Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Tuesday Talk-Time - Old Skool v. New Skool: Embracing the Bodice Ripper

Avril Tremayne is back at the Pink Heart Society to talk about the difference between the old and the new...

I’ve been on a retro reading binge over the past few weeks – ever since the Sydney Writers’ Festival, when the moderator of the Beyond Dukes and Damsels session, literary historian Jodie McAlister, kicked off proceedings with this question for the panelists (of whom I was one): What was the first romance novel you ever read?

In my case, it was Kathleen Woodiwiss’s Medieval romance, The Wolf And The Dove, which I consumed as a teenager in a non-stop frenzy of awe.

The book that hooked me.
That book opened a door into a world of lush description, historical adventure and dark passion, and I wasted no time racing out that door and into that world, devouring all things Kathleen Woodiwiss, Laurie McBain, Shirlee Busbee, Rosemary Rogers, and Johanna Lindsey (to name just a few).

It was for those writers'  historical romances of the 1970s and 1980s that the term ‘bodice ripper’ was coined. It’s a term that’s been haunting romance writers ever since, but bodice ripping was exactly what was going on behind those Fabio-esque covers. Bodices were not only being ripped, they were being ripped with frequent and passionate abandon! The heroine (invariably beautiful, brave and self-sacrificing) was being kidnapped, ravished, claimed, chained to the bed, enslaved in castles, and bundled against her will onto pirate ships. Sometimes she was being 'saved' by the hero...but he was just as likely to be the one doing the ravishing/enslaving! And yet somehow, she managed to both fall in love with the guy, and make him fall in love right back.

An vintage Harlequin  from the 50s.
Old skool romances of the contemporary variety featured equally beautiful, brave, self-sacrificing heroines, and ruthless, testosterone-fuelled heroes. Imagine the inscrutable, super-macho executive on a mission, striding into the office of the business he will acquire at any cost. He instantly identifies one of the staff, a woman, he can use as a pawn to get exactly what he wants, so he exerts all his irresistible sexual power to bring her under his spell...neither wanting nor expecting that she will end up being the one woman in the world who can tame him, and win the prize of his love.

Yep, in the old days, romance was all about the sexy, wealthy, powerful alpha hero being brought to his knees by the courageous, sexually inexperienced heroine, despite his best efforts to withstand her allure. (Ah! So that’s why he treated her so badly! Because he was in love with here but didn’t want to be!)

Modern bodice ripper cover - bring it on!

Fast forward to today, and my, how things have changed! 
  • Today, the hero had better understand the concept of sexual consent, for a start.

  • Today, even with the world’s most testosteronic hero, readers demand to know what he’s thinking, and why he's doing what he's doing. If he’s treated our heroine appallingly all through the story just because he can, an I love you dragged from between his clenched lips at the end of the story isn’t going to cut it.

  • Today, in fact, ‘I love you’ is not necessarily the climax (pardon the pun); it can come at any point in the book, or even at the beginning, just as easily as at the end. That’s because the journey, how the hero and heroine tumble into love and why they tumble into love, is what readers want to understand. (Understand being the operative word – no HEA is due to someone who has no redeeming qualities.

  • Today, the heroine is not always, or even usually, the oh-woe-is-me victim of circumstance – she’s an active participant in her fate; more often than not, she’s driving the circumstances. And she is not going to put up with any crap.
Boss/secretary story but who's in charge?
  • Today, the heroine is not so infuriatingly perfect you want to smack her in the head. She has flaws. She has goals. She is learning about herself, about where she wants to be in the world, and working out how to get there.

  • Today, the heroine comes in all shapes and sizes, and from all socio-economic backgrounds. She can be sweet or tough, virginal or sexually experienced, rich or poor, a homemaker or  career woman, the boss or the secretary, vampire or vampire-slayer, high born or from the wrong side of the tracks. The only thing she always is, is strong – and even that can take many forms: feisty, seductive, principled, moral, rebellious, even manipulative if that's what it takes to get what she wants.  

  • Today the hero can be just about anything – as long as he acts with honour, and treats the heroine with respect.

  • Today, our HEAs are not all invested in whether our heroine can bring the hero to his knees (although she does!); they're also about how she's getting what she wants from every other part of her life, and making the pieces fit to suit her. The man might be the icing, but he is not the cake.
It’s been quite eye-opening, revisiting my old bodice-ripper favourites with my modern sensibility front and centre. But you know what? I still love them. Not only because so many remain cracking good reads, but because they really pushed the envelope, and I respect that!

A tiny selection from my retro collection - they scream 'passion' and 'adventure' to me!
Yes, sexual consent was often murky back in the old days, but at least no, at last!girls were actually having sex in the pages of our books, and what’s more enjoying it. That was a first for the romance genre at a time when let's face it it wasn't so easy for women to hang out the sexual shingle.

Thank you, Fabio
There's been an awful lot of envelope pushing in romance fiction since then, in tandem with the way women have been pushing so many envelopes in our own lives, so it can be easy to forget how far we've travelled as readers and writers. But someone, nevertheless, had to push the first envelope! 

So I say, embrace those old bodice rippers, folks. 

Without them, our books wouldn’t have evolved to the wonderful smorgabord we have today – where attaining a rich, powerful, emotionally unattainable man, even being saved by him, might still be on the romance menu (and I may even have a private fantasy of my own along those lines!) but it is no longer the only dish.

I've used a very broad brush here for reasons of space and time and your patience, but if you fancy some in-depth reading on the fascinating evolution of romance, here are some places to start...

What we talk about when we talk about Fabio

Why Can't Romance Novels Get Any Love?

Beyond Bodice-Rippers: How Romance Novels Came to Embrace Feminism 

Romance Novels Are Primed To Make An Impact So Stop Calling Them "Trashy", OK?

Nora Roberts: The woman who rewrote the rules of romantic fiction 

Meanwhile, I’d love to hear what was the first romance you ever read - and what you think of it now!

Avril's latest book, The Millionaire's Proposition, is out now:

He suggested a "friends with benefits" arrangement...

• Two nights a week
• Strictly confidential
• One month only…

It may have been his proposition, but lawyer Kate Cleary is so buttoned up she whips out a contract for them both to sign! With her high heels and stockings, all Scott Knight can do is sign and move to the implementation stage!

Kate couldn't be more jaded about relationships. After all, she is in the business of ending marriages! Millionaire architect Scott might be seriously sexy, but he's also a complicated enigma. One she's quickly becoming determined to solve…even if that means breaking the terms of her own watertight contract?

To find out, more about Avril and her books, you can visit her website, or connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.


  1. "Today, in fact, ‘I love you’ is not necessarily the climax (pardon the pun); it can come at any point in the book, or even at the beginning, just as easily as at the end. That’s because the journey, how the hero and heroine tumble into love and why they tumble into love, is what readers want to understand. "

    This is it! This is it exactly - it's not enough to have the 'what' or even the 'how' - we need the 'why'.

    Great article Avril!

    1. Thanks so much - I'm glad you enjoyed it. I really do think that's such a key difference in today's romances.

  2. Great article, Avril, and the links are really helpful.

    1. Those articles are so thoughtful and considered. It's such an interesting topic. I love going back to where my love of romance began and understanding how things have evolved.

  3. One point of difference in the new romances and the old is the question of contraception and/or disease prevention, that is, the use of condoms. The heroine might be on the pill but I would like to see more of them aware of STDs. A smart savvy woman makes sure she is protected.

    1. Yes - you are 100% correct. I could kick myself for not including that because it is a hallmark of modern romance that more often than not, the hero and heroine do tend to have this conversation. In a way, it's almost miraculous that the 'secret baby' trope still exists.

  4. Great article, Avril! I loved those old bodice rippers, too. But I am glad that we now get to see what's going on from the hero's prospective, too.

    1. Thank you! And I agree on the hero's PoV. Learning what's in his head can be very romantic! It also makes it fun reading when you know what has the hero and heroine twisted up in knots because you're seeing both perspectives, but they are blithely going along without the faintest idea.

  5. The old and the new are very different, and I love them both! Avril--I love your covers, especially Wanting Mr. Wrong. Please keep writing your blogs. They are very interesting and thought-provoking.

    1. Thank you! I do love the Wanting Mr Wrong cover - very sexy but also a little bit tender.