Author Sophie Perinot on Romance in Historical Fiction

Why I Believe that Romance in Historical Fiction Deepens the Connection Between Readers and Characters From the Past

by Sophie Perinot 

Shall I tell you a secret?  I am addicted to love. 

My craving for romantic elements in literature (in TV or movies too for that matter) is SO strong that my fertile brain spins its own romantic plotlines into stories where they are lacking.  Yep, when I finish a book/PBS series/whatever in which I’ve perceived a whiff of incipient romance left unexplored, I spend days fleshing out that relationship in my mind while burning toast, chauffeuring kids and grocery shopping.  Likewise when I write, however major the historical events at the center of my story, you can bet there will also be a strong romantic plotline incorporated.  I simply can’t conceive of a satisfying story without one.  Is it any surprise, then, that I am more than a little bit tired of hearing historical novels with strong romantic elements dismissed as “fluff” or “beach reading?” 

I believe precisely the opposite is true.  Why? 

What is intimate is important.  If we are entirely honest with ourselves, a vast majority of us care less about who will win the election in November than we do about whether the person we love is being faithful.  I don’t think that makes us “intellectual light weights.”  I think it speaks to the fact that in a majority of lives the personal makes more of an impact than the political. 

Love lies at the center our humanity.  The desire to care about others and be cared about in return is hardwired into us.  A life without love is one of the saddest things imaginable—a bleak stretch of years that would, at least for me, be gravely deficient even if I had the talent and capacity to create a world-changing invention or cure a major disease.  Granted, the type of love that fulfills a particular individual’s need for affection doesn’t have to be romantic.  Love of a parent, a sibling, a colleague, a pet—in other words purely platonic love—can be every bit as consuming and satisfying.  Romantic love is, however, a very common human experience, shared across time, and between people who live continents apart.  Thus, fictional (or fictionalized) characters who love create a point of shared humanity and common experience with the reading audience.  So the inclusion of a romantic plot element should enhance a book’s ability to connect with readers on a deeper level. 

This is perhaps particularly true in the case of historical fiction.  Characters in historical novels don’t wear the same things we do, they don’t speak the same language, and they operate under legal, social, political and moral systems often vastly different from our own.  Points of commonality with the modern audience, which abound in contemporary fiction, are limited.  But the need for readers connect with characters in a historical novel still exists.  A romantic plotline can bridge the time gap.  

Some might argue that the sweep of history alone is enough to make a historical novel successful.  But I don’t think so.  True, battles are lost and won, kings rise and fall, religions and empires do as well.  But the facts of those victories and defeats can be dry as dust (think badly taught high school history – long on dates and short on drama) unless we CARE about the characters involved.  We care when authors make their characters fully human by allowing us to identify with feelings and thoughts.  The ways we love—unrequitedly, faithfully, etc—and the ways the object of our affection can make us feel—euphoric, neglected, betrayed, etc—haven’t changed in a thousand years (or two).  So we can identify with characters caught up in a romance—whether blighted or successful.  

I believe that is why the historical fiction I love most has strong romantic elements in it.   Love doesn’t just make the world go round, it brings the past a little bit closer. 


Sophie Perinot writes historical fiction with strong romantic plotlines. Her debut novel, The Sister Queens (Mach 2012: NAL/Penguin), tells the story of 13th century sisters, Marguerite and Eleanor of Provence, who became the queens of France and England respectively.  When she is not off on crusade with the handsome Seigneur de Joinville, or gallivanting around the 16th century in company with Marguerite de Valois, she lives in Virginia with her three children, two cats, and one husband.

Our review of THE SISTER QUEENS by Sophie Perinot


18 Responses

  1. I couldn’t agree more. I’ve been fighting this battle against literary snobbery throughout my writing career. I’m sorry to have to say that it’s very prevalent in my native Scotland. I write Scottish historical non-fiction and fiction and was introduced recently before giving a talk as someone who has published seven romantic novels but who also writes ‘serious’ books. In vain did I protest that I take the writing of my novels just as seriously as I do the straight histories!

    I always think of Gone with the Wind and Dr Zhivago in this context: great sweeping stories of major historical events made all the more poignant for being told through the prism of a passionate love story.

    • Dr. Zhivago is a PERFECT example. I saw it on TV when I was young (probably early teens) and I know it drove me to the library to seek out books on the Russian revolution. My mom had the soundtrack from the movie and I used to put it on (LP, lol) all the time.

  2. I do the same thing! I’m always imagining romances in my head! I’m a hopeless romantic and proud of it. I don’t know why books with love stories are dismissed so readily when every human being on this planet craves and needs love to be fulfilled. Great article, Sophie!

  3. I couldn’t agree more! That’s why I added a love story to the WWII story I wanted to tell. Dr. Zhivago and Gone With the Wind are perfect examples! And I wonder how many people would have watched James Cameron’s Titanic if it weren’t for Rose and Jack!

  4. I too totally agree!! I think it’s still society putting women down. Beach reads – what does that mean (I assume it means books that you don’t have to use your brain reading) or chick flicks – which of course are movies only women enjoy. Romance books still get bad raps because the majority of readers are women. I have learned more from my romance books than any history class.

  5. A really well written romance historical fiction can be engrossing, enlightening and intellectual. Those books are fabulous; I think it’s the bodice rippers that have no plot other than how 2 people can get their hands on each other that gives romance a bad name. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of those around. I read strictly historical fiction and, yes, there are romances and unrequited loves in it, because these relationships did exist. Love stands the test of time immemorial.

  6. Well written indeed. This is my thesis subject. Realism and romance in Historical fiction and reading this was revisiting some of the arguments. I could not agree more.

  7. I love this! Thank you for sharing your thought processes. Now I don’t feel so crazy. I wrote a historical fiction novel, The Seamstress of Jamestown (California gold mining town). It has about 5 romances in it. It is packed full of true history, but the romance seemed to flow naturally. Yes, to me it always flows naturally. I cannot think of a Hallmark movie I have seen that I haven’t written a romantic sequel to in my head. I thought everyone did that. After I wrote my book, I started talking to friends and found out that most people don’t do that. But for those of us who do, it’s free entertainment.

  8. Sophie Perinot’s comments on this blog are succinctly and powerfully to the point. “Love lies at the center [of] our humanity.” I am writing a historical novel based on my mother’s memories and the most difficult thing is turning out to be presenting the fully dimensional story of her love life since she was so open about maternal, filial, spiritual, and otherwise platonic love while terrified of carnal, passionate human relationships. Part of the historical context she lived in is the medieval Catholic upbringing she received in 1920’s Puerto Rico which tends to desecrate sexual relationships and acts. Thus, I have to fictionalize the most human and intimate part of her life because she would not recognize it in conversation with anyone except her confessor. I have to accomplish this while remaining faithful to her social, cultural, and historical contexts. Thanks, Sophie for verbalizing and organizing in such a powerful way an issue I am struggling with as a writer!

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