19 September, 2006

Romantic fiction series on BBC4

Thanks to everyone who commented while I was away. The recipe proved more popular than I was expecting, so I might make it a regular feature.

Following on from the e-zine The Romance of History, readers in the UK with digital TV may like to note that BBC4 is running a three-part series on romantic fiction, Reader, I Married Him, over the next three weeks. In the comments on the previous post here, Elizabeth Chadwick drew an interesting distinction between 'historical romance' and 'romantic historical', worth repeating here so that it doesn't get lost in the comments:

".....the romantic historical as opposed to the historical romance. I'd definitely count the latter as the category Harlequin stuff which is of variable quality. Not all of it is written by authors people who have got out the dressing up box in their front rooms for the
afternoon, but it does focus mainly on the hero/heroine relationship. Some of it is hilarious crud, some of it not bad at all. The romantic historical has wider themes and scope but will probably have a romance in it somewhere. Anya Seton, Dorothy Dunnett are two proponents of the genre. It's also where I feel I belong."

I'm rather hoping the BBC4 series might explore the subtle distinctions between various sub-types of 'romance'.


Alex Bordessa said...

Welcome back :-) I was going to mention this programme on my blog. Unfortunately, I still haven't sorted out my digibox, but a very kind friend is going to record it for me. I'm looking forward to seeing it.

Susan Higginbotham said...

Madeline Hunter, who writes historical romances, has a piece on her website about historical romance versus romantic historicals:


Which for me raises another question: what's the distinction between a romantic historical and "straight" historical fiction? Sharon Penman's books, for instance, usually contain a romance, but I wouldn't categorize them as romantic historicals. On the other hand, I can see placing Anya Seton's Katherine in the category. Maybe the difference between straight historical fiction and romantic historicals has to do with the way the romantic leads are depicted (physically idealized and somehow larger than life as opposed to a more "warts and all" treatment)?

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Susan says that she wouldn't count Sharon Penman as a writer of the romantic historical - but I would. Certainly I would consider Here be Dragons a romantic historical. I suppose you could imagine historical fiction as a line going from left to right with the category romances at one end and the serious literary historicals at the other. For me, the romantic historical would come somewhere towards the middle. The words 'historical romance' for me conjour up the category end of the genre. The relationship between the hero and heroine firmly in the foreground whatever the quality of the research. A romantic novel on the other hand has more going on that just the h/h romance and may use 'romantic' in its broadest terms. A great adventure, powerful emotions, not necessarily reproductive ones. A poignant slant of sunshine across a worn castle wall, the whole sumptuous pre-Raphaelite stained glass filter effect :-) You can still write warts and all and retain that 'romantic' feel.
The UK's Romantic Novelists Association now runs 2 prizes for romantic fiction. One for category romance - Mills & Boon, Harlequin etc, and one for broader scope romantic fiction. Shortlistees in the past have included Dorothy Dunnett, Philippa Gregory (The Other Boleyn Girl), Rosamund Pilcher, Joanne Harris and myself.

Carla said...

Alex - Good luck getting the digibox sorted out. I'll be interested to hear your thoughts on the programme - I'm hoping the video recorded the first episode and with luck I might have time to watch it tonight or tomorrow.

Susan - many thanks for the link. I'm with you here and wouldn't myself class Sharon Penman as 'romantic historical', though I think Elizabeth is right about the idea of a continuum with no hard and fast distinctions where one 'category' begins and another ends - or that it's up to readers to define their own distinctions and attach what label they feel fit.

For what it's worth, I'd base the distinction on the amount of weight the romance carries in the plot. In Katherine the relationship between Katherine and John of Gaunt is a crucial part of Katherine's life (not so much for John, if I remember correctly, though we don't see much from his point of view so it's hard to judge its importance to him), and when they finally come together in a loving marriage the story has come to a natural end and the book finishes. In Sharon Penman's Welsh trilogy, although all three books have an important central romantic relationship, the rest of the plot is at least as important as the romance, and none of the books end with the hero/heroine marriage. Other aspects of the hero's and heroine's lives, like the struggle for political power, lands, etc, are just as important to them as their romantic relationship. There are also other important characters and relationships in the novels, e.g. Joanna's relationship with her father in Here Be Dragons, Llewelyn's relationship with his brother Dafydd in The Reckoning. (Which is why they tend to be 600 pages long!). So I'd place Sharon Penman's books further along the continuum than Katherine, but not as far along as, say, Colleen McCullough's First Man in Rome series or Edith Pargeter's Heaven Tree trilogy, in which any romantic element is a minor part of the plot and is outweighed by politics, power struggles, revenge, honour, etc.

Interesting point about the physical perfection of the romantic leads. All three of Sharon Penman's Welsh novels have startlingly beautiful heroines - Joanna, Nell, Ellen - and Simon de Montfort and both Llewelyns are shown as physically attractive (even at age 50-ish in the case of the second Llewelyn). They all have character flaws that make for interesting reading and in some cases precipitate avoidable disasters, so they aren't idealised in that sense.

Elizabeth - romantic in its broadest sense is in the sense that Wordsworth & Co were New Romantics, yes? I like that sense of the word and rather wish it hadn't got caught up in the 'category romance' connotations. Could this come under the 'larger than life' aspect of Susan's comment? I love books about people who are exceptional in some way or in exceptional circumstances - there's enough 'ordinary' in real life for me without having to go looking for it in books :-).

This is fascinating stuff! I've been thinking about romance and the way it seems to mean different things to different people, and now I have lots more to think about!

Unknown said...

Interesting discussion. My friends and I debate this all the time. Some of them read “romances” and some don’t (or claim not to). I write ‘em, so of course I read them. My scale goes something like this (and I love books from all across the spectrum):

Georgette Heyer
Jo Beverly
Laura Kinsale

Julia Ross
Diana Gabaldon
Pam Rosenthal
Philippa Gregory

Sharon Kay Penman
Bernard Cornwell
Dorothy Dunnett

There can certainly be debate about where a certain novel or writer falls on the spectrum. And I’m sure there could be more categories, but this pretty much covers the distinctions I make as a reader.

Carla said...

Hi Kalen. 'Stealth Romance' - what a great term! I'm interested to see that you put Bernard Cornwell in romantic historical fiction. Would you like to expand on that, please? I've read most of his novels (Sharpe, Starbuck, Grail Quest, Arthur trilogy, Stonehenge, etc) and liked them a lot.

Bernita said...

One wonders how an agent would react to the "Stealth Romance" line.
It is a great term!

Unknown said...

Bernard Cornwell as Romantic Fiction

Well, pretty much every Sharpe book contains a romance. That boy gets AROUND. I’m most partial to Teressa, but then I love me a good kick-ass heroine. And the ultimate ending for Sharpe is domestic bliss with his French wife. I find the books VERY romantic.

My favorite of BC’s books though is Gallows Thief. And while it’s a murder mystery, the real driving force behind Rider’s every action is his love for his (ex)fiancĂ©e (and she’s fantastic), and the urge to somehow get back to a place where he can reclaim her (though she isn’t having any of his trying to back out of the marriage purely for financial reasons; she’s determined to marry him regardless).

And then there’s the romances BC wrote with his wife. I loved A Crowning Mercy. All those roundheads storming across the countryside . . .

So while I wouldn’t call BC’s books Stealth Romance (they’re not simply a romance with some extra history here and there), I would call them Romantic.

Carla said...

Bernita - how about asking Miss Snark? :-)

Kalen - thanks for coming back to explain. Gallows Thief and A Crowning Mercy are two of his books that I haven't read - I shall give them a try, as they sound a bit different from the military adventures. I'd also rate the Sharpe books as romances but using 'romance' in its older, broader sense, i.e. in the sense that John Buchan wrote romances, rather than in the category romance sense. Although there's almost always a love affair it's usually a fairly small part of the plot - Sharpe has a lot more things to do in each book besides getting the girl! Whereas the romance story is more to the forefront in Sharon Penman and Dorothy Dunnett. I like the idea of Sharpe settling down in domestic bliss with Lucille - who is a great heroine, a strong character without being a warrior - I can see her being able to keep Sharpe in order! I thought it was great when their son Patrick turned up in the Starbuck series.

Unknown said...

<I'd also rate the Sharpe books as romances but using 'romance' in its older, broader sense, i.e. in the sense that John Buchan wrote romances, rather than in the category romance sense.

Me, too. His books are romantic as opposed to being genre romances (they're not even Stealth Romances). I love his Arthurian books, too. After we’d sat through the terrible Clive Owen flick King Author my best friend turned to me and said, “Why couldn’t they have just made The Winter King if they wanted to do a supposedly historically accurate story about Author?” To which I replied, “Picts with Trebuchets!” (abomination!).

I haven't read BC's Starbuck books, but now I think I might have to go get them . . . just what my TBR pile needs. *GRIN*

Susan Higginbotham said...

You folks are making me want to read some Bernard Cornwell!

Carla said...

Kalen - Agreed. I wish there was another term that meant romance in its old sense, distinct from category romance. I haven't seen the King Arthur film; one look at Guinevere's leather bikini on the posters was enough to tell me it was more fantasy than 'history' and everything I've heard about it since has confirmed that!
I like Sharpe better than Starbuck, but that's probably just because I'm more interested in the Peninsular War than the American Civil War. The two characters are very similar. If you're after Patrick, I think he first appears in Copperhead, which is the second Starbuck. I hadn't got as far as Lucille in Sharpe's story when I read it, but I spotted who Patrick was right away.

Susan - why not give him a go and see what you think? His books are so popular they'll be easily available in a library. You have kalen's word for Gallows Thief and A Crowning Mercy. If you prefer the High Middle Ages period, try his Grail Quest series about the archer Thomas of Hookton in the Hundred Years War - the first one is Harlequin over here and I think it's called The Archer's Tale in the US. Sharpe is what made Cornwell's name, and I think is still the best of his work that I've read. You can read the Sharpe series in any order, they all stand alone. My favourites are Sharpe's Sword and Sharpe's Gold (Gold features Teresa, if Kalen's comments about her attracted you). Happy reading!

Susan Higginbotham said...

Thanks! Cornwell is one of those people I've kept meaning to read.

I saw King Arthur, but only because it was an in-flight movie and it beat watching the radar screen showing the little plane making its way across the Atlantic.

Carla said...

I think I'd have watched the little plane on the radar screen in preference, as at least it wouldn't have left me muttering about the abuse of history for weeks afterwards.... How did the film compare to Braveheart, would you say? I didn't care for Braveheart's approach to history (ahem!), but if viewed as fantasy it was quite watchable. At least Isabella wasn't required to look like something out of an exotic lingerie catalogue. All the dreamy aerial shots of Mel striding out in manly fashion along a mountain ridge got a bit tedious, or would have done if I hadn't passed the time by trying to work out what the peaks in the background were and whether I'd climbed them :-)

Kathryn Warner said...

I agree - Braveheart is quite enjoyable once you accept it has nothing to do with anything historical. I saw it again not long ago, and by pretending that I knew nothing at all about any of the characters, who were of course entirely fictional, it wasn't bad at all.

Carla said...

Agreed - there ought to be some sort of health warning on books and films that cheerfully mess around with history, something like "This is intended as pure entertainment, enjoy it but for heaven's sake don't take it as history. We changed this and this, and made this and this and this up." Then you know where you are. Novels can do that with an Author's Note; I wish films did the same. One of the things I liked about the film Gladiator was that its website had done something like that, admitting that the film nicked the character of Gracchus from the Brothers Gracchi three centuries earlier, and that Commodus did like playing gladiators but was actually murdered in his bed by a slave rather than in the arena, and so on. Whereas from what I remember of the King Arthur film it was making puffed-up claims for historical accuracy which were frankly absurd. It's not so much taking liberties with history that annoys me, I think, as misrepresentation.

Unknown said...

You mean all those shots of Mel striding about in a garment that didn't exist during the period the story is set in (and even if it had existed it wouldn't have looked like THAT!). GACK! Give me Rob Roy any day.

Carla said...

Yes, those shots. Though I guess we're supposed to be looking at Mel rather than the kilt :-)

Kathryn Warner said...

It's not so much taking liberties with history that annoys me, I think, as misrepresentation.

Exactly - which is what originally annoyed me so much about Braveheart. A cheerful (or not so cheerful) and thoroughly inaccurate romp through history is one thing, but I hate it when the film-makers claim that it's a true story.

Susan Higginbotham said...

Braveheart annoyed me more than King Arthur, probably because I'm not an Arthurian. I do remember something about King Arthur making claims for historical accuracy, though, so it probably should have annoyed me more than it did. At the time, I thought it was more silly than annoying--I kept wondering where Guin, who had previously appeared in a rather tattered-looking dress, had gotten the wherewithal to have her warrior outfit made. I also thought that if she was going to leave so much flesh exposed, she really ought to put a little more meat on her bones so she'd have a better chance of surviving an arrow.

Carla said...

Inaccuracies that I don't spot can't annoy me, so a film or book in a setting I know nothing about can take any liberties it likes. Until I get some books out of the library to find out more about this interesting setting and these fascinating events and find they made it all up. Grrrr! That really winds me up, because it's wasted my time twice over.

I do tend to mutter about inaccuracies more in representations of post-Roman and early medieval Britain than in other periods, just because that's my line so I'm more likely to spot deviations. Although having just said that, it's also the period where I'm most likely to recognise that X event isn't known or dated, or that there are conflicting sources, and accept that the author/film-maker has a different interpretation from mine. I've just finished a book set in seventh-century Northumbria that sets the annexation of Deira by Bernicia in about 588. I think the evidence is much more consistent with 605, but I also recognise where the 588 date comes from so I know it's an alternative choice of source not a mistake.

Re Guinevere's fashion sense, do you suppose that the leather bikini outfit really was underwear and this explains its sudden appearance? Take off the tattered dress and voila! Now you know what imaginary Pictish warrior princeses wore under their kilts.
Maybe the extreme thinness is a clever form of defence - if she turned sideways the arrow would miss her.