As an avid lover of genre fiction – especially science fiction and horror, but also YA (that’s young adult novels, to the extent that can be called a ‘genre’) – I set myself a self-improvement project of sorts last year. You see, I had never really read romance novels. I, like many others, had long written them off as so much trash, unworthy of my attention.
But when I started working in libraries, and really seeing the devotion many people have to the genre, I began to realize that I was almost certainly missing out on something. This was also when I had first started getting into YA, and I had really gotten into the romance elements of some of them (notably, Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park, and Kiera Cass’ Selection series).
I couldn’t help but admit what I had always sort of known; the general attitude toward romance novels, the one I had unthinkingly allowed myself to fall into, is really pretty misogynist. It is one of many examples of the ways in which media made by and for women is denigrated and seen as lesser than the real stuff.
And I decided to find out what I was missing, and if there was romance that I could love.
And so, I began reading about romance, learning its sub-genres, and trying to figure out where to even start. Because I’ve always had a soft spot for the likes of Jane Austen (though I must admit I’ve never had romantical feelings about her protagonists), and I had recently come off a major Downton Abbey spree at the time, Regency/historical romance seemed like the place to start. I’ll spare you the whole journey, but the short version is I have, in fact, wound up finding some really enjoyable reads!
After multiple recommendation to give the prolific Georgette Heyer a shot, I read through some synopses and settled on the quirky-sounding Sylvester. The heroine of our story is a secret novelist, and after meeting the hero (Sylvester, of course), finding him horrible, and fleeing from him before he has the chance to propose marriage (as she has been warned he intends to do), she writes him in as the villain in her latest novel. The development of their relationship is reminiscent of Pride and Prejudice‘s Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy, complete with thoroughly satisfying, quick-witted banter. I enjoyed the book, though like Austen’s works, my enjoyment was not of the romantic persuasion. I had to keep digging!
I had so much fun with this novel, and it’s the first one that the romance really worked for me on! Miss Clare Westmore is out to get a husband, and she has her sights set on the most eligible bachelor in town. She is sure she has no real competition, though, until disaster strikes; at the first dance of the season, she sprains her ankle, and is told she will have to sit out the rest of the season! In her desire to heal as quickly as possible and get back to the business of high society husband-hunting, Miss Westmore winds up spending a great deal of time with the town’s new (inevitably young, and handsome) doctor, and ultimately must choose between marrying for money or love. This is the first novel I had picked where the romance really got to me in a good way, and in my success I was spurred to continue my hunt.
When I first started looking into romance generally, I was specifically interested in finding feminist examples of romance, and I quickly came across the name of Zoe Archer. Archer actually explicitly thanks the “Secret Feminist Facebook Collective” in the acknowledgements of one of her novels. So I definitely wanted to read her!
But as I scoured the synopses of her novels, trying to find something that piqued my interest, I found myself coming away cold. Modern romance stories for some reason don’t often grab me, it turns out. Anyway, I was super stoked when I learned that Ms. Archer had decided to try her hand at Regency, under the name of Eva Leigh. I picked up Leigh’s ‘debut’ novel Forever Your Earl as quickly as possible, and devoured it.
This novel brings us Eleanor Hawke, a self-made woman who has built herself a small empire as the editor of a scandal sheet, detailing the exploits of high society dandies and rogues. Imagine her surprise when one of society’s most scandalous figures turns up at her door and offers to let her follow him around, joining in on and detailing his every salacious adventure. Hawke agrees, but only because she is determined to discover the Earl’s motivation for such a strange request, and the two embark on what starts out as a very strange and mutually beneficial business relationship, that unsurprisingly develops into something more. It’s a very fun book, and I was not disappointed in the way Archer/Leigh’s explicit feminist leanings shine through in the book’s approach to gender relations, especially those of the, um, romantic persuasion. I definitely plan to read Eva Leigh’s other books.
I’ll leave this post here for now. Consider my romance journey ‘to be continued’, though! I definitely want to continue to expand my enjoyment of this genre to include more modern stories, as well as a greater diversity of characters (Regency romance is of course overwhelmingly populated by white people, and I wouldn’t mind some non-hetero love stories in my life, for a start). Recommendations are very much welcome!