Retro Reads: Vintage romance – the evolution of a genre

Retro Reads is a series of posts highlighting the best, most interesting, and most hilarious trends of the fiction of yesteryear.

Most of us have probably seen this sort of watercolor-foggy, beautiful-people romance cover before. Now a staple at yard sales, used book stores, and grandmothers’ basements, this type of image is characteristic of what comes to mind when we think about category romance publishers – especially the biggest of them all, Harlequin Romance.

What many people would be surprised to discover, though, is that Harlequin wasn’t always in the romance game. In fact, it once published a much more lurid, pulpy type of book, and was responsible for such titles as Pardon My Body: A tough expose of the American Underworld and You’re Lonely When You’re Dead.

vintage harlequin pardon my body

vintage harlequin lonely when dead

harlequin romance pulp art exhibit 1 and 2 by yawper. CC by 2.0.

This sensationalized approach to storytelling would carry over to the romance genre with the publication of what some call the first ‘modern’ romance novel. In 1972, Avon released The Flame and the Flower, which featured the heroine’s forced – ahem – deflowering, and was controversial for its graphic depiction of sex and violence.

While The Flame and the Flower‘s enthusiasm for baring it all raised eyebrows, however, it wasn’t quite a true ‘first’ in the genre – according to Wikipedia, even one of the earliest romance novels, a popular 1740 publication called Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded was criticized for its licentiousness. Pamela was revolutionary for its almost exclusive focus on courtship and its narration from the female point of view, telling the story of a young maid imprisoned by her employer. Her virtue is, in the end, rewarded with a marriage proposal from her master, but not until he foils her repeated attempts at escape and tries to rape her .

Post Pamela, the genre brought us Jane Austen’s celebrated (though comparatively tame) romantic comedies in the early 1800s. Although Austen was not a particularly prolific author, her works have permeated our public awareness and inspired countless miniseries, films, spin-offs and parodies (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, anyone?).

In the 1920s, there was a return to smut with the publication of D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (read it for free at Project Gutenburg), which was banned in countries all over the world and was the focus of a storm of obscenity trials across the globe. Georgette Heyer also came onto the scene in the 20s with her extensively researched Regency romances, giving rise to an entire subgenre.

The 1950s gave way to a spate of Harlequins and other mainstream romances featuring modern “career girls” (largely nurses and stewardesses), and on the heels of Avon’s foray into romance with The Flame and the Flower in the 70s, American author Janet Dailey sold her first romance to Harlequin, becoming their first (and at the time, only) American author. Dailey’s books provided an exciting new take on the genre, and readers were eager to read more about heroines who had adventures in the American West, had explicit sex with the hero, and generally did more than sit around waiting to be rescued.

Unfortunately for Dailey, she was discredited in the eyes of many when she was sued by powerhouse author Nora Roberts in 1997 for what turned out to be blatant plagiarism. Dailey passed away in December 2013, and is noted in a Washington Post obituary as a pioneer who left a complicated legacy. La Nora, as she is known to fans, continues to dominate the industry, and with more than 200 books to her name, is one of the most prolific writers in the history of the genre (or any genre).

Today, the genre continues to evolve, with new subgenres such as paranormal romance, romantic urban fantasy, and romantic science fiction gaining in popularity over the past 15-20 years. The most recent addition to the canon of romance subgenres is New Adult, which focuses on the “growing pains” unique to protagonists in their late teens and early 20s.

Another major shift in the genre is the move by many authors toward self-publishing – but that’s a whole other post!

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