A Short Guide to Historical Romance Books

Has the new season of Bridgerton sparked a new interest in this classic genre? Check out our short guide below!

What is historical romance?

Pretty much what is says on the tin: historical romances are books with romance as the central plotline that take place in the past. Many people associate historical romance with mass market paperbacks—often with a swooning woman or shirtless man on the cover—but the genre is much more that just that (and also a lot of that. We don't judge).

So when people talk about "Harlequin romances," this is what they're talking about?

Harlequin is the largest publisher of romance novels in the world, and their distinctive paperbacks are still quickly recognizable to fans of romance books. Not all Harlequins are historicals, however, and not all historical romances are Harlequins!

How does Bridgerton fit into this?

The Bridgerton TV show is based on a series of historical romances by Julia Quinn, starting with The Duke and I in 2000. The books follow the marital machinations of an upper-class family in the 1810s, making the Bridgerton books a good example of Regency romance, one of the most popular subgenres of romantic fiction.

While the exact dates are a bit fuzzy, the Regency era—named for the Prince Regent who ruled England after King George III was declared unfit to rule—covers the approximately the first third of the 19th century (think Jane Austen times). Most romances set in this time period focus on wealthy society (or, to use period lingo, "the ton") and often revolve around the social season, when noble Londoners would introduce their marriage-aged children to society for the purpose of securing advantageous matches. Given all the drama that might cause, you can see why this period is popular with romance authors!

What's up with all the dukes, anyway?

Most regency romances are concerned with nobility and titles in some form, but a quick snoop through the library shelves revels what seems to be an overrepresentation of dukes (Not That Duke, Undercover Duke, The Duke's Inconvenient Bride, the list goes on).

Duke is the highest non-royal title in the British nobility, so maybe it's the extra drama that comes from disparity in rank, or maybe "duke" just sounds better in a title than "marquis" or "viscount." (Though Courtney Milan and Melanie Dickerson might have something to say about that).

And the guys in kilts aren't dukes?

Not usually—if your historical romance has a kilt on the cover, it's probably a highland romance, taking place among the various clans and families in historical Scotland. The most popular highland romance series is Diana Gabaldon's Outlander (with the added wrinkle that it's also a time-travel story), but it's far from the only one!

In addition to featuring kilted heroes, highland romances can have some of the best pun titles in the entire genre.

Are there historical romances that don't take place in Britain?

England and the rest of Britain are the most popular settings for historical romances (especially as the Regency is, by definition, concerned with the affairs of the Britain), but there are historicals that take place outside the British Isles, including India, China, and France.

If you really want to get out the British Empire, you'll probably also have to get out the 19th century. Historical romances set in the US often focus on the Revolutionary War, Civil War, or World War Two (bit of theme, there).

And cowboys. Lots and lots of cowboys.

Swooning and heaving is good and all, but what if I'm in the mood for a gentler read?

Historical romance doesn't have to be steamy! Readers who prefer a sweeter read can find something to love in the genre too, whether they're reading about a Texan schoolteacher falling for a disguised surgeon or a pair of sisters accidentally opening a boarding house for bachelors.

For Christian romance books, search the library shelves for books with the dark blue "Inspirational" sticker. And make sure you stop by the works of Lynn Austin, a local favorite!

Are there LBGTQ historical romances out there?

Plenty, though many are still published via smaller presses and self publishing (check out Hoopla for a great selection of LGBTQ ebooks and audiobooks from indie publishing houses). With historical romances, you can find queer love in medieval times, the Victorian era, the Roaring Twenties, and more! Happily ever after guaranteed.