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Back to Old School

Back to Old School

Since we like setting lofty reading goals for our hobby that we treat like a job, we’ve decided to tackle a new Smashdown. (Plus, we had loads of fun with March Smashness last spring and Monster Mash Smashdown last fall.) Theme months are the best! Though maybe not for our sanity. 

For the month of September, we’ve decided to read not one, not two, but nine books together. Can we do it? We shall see. Every Friday, we’ll post a group review discussing two books selected based on a theme. Plus The Flame and the Flower, because this year marks the 50th anniversary of its publication, so we kind of had to. 

So without further ado, we proudly present: Back to Old School.

WEEK 1: Where it all began…

The Flame and the Flower by Kathleen Woodiwiss


The Black Lyon by Jude Deveraux vs The Bride by Julie Garwood


Captured by Beverly Jenkins vs Gentle Rogue by Johanna Lindsey


Devil in Winter by Lisa Kleypas vs Devil’s Bride by Stephanie Laurens


Night Whispers by Judith McNaught vs Sea Swept by Nora Roberts

How excited are you to read a bunch of old school romances?

Holly: I am so unbelievably excited. True story: I only agreed to do March Smashness if Erin and Ingrid agreed to do a bodice ripper readathon. So here we are. 

Erin: I’m kind of weirdly excited considering that I’ve not been reading much histrom (especially old histrom) lately, and this month is histrom heavy. But also there were SO MANY books we didn’t choose to include, and I want to read them ALL. I contain multitudes.

Ingrid: I am SO excited. This is a real fresh change of pace for me.

What makes an old school romance “old school”?

Holly: Well, the first characteristic we’re looking for is publication date. 2000 is the approximate cut off, give or take a few years.

Also, to be clear, we’re talking about single-title romances, not category romances. Category romances have their own defining characteristics (which shift over time), and exploring them would be a whole different project. (Maybe for 2023? Right guys?!?!)

Broadly speaking, for me, “old school romance” and “bodice rippers” are synonyms. In terms of content, I would expect a certain relationship dynamic between the characters of an old school romance. First, I expect a monogamous relationship between one man and one woman (though the books of Bertrice Small are a striking exception to this rule). I expect the man to be older, sexually experienced (rakish even), and domineering. I expect the woman to be young, virginal, and naive—but also feisty, or at least with some unique characteristic that helps her worm her way into the hero’s heart. And I expect their relationship to be initially acrimonious (gotta have a reason to rip those bodices, rather than gently removing them), until the couple reaches accord through mutual surrender to their love. 

Erin: Yes, Holly, I’ll put categories on the calendar for next year.

I don’t disagree with Holly’s timeframe, though I think that there’s plenty of old school elements creeping well into the aughts. We’ve got a couple in the smashdown and a few more scattered throughout the month that have old school vibes but were published mid-aughts or even a little later. I mean, In Bed with a Highlander by Maya Banks is definitely a bodice ripper, and it was published in 2011, but maybe we should discuss those later pubs as reflecting some generic verisimilitude rather than being fully classed as old school. (It’ll be interesting to see how those later pubs shake out in the conversation this month.)

What vibes am I expecting? I’m going to expect domineering and paternalistic heroes, gender essentialism (how else will we know how manly those heroes are?), reflections of purity culture, age gaps (I mean, she’s got to be an innocent virgin, right?), toxic relationship behaviors, and rounder heroines than heroes because the heroines are going to be the problem-solvers, even as the heroes are the knights in shining armor. (That means probably more cerebral action from the heroines and more physical action from the heroes. Please refer back to gender essentialism.) Based on some of our past reading (Lord of Scoundrels, anyone?) I’ll expect third person past tense narration, not very close, and with a roving/omniscient POV. Oh, and definitely cishet stories.

Ingrid: I think all the classic romance novel stereotypes apply here–virginal heroines, sort of scary heroes, lots of hand-wringing and virtue over-protecting. And idk, I just feel like we’re going to see a lot of long hair, large breasts, and tiny waists.

Have you read much old school romance before?

Holly: I started reading romance around 2001, when all romance was old school romance. At the time, I pretty much only read single-title historical romance, so I feel pretty well-versed in that subgenre. I admittedly haven’t read many old school contemporaries, so I’m excited to explore that subgenre (at least a little bit) with my fellow smut reporters. 

Erin: Yah, same, though Ingrid and I used to walk to K-mart on an almost weekly basis and see what Signet or Zebra regency romances they had, so much of my reading was category until I branched out into the adult romance stacks at the library. I didn’t read some of the big names until adulthood, but we definitely had some Catherine Coulters and Jude Deveraux in our collection.

Ingrid: No. When Erin branched out into the racier content, I pretty much stayed with the relatively buttoned-up romances. So this is exciting for me because I heard SO MUCH from Holly and Erin about these absolutely bonkers books and now I get to be IN THE KNOW.

What are you hoping to learn by doing a deep dive into old school romances?

Holly: Unlike our previous smashdowns, I’ve read several of these books before. However, I haven’t read them since I started reading and thinking about romance as much as I do now. So I’ll be curious to see how I experience these texts now that I’ve spent some time really critically analyzing the genre. 

Plus, these books tend to be both meaty and bonkers, which means I bet they’ll be a blast to discuss. 

At least I hope so. Otherwise Erin and Ingrid will never buddy read a bodice ripper with me again.

Erin: It’s easy to critically analyze an old text with a modern set of expectations, but I’d like to consider these books in the context of the time they were published as well. What are we seeing in these books, and how have social expectations shifted where romance and romantic protagonists are represented?

I do expect us to do a lot of: “What in thee hell did we just read?” in our conversations.

Ingrid:  I can already tell we’ve got a smut reporting feature brewing on how trends have shifted and why it’s so cool. We have a history buff, a scholar, and an English nerd on staff here, so you better believe we’re going to over-analyze this stuff with unbridled glee.

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