Get Lost in 19th Century Romance

Had it been just an hour ago she’d been sitting in a stalled train, impatient to reach her destination? How eagerly she’d looked forward to seeing their new home, dubbed by newspapers as “The Infant Wonder of the West. For weeks, she’d anticipated a great adventure, the kind of spine-tingling excitement found in her favorite books. Reality was grittier, bloodier, and utterly more terrifying.
From A Dangerous Passion by E.E. Burke 

In my latest historical romance, A Dangerous Passion, the heroine Lucy Forbes sets out to discover the kind of romantic adventures she’s only read about in books. 

What books was she reading? The same type of literature read by the majority of women in her day--Sentimental Fiction.

Before the romance novel, there was sentimental fiction (also referred to as domestic fiction). These stories were serialized in popular magazines as well as produced as novels, and were eagerly consumed by a growing population of female readers in the 1800s. 

The basic plot involves a young girl deprived of the support she’d depended on to sustain her, who must win her own way in the world. In the process, she finds inner strength and develops a strong conviction of self worth. This was a theme that resonated powerfully with women of this era, most of whom were under the control of men and rarely given credit for being intelligent or capable outside of the home.
The first big seller in this genre was Susan Warner’s The Wide, Wide World (1850). Maria Susanna Cummins is credited with setting the trend on fire with The Lamplighter (1854). It sold 40,000 copies in two months. She’d be considered a bestseller these days, but back then it was nothing short of astounding.

As beloved as these authors were among their faithful readers, they were ridiculed by male counterparts. Nathanial Hawthorne, in a letter written to his publisher in 1855, says this about them:

"America is now wholly given over to a damned mob of scribbling women, and I should have no chance of success while the public taste is occupied with their trash…"

Regardless of Hawthorne’s disdain (which reflected the opinions of most of the male-dominated literary industry), these “scribbling women” had a huge following. 

During the last half of the 19th century, Emma Dorothy Eliza Nevitte Southworth was the single most widely read American novelist. Mrs. E.D.E.N. Southworth (as she was fond of signing her name) sold more books than Hawthorne, Twain and Melville.

She began writing in 1844 to support herself and her children after her husband deserted them. Most of her more than 60 novels appeared in Robert Bonner’s popular story newspaper, The New York Ledger, which reached about a million readers. Her best-known work, The Hidden Hand, was reprinted twice in serialized form and later issued as a novel.

The narrative would seem melodramatic and her characters stereotyped to today’s readers, but it appealed to an earlier generation of women who secretly longed to throw off cultural confinements and experience sensational adventures, if only through reading a book.

The Hidden Hand is my heroine's favorite book. Lucy identifies strongly with the feisty main character Capitola, who playfully pokes at conventional gentility. Here’s a snippet from the book, where Capitola is warned not to go out alone because of a fearsome highwayman.

    “What do you think of this outlaw, young lady?” asked the peddler, turning to Capitola.
    “Why I like him!” said Cap.
    “You do?”
    “Yes, I do! I like men whose very names strike terror into the hearts of commonplace people.”
    “Oh, Miss Black!” exclaimed Miss Condiment.
    “Yes, I do, ma’am. And if Black Donald were only as honest as he is brave, I should quite adore him! So there! And if there is one person in the world I long to see it is Black Donald.”
    From The Hidden Hand by E.D.E.N. Southworth

At one point in A Dangerous Passion, Lucy compares Henry to the villainous Black Donald. Like plucky Capitola, Lucy declares she prefers villains. But then she quickly points out that’s just in stories.

Why were these books so popular? The United States was entering a period of extreme change with regard to women’s roles in society; the suffrage movement was just starting to rumble, Westward expansion had begun. At a time when women were told they were fragile, emotional, childlike creatures, their own experience proved otherwise.

In A Dangerous Passion, Lucy takes inspiration from Mrs. Southworth's novels when she sets out to find adventure and pursue her dreams. However, when we meet her, she’s willingly put her life on hold to provide emotional support for her widowed father. She expects to marry one day (as most women did at that time), but she's in no hurry because she fears exchanging one set of duties for another. 

Lucy struggles to balance her desire for self-determination with a deep yearning for love, commitment and the fulfillment that comes from being united with someone, body and soul. 

Sound familiar? Our great-great grandmothers weren't so different from us. 

By the end of the 19th century, the sentimental novel had fallen out of favor. Later in the 20th century, what evolved from this form of commercial fiction is the genre we call Romance. Those of us who love our strong, determined heroines who fight hard for their happy endings owe a great debt to those scribbling women.

 A Dangerous Passion by E.E. Burke

Can a hero lurk in the heart of a villain? 
Life in a small New England village is too quiet, too ordinary for a free spirit like Lucy Forbes. When her father lands a job out West, she packs her books and her dreams and eagerly sets off to pursue the kind of grand adventures she longs to experience and write about. Yet the moment she steps off the train, she's thrust into the gritty reality of an untamed frontier—and into the arms of a scoundrel.

Henry Stevens, the ruthless railroad executive her father has been sent to investigate, is as passionate as he is ambitious. Brave and charming, as well as clever, and possessed of a sharp wit. He is, in fact, the most fascinating man Lucy has ever met. However, his opponents are vanishing, and strangers are shooting at him. Fearing for her father's life, Lucy resolves to unmask the secretive Mr. Stevens and expose a villain. What she doesn’t expect to find is a hero.

Here's an excerpt
As the carriage lurched and started off, she looked out the window, eager to see Parsons in the daylight. It was strange to see so many men, what with the war’s terrible impact on the male population back home. Out here, there were young and old, short and tall, and some dressed in the most interesting variety of clothing she’d ever seen. Whoever heard of wearing formal tails over fringed trousers? The few women appeared to be farmers’ wives, dressed in calico and wearing massive sunbonnets. They hurried in and out of stores, rushed along by the chilly wind.
False fronts adorned nearly every establishment. The buildings were lined up in rows and connected by broad sidewalks. Very neat and organized, as if someone had planned it down to the last detail.
In contrast, the muddy street hosted chaos. Crowded in between covered wagons were rowdy men on horseback, vendors pushing carts, railroaders with their tools, riding to work in the back of a buckboard wagon. Jangling harnesses were accompanied by the rhythmic pounding of hammers. And this was only the beginning, like the overture of an opera. Scenes to come promised to be even more exciting.
Lucy put her nose near the opening at the top of the window and took a deep breath. The air smelled of earth and fresh-cut pine, perhaps from those boards being used to build a new structure across the street.
Parsons had a raw, vibrant energy that Haverhill lacked. The small New England village offered no prospects for work—unless she wished to return to her aunt’s millenary shop—and even fewer for marriage. She had no reason to return to a place where the most exciting event was mail arriving from somewhere else. Her future was out here, and she couldn’t wait for it to begin. Filled with fresh vitality, she retrieved a journal from her satchel.
“Are you scribbling again today, Lucy?” Her father’s remark was lighthearted. Still, she found it difficult to smile. He didn’t understand her desire to become an author, and would disapprove if he thought she was doing it to supplement their income.
Sadly, if they had to rely on her ability to support them, she would have to go back to making hats. A dreadful thought. “You know me. I always have my pen and journal handy.”
Henry’s speculative gaze hung on her, sending skitters of awareness across her skin.
Her smile wavered. Heavens, he unnerved her. Maybe that’s what he intended. Did he resent her now that he knew the board’s intentions? She couldn’t blame him if he did, and couldn’t help feeling bad about it. He might deserve to be dismissed, but she knew first-hand what that kind of humiliation did to a man, especially a proud one like Henry.
“Where are we off to this morning?” her father asked.
To her relief, Henry looked away. Retrieving a small notebook from the inside pocket of his coat, he referred to it. “The roundhouse first, then the rail yard. We’ll return to the depot by noon. I’ve instructed my assistant to have luncheon served in my office…”
While he ticked off the activities on his list, she took the opportunity to study him. One could tell quite a lot about a person by observing the small things. In order to help her father, she needed to analyze Henry, much as she would a character in a book.
The hat he’d placed beside him was one of the newer styles with a short brim and rounded crown. Called bowlers, they were coming into popularity, especially out West. His white collar was turned down over a thin black cravat tied in a bow, and his tawny waistcoat had notched lapels. Overall, his style of dress indicated a modern mindset, someone who insisted on being at the forefront of progress, if not ahead of the crowd.
He’d slid into a slouch. Otherwise his head would brush the top of the carriage. One knee bobbed. When it stopped, his fingers drummed the leather seat. Impatient, or bursting with energy like her brother. Robbie had nearly driven Maman mad. He’d never been able sit quietly and read. Focusing for hours on paperwork would be an agony for someone like that. No wonder Henry needed an assistant.
His hair, glossy brown as a chestnut, wasn’t curly, but had a definite mind of its own. He’d smooth it over, and it would spring up. Then he’d frown. Apparently annoyed that he couldn’t control his hair as easily as he set his schedule.
There was a pleasing symmetry to his face, intelligent forehead, no-nonsense nose and a strong jaw, what she could see of it. His neatly trimmed beard was a shade darker than his hair, as were his eyebrows, which could lift independent of each other, as one did now when he glanced up from his notebook.
Lucy’s cheeks heated at being caught staring. Heaven forbid she gave him the impression she found him fascinating. “Sounds like a full day. I’m sure I’ll be interested in seeing everything. It’s been an exciting experience thus far.”

E.E. Burke writes romance from the heart, woven with history the way it really happened. Her latest American historical romance series, Steam! Romance and Rails, includes Passion’s PrizeHer Bodyguard and A Dangerous Passion. Her writing has earned accolades in regional and national contests, including the prestigious Golden Heart®. She can be reached through her website, www.eeburke.com or on FacebookTwitter or Goodreads. If you love historical romance set in America, join E.E. and other authors and readers at American Historical Romance Lovers.

Do you have a favorite 19th century author or book? Who is it, and why?

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  1. Thanks for stopping by! Don't forget to leave a comment.

  2. Hi Liz,
    I didn't know about Sentimental Fiction. What an interesting blog. I loved this and also I loved the excerpt from your story. It's now in my TBR stack.

    1. Before I started researching "popular authors in the 19th century" neither did I. Who knew Mrs. Southworth was the Nora Roberts of her time? Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Ahh. Brings back memories of graduate school! I love these books too, but for a different reason. Congrats on your new release!

    1. So now you've piqued my curiosity. For what reason do you love these 19th century authors? Thanks for stopping by.

  4. Fascinating post - you know your history! Thanks for sharing a small bit of your knowledge with us!

    1. Oh, I'm not knowledgable as much as curious. You know me. I enjoy researching my stories as much as I do writing them. Thanks for stopping by.

  5. Oh Elisabeth! This is wonderful stuff. I wish I had one of those early novels. It would be a treasure indeed. I'd love to have known E.D.E.N! Love how she signed her name. Very feisty and those are the most interesting women. She is the kind of woman we write about today in our stories. Thank you so much for sharing. I enjoyed this so much.

    1. You can purchase The Hidden Hand. Just go search for it on Amazon. Some bookseller out there will have it. I've picked up a copy, but I'm currently searching for an earlier printing. That would truly be a treasure. I loved researching this, and using references from Mrs. Southworth's most popular novel in my book. Such fun. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

  6. Fascinating. I don't know these ladies, but I must make their acquaintance. My 19th century passions were the swashbucklers—Dumas and Scott.

    1. I love swashbucklers, too. These books focus more on heroines (the heroes aren't nearly as interesting as the villains). Check out The Hidden Hand by E.D.E.N Southworth. I loved Capitola and enjoyed creating a spunky heroine like her. Thanks for stopping by!

  7. Hi, E E! I love the historical books written by women that you showcased. I love how they pulled on their big girl boots and took life into their own hands. Fascinating.

    1. They were strong, smart, influential women, for sure! Thanks for stopping by.

  8. My favorite genre is western based book! This book sounds wonderful. Thanks or sharing the pictures and info.