Georgette Heyer was the first romance author I ever read, and I was as enthralled by the history, glamour, clothing, and witty drawing room comedy as I was with the beautiful heroines and handsome heroes. I started enjoying these novels when I was in junior high school, and it bothered me not a whit that while they definitely included sexual tension (Bath Tangle, Devil’s Cub and Faro’s Daughter are reeking with it, to give a few examples), there was absolutely no sex. Even married characters didn’t enjoy marital relations "on screen", so to speak. But I still loved them.
A few years later, the mother of a high school friend subscribed to Harlequin Presents with the very first book, and I was also intrigued by the masterful men, and the heavy kissing that went on. Looking back, I realize that most of Anne Mather’s heroes, with their controlling, bad-tempered behavior and habit of hitting on underage girls, would be at risk today of ending up in a sexual predator database, but in that era that sort of male behavior was a standard romance trope. The arrival a few years later of actual sex scenes in books like “The Flame and The Flower,” or my favorite, “The Wolf and the Dove,” was an eye opener for me, to say the least.
Over the following decades, sex in the romance genre in general, and in historical romances as well, has become increasingly important, while historical and period detail, and sadly, characterization, have receded. I admit upfront to being a cranky woman, so I’ll say right now, this troubles me. I like a good sex scene, or better yet, several of them, as much as the next person. But I want them to add to, or at least be relevant to, the story and not detract from it due to inappropriateness to the lovers’ personalities and the period.
I’d like any sexual content to tell me something about the characters, address the arc of their relationship, and be plausible in the historical context. It’s also important to me that the lovers have some sort of emotional connection that is not driven solely by sex, and that there is a reason that they care for each other besides the purely physical. In far too many romance novels the sexual relationship seems to be the only connection the lead characters have; when the heroine decides she loves the hero, I often have no idea why she might feel that way, outside of his physical endowments. I want to think that these people might be together forever, not just until they have recovered from the first fire of infatuation.
In reaction to this, I decided to write some romance novels that I would like to read, in the traditional style. I wrote these more than a decade ago, and didn’t have the time or energy to pursue publishing via the traditional route, with its huge barriers to the entry of new authors. Recently, the ease of publishing on Kindle made me dust these off, update them, and publish them. Since I still have a love-hate relationship with sex in historical romance novels, I decided to publish two versions – one a “Traditional” version in which there is no sexual content, and the other with plenty of sex, the “After Dark” version.
This has been a very interesting exercise for me, because both adding sex to a plot and subtracting it have their own challenges. My first book, The Secret Bluestocking, was written without it, and coming up with a way to make the heroine plausibly interested in an affair while remaining true to her character, given the historical setting in the Regency and her circumstances, required some ingenuity. I balked at the idea of Isobel, who is supposedly intelligent and independent, putting her way of life in danger for physical infatuation. Eventually, I found a motivation that made me comfortable with her taking that step, but it was something I thought long and hard about.
At the moment, I’m writing a much-requested-by-Amazon-reviewers sequel to the first books I published, A Duchess Enraged: Allegra’s After Dark Georgian Romance and A Most Amusing Situation: Allegra’s Traditional Georgian Romance. My heroine is a widow, and thus has more social and sexual freedom than an unmarried girl, and the thesis is that she’s famed for her common sense, sterling reputation, and charm, but is secretly worried that she will never have any fun again. Hence, she takes a secret lover, who is a well-known rake.
But telling her story without this element is much harder, because she has entered into the sexual relationship with a sense of both excitement and mischief. Without it, there’s no dynamism or conflict in the relationship. I am currently thinking about how to provide the main characters with plausible motivations and conflicts for a sexless version of the novel, but it will require a great deal of rework, and if it is written at all, will probably be published almost a year after the first version.
Creating two versions of a novel is “easiest” when using the scenario in which a young woman is somehow forced, tricked, manipulated, or pushed into marriage. In this case the conflicts arise from the circumstances of the marriage, and the “I need more time to get to know you” plot device often comes in handy. For the traditional version, I can just draw the curtains around the 18th or 19th century marital bed, and move on. My soon to be published Regency novels, A Collector’s Item: Rowena’s After Dark Regency Romance and That Infamous Pearl: Rowena’s Traditional Regency Romance make use of this narrative.
While I now have a much better understanding of the difficulties associated with writing sexual relationships in historical romances, I remain impatient with stories that are little more than a series of sex scenes dressed up (or undressed) in fancy clothes. A good work of fiction requires us to suspend our disbelief and enter deeply into the characters’ lives and feeling. Stories that fail the historical relevance test make this impossible for me. I hope that when I do introduce physical pleasures into my writing the plot provides a good justification for them, and also that the sex moves the plot along, rather than merely serving as a steamy, but irrelevant, episode. And I also hope that in the more traditional versions of my novels, the lovers’ physical attraction is still apparent, though the reader does not follow them into the bedroom.
As a parting note: If any of you, dear readers, have thoughts on how to "de-sex" the sexy sequel I mentioned above… Please share them here! Who knows? Your idea may be the one that gets that story written! Of course, you'll be mentioned in the dedication and I'll arrange for you to receive a free copy of the book. I may just name a character after you, if you wish. ;)