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Courtly Courtships: Five Great Historical Romances

Historical romances succeed in the same ways that all good historical fiction succeeds; they introduce you to a particular time and place, then make that setting feel as real and immediate as possible. It’s a genre whose greatest strength is its ability to humanize the historical, particularly for those of us who might otherwise find historical writing to be a little dry inaccessible.

Of course, the real high notes of historical romance come in its ability to present us with characters in situations that we can quietly be thankful we’ll never encounter. A hidden child? A forbidden romance? A woman ruined for marriage? A subtle barb delivered beneath the layers of courtly manners and mandatory propriety? It’s exciting in just about every way real life isn’t.

Please note: If you are innocent enough to have come to this article looking for Mark Twain’s Historical Romances, you might do better to avert your eyes.

    The Earl Next Door

    It seems strange that historical romance have a borderline monopoly on truly excellent puns in book titles. The Earl Next Door is the first part of a trilogy that also includes the incredibly well-named The Virgin and the Viscount, outdone only by the sequel, One for the Rogue. As much as you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, the amount of fun Michaels has with titles gives a little insight into the writing style you can expect to find in the books.

    Beyond it’s title, The Earl Next Door is the story of Piety Grey, a young American heiress fleeing an estranged family and an arranged marriage. She finds herself in early 19th century London, where she meets a dark stranger named Trevor Rheese, the Earl of Falcondale.

    The razor-sharp among you may notice an anachronism here and there, but for most of The Earl Next Door they won’t be enough to drag you out of an engaging story. It’s a strong regency romance with a host of well-presented characters around the courting couple, fleshed out well enough not to seem as two-dimensional as secondary characters often can in historical romance.

    A Rogue By Any Other Name

    If the above romance with an earl wasn’t a heady enough trip through high society for you, then you’ll be pleased to hear that A Rogue by Any Other Name features a romance with a marquess. You won’t do better than that without finding yourself a duke!

    The book introduces us to the character of Michael Lawler, the disgraced Marquess of Bourne, having gambled away his family fortune and been turned out of polite society. Years later, Lawler seeks to regain his lost family fortune from a new position of power in the London underworld.

    He is matched by Lady Penelope Marbury, who was scandalized when her marriage was called off at the last moment. Now, by chance, her father has come into possession of Lawler's old estate, and you can probably imagine how things shape up from there.

    Sarah MacLean is the winner of two RITA Awards for best historical romance from the Romance Writers of America. She's also another name from the file of “historical romance books with titles too good not to recommend.” A Rogue by Any Other Name is followed in short order by One Good Earl Deserves Another, No Good Duke Goes Unpunished, and Never Judge a Lady by Her Cover. If you find yourself enjoying the book, you know there’s a rich seam of historical romance for you to return to later.

    The Duke and I

    We already know that there are some of you thinking, “A marquess is a very fine thing, but what if I wanted to read a book about someone with a little more noble bearing?” Look no further, we’ve got you covered. After all, it is a truth universally acknowledged that a historical romance’s tension increases proportional to the rank of the suitor involved.

    Julia Quinn’s The Duke and I follows the well-worn path of the just-for-the-sake-of-appearances courtship that slowly blossoms into something more. Daphne Bridgerton is an ordinary girl in a world where the most eligible bachelors are all looking for extraordinary women, while Simon Basset is a nobleman with a troubled past and a duchy to call his own. The two arrange a very public courtship in the hopes of bettering their situations… and, let’s face it, we all know where that leads.

    As you might have guessed from the books’ titles, this is a historical romance that doesn’t land with quite the same degree of wit as MacLean or Michaels. It's definitely not beyond a little fun, but if you like your historical romance with a dose of wry wit, you’d do better to go for A Rogue by Any Other Name.

    In the Prince's Bed

    In the Prince’s Bed is another step up the historical romance maneater food chain, though it might be a bit of a stretch. Alec Black is the Earl of Iversley, and don't be disappointed that we’re back down to lowly earl, because he’s also the bastard son of the Prince of Wales. Obviously, the son of a prince isn’t automatically a prince, particularly an illegitimate son, but beggars can’t be choosers, so we’ll take all the royal blood we can get.

    Black isn’t the only illegitimate son of the prince regent, however, and he must bury the hatchet with his two half-brothers if he’s to make it. Each of the brothers is missing something essential, for Draker that something is an entry to polite society, while for Byrne it’s his lack of a family name or title. For Alec Black, the one thing missing is money. As luck would have it, Katherine Merivale is a woman in need of a suitable man, and is unable to access any of her considerable wealth until she’s married.

    If that sounds a little by-the-numbers, don’t worry, the whole thing is carried along by strong characterization and a genuine sense of fun in the dialogue. If you end up falling in love with Jeffries’ style, there are another two books to follow up to, To Pleasure a Prince and One Night with a Prince.

    The King's Mistress

    Those of you for whom the illegitimate son of a prince wasn’t a man in high enough standing, you might enjoy The Darling Strumpet, as it brings us finally to the bed... I mean heart, of a king. The biggest thing to warn you about is that, while it pretty much certainly qualifies as a “historical romance,” The Darling Strumpet has a very different tone to most of the books recommended so far. It’s just a little more serious and a little more historical.

    With that caveat out of the way, Bagwell’s debut novel tells the story of Nell Gwynn. The book opens in 17th century London, with a ten-year-old Gwynn selling oysters on the streets and trying to avoid beatings meted out by her alcoholic mother. Over the course of the book, Nell becomes a prostitute, an actress, and eventually mistress to the king.

    Where Bagwell is head and shoulder above the rest, is in the easy delivery of dialogue that sounds about right for the time. Too often, dialogue in historical fiction can ring a little false. At worst, characters' speech read as though it were simply littered with period-appropriate words after the fact.

    Perhaps key to this sense of verisimilitude is the fact that The Darling Strumpet manages to convey a sense of 17th century life that isn’t all nobility and wealth. Obviously, in the course of her career Nell brushes shoulders with people of good breeding and education, but only after we’ve been introduced to the poverty from which she came.

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