So, you know, just sitting with the boy watching Jeopardy when a bunch of questions about history come up, as they do. I start riffing off a few answers, but not in the form of a question, because, really? We’re still doing that? The boy leans over and says, “How do you know these answers?” I say something like “Oh, just random facts floating around in my head.” But that is a lie. I know many of the answers because I read historical romances as a kid, and lots of ’em.
From the age of 14 to, I don’t know, let’s say 26, historical romances were my reading jam. Of course I read other books, books that made me look scholarly or cool, but I would drop them in a second if I saw a new Johanna Lindsey Regency romance, or one of Julie Garwood’s “hot Scottish lairds” novels hit the bookshelves.
Should I be embarrassed? Probably. There are iffy situations in them that are kinda rape-y (read: yeah, it was rape), and others that are way problematic on how actual historical situations are depicted. But this post isn’t here to discuss the genre’s problems, rather, it’s a love letter on how one can delve into some History Lite while reading a smutty book…
The handsome rakes fought Napoleon
Ah, Regency England, where the formal balls were aplenty and the corseted dresses you wore to them could kill. These Regency tales taught you about proper manners and dance cards and how being alone with a man was considered the worst thing that could happen to a lady (ahem, a Tender Rebel). And if you did find yourself alone with a man, you weren’t no lady. ? The King was mad, the Prince Regent was all the rage, women wore tons of brocade and lace, you sat on chairs designed by Chippendale, and Beau Brummell was the fashionable fop of the day. You visited places like Covent Garden, Piccadilly Circus, Drury Lane, Hyde Park, Pall Mall, Savile Row and White’s. And you always eloped to Gretna Green.
In addition to all the high society crap, you learned about the Battle of Waterloo between Napoleon Bonaparte and the Duke of Wellington and a Prussian army. What was Prussia? No idea. But that Napoleon guy was a huge crux in these books. Always making those black sheep of the family go off to war to test their mettle, which ultimately led the rake to shed his sheep’s clothing and become the upstanding citizen he was always meant to be. Hey ladies!
Those feisty rogues sailed the high seas
Hands up if you have a weak spot for the bad boy. I mean, not a real bad boy, rather a Gentle Rogue who is down on his luck so takes to the high seas to change his fortune, only to find that noble seafaring is hard work, yo…ho-ho and a bottle of rum. It’s so much easier to raise the ol’ Jolly Roger. Unlike real pirates, romance pirates are honourable (steal from the rich only, obvi), clean and healthy (yeah right). They are the “swarthy with a heart of gold” type, which was a perfect partner for a sexy stowaway. swoon
Those buccaneer romances sailed you away to all corners of the world. Showed you how the rules of the sea worked and the tools needed to navigate. They took you to famous (and infamous) ports like Port Royal and Tortuga. And most notably, they took you to the scenes of famous water fights, like the Boston Tea Party and the Battle of New Orleans, which featured privateer Jean Laffite, a smuggler turned American hero. (How is this random info still in my head??)
The proud Yanks battled in the Civil War
A turbulent time is the perfect scene for a forbidden Romeo & Juliet style romance, but without that whole depressing death of star-crossed lovers thing. Like Ashes in the Wind, my knowledge of the American Civil War before reading historical romances was pretty scattered. The heroes in these stories (Rebels or Yanks) differed depending on whoever wrote it. A relevant reminder of today’s political divisiveness and how you can spin a tale to suit whichever allegiances you have.
From dysentery to typhoid fever, from tourniquets to bone saws, and from morphine to chloroform, these books are rife with “modern” medical situations. Maybe because it was the easiest way to put the passionate heroine front and centre in the era. Girl’s gotta work.
Those hot highlanders kept a feuding
Umm, sooo, the best historical romances feature men who wear skirts and fancy a Gentle Feuding. For some reason, Scots are the most comfortable with their masculinity and have a hankering for an independent woman with a rebellious spirit. Och, all ye lassies bein’ sassy, put yer hands up.
Often, Scottish romances took you back a little further on the history timeline. To a time of drafty castles, rival clans, moats, mead and a boatload of honour. Like Ned Stark level of honour, without the idiocy. You learned about William Wallace and Edward I. In addition to wearing your tartan, you put on a mantle, a tunic, scratchy hose and a dagger. And all things seemed to be of the woolen kind.
From feudal lords to lofty fiefdoms and from tall tapestries to rushes on the floor (fresh grasses to keep the stank down), this era is primitive as heck and as dreamy as it gets. I loved reading about it, but I bet everyone had super stinky breath.
The bold, brawny Vikings pillaged and stole women (and that was not ok)
I like the Vikes, they’re like easygoing pirates mixed with proud Scots. Only problem is that they usually got a woman in historical romances by stealing one. Not cool, Rolf. Yet, somehow these brawny bastards captured your heart, stoked the Fires of Winter, and made you feel like you died and gone to Valhalla.
Norse mythology reigned supreme in these romances, where the Viking hero would either shout for Loki or Odin depending on how he felt his Captive Bride was treating him. You learned about their quest for trade, especially for spices and silk. So, they definitely had good taste. Society had jarls (rich bitches), karls (workers/farmers) and thralls (slaves). When they were at home in their longhouses, they cozied up by the hearth and settled arguments with a bad-ass duel.
The loyal cowboys rode west and left a trail of destruction (and that was also not ok)
Oh, the charming, loyal cowboy. He comes barreling in on horseback ready to stake his claim on a woman with A Heart So Wild. Maybe he does it by stopping the stagecoach you’re on or finds you working by the gaming tables in the saloon. However he finds you, one thing is for sure, he’s going to place his Stetson on your head and ride off into the sunset with you.
These romances took you on long journeys over the wild frontier where your hero could be an upstanding rancher or a desperado. Sometimes you’re present for Wyatt Earp’s duel at the O.K. Corral, or seeking safety during San Francisco’s great fire, or dealing with a tragedy on a cattle run. (Because a tragedy always happens when you herd cattle. Always.) Ye olde cowboy books are extremely problematic in that the land they were staking claims on wasn’t theirs to take. The heroes of these books are always like “Yeah, but I’m not that guy.” Riiiiight.
Now, is all the history in these books accurate? Heck no! But I do get surprised from time to time when I come across a historical event and I know a bit about it. No expert by any means, but a slight working knowledge. Good for Jeopardy, I guess.
P.S. If there’s a good Canadian historical romance out there, I never found it. Like, what about Laura Secord??? You gotta think she crossed paths with a rogue or cad on her 20 mile walk at some point, right? Canada, get in the game!