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Laugh Your Past Off: An Exercise in Humorous Historical Romances

by Jennifer Brannen

*This article originally appeared in the April 2014 issue of RA News.*

I like my romances like I like my men -- funny. If you can make me laugh, I am willing to forgive inconsistencies, odd plot devices, and the occasional incongruous phrase or clanging fact. So writing a piece on humorous romances seemed like an obvious choice and  contemporary humorous romances seemed like a good place to start. And so many authors sprang to mind (Jennifer Crusie, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Rachel Gibson, Katie MacAlister, Cathie Linz, Vicki Lewis Thompson, MaryJanice Davidson, and on and on). Never being one to take the easy route, I thought, "A-ha! I'll do humorous historical romances. That'll be fun." I have a definite penchant for Regencies (all that wit! those manners!) but I was sure that there would be plenty to work with in the broader historical subgenre too.

As it turns out… Well, I'm not saying that the British cornered the market on laughing and humor for a key 20 to 30-year period, leaving everyone else falling in love out in the literary cold for several centuries. I'm just saying that it's darn hard to find humorous historicals that aren't set in the Regency era.

So, Let's Talk Regencies

Technically, the Regency era only lasted from 1811-1820. Contemporary Regency writers have literarily limbered it up so that it now stretches from about 1800-1830. Even though it was such a brief period, it looms large in historical romance; for obvious reasons, the Regency lends itself particularly well to humorous romances. Wit, banter, and comedies of manners are hallmarks of this era and the romances set in it. Thank Jane Austen for this, and feel free to consider Pride and Prejudice the proto-Regency romance. There are plenty of choices in this historical subgenre, but what follows are a few personal favorites as well as some other popular authors and classics.

Georgette Heyer: Though she died in 1974, Heyer is still the go-to traditional Regency writer.  She could whip up a frothy concoction of Regency manners and mores and make it look effortless. Her titles are being reprinted and are well worth seeking out. Fan favorites with laugh-aloud moments include: The Grand Sophy, Sprig Muslin, Cotillion, and Friday's Child.

Elizabeth Boyle: Spying, politics, and societal machinations mix with acerbic humor and powerful sexual chemistry and are grounded in fascinating history. Boyle has several series, and they all benefit from being read in order. Mostly, her romances are realistic. (The one very successful exception is her two-book Marlowe series, which incorporates a supernatural element in the form of a wish-granting magic ring.) My favorite series is The Bachelor Chronicles, which highlights her wit and strengths as an author. Start with Something About Emmaline or, if you want to go with the supernatural Marlowe series, Tempted by the Night (one of my favorites).

Loretta Chase: Scoundrels and rakes, hellions and bluestockings with sharp tongues, and dry wit abound in these romances. Personalities clash and sparks fly as heroes and heroines collide and banter their way to love. Start with Mr. Impossible.

Eloisa James: A personal favorite, James' love stories are always driven by witty, complex characters, genuine emotion, and entertaining repartee. Games (of all sorts), flawed heroes, and intelligent friendships between women propel her plots, which are drawn from such varied influences as Shakespeare, fairy tales, and popular culture. Her various series are best read in order. Start with the Essex Sisters series (first novel, Much Ado About You), or her more recent fairy tale re-workings, the Happily Ever Afters series (first novel, A Kiss at Midnight).

Sabrina Jeffries: Comedy, love, and gratifying happily-ever-after endings are the classic elements of Jeffries' light, funny, and often steamy romances. Her heroines are intelligent and frequently willing to step outside of society's expectations, the heroes are rakish but endearing, and both the wit and sexual chemistry sparkle. A fun place to start is her School for Heiresses series, with Never Seduce a Scoundrel.

Julia Quinn: There is so much to love in Quinn's writing, which is humorous, witty, and sometimes wonderfully silly all without sacrificing resonant emotion, real character development, and interesting plots that both respect and play with conventions of the genre. How to Marry a Marquis is a good early choice, and her most recent novel The Sum of All Kisses continues to charm, but her classic and enduring series features the Bridgertons, eight alphabetically monikered siblings. Start with the first in the series, The Duke and I and relish its seven sequels.

Amanda Quick: Quick, especially in her earlier Regencies, skirts the edge of silliness while fully embracing her sharp heroines and cool yet quirky heroes. Throw in a secret society, the mysterious antiquities of an unknown ancient culture (think Eqyptology gone wild), and occasional dollops of the paranormal, and you get a fabulously funny mix and some classic titles. Good titles to start with are Mischief, Mistress, Affair, or Deception.

A Special Mention . . .

Laura Kinsale tends to be better known for her dark and tormented romances in which the happily-ever-afters don't come easily but are worth the work and the wait. But every so often she lets her funny flag fly. There still may be a little angst lurking here amidst the humor, but consider checking out a couple of these comedic classics nevertheless:

Seize the Fire, which features a shy, plump princess, a battered naval hero with a soft spot for avians, and a rockhopper penguin named Napoleon. (It's worth noting that the hero was inspired by George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman character.)

Midsummer Moon, in which an intelligent but forgetful heroine intent on inventing flying machines meets a hero intent on using those machines to defeat Napoleon. Mix in a pocket-dwelling hedgehog and table salt that turns out to be more than it seems for true romantic comedy.

Love Beyond the Drawing Room: A Handful of Non-Regency Romances

Though the Regency rules the humorous historical market, there are some options from other eras. Be prepared though to embrace crossover points such as paranormal, steampunk, time travel, and mystery. Some of these are series and some of these are one-offs, but all are historicals that deftly mix romance and comedy:

Connie Brockway: Brockway writes wonderful Regencies and the occasional contemporary, but she has a couple of stand-out Victorian humorous romances: As You Desire, set in 1890 Egypt, in which a brilliant amateur scholar teams up with a treasure-hunting rogue on a white horse; and Bridal Season, which features a music-hall performer on the lam turned accidental wedding planner.

Gail Carringer: Call this a Victorian romance with lashings of the paranormal and steampunk and enjoy a tart-tongued heroine who meets her match literally and figuratively in a Scottish werewolf pack leader. (Yup, this one has it all.) Start with Soulless, first in the Parasol Protectorate series.

Sandra Hill: Vikings! SEALs! Time travel! Yes, really! Hill's novels are a mix of contemporary and Scandinavian medieval eras; Vikings and their paramours from the future travel through time with surprisingly funny and steamy results. For maximum effect, start with Rough and Ready from her Vikings Time Travel series.

Eloisa James: Yes, you saw her name above, but James also writes Georgian romances, which are more ribald, sharply toned, and darker than their Regency counterparts. Her Desperate Duchesses series is filled with complex characters, literary allusions, and a surprising amount of chess. Start with the eponymous first title in the series.

Elizabeth Peters: Another sharp-witted -- and sharp-tongued -- Victorian/Edwardian heroine is Peters' Amelia Peabody, who is both endearing and formidable throughout her lengthy and enduring romance with the irascible yet charming Emerson. Start with The Crocodile on the Sandback. This is a mystery series, though it has ongoing romantic underpinnings.

Lauren Willig: Narratives in the Pink Carnation series swing between contemporary London with a Bridget Jones-like Ph.D. candidate researching the titular Napoleonic-era spy, the Pink Carnation, and her actual romantic adventures with various secret agents during the Napoleonic Wars.

Happily Ever After . . .

This brief jaunt through the humorous byways of historical romance has come to an end, proving, hopefully, that love and laughter know no historical boundaries. When the modern-day world gets to be a little too much, lighten up by going back through time, where wit wins the day, and nothing soothes like anachronistically feisty heroines and liberated men falling in love.

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Jennifer Brannen  is a Teen and Adult Services Librarian for Durham (NC) County Library. She presents and writes about readers' advisory for adults, teens, and tweens, and contributed a chapter to Integrated Advisory Service: Breaking Through the Book Boundary to Better Library Users.