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Historical Romances Set in the Regency

Around 1980, or thereabouts, another kind of book came onto the romance scene. It was and is referred to as a historical romance set in the Regency, a quite different creature than the Regency Romance. The book has the words "historical romance" printed on its spine.

This book gave the reader more of a plot, often with an action emphasis over a conversational one. It also contained more explicit sexuality, although there is a wide variance from a subtle level to an extremely explicit one. In modern-day America the printed word has rarely been prosecuted under obscenity laws, which have been reserved most often for images such as movies and magazines that combine words and pictures. As a result, the level of sexual explicitness in a novel was/is constrained by the limits of the author's imagination, the publisher's ability to market the books, and what the reading public will accept. The latter two parts of this triad are tied together in a chicken and egg fashion.

By contrast, visual images were/are subject to more limits - remember that until the 1980's, television commercials for bras had to show the product over clothing, not next to the skin. Romance publishers, charting a new course in content, had no real desire to chart a new course in marketing this new content. Blatant suggestion was the course they decided to pursue, therefore, in their covers and other advertising for this new type of romance. Readers of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer were seen as a different market than readers of these newer, historical romances.

In considering this new creature, the historical romance set in the Regency, I think we ought to go directly to a cover that fulfills blatant suggestion to the nth degree with contents that match it. It is Wicked by Susan Johnson. Prominent artist Pino Dangelico illustrated Johnson's cover. It is a painting of a very well built younger man, like Beau, the twenty-two year old hero, beginning to remove his pants, presumably for sexual activity. We see only a portion of his face, his entire chest and nothing of his genitals or area surrounding them. Nevertheless, it is a very sexy image. The artist used a live cover model and it shows. The image itself is about as legal as you can get. A full nude image would also have been legal but I've never seen one on a romance novel.

As for the novel's story line: The heroine stows away aboard the hero's ship so that she can go to Italy to art school. Napoleon's wars are going on around them in full fury and they will be pulled into that fray from time to time. However, taking center stage is their affair with scorching sexual scenes. The relationship does dominate the book but not in the way of a Regency Romance. Here, the hero enjoys his life led as a continual orgy and doesn't want to give it up. The heroine, of course, wants him as her own. Their conflict is continuously resolved through physical release. The hero even has sex with other women both before and after his initial affair with the heroine, something that not all readers can tolerate in their romance books. I enjoyed this Susan Johnson novel and kept it, as much for the art work as the novel itself. This type of novel is something that I want to read only every once in a while though. I don't think anyone will argue that this book has much in common with the Austen-Heyer model other than being set in the Regency.

Johnson doesn't have much competition out there at the furthest limits because of a number of factors. One, not many writers can write sexual scenes as well as she can. Two, even she has a limited bag of tricks and after a while it all begins to sound the same if you read too much of it. Three, she, at least, is able to wrap a coherent plot around all of this sexual activity whereas many writers of romance-erotica cannot. Character development, however, in many of her books, remains sketchy, which is likely to happen when the characters spend so many pages physically entwined.

Most historical romances set in the Regency fall considerably short of Johnson's explicit sexual scenes. Instead of the physical, most of these other authors spend more space on the emotional, which is what so many romance readers want with these novels.

You might wonder why romance publishers aren't pushing for more explicitness. They already know that this is as far as romance readers are likely to go, in terms of contents and covers, and quite a few romance readers are turned off by novels such as this going as far as it did. Not enough of them to make Johnson less than a best-selling author, however. Romance publishers leave for the erotica industry romances that go beyond Johnson's sexual explicitness.

Other authors in this new sub-genre had contents considerably less explicit than Johnson's and covers that consisted of the hero and heroine in an embrace with his shirt mostly undone and her dress as low cut as possible. It rarely got more original than this formula. What happened as a result of having two sub-genres in the same time period is many readers abandoned the Regency Romance in favor of the new sub-genre.

The Regency Romance Writers Strike Back

Regency writers struck back by pushing at the envelope of what one could do in a Regency Romance. But as the Regency Romance underwent pioneering changes, the publishers kept their covers essentially the same with no indication of the new and different activity in the novel's contents.

Writers like Mary Balogh, for example, added explicit sexuality plus formerly taboo subjects such as prostitution, homosexuality, and adultery into their Regencies with no corresponding image change by the publisher, Signet.

Balogh's 1998 release by Jove, Irresistible, has for its cover the best artistry, overall design and color scheme of any Regency Romance I've ever seen. Nevertheless, it doesn't convey controversial elements other than the characters' being physically closer and more demonstrably passionate. No other Regency Romance writer has gotten or is getting a cover this artistically fine. I know because I've been studying them.

Irresistible won the 1998 Reader's Poll for AAR, for best Regency Romance. I voted for it myself. Some readers said that this book did not fit the traditional format of a Regency Romance and so it shouldn't have won. Obviously, those of us who voted for it disagreed, and it should be noted that in Balogh's interview with AAR, the author indicated she considers all her romances to be the same "type," regardless of their length.

Irresistible is 320 pages long, the same length as Pride & Prejudice. It also has Regency Romance printed prominently on its cover. Napoleon's wars are over so there are no sweeping historical backgrounds to lengthen the book. It has two romances featuring two heroes who were at Waterloo together but who also led pretty wild lives immediately thereafter. They are now leading more outwardly respectable lives in Regency London. In addition to explicit premarital sex, there is also a homosexual sub-plot. Readers certainly did not see these kinds of variables in an Austen or a Heyer but Balogh's readers knew they would see it in hers regardless of the cover used. There is also a lot of conversation in the book plus attendance at balls, walks and rides in the park and the usual daily routine of life as lived in Regency Romances.

Another reader, Gail Brodeur, wrote me regarding Regency Romances pushing the envelope in the other direction from Balogh's. Gail calls these Reality Regencies and says author Carla Kelly led the way. In these novels, there is usually a gripping story at the center that deals with the realities of living in the Regency era. For example, Kelly deals with men and the aftermath of war or women being thrust into the world on their own simply for having a mind of their own. Kelly is interested in a wide range of historical settings, characters and issues. House parties at country estates, the London Season, and/or the Marriage Mart play a very small part in her novels. However, Kelly does not violate the traditional Regency formula of no explicit premarital sex. Unfortunately, the publisher of these books did nothing on the covers to promote her unique approach, and as of AAR's interview with the author last fall, she has no plans to write further Regency Romances. All of Kelley's covers are the usual kind the publisher got in the habit of using on any of its Regency Romances.

Shown is the cover of With This Ring by Carla Kelly. This cover does not have near the artistry, design or lush color scheme of the Balogh cover. The hero and heroine have generic faces and I doubt there were live cover models used. These are illustrations like one might see in the daily comics, soap opera portion, and seem to suggest a teenager should be reading the book, not a woman who might have one or more college degrees.

The story involves a wounded officer after the battle of Waterloo. Major Sam Reed meets the wallflower heroine, Lydia, as she helps care for his wounded men in an appalling army hospital in London. Reed is instantly attracted to Lydia and is also in need of a wife because his mother and aunt are withholding his inheritance, claiming he needs to be married. Reed worsened the problem by having a mischievous friend write to them pretending to be his wife. After the shy Lydia makes a speech denouncing horrid conditions for the wounded and runs away from her selfish relatives, Reed offers her a marriage of convenience. In the course of the novel, Lydia cuts the woundeds' hair, thereby setting the stage for the cover of her cutting the hero's hair. However, the artist puts a modern hairstyle on a man in Regency England that fails to convey the proper mood to the reader, consequently failing to recognize and respect the readers' intellect.

You'll see, further on, in our discussion of Dara Joy's Rejar, that Rejar's hairstyle isn't quite "Regency" either but he nevertheless creates the mood the author had in mind. That is the cover's purpose: to advertise the book. My guess is that the artists do not use research materials on these aspects like the various specialists in costume, makeup, and hair use who work in the movies. Until cover artists use these research materials, we will probably continue to see hair, costume and makeup errors on our romance covers. Remember that Colin Firth is perfect in every detail as Darcy because the series was a high-dollar production. Regency Romances are at the lower end of the romance food chain in terms of sales and what their authors earn.

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