When tasked with supplying the name of my favorite genre, I will always answer “gothic romance.” Though commonly characterized as a bundle of cliches (spooky castles, innocent maidens, malevolent servants, and a mysterious, overbearing hero), I can never get enough of them! Once I grew out of the Wakefield twins and the Baby-Sitters Club, my curiosity over what lay in the “adult” section of my local library led me to their pristine collection of Victoria Holt titles. Here, I discovered, were stories of young women on the brink of adulthood who faced dangers, not only of the physical kind, but of the internal kind.
One of the hallmarks of Holt’s gothics is the tart, zingy dialogue, which the heroine uses to keep the domineering, rakish hero at bay, and in each book the hero must earn the heroine’s respect and love. Another Holt trademark were the exotic settings–from Victorian Australia, to steamy Ceylon, to feudal Normandy in the 1860s, and to the terrors of the French Revolution–which set her apart from her imitators who usually mined the wild Cornish and Yorkshire settings made famous by Du Maurier and the Brontës (though, Holt did use those two areas as well).
Though Jean Plaidy is the other best-known pseudonym of Eleanor Hibbert, one cannot overlook the books written under “Philippa Carr”. Her Daughters of England Series, published between 1972 and 1993, followed the female line of a family from the dissolution of the English monastaries until the outbreak of WWII. Not all ended happily-ever-after (some made my teeth gnash!
After exhausting my library’s supply of Holt/Carr titles, I began to hunt for any book that looked “gothic” (and learned to look for a particular font on the spine and particular cover artists like). My search turned up some thoroughly depressing British sagas, and some pale imitations of Holt, but I hit the jackpot when I discovered Madeleine Brent (aka the late Peter O’Donnell). Like Holt, Brent wrote gothics with strong heroines and exotic settings, but his books brought a dash of adventure to the gothic romance. In Merlin’s Keep, the orphaned heroine is rescued in the Himalayas and brought to England by a taciturn Englishman, and in The Long Masquerade, the heroine escapes her abusive husband with a family friend, and disguises herself as a coolie fisherman wandering the Caribbean. Other searches through the library turned up Mary Stewart, Nancy Buckingham, Jill Tattersall, Jennie Melville/Gwendoline Butler, Virginia Coffman, Carola Salisbury, Tom Huff’s gothics, Anne-Marie Sheridan, Lucinda Baker, Alexandra Manners, Rona Randall, Mary Linn Roby, Barbara Michaels, and Phyllis A. Whitney.
During the genre’s heyday of the 60s and 70s, many authors clearly wrote gothics to cash in on their success, but as with all things, the cream rose to the top, and those who wrote for money were easily discerned (they were the ones who relied upon the cliches). When I began writing, I naturally began to write spooky gothic romances, but then I heard they were long dead, the audience for them was too small, they were too anti-feminist, etc…and I turned to the other genre I discovered in my library: historical romance. Yet, the gothic romance remained my comfort read; I could crack open my copy of The Landower Legacy and find it as fresh and suspenseful as when I’d first discovered the book. As I begin the process of restructuring my WIP (you will find out why in tomorrow’s post), I feel I’ve come full circle, and can’t wait to bring a bit of gothic into my historicals.