Historical Romances – What’s the Allure?

Historical romances. Putting these 2 words together seems almost an oxymoron in the world of “happily ever after”. For the contemporary romance author, writing a romance without an HEA is like committing hari kari in terms of potential sales, because romance readers demand that their heroes end up captain's surrendertogether. When they don’t, it’s a death knell for the book once the word gets out.

Historical romances almost never have an HEA. The best the reader can hope for is the ever elusive HFN. Do historical romance readers have different expectations than contemporary romance readers? Maybe they  have had their  hearts broken so many times they no longer expect their guys to end up together. Is part of the allure the thought of overcoming all odds –  not to be together forever, but to show just what the human spirit can endure? Do we long for days long gone by when men were men and no feat was impossible? Do these books have some sort of a cachet which appeals to the “intellectual” in those readers who love the genre?

I have been trying for some time to figure out the reasons for the popularity of historical romances and so far have not been able to crack the code. Not that there has to be a reason for the popularity of this sub genre which has been around for as long as romances have been published. But recently I was really depressed while reading a historical romance and I wondered why a writer would choose a plot that was such a downer. It’s bad enough to know that one of the protagonists will probably end up with a woman he’s forced to marry, or be killed – leaving his lover alone forever, but to write stories that have a thread of doom and gloom throughout is really pouring it on.

I do love historical romances but I admit that the books set around WW2 or later are more to my taste because the men don’t get sick from diseases long extinct such as scurvy – I won’t upset you by detailing the horrible symptoms and effects of diseases like this, let’s just say they are not pretty. I don’t think that reading romances is supposed to make you depressed! I can’t imagine love flourishing in such an environment and I wonder if the authors are at all upbeat when they are writing these stories. DotransgressionsHALF they take happy pills so that they don’t slit their wrists? 😀  I realize that this post will not make me the most popular person today, but I’m really curious about the allure of historical romances, given the built-in downsides of no HEA in a genre (romance) where this is  almost sacrilegious. I will confess that a few Age of Sail romances like Captain’s Surrender and Ransom are some of my most loved books,  and Transgressions is up there, still ….. IDK

 Do you read historical romances because the thought of the protagonists being jailed or ending up on the gallows, if they are caught having sex, makes the story more appealing and exciting? Or is the attraction the wonderful uniforms in Age of Sail romances and the pomp and ceremony in the books? Maybe the thought of ripping off those nice fancy uniforms and tight breeches gets the adrenalin pumping. 😀

Readers, do you feel uplifted when you read about the horrible conditions that the men have to endure for love and country (since in most of these books they are fighting one war or another)? Do you love these romances because they are about a past that didn’t have all the modern problems we endure today?  (At least there are no identity thefts in historical romances) 😀 Is it because these stories are set in an era where men had to rely on each other, brute strength, and maybe, just maybe, a bit of intelligence to survive?

 Writers, why do you love historical romances?  What’s the alllure of this sub genre? It can’t be easy – the research and amount of detail in the world building are incredible so I know you must love the different eras, but what are the other reasons why you write historical romances?

(I should point out, if it wasn’t clear, that I’m only discussing M/M historical romances which are quite different in terms of HEA than het historicals).

The floor is open for your brickbats. 😀
 lessons in temptation (samhain)
Eye of the Storm for ARe

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I live in Canada and I love big dogs, music, movies, reading and sports – especially baseball

107 comments

  • Glad my answer could help :). Are you going to post some sort of summary of all that we said the way you sometimes do? If so…good luck. You’re gonna need it. Lol.
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    And I’m not crazy about the “bad” sides of life in the 19th century or anytime before that…. if I did, or if I read about it, it would probably shake the romantic mood right out of me. I accept the plague, rocks in your bread, people throwing the contents of their chamber pots out of their windows in historical fiction, but in romance, I’d really rather not think of the fact normally the two people we see having sex would not have taking a bath in several weeks, at least. Although straight historical romance seems to have a knack for featuring characters that are surprisingly ahead of their time regarding the importance of taking a daily bath. I never really noticed if historical M/M do the same thing, probably because I’ve read much less of those. I’ll pay attention the next time.

    Reply
    • Mary
      I’ve given up on doing the summaries because this new site has generated too much work for me, plus I think that anyone interested in historical romances can read the actual answers.

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      I’m with you. Too much realism is a real turn off! I really don’t want the symptoms of the plague or scurvy or other horrible diseases explained in great detail – they are enough to turn me off romances for good!! I know it is important to note that the diseases existed, for the sake of historical accuracy, but since we don’t detail bowel movements or the debilitating effects of AIDS in contemporary romances, except in a genral way, why do we have to go into such great detail about this aspect of historical romances?

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      No baths would be a big issue for me. 🙁

      Reply
  • I know many men who are now living as openly gay men with their partner, but who have been married, fathered children, and loved their wives. Eventually their marriages ended. Some had supportive wives who understood what was going on and stepped aside gracefully; others suffered bitter and acrimonious divorces with lots of hurt and anger. And it’s not just men — women are also in the same situation. I have known several women who are out now, as lesbians, who have been married because that is what society “expects.” It is a long and painful process to come out to themselves and then their family and friends.

    If it is long and painful now, what must it have been like in the 18th and 19th century when, as others have said, there wasn’t even an understanding of homosexual love. To me, that implies a man did what he was supposed to do and as I said in an earlier post, that might include getting an erection and screwing his wife on a prn (as needed) basis to get her pregnant.

    I also think a distinction needs to be made between sex as an act (which may be procreative or something else — violence in the case of a rapist) and sex as an expression of intimacy. Certainly the latter is what we all enjoy and aspire to but the former is easy enough to accomplish when the situation requires it.

    L

    Reply
    • Leslie
      I only just saw your comment.

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      You’re quite right about the number of gay men who held their noses and had sex with wives and girlfriends for different reasons, but mostly for procreation, both in history and in the recent past. I know at least a couple of them. I wonder how “pleasurable” that must have been for them!

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      I’m so glad the extreme pressures that were placed on men in the 18th and 19th centuries are, for the most part, no longer imposed on them in today’s society. Now men can explain that they don’t consider procreation an important enough reason to get married. There’s always adoption or surrogates!

      Reply
  • Mark

    >>Think of it this way: it is basically masturbation with a vagina rather than a fist.<< ** What an analogy. I never would have thought of sex with a woman that way. 😀 ** As to where the idea comes from that gay men can't perform with a woman, that's what my gay friends tell me, and since I have had no personal experience with a gay man, I can't confirm or refute. *g* TMI??

    Reply
  • Wave, only about 2% of men are actually completely homophile. The others, who may identify as gay today, can perform with a woman as circumstances require.
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    I know this from experience with three ex-boyfriends. All identify as gay now.
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    I would expect historically, that the 2% found ways to avoid women completely: military or monastery. The rest were functionally bisexual, although they may have reserved real affection and desire for men.
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    I have a question: what do we consider “historical” or “contemporary?” Is something set in the 70s historical now? Or does it have to be the 1870s? The mindset of the 1970s gay culture is not the mindset of the 2000s. “I used to give potluck dinners and my guests were dessert.” (actual quote) vs. getting married and settling down.

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    • Hi Angelia
      Those are interesting numbers. I must ask some of my gay friends what they think in terms of their experience. Perhaps in the past men who were both bi and gay identified as gay. IDK.
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      In terms of what is now considered “historical,” I think both Erastes and I came up with the same answer (see, we can agree*g*) and that was the Stonewall riots in 1969 . However, I’m sure this will be a moving target in the future.

      **

      Reply
  • As a general comment I want to say how much I have learned by this one post and I’m sure that everyone who checked it out has as well.

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    This is the most interesting discussion on this site so far, and the person having the most fun is, of course, Erastes who tries to bust my arse (see, correct spelling E. *g*) every time.

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    Keep those comments coming authors and readers for people as ignorant of historical romances as yours truly. 😀

    Reply
  • I go through periods (no pun intended) of reading every HR I can get my hands on and then not reading them at all and devouring contemporaries instead!
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    I tend to write historicals that have other elements to them – IDK, I just find historicals have more to offer me as a writer in terms of scope. Could also be that I read ancient history at uni and when I was a kid, my parents dragged me around loads of historic sites so it’s just something that fascinates me, and so I try to pass some of that fascination and love on to the readers (yeah, even when I’m writing fanfic LOL). I also like writing about ‘unusual’ time periods and different cultures, and those are the kinds of stories I love to read, too – though finding romances set in those times and cultures is a bit of a challenge sometimes!
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    And I agree with Erastes – for me, one of the big draws of HR is the clothing!

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    • Kate
      I agree with you that historical romances as a genre have the possibility of offering more in terms of content than contemporaries. My beef is that a lot of these books (maybe it’s just the ones I read) seem to concentrate more on the negatives of those times than the positives. IDK, maybe it was all negative then!

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      >>I also like writing about ‘unusual’ time periods and different cultures, and those are the kinds of stories I love to read, too – though finding romances set in those times and cultures is a bit of a challenge sometimes!<< I, too love reading books set in unusual time periods. Ancient Greece - to me that is so romantic - warriors running around waving swords with hardly anything on . 😀 ** Thanks for telling us why you like to read/write HR.

      Reply
  • Lol. Your footnote is the first thing I was going to mention in my comment 🙂
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    I’ve always loved historical romance because i’m a naturally nostalgic person and I’m fascinated with the past. Maybe it comes from the fairy tales, but those times of balls and fabulous dresses, horse carriages and stone houses, attract me irresistibly. It’s romantic. There’s an aura of mystery around times past, you have to imagine what it could have been to live in those times and that fascinates me, even though we all know that the fantasy is much better than the reality had to be. Plus, then you had dashing, impeccably groomed men who were supposed to be gallant and courteous… a man in a waiscoat sounds so much more “exotic” than a man in jeans and T-shirt.
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    The other factor that makes historical settings interesting to me is that the issues are different from the ones we meet today and I enjoy that. The stakes ar higher, and the very strict society rules provide an additional challenge for the characters. Yes, the bigger the obstacles to overcome, the sweeter the victory. Plotwise, it’s no doubt much more difficult for a writer to navigate, but how rewarding for the reader if it’s done right.
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    Regarding M/M romances especially, seriously, if they’re labeled “romance” at all and not historical fiction, IMO that means my characters are together and happy at the moment the book ends and that’s all I ask. I am very good at denial and can perfectly make myself believe that if, for instance, the 2 guys have acknowledged their mutual love, are going to sail on the same ship and there’s no immediate danger of someone finding out the truth about them and creating trouble, they wil remain happy like that until the day they die. I won’t think about the troubles that might arise later until and unless I’m forced to.
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    In truth no HEA can ever be more than a HFN, even in straight romance. Who says the heroine’s nagging tendancies won’t grate on the husband’s nerves after 20 years? Who says the faithful husbands won’t get drunk and have sex with his best friend’s wife at some point? There are never any guarantees. So I don’t have any higher expectations for M/M historicals either, so I am usually satisfied with their ending. Make them happy now and let’s not think about the future. Carpe Diem :).

    Reply
    • Mary
      You have explained beautifully why you love historical romances and that’s what I was looking for. It’s also part of the reason why I love these stories.

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      The nostalgia, the tie to fairy tales when you were a child, the dress, carriages, balls etc. are all part of the “package” for you. I love those things. OTOH some of the more gross aspects of the books like the diseases (realistic though they may be) the stench, lack of personal hygiene etc., turn me off. There are some things I prefer not to think about so I usually skim those areas in a HR — although if I’m reviewing a book I have to wade through them. 🙁

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      One of the reasons I love J.L. Langley’s futuristic historical books like My Fair Captain is I get the historical detail but not the gross diseases. Two of my favourite eras together – science fiction and history – what a rush. 😀 And before you tell me how unrealistic this is, may I say that historical romances are also just as unrealistic!!

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      >>Plus, then you had dashing, impeccably groomed men who were supposed to be gallant and courteous… a man in a waiscoat sounds so much more “exotic” than a man in jeans and T-shirt.<< I agree 100% with you on this - another reason I love HR.

      Reply
    • <In truth no HEA can ever be more than a HFN, even in straight romance. Who says the heroine’s nagging tendancies won’t grate on the husband’s nerves after 20 years? Who says the faithful husbands won’t get drunk and have sex with his best friend’s wife at some point? There are never any guarantees.<
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      Here is where I respectfully disagree.
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      Or maybe it's just that my definition of "happily ever after" differs from yours. Do most people really look at it similarly to a scene I saw once in a movie, where a bride makes a wish to live happily ever after with her new husband, and the wish-giver kills them on their honeymoon, since there is no such thing as happily ever after?
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      HEA and HFN tend to blend into the same thing for me. I believe if the couple is HFN, they have a good chance of being HEA. So what if the couple have fights, get on each other's nerves, and even separate sometimes? Marriages survive such things. Mine has for twenty-five years, and I consider mine a happily ever after, even more so because everything we've been through as a couple has only strengthened our conviction that we can get through anything and that we were meant to be together.
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      That's what happily ever after is about, in my mind. Having someone to hold onto while you're facing all the nightmares, even the ones of your own creation. I don't want a book to end with two people believing life is going to be fairytale perfect for the next fifty years. I just want them to believe they're so lucky because they've found someone to lean on and love. Sure, there are no guarantees, but happily ever after is possible and has been achieved in many eras.
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      Those novels I've read which develop the relationship between the characters beyond sexual attraction, those are the books that usually convince me of a happily ever after, even in the most wretched historical context of being forced to hide their love for the rest of their lives. Personalities that complement each other, values that are shared, conversations that excite and engage outside the realm of basic flirtation–that works to make me believe in the HEA.
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      And HEA in m/m and f/f, I think that's happened a hell of a lot more often in history than we can begin to know. You can certainly extrapolate the truth of it when you consider how much we know now about same sex relationships compared to what we knew fifty or a hundred years ago.

      Reply

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