A couple of things have conspired to have me thinking about the popularity -- or unpopularity -- of certain time periods in historical romances this week. One was an article in the paper talking about a TV show called Mob Stories II. The executive producer of the show, Peter Gentile, is quoted as saying, "Mafia stories have replaced westerns on television."
The other is the commercials for the new movie, Elizabeth: The Golden Age.
I'm not sure about mob stories taking the place of westerns on TV, but I do have a couple of theories about why Westerns became unpopular in romance novels.
One reason also dogs the medievals and Victorian era romance novels, and I call it the Hygiene Issue, aka Reality. A lot of modern readers get their ideas of history not from school or books, but from movies or TV, and for a long time, Hollywood portrayed the old West as dusty, but not filthy. Ditto the Middle Ages. Take a look at Errol Flynn's Robin Hood. Those folks are clean, and so are their castles. But then Hollywood got a little more realistic. The reality of the lack of hygiene came in, along with more violence.
Thanks to adaptations of Dickens, a lot of people think poverty, ignorance and dirt when they think of Victorian England.
I find it interesting that Elizabethan and Restoration England apparently do well as settings for historical novels, but not romances. Elizabethan England also seems to work in movies. (Shakespeare in Love was just on the other night, too.) Actually, in the case of Elizabethan England, I think it works better in movies in part because of the clothes. They can look sumptuous on the screen, but if you try to describe those bloomers in a book? Sounds a little silly -- and that's without the cod pieces. Don't want a hero wearing silly outfits!
Then there's Regency England, the most popular setting for historical romances at the moment. Again, I think there are a few reasons for this, but one is certainly due to Jane Austen, who confined her stories to the upper middle class. That's the level of society most often portrayed in current historical romances, too. Everybody's clean, everybody's polite, and all the factories, child labor, pollution and riots are out of sight.
Do historical romance readers really have a much lower tolerance for, well, history? Are they truly unwilling to face the realities of the past? Do they just want what's basically an adult fairy tale? This is something I grapple with all the time, because I hate to think it's true, even if the market seems to tell me so.