My introduction to Romantic fiction was through my Grandmother, who adored Georgette Heyer – and lent me books from her ‘library’ from an early age. Sweet, funny and wise, the heroes and heroines in these Regency stories don’t kiss ’til the last page (and certainly never do anything more risqué). The romance is focused on the dance of courtship; elaborate and formal as a quadrille, or giddy and light-hearted as a waltz. The characters dance from the page, the writing bubbles with joy and the tangled stories resolve neatly – for me, they’re still the ultimate comfort reading. My Grandmother also read what she called her ‘Mogodon’ books; Mills and Boon romances by Betty Neels, in which chaste young heroines were wooed by paternalistic and curiously un-sexy Doctors (who were invariably, inexplicably, Dutch). Gran said they were utterly predictable and unexciting, and therefore more effective, and safer, than taking sleeping pills. But that’s the problem with romance for romance’s sake – who reads Betty Neels now? For writers to endure, they must offer re-readable stories as well as romantic fulfilment.
Great romance books transcend the perceived genre boundaries. Outlander (yes, I know I go on about it) is a romance in the broadest sense, but is enjoyed by readers (I’m thinking here of my Mum and my husband) who would rather hack off their toes with a teaspoon than read romantic fiction. The core of the story is Claire’s relationship with Jamie Fraser, consummated to great effect surprisingly early in the first book – she’s then happily married to him (though not without plenty of emotional entanglements, including with her past/future husband Frank) for the rest of the umpteen book series. The romance may steal your heart, but the books endure and are loved, even by Romance refuseniks, because they also feature masses of action, a huge cast of believable, complicated characters and fascinating historical details (and you’ll absorb all that American and Scottish history without even noticing).
Romance has certainly changed since Georgette Heyer. Historical heroines can now have a ball in more ways than one, and it’s an unusual modern woman, in any romance sub-genre, who hangs onto her virginity until marriage. I wonder what Gran have made of recent genre-blurring developments in romantic fiction, such as the blending of romance with paranormal elements (though arguably Emily Bronte got there many years before Twilight). I was entranced by Wuthering Heights when I first read it aged 14, (though with hindsight, Heathcliff’s violent moodswings and inarticulate brooding are a massive turnoff). I’m glad I didn’t encounter Twilight or Trueblood as a similarly impressionable teenager – I’d have been a slave to sweetly tortured Edward Cullen and his vampire ilk forever.
On the other hand, Twilight’s big sister, Fifty Shades of Grey, left me cold. It gained plus points for the sexual experimentation, but totally failed the longevity test because I simply didn’t care whether the dreary heroine and self-centred, manipulative hero found love; the only bondage I craved after reading it was to tie the tedious couple together and fling them off the nearest pier. But it did more than any other book to bring the concept of erotic romance (as opposed to erotica) out of the boudoir and into supermarkets, bookstores and the realms of popular discussion.
Romance has definitely got down and dirty – possibly since the rise of e-books (no-one can see what you’re reading) and self-publishing (no editor to tone-down your sex-scenes), or maybe because this ‘realism’ is what we now prefer. We’re no longer content to leave the hero and heroine at the bedroom door, with all subsequent action represented by a row of asterisks. Erotic romance aims to spice up the traditional boy-meets-girl story arc with sizzling sexual chemistry. You can generally tell which books are going to be saucy; the cover will feature a man with a muscular, naked chest and precariously low-slung trousers, whether battered denim or unbuttoned Regency Buckskins. Interestingly, the cover pictures are often cut off at the chin, so the chest and rippling 6-pack are the erogenous focus, rather than a handsome face. The heroes are what is known in the trade as Alphas – billionaires (millionaires just don’t cut it anymore), professional athletes, rock stars, aristocrats, firefighters or ‘hot Navy SEALS’. (I had to look that one up. They don’t have tails and flippers.) These men bear about as much resemblance to the boy next door as do the fairies, unicorns and talking animals in my kids’ favourite books, but hey, this is fiction.
Alpha heroes take their inspiration from various brands of battery; their top-of-the-range power tools are Ever Ready, they possess Duracell Bunny endurance to keep going all night and they always have plenty of juice. Frankly, in real life they’d be pretty exhausting, and that’s before we get to dealing with their conflicts, inner turmoil and vulnerabilities (the more interesting ones are always ‘damaged’ and in need of emotional healing that only the heroine can provide). We’ve travelled a long way since a description of nice-but-dim Lysander’s enthusiastic “swuzzonte-nerve” made me giggle as a schoolgirl (in Jilly Cooper’s The Man Who Made Husbands Jealous, another of my Grandmother’s favourites). Still, you can learn a lot by reading erotic romances; I now know all about ice-hockey, though I was disappointed to discover after a little internet research that (duh!) real hockey players aren’t chiselled blond Nordic gods, but actually rather schlumpy-looking.
Art imitates life, and so our romances reflect the mores, concerns and interests of our society, however obliquely. Cultural historians in the future will note the ‘bake-off’ factor in the current abundance of cupcake-themed romances and draw the conclusion that opening a cute cafe was the dream career for 21st century women, just as a perusal of 1960s titles would lead you to believe every girl yearned to be a nurse or an air hostess. In these times of increased gender fluidity, same-sex relationships are starting to get a toe-hold in mainstream romance as well as erotica, though equality has a way to go. It’s still unusual for multi-ethnic relationships to thrive in British fiction, though dating a different species (werewolf, vampire, shapeshifter) is entirely acceptable.
One of the trends I’ve really enjoyed recently is romance (erotic or otherwise) from the male point of view – often with alternating chapters of she says / he says. Female novelists from Jane Austen onwards have been sparing in their attempts to write romantic scenes from the male POV, and modern romance authors essay it with varying degrees of success. Jeez – who knows what men think about love? Most men would be hard-pressed to tell you themselves. From the books I’ve read recently, I’ve realised it works best if the hero is a bit rough around the edges and swears a lot – I mean, can you imagine the excruciating embarrassment of Mr Darcy musing about the way Elizabeth Bennet makes his breeches tighten? Actually there’s no need to imagine it – there are dozens of dodgy Darcys, horny Heathcliffs, randy Rochesters and Mr thrice-Knightlys throbbing and pulsating (and available on your e-reader).
I’ve had several stories published with a male character POV, using both first and third person narration. They’re great fun to write, but their thoughts have seldom been romantic, so I think an authentic (and raunchy) romantic hero might be my next writing challenge. As for the future of romance and all it’s burgeoning sub-genres, who can tell? As long as the stories are gripping, the heroines combine strength with humour (and so do the heroes), we’ll keep falling in love with romances that reflect the world we really live in, as well as the world to which we’d like to escape.