For the Love of Gothic Romances!

The India Fan by Victoria Holt
March 2013 reissue from Sourcebooks Casablanca!

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! ), but the Carr series managed to blend the best sensibilities of Holt and Plaidy to create an engrossing set of historical suspense novels.

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.

Author: Evangeline Holland

Evangeline is a public historian who brings her academic skills to fiction, in order to fill in the gaps in the historical record. Her love for history permeates just about everything she does, going so far as to "suffer" for this love--as the bruises and stuck fingers from fencing and sewing costumes to understand life in the past firsthand can attest.

4 thoughts on “For the Love of Gothic Romances!”

  1. There was a small resurgence in popularity of Gothic romances in the early 2000s, wasn’t there? Did you ever read The Scarletti Curse by Christine Feehan? That was a very good Gothic romance! She wrote another Gothic whose title I can’t remember atm, but that was also very good.

    I think the great thing about both Michaels and Stewart is that they took Gothic stories and adapted them to a contemporary setting. Plus, they relied heavily on research to make each book feel original. Even if the plots were formulaic, it was a formula unique to them, and they twisted it in interesting ways.

    1. I’ve read them! The other was Lair of the Lion. I also read Eve Silvers gothics from Kensington. *sigh* I miss them.

      There were a few authors who wrote “contemporary” gothics (that is, contemporary to the 60s and 70s), but Stewart and Michaels are incredibly talented. I really loved Michaels’ gothic trilogy set in Georgetown.

  2. I love Gothics, too. The delicious spookiness without neccessarily bringing a paranormal world into the picture -the real world can be scary enough- and a smart heroine who finds her way through the shadows to beat back her greatest fears…what’s not to love about that. I’d love to see a Gothic Renaissance. Hm, or gothics set in the Renaissance. I could go for that, too.

    1. I’ve always felt that the gothic is as much a precursor to paranormal romance as it is to romantic suspense. Plenty of relatively inexperienced heroines drawn into the strange world of an enigmatic, domineering hero. 😉

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