Modern Romance

……… isn’t really romantic.

Love is in the air, as thick as patchouli oil at Burning Man, but the players haven’t kept up with the times. In fact, they seem to be regressing.


Oh, the trappings are there. The heroines of these journeys toward love and fulfillment have careers and university degrees, and they are seldom, if ever, relegated to being nurses or teachers anymore. They have, in theory, more than just marriage on their minds.

And they have sex. A lot of sex.

But underneath, for every bit of window-dressing, and the “steps forward” the authors take, it seems as if the characters and plots take giant leaps backward.

It might be time for some of you to turn around and view past writers with more than a superficial eye. Maybe you could learn something important from an old mistress of the genre.

Georgette Heyer, who set the majority of her romance novels in the Regency era – arguably one of the most regressive and restrictive points in history, for upper-class women, at least – did some things that recent writers fail at rather miserably.

Heyer’s novels are romances, certainly. They are also, in part, comedies of manners as well, because those  manners,  the etiquette and the complex set of social rules that governed a woman’s life on almost every level, form a setting that seems unreasonably oppressive and constricted to modern writers and readers.

There is barely even any actual, physical contact between hero and heroine, save for the crushing, ruthless embrace at the end, when finally, the two star-crossed lovers meet in perfect love, and the curtains are then discreetly drawn.

It is hard for many of us nowadays to accept the idea that those people’s sex life is none of our business.

And yet, the books endure. They get rediscovered in each generation, and then, frequently, young writers try to imitate them while attempting to appeal to a modern audience by throwing in some hot sex on the side.

I’m not saying they shouldn’t try. I’m not saying that there wouldn’t, were someone to actually succeed at this, be a thriving market for these books. And I am definitely not saying this is solely applicable to historical romances – the problems are at the heart of every type of romance, be it fantasy, cowboy or urban.

But they most frequently fail, and I suspect I know why.

There are two things Heyer succeeded at, and while they are not difficult to perceive, I will admit that for most writers, they are hard to achieve.

The first is plot.

Plot is specific, but you wouldn’t know that reading modern romances. Romance fiction is almost always about love conquering all – but this is a theme, and themes are not plot.

Nor is setting a substitute for plot.  Modern writers are positive geniuses at locating their stories: backstage at a rock concert, on the run from the law, working for a huge international corporation, or house-sitting for a rich friend in Palm Beach. You name any setting at all and probably some writer has used it. You can take that a decent distance, but no matter where you set your heroine, it still isn’t plot.

Heyer’s romances follow the plot, not vice versa.

For Heyer, there was always a real, and logical (within the confines of the setting) problem to be solved, and Heyer was a veritable queen of figuring out the ways in which perfectly natural attempts to solve that problem, whatever it was, could go awry.  The plot drove the romance to its destination, not the other way around, and the problem was not merely a construct devised to get the heroine from one steamy scene to another.  The conflict was “real” and a product of the problem as well as the people involved – not forced into the setting the way you cram that last pair of pantyhose into an overflowing sock drawer.

The problem to be solved is what should drive the plot, which in turn drives the romance, and far too many writers today just seem to pick a problem based on what is recently in the news, drop it into a setting they like, and describe an impossibly lovely girl with self-esteem issues and a man with no impulse control at all, without considering whether the problem even actually is a problem; one that isn’t eventually solved, suddenly and completely, by texting over a copy of the missing deed or emailing someone’s mom.

Heyer never disappointed her readers by dropping in a wholly fortuitous but completely deus-ex-machina solution (see above, which I swear has been used in the final chapter in at least three novels I have read recently): her plot resolutions, like the plots themselves, were considered, and inherent in the setting and personalities involved. The resolutions and solutions were properly chosen to reflect that setting, the theme, the plot and the characters. This is what made the endings so satisfying, despite the lack of heavy breathing.

The second, and most important thing that Heyer never forgot to do was to give her heroines agency. Despite the web of constricting rules her main characters were forced to live within, they had fully-fledged personalities and acted on their own behalf. They behaved within character, but they grew, too. They learned lessons about themselves, not as bolts from the blue based on a single passionate kiss, but through seeing their own or other people’s conduct from new vantage points.

In addition, Heyer’s men have more depth than current fiction might lead you to believe the male of the species normally owns. Men in modern romances might be hunky, but they are considerably less kind, aware, patient, or even interesting. Men in Heyer’s novels have interests that they pursue. They have morals more encompassing than an alley-cat’s, too.

Above all, though, her heroines are far more modern that those of most romantic fiction published in the last 20 years or so. The modern woman of romance might have a graduate degree in Communications, but she is so frequently tongue-tied and inarticulate that one has to wonder how she manages to record a message for her voice-mail, and for career women, they are exceedingly reluctant to put in regular appearances at their job, the moment a cute guy crosses their path.

Heyer’s women have more on their minds than men. Seriously – it might be difficult to discern amid the teas, balls and recitals, but despite the fact that their only purpose in life was, according to Society, to get married to as much wealth and status as possible, the delicate flowers decorating Almack’s in Heyer’s world are surprisingly inventive, creative, and courageous.

They are frequently outspoken, too – Heyer rarely relied on poor communications skills to create a misunderstanding, and when she did, she made it logical and within character. Indeed, she much preferred to create the misinterpretations and mixed messages through such things as drunkenness on the part of some rakish blade (“April Lady” comes to mind here), or to send someone out of town and therefore unable to clear up the misunderstanding until it was much too late.

Heyer’s women do things. They might not be the right things – but they are never illogical or out of character. They have real, perfectly understandable emotions: they argue, they converse, they interact with people.

And – curiously unlike many another more recently-written tale  – they don’t wait around for someone else to solve their difficulties for them.




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