Accepted wisdom in publishing since the 1940s has been that “sex and violence sell.” This always held true in the mystery, suspense and thriller genres of the time, not to mention newspapers and magazines, but romance novels were the exception that proved the rule. That was until the 1970s and the advent of the “Bodice Rippers.”
Yet there was much more to these books than that cynical philosophy. They were stories that went deeper into the male-female sexual dynamic than any fiction had ever gone before.
The “Bodice Ripper” romance was perhaps established by Kathleen E. Woodiwiss with The Flame and the Flower in 1972, which by 1978 had sold 4.5 million copies. It was a direct descendent of the Gothic novels of the Fifties and Sixties in which the hero often figured as a nominal villain. It also owed a strong nod to stories of women’s free-spirited adventure such as Forever Amber by Kathleen Windsor. These were one-woman, one-man tales, which featured the development of a relationship from a difficult beginning.
Their basic theme was there is no “fate worse than death,” and that women were not devalued by forced seduction—a softer term than rape, the latter being a brutal assault not seen in the Woodiwiss books or the majority of “Bodice Rippers” written by others. They illustrated the essential truth that women can and do survive and triumph over a nonconsensual sexual initiation.
Rosemary Rogers, with her Sweet, Savage Love, put a different spin on the genre by providing the heroine with multiple lovers and a more turbulent story. The basic theme of the Rogers type of historical romance was the ability of women to survive while bringing the men who wronged them to their knees.
To truly understand the genre in the early days, however, you have to remember they were written for a different generation, for women knee-deep in the feminist and sexual revolutions. For those born in the 1920s through the 1950s, the idea that women had a right to sexual pleasure both in and out of the marriage bed was a shiny new concept. The age-old “burden of consent" was very real, and its removal—at least in fiction—seen as a positive relief. These women understood, in a way that's obscure to the present generation, that the heroine's silent sensual pleasure in her first sexual experience was actually her victory.
Added to that, the forced seduction scenario presented the greatest possible obstacle to the traditional HEA (Happily Ever After) of romance that has ever been invented. A distinct part of it was that the hero had to atone (Regan uses the word “grovel.”) for his act toward the heroine, however mistaken it might have been. Toward that end, he suffered direct physical pain as punishment, becoming a surrogate for every man who ever wronged a woman. He often lost the heroine after he'd come to love her and was forced to desperate lengths to find and be reunited with her. His impassioned declaration at the end of the book signaled his complete surrender to her as a mirror of her initial surrender to him.
That these books have been devoured by millions upon millions of women all over the world indicates something profound about how they were viewed at the time, and are still valued today.
A charge often leveled against the stories is that their heroines are too passive, too easily accepting of what happened to them. Yet how strange it would be to make every detail accurately reflect historical times but give the female characters unlikely modern attitudes. The hard truth is that a woman who had sex without marriage during the patriarchal period was “damaged goods,” a female fallen from grace regardless of the circumstances. She often had no choice except to accept her situation.
In my first historical romance, Love’s Wild Desire, the heroine Catherine, a strong woman, is convinced by her mother and the censure of society that her only option is to accept the marriage offer of the man who took her innocence.
Melanie in Tender Betrayal also accepts an honorable proposal, but her motive is private and personal revenge for both the hero’s act toward and his part in the death of her grandfather.
In Royal Seduction, book 1 of the “Royal Princes of Ruthenia” duo, Angeline’s family abandons her to the tender mercies of Prince Rolfe who holds her captive.
Eleanora, heroine of Notorious Angel, is stranded in war-torn Central America, and remains the mistress of Colonel Grant Farrell because the alternative is to become a camp follower left prey to all.
Julia from The Storm and the Splendor accepts her position because it’s the only way she can achieve her dream and return home again.
In these Bodice Ripper stories, for the heroine to make the best of what was happening to her, at least on the surface, is the intelligent course; to fight it tooth and nail would be exhausting and even dangerous. The heroine who can enjoy sex while keeping her deeper responses and emotions hidden actually has the upper hand: beyond maintaining her pride, she becomes that ultimate fantasy figure, a woman able to arouse a desire so powerful the hero will go to any lengths to have her. Meanwhile, her grace under fire, new-found internal strength and inviolate personal honor changes him. At the point where she began to feel she cares too much, she usually escapes from the relationship, even at grave risk.
Cases in point are Embrace and Conquer, in which Félicité runs away from Morgan only to wind up in a pirate stronghold, and Golden Fancy where Serena is left vulnerable to a madman who kills women.
The popularity of this type of fiction waned in time, done in by those who were so uncomfortable with the idea of feminine pleasure they labeled it “soft porn for women,” as well as those who considered any sexual event that occurred without the women’s enthusiastic shouts of “Yes, yes, yes!” as a heinous crime. Then, too, the interest of its authors declined as the plot device became clichéd through overuse. Still, like a secret love child that spawns a new family dynasty, this much-reviled offshoot of the romance genre lives on in the bloodlines of today’s romance novels with their exploration of the sensual lives of women.
What happened to those classic “Bodice Rippers” from the Seventies and Eighties? They are still out there, still being reprinted for a new audience, still being downloaded and read by hundreds of thousands. There’s even a special group called “Bodice Rippers Anonymous” on Goodreads.com that’s dedicated to them. They seem to have eternal life, proof that however much we may deplore it in the 21st Century, sex and violence do still sell -- at least when combined with a worthy heroine and a hero’s desperate desire.
|Since publishing her first book at age 27, New York Times bestselling and award-winning author Jennifer Blake has gone on to write over 65 historical and contemporary novels in multiple genres. She brings the story-telling power and seductive passion of the South to her stories, reflecting her 8th-generation Louisiana heritage. Jennifer lives with her husband in northern Louisiana.|