Fangirl Fridays – Historical bodice rippers to Urban Fantasy

I’m pretty sure I didn’t read this
I’ve been reminiscing about the first romance novels I obsessed over, those infamous “bodice rippers” back in the 1970s. I thought it would be fun to compare them to my favorites now — maybe find some commonalities, or just thank my lucky stars that the genre evolved.

Plus enjoy some smiles, because wherever I might think these books belong on the subjective scale of literary value, I can’t deny they were a lot of fun, and some have stuck with me for all these years.

Bodice ripper surely originated to describe 1970s, post-Harlequin romances, because that’s exactly what they were. Not at all my usual genre. I grew up on dystopian sci-fi and fantasy, then spent four years majoring in English Lit. I wasn’t a snobby reader, but I liked books that challenged me to think and learn while they distracted me with entertainment.

Shortly after I graduated from college, I noticed my mother reading this. I absolutely laughed my arse off.

She got rather defensive about her reading choice, then loaned me the book when she was done. And I couldn’t put it down — or stop reading books just like it for an entire year! That was my year of decompressing from classic literature.

And then it ended. I never picked up another “romance” novel until about the time I met the Wenches, when I stumbled across Urban Fantasy and set out in search of more...

So after the jump, I’m taking a fond look back at the books I remember from this era. No in-depth explorations of themes here — these are bodice rippers, gothic romances, and romantic historical fiction. I also now think they were stepping stones, or a testing of the waters, while the future fangirl patiently waited for Fever, Outlander, and other UF/PNR classics to be written.

The bodice rippers

Many of these masqueraded as historical romances, set in exotic times and locales, but there was often a noticeable absence of historical fact and an abundance of heaving bosoms, flexing pecs, and rampant misogyny.

The Flame and the Flower, Kathleen E. Woodiwiss

This is the one that started it all. Not just for me, for lots of women, many of whom started naming their children Heather and Brandon.
Doomed to a life of unending toil, Heather Simmons fears for her innocence—until a shocking, desperate act forces her to flee ... and to seek refuge in the arms of a virile and dangerous stranger.

A lusty adventurer married to the sea, Captain Brandon Birmingham courts scorn and peril when he abducts the beautiful fugitive from the tumultuous London dockside. But no power on Earth can compel him to relinquish his exquisite prize. For he is determined to make the sapphire-eyed lovely his woman ... and to carry her off to far, uncharted realms of sensuous, passionate love.

I read everything Woodiwiss had written at the time. All followed a fairly sanitized formula, perfect for the sheltered southern girl I was. Here’s one version: Beautiful, virginal young woman finds herself under the control of broodingly handsome, dangerous heathen. She is ravished without her consent and likes it (a mixture of Stockholm Syndrome and exploding metaphorical fireworks), but won’t admit it to herself, so he spends the rest of the book trying to make her.

I remember only one or two fairly tame sex scenes per book, in prose most hyperbolic, involving his epiphany of protective instincts and her blossoming womanhood and stuff like that. (I hope you’ll forgive that I didn’t have time to reread these books for research. Details are murky in my memory.) She was exotic feminine perfection, which included a blank slate ready for instruction, and he was a highly principled noble gentleman beneath the sexy/scary exterior. The book ended when the recalcitrant one finally relented, and they agreed to live (presumably) happily ever after off page. No mutually committed journey of intimacy and discovery. No relationship of equals.

Similar characters
and stories

Different places
and times

Don’t get me wrong, I loved these books. Shanna was the first time I remember driving to the book store to buy a book on release day! But my tastes had moved on by the time Woodiwiss released her next book, and I never read another.

Sweet Savage Love, Rosemary Rogers
Ginny Brandon is swept from the ballrooms of Paris to the desert sands of Mexico and into the arms of charismatic mercenary Steve Morgan. But this fearless heroine and “hero of all heroes” must first endure countless unforeseen dangers before they can enjoy sensual, exhilarating passion that burns between them.

Rosemary Rogers wrote “bad girl” romances that I thought were positively scandalous. (Remember, I’m channeling the memories of a naive 21-year-old from several decades back.) Her stories were HEAs, but the heroine got roughed up.

Her characters were not wilting flowers, they were (gorgeous and smart and) tough and scrappy. Which was a good thing, because Rogers put them through all manner of atrocity, including imprisonment and rape (by bad guys, not the “good” guy). Typically, the heroine would fall in love with the hero, immediately be separated from him for 95% of the book, he would finally rescue her, they’d have reunion sex, and that was the end. Again, not much reward for (the heroine or the reader) surviving 600+ pages of torment. (That’s another thing ... her books were long.) Even the sequel was more of the same.


The unchained, unending passion of Virginia Brandon and Steven Morgan blazes anew, as their turbulent marriage is torn apart by a dramatic rush of events and their twin passions propel them across oceans and continents to separate affairs, perils, and dangers ... from the torrid heat of Old Mexico to the splendor of Czarist Russia to the squalid fleshpots of Paris ... until, in a tidal wave of all-consuming desire, Virginia and Steven are reunited in a rapturous alliance of blood, love, and fire!

How much fun would it have been to write these flowery book descriptions for a living?!?

And then there was this.
Born of scandal and denied his birthright, Dominic Challenger took to the sea, charting his own future. A true rogue, Dominic answers to no one, trusting only himself. Until Marisa.

Born of wealth and privilege, Marisa is a prisoner to her father’s expectations. When the sanctuary she has found behind the walls of a convent is threatened by the news that her father has arranged for her to marry, Marisa flees ... right into the arms of a pirate.

From the safety of a sheltered convent to a sultan's harem, from the opulence of Napoleon's court to the wilds of the new frontier, Marisa and Dominic brave all that they encounter in this thrilling age: intrigue, captivity and danger. And above all, an enduring passion that ignites into an infinite love.

As annoyed as I got with the format, I read all of Rogers’s books! Because look at the scope of their adventures! I loved the sweeping saga aspect of them, but felt that for all their lustful longings and agonies of separation, they were woefully short of actual romance.

Honorable mentions

I read lots of historical bodice rippers, but aside from Woodiwiss and Rogers, not many authors or books stand out for me. I do remember the ones below. I couldn’t tell you what the books were about, but I got so excited when I saw the covers on Goodreads that I felt like a 21 year old again. My outer brain doesn’t remember their stories, but they’re apparently stored securely in my subconscious vault of cherished book memories.

Captive Passions, Fern Michaels
Sirena Córdez: Proud, beautiful, once humiliated by a band of ruthless pirates who used her brutally at will, she escapes and commands an elusive vessel as the Sea Siren to satisfy her hunger for sweet revenge.

Regan van der Rhys: The impassioned sun-gilded master of the Dutch East Indies whose lusty tastes are stifled by his marriage to the seemingly demure Sirena.

Blazing desire engulfs the sultry vixen and the masterful sun-god as they clash on land as man and wife and on the seas as enemies. In an epic of endless vengeance and love, Sirena meets her lusty match in Regan - the only man who can truly possess her!

This cover references another popular book, Love's Tender Fury, by another popular author, Jennifer Wilde. I read a couple of her books, but something was a little off. It was soon revealed that Jennifer Wilde was a man’s pen name, and I decided that was exactly what was off. The stories were good, but he couldn’t write a female point of view convincingly enough to suit me.

Captive Bride, Johanna Lindsey
On a night made for love, there was only terror for beautiful Christina Wakefield. She who had recklessly followed her brother from London to Cairo on a whim was now made prisoner by an unknown abductor who carried her off to his hidden encampment.

Soon she would share his bed, know his touch, growing ever closer to the man who owned her as a slave.

And soon she would learn to want him as he wanted her — to share his soul, his being — her body aching to be his alone in the trembling ecstasy of everlasting rapture.

Lots of capturing going on. You might surmise that was a popular theme. Scottish Highlanders and their rebellions were also popular.

Bride of the MacHugh, Jan Cox Speas
This is the story of Elspeth Lamond and the MacHugh. Elspeth is a provocative and feminine lass who lived in a turbulent time in Scotland’s history, a period crowded with romance, intrigue, battles and characters that are memorable for their vitality and charm, their lust, strength and willfulness. Alexander MacHugh was head of one of Scotland’s mightiest clans when the rebellious Highlanders rallied around the MacDonald banner. He was a man of massive will but gravely courteous demeanor, and he clashed with Elspeth at every encounter, his will pitted against hers, neither of them willing to surrender to an irresistible attraction.

Little did I know, this book was just a tease for me. It planted a seed that lay dormant for a few decades, until I met James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser.

On the Night of the Seventh Moon, Victoria Holt
According to ancient Black Forest legend, on the Night of the Seventh Moon, Loke, the God of Mischief, is at large in the world. It is a night for festivity and joyful celebration. It is a night for singing and dancing. And it is a night for love.

Helena Trant was enchanted by everything she found in the Black Forest — especially its legends. But then, on the Night of the Seventh Moon, she started to live one of them, and the enchantment turned suddenly into a terrifying nightmare...

Victoria Holt wrote gothic romances, and I gobbled them up like candy. This was my first and favorite. I liked her stories for their supernatural elements, and I don’t remember them being bodice rippers. I read them before the bodice rippers; I had actually forgotten about them until my heart did back flips when I saw this cover on Goodreads!

Okay, that’s enough for a good sampling! Most of these authors have continued to write. Their books are easy to find as e-books or printed, and I’m sometimes tempted to check out a couple of old favorites again, or see if their newer stories and heroines are different.

The historical fiction (bodice ripping optional)

Some popular romantic tales contained enough actual history to teach me or inspire me to seek out more historical detail. As the allure of bodice ripping wore off, I migrated toward books where history was (slightly) more than a loose framework to liberally rearrange around a character’s awakening passions. These are the ones I remember most fondly. They weren’t all written in the 1970s — that’s when I read them.

Forever Amber, Kathleen Winsor
Abandoned pregnant and penniless on the teeming streets of London, 16-year-old Amber St. Clare manages, by using her wits, beauty, and courage, to climb to the highest position a woman could achieve in Restoration England-that of favorite mistress of the Merry Monarch, Charles II. From whores and highwaymen to courtiers and noblemen, from events such as the Great Plague and the Fire of London to the intimate passions of ordinary — and extraordinary — men and women, Amber experiences it all. But throughout her trials and escapades, she remains, in her heart, true to the one man she really loves, the one man she can never have.

Frequently compared to
Gone with the Wind, Forever Amber is the other great historical romance, outselling every other American novel of the 1940s-despite being banned in Boston for its sheer sexiness. A book to read and reread, this edition brings back to print an unforgettable romance and a timeless masterpiece.

Finally, here was a truly spunky character who fought for what she wanted and damn anyone who got in her way. I think comparing this book with Gone With the Wind is a stretch, but Amber had Scarlett’s passionate ambition. She was all for clawing her way to the top to get what she wanted, and sometimes I thought she deserved to lose. I didn’t think this was the greatest story, or much of a romance. But I loved its richly descriptive window into life on the teeming streets of London and in the decadent court of Charles II, a monarch I had little opportunity to read about (and didn’t particularly like). It captured the historical era well.

Désirée, Annemarie Selinko
First published in 1953, this riveting true-life tale comes to life in diary form, giving readers an inside glimpse at the young Napoleon and his family. Désirée is enchanted by the young officer, and he asks her to marry him. But he must leave for Paris, where he meets his eventual wife Josephine. A heartbroken Désirée is unsure she’ll ever find anyone again. A love story, but so much more, Désirée is the tale of a simple merchant’s daughter who ends up with a kind of royalty she never expected: an unforgettable story just waiting to be reborn.

I thought this book was amazing when I read it, in part because it was based on a real person. Désirée was a young woman of modest means who won the heart of Napoleon, then lost it to Josephine, but remained close to both of them. In the Parisian salons, the ballrooms of Versailles, the rose gardens of Malmaison; hobnobbing with politicians, generals, wives, and mistresses. I don’t want to spoil the story, but I will say that Désirée was not just hanging on to their coattails, she got her own fascinating story with a fairy tale quality that I loved. I’d been hoping to find a story set in Napoleon’s court, to balance the multitude of stories set in the British Isles, and this was perfect.

Liberty Tavern, Thomas J. Fleming
The American Revolution is love and hate. It is a beautiful woman, flogged for loving a Royalist. It is a young idealist who murders in the cause of liberty.

The War of Independence is a family affair if you are Jonathan Gifford — and the woman is your stepdaughter and the idealist your stepson. And if, at the crossroads of the revolution where leaders meet, profiteers connive and rival armies pursue each other with burning and pillaging, stands the inn you own.

This book was set in Boston during the buildup to the Revolutionary War, and action revolved around a small tavern where patriots met. I don’t remember a lot about the story, but it fired up an interest in American Revolutionary history that guided my reading for a while and inspired me to visit Boston and other sites I read about. It showcased the impact of impending war on a community of working-class citizens. It explored the conflicting ideals of the colonists and featured someone I hadn’t seen much of during my bodice-ripping binge: a male protagonist. I’m not sure how well this novel would hold up for me today, because I don’t remember its ratio of history to fiction, but it was enough to redirect my attention away from bodice rippers.

Kent Family Chronicles, John Jakes
One man’s quest for his destiny leads him to the New World and into the heart of the American Revolution

Meet Phillipe Charboneau: the illegitimate son and unrecognized heir of the Duke of Kentland. Upon the Duke’s death, Phillipe is denied his birthright and left to build a life of his own. Seeking all that the New World promises, he leaves London for America, shedding his past and preparing for the future by changing his name to Philip Kent. He arrives at the brink of the American Revolution, which tests his allegiances in ways he never imagined. The first volume of John Jakes’s wildly successful and highly addictive Kent Family Chronicles, The Bastard is a triumph of historical fiction.

These were rollicking good fun. They were originally commissioned to coincide with the American Bicentennial celebration, and the first couple were made into TV miniseries with a leading man I could swoon over. In these books, successive generations of the Kent family were front and center for many recognizable historical events with cameos by real historical people. I loved these books, but I remember them as heavily fictionalized. Or more specifically, I thought they tended to place famous people at events where they wouldn’t have been in Real History, for the sake of spicing up the story and including as many historical storylines as possible. However, Jakes is considered highly accurate and acclaimed by many fans as the “godfather of historical fiction”, so I am not going to pit my poor memory against reviews by people who have read these books recently. These books did do a wonderful job of immersing the reader in historical settings that felt realistic, like a participant in American history. On Goodreads, a lot of fans who loved these stories as young readers have enjoyed them all over again when rereading them as adults. Jakes also wrote a Civil War series. (Including the immensely popular North and South, which is the story I expected to see when I rented the movie North and South that the Wenches recommended. I was very confused when I started watching that movie!)

Urban Fantasy and the many genres of Outlander

I didn’t start obsessing over “romance” novels again until Urban Fantasy came along, with its sibling Paranormal Romance. The fantastical elements roped me in, not the romance. And then I found that romance had grown up to incorporate some of my favorite elements from fantasy and sci-fi. Or vice versa.

See what the romance adds?!
I’m usually drawn to intricately tangled plots that explore dark, self-revelatory themes, personal journeys of strength and discovery, mutual struggles that bond characters in shared commitment.

That’s already a tall order. But including a great romance is like slathering dark chocolate fudge icing on a cake, and I always like cake better with dark chocolate fudge icing!

I also enjoy a fantastical element or two. Maybe they serve as red flags to my brain that I’m taking a break from Real Life. Or transfer Real Life anxieties to alt-world villains, defeated by the unwavering patience and super powers granted to me only in fiction. Or inspire me to examine existential issues at arms length through the lens of metaphor. Who knows?

But whatever I look for thematically in my reading, beyond occasional pure escape, it was lacking in those 1970s romances. And it was right at home in Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance.

So not long after I discovered these new genres, I found the stories I’d been seeking in all those other books, now with mature themes, kickass heroines, emotionally literate heroes, and shared quests, working together side-by-side and eye-to-eye, to forge a deeply committed, lifelong partnership of equals. PLUS time travel and supernatural creatures!!

I don’t think I need to say much about my two favorite current series. We’ve written a lot of posts about them, and they’re both insanely popular. But for me, they are the nirvana of my 70s search. They have all the good stuff that kept me up until 4 AM reading most nights — and a whole lot more — without the annoyingly silly male posturing and feminine simpering. They even have some occasional bodice ripping.

Fever series, Karen Marie Moning
MacKayla Lane’s life is good. She has great friends, a decent job, and a car that breaks down only every other week or so. In other words, she’s your perfectly ordinary twenty-first-century woman.

Or so she thinks... until something extraordinary happens.

When her sister is murdered, leaving a single clue to her death–a cryptic message on Mac’s cell phone–Mac journeys to Ireland in search of answers. The quest to find her sister’s killer draws her into a shadowy realm where nothing is as it seems, where good and evil wear the same treacherously seductive mask. She is soon faced with an even greater challenge: staying alive long enough to learn how to handle a power she had no idea she possessed–a gift that allows her to see beyond the world of man, into the dangerous realm of the Fae...

Fever is a mesmerizing mixture of ancient Irish Fae mythology, brooding Byronic supernatural hero (with sidekicks!), and kickass heroines. The world building is deeply complicated, the magic is malevolent and pervasive, the sexual chemistry is beyond incendiary, and the protagonists endure and prevail against relentless trickery and evil to choose their destinies and forge their bond. Their mission is larger than themselves and their moment, indeed it is the fate of the entire planet for millennia to come. (And I’m hoping they save us. The last book is due out soon!)

Moning took an interesting journey herself, in search of the right way to evolve her HEA Scottish romances into a larger story. She eventually discovered Urban Fantasy, which gave her license to upend the structure, create new types of heroes and anti-heroes, and birth an epic mythological showdown and romance on steroids. And that’s exactly what I was looking for.

Outlander series, Diana Gabaldon
The year is 1945. Claire Randall, a former combat nurse, is just back from the war and reunited with her husband on a second honeymoon when she walks through a standing stone in one of the ancient circles that dot the British Isles. Suddenly she is a Sassenach — an “outlander” — in a Scotland torn by war and raiding border clans in the year of Our Lord...1743.

Hurled back in time by forces she cannot understand, Claire is catapulted into the intrigues of lairds and spies that may threaten her life, and shatter her heart. For here James Fraser, a gallant young Scots warrior, shows her a love so absolute that Claire becomes a woman torn between fidelity and desire — and between two vastly different men in two irreconcilable lives.

Outlander is the ultimate sweeping historical romantic adventure saga for me. It blends so many of my favorite genres that it defies classification. It’s like reading six kinds of books in one! It imparts volumes of vividly rendered, historically accurate detail, including Scottish rebellions and American Revolutionary War years. Its epic romance unfolds — tempestuously, of course, per the 70s — over a long and adventurous lifetime, and the relationships continue to mature as we grow old together, into the finest vintage. Plus there’s time travel, lots of it! And verra sexy scenes, lots of them! And last but certainly not least, and again I thank my lucky stars, a stunningly beautiful televised version to ogle.


Who am I kidding? I’m pretty sure I was too young to appreciate Urban Fantasy and 7,000 pages of Outlander in the 1970s. I think that maybe current romantic sagas and I grew up together in some ways, trading our Cinderella tales only temporarily for the Fabio covers, and eventually upgrading to Prince Charmings (and Cinderellas) who were more realistically flawed, sometimes rather scary, and always multi-dimensional. I think they were well worth the wait, and I wouldn’t trade them for all those heaving 70s bosoms and flexing pectorals put together! Though I will always remember the 70s with a deliciously naughty smile!

Were you a fan of romances or historical romances in previous decades? Do you remember any favorites? Do you think they were similar to any books you like today?


You Might Want to Read...

A Tribute to The Fiery Cross

Black Dagger Brotherhood: Scenes That Left us Begging for More

When The Music's Over

Dani Mega O'Malley: Superstar

So Many Questions: The Fever Edition