Think about the year you were born. Would that fall in the contemporary or historical romance genre?
I imagine your initial response is something along the lines of: “Historical romance? How old does she think I am?”
That’s probably the censored version. You might have included a few descriptive words.
I get it.
The term “historical romance” conjures up the images of women in corsets and crinolines. After all, most historical romances are set in Regency (1811 – 1820), Tudor (1485 – 1603) and Victorian (1837 – 1901) England.
The only thing you know about those time periods is what you’ve read in historical romance novels. Your age has nothing to do with something that happened centuries ago.
So it might surprise you that the Romance Writers of America defines a historical romance as a romance novel “set prior to 1950.”
Let that sink in.
Some of you are probably thinking, “Eh, no big deal. I was born decades later.”
Sure, sure. But did you know the official definition used to be “set prior to World War II”?
The time period is expanding every decade.
I thought about the vintage romance novels that I have on my keeper shelf. In the next twenty years, they’ll be considered historical because they were set in the 1970s.
I struggled with the idea at first. The love stories were written as contemporary romances. The authors wrote about their world.
Well, so did Jane Austen. She wrote about her world. They were contemporary novels at the time.
And, I admit that when I re-read the vintage novels from the 1980s, I’m aware of how much has changed over the years.
Sometimes it’s the little things, like advances in medicine and technology. Occasionally, I notice how the storytelling has changed due to reader expectations.
But society has changed, too.
In the late 1970s, the contemporary love stories emphasized a woman’s vulnerability when she fell in love. She was risking her reputation if she lived with a man without marrying him. Her sexual history had an impact on finding a prospective mate. And there were significant socioeconomic consequences if she became pregnant while single.
If a young woman today read these vintage books, she might not understand the level of the heroine’s fears. The young reader won’t fully comprehend the ramifications.
It’s similar to when I watch Sense & Sensibility for the billionth time. I don’t know which social conventions Marianne Dashwood is breaking, and I don’t know the potential consequences. All I really know is that Marianne is some sort of cautionary tale and that Elinor is experiencing a lot of anxiety over her sister’s behavior.
The women who came of age in the 1970s won’t need additional explanations when they read a contemporary romance from that time. The rules may have changed, but the women know them by heart. They succeeded and failed when flouting the social conventions of that decade. They had taken the same leaps of faith as the heroines. After all, these stories are reflections of a woman’s life. A woman of that time.
So, yes. maybe it’s a good thing that the definition of a historical romance changes. But I hope it doesn’t prevent today’s readers from picking up a vintage romance novel. Society’s expectations might change, but these love stories will continue to resonate with women.
When is a romantic story not a romance? Find out here.