while I don't have the same expertise as you'll hear on the podcast, I know enough to echo many of their recommendations and share a few of my own.

First I'll mention that there are MANY classifications of romance novels: Historical (which itself has many sub-categories, such as Regency, Gilded Age, Medieval and more), Contemporary, Paranormal/Urban Fantasy, Suspense and much much more. For today I'll just focus on some of my favorite historical authors and books.

*Note* - I'm not sure if this is Bridgerton related or what, but most of the titles I'm sharing are showing as backorder on Bookshop, which is where I usually refer readers for book purchases. While I normally prefer to promote independent bookstores, for this post I'll link to Amazon in case you're interested in ordering.

Tessa Dare

If you listen to the PCHH podcast I linked to above, you'll hear the reverence with which they discuss Tessa Dare. Dare's books ended up being the first historical romances I tried, and I've been delighted by her work ever since. For one thing, her writing is FUNNY. Her characters have a great wit, and her stories are a good representation of what I'll call modern constructions of historical romances:

  • Chapters generally switch perspectives between the two protagonists (it takes some getting used to it but it's VERY prevalent in romance)
  • There is often an overt feminism to the stories, inasmuch as the real injustice endured by women in the era portrayed is overtly addressed, and the heroine (plus the best heroes) fight back against the patriarchy that limits their freedom so very much
  • If you're looking for 100% historical accuracy you will be super-irritated by most romance novels and should probably avoid. This is not a problem for me but if you get pulled out a story because of anachronistic language be forewarned that will likely happen a lot.

Dare has several series, and I'd recommend the books in Castles Ever After, starting with book one.

Two other historical romance authors I really enjoy are Lisa Kleypas and Julie Anne Long. Long tends to inject a bit more humor into her stories, but otherwise both are similar in that their books are consistently well-written with engaging protagonists and a good balance of story and swoon.

Wallflowers is a good Kleypas series to start with. It's best to read these in order, and I particularly like the first and third installments. In fact, book three is probably one of the most beloved novels in Romancelandia, with a heroine with a surprising amount of moxie and a thorough scoundrel for a hero.

Long is most famous for her Pennyroyal Green series, which is follows two families, the Everseas and the Richmonds. Each book follows someone in these two families, and the tension that has existed between them for generations. It's important to read these books in sequence, because the hero of the final book, Lyon Redmond, haunts each previous installment with whispers of his star-crossed romance with Olivia Eversea. Start with book one and enjoy - Long is really good at this.

Each of these authors have a LOT of books, so if you like what you read there's much more to be found!!!  Final note - I'd say that each author writes on the spicier end of the spectrum. This isn't erotica, but it definitely leaves the bedroom door open.

Stay well and safe and take care of yourselves. I hope you find lots of ways to nurture yourself as we navigate these uncharted times!