Is BDSM the New Bodice Ripper?


Woman in tight bodiceI don’t mean these two are the same, as they have many differences. It has more to do with them each being a fad in their own time due to the extremes they take in romance.  Though, admittedly, there are those who would argue they don’t even fit under that genre umbrella.

Bodice rippers were a fad of the eighties and typically took place in historical romance.  The heroes were very dominant males who often had strong jealousy issues.  They were also known to be rather rough in their “taking” of the female character, especially the first time.  For some books, it even went so far as to be considered rape (or at least dubious consent).

This is a very grey area because these books took place in a time when women had few rights.  I imagine most of them went to their marriage bed unwilling and unable to choose the husband they really wanted.  With the exception of money grubbers, I can’t imagine any seventeen year old girl actually wanting to marry a sixty year old man (as often happened).  Thankfully, bodice rippers feature younger, good looking men that just need the right woman to get them under control.  It takes awhile to get there, and the heroine almost always faces some nasty hurdles along the way, but the endings generally come out happy.

Romance readers tend to fall into two categories when it comes to bodice rippers.  They either love them or hate them.  The main reason for this is some say the novels glorify rape.  I never got that impression myself, and I was reading them at fourteen years old, but we all have our own views on such things.  For many of the fans, it’s nothing more than fantasy and isn’t really hurting anyone.  For those who don’t like it, they have difficulty separating the fantasy from reality or believe the two shouldn’t intermix.

To be fair, not all bodice rippers include some type of rape scene.  They may just have some mild protests before the heroine gives in to her lust.  The main reason she is even reluctant in those is she believes the “hero” to be inappropriate for whatever reason.  The most common causes for reluctance are- he kidnapped her, blackmailed her in some way, or she doesn’t want to lose her virginity outside of marriage.  Yet she finds him attractive and eventually gives in.  Then there are the extreme bodice rippers that go so far even most fans of the genre get outraged.  I admit, curiosity gets me every time I hear about one of “those” books.  There are two in particular that continue to be discussed decades after they were last printed.  Obtaining used copies can be expensive.

Stormfire book coverThe first novel is “Stormfire” by Christine Monson.  This is one of those kidnapping novels.  The hero (if you could call him that) kidnaps an English heroine to get revenge on her father.  He precedes to take her to Ireland and turn her into his slave and he is not a kind master by any stretch of the imagination.  She’s a spoiled heiress, so you can imagine how pleased she is with this plan.

That’s only the beginning of the tale, though.  The two have ups and downs in their “relationship” that rival epic sagas.  It takes years before they finally work things out and settle into some form of happiness, but by that point they’ve lost more than you can imagine.  For me, it was like watching a horrific train wreck that I couldn’t look away from no matter how much I knew I should.  The reviews are mixed.  Some people could appreciate the story for what it was meant to be (I admit to being in this category).  Others felt the author went too far.

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The Silver Devil book coverThe second controversial book is The Silver Devil.  If you like unredeemable male “heroes”, then this might be something to check out.  This guy is bad in ways I never would have imagined, even after reading Stormfire.  While the hero of the first novel is ruled by his emotions for revenge (which you can at least kind of understand if not agree with), this one has less clear reasons.  The hero in The Silver Devil is a Duke in Italy full of self-importance and power.  For that time and place, he was more like a prince than the English version of a Duke.  He saw the heroine, a beautiful but poor girl living with her brother and his wife, and decided he must have her.  Let’s just say he used some rather underhanded tactics to obtain her and she nearly died in the process.

From there, things only get worse.  The heroine is not the brightest girl (though surprisingly relatable) and has no education, yet she is facing a man who has lived a life of court politics, along with the wealth that comes with that, and is known for his ruthlessness.  The irony is that it is her innocence that endears her to him, despite his less than cavalier behavior toward her.

I really didn’t see how the author was ever going to make this guy a proper love interest.  The story goes through many ups and downs with tragedy striking both characters, but in the end the reader at least discovers the hero’s motivations.  He certainly could have gone about it in a different way, but I think the author held true to the behaviors of the time.

NOTE– One thing about these two books is you can’t put modern ideals into them or you’ll never be able to appreciate them for what they are.

This brings us to BDSM and how it could possibly relate.  Of course, BDSM stories tend to be set in the present-day and are even less likely to have a true “happily ever after”, but they get into that same element of unconventional relationships (under the guise of sexual fantasies) that bodice rippers do.  There are also cases of kidnapping in some of them.

Comfort Food book coverI’ve found several, such as Comfort Food and Tender Mercies by Kitty Thomas that follow this type of theme.  Her books go far beyond what would be acceptable in normal society and a certain amount of suspension of disbelief must be applied.  Both are brutal in their own way, but will have you thinking about them long after you’ve turned the last page, wondering how you would have handled being in such a situation. Her books hit some of the same controversies the aforementioned historical novels do.

Be warned, if you read Comfort Food you’ll never look at chicken noodle soup the same way again.

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Claimed book coverEvangeline Anderson is another author who tests these boundaries, but does it in a more romantic way that can be more palatable to the more sensitive readers.  Her Kindred series is a good example of this where human brides are drafted into a kind of marriage whether they want it or not, but always find love in the end.  The heroes tend to be more patient and understanding, though they will do everything possible to get their way.  This series has a sci-fi bent to it, but many of the books in it have BDSM elements.

When looking at these two genres, I have to wonder how many of the fans for bodice rippers moved on to BDSM and erotica when they came into popularity.  What is your take on it?  Are you a fan of both?

For those who don’t read either, it’s okay.  We all have our literary preferences and not everyone finds enjoyment in the extremes of “romance”.  It can be something of an acquired taste.  I know I was shocked when I first started reading them, but my curiosity got the best of me.

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~ by Suzie on December 3, 2012.

10 Responses to “Is BDSM the New Bodice Ripper?”

  1. I love it when authors cross boundaries, and I make it my life’s mission to do the same. In literature, there shouldn’t be limits and moral impositions anyway, unless you’re reading a book within that genre. We have tastes and preferences. For those interested in the straight and narrow, there’s plenty of that. There should be books for those of us interested in things outside the ordinary. I’ve read some of Evangeline Anderson’s work and enjoyed it. Thanks for the other recs. I’m thrilled that BDSM literature is more abundant now, though, as with any fad, I fear the market will be over-saturated with half-efforts from authors riding the bandwagon while lacking the passion earlier authors in the genre brought to it. At least the attention to BDSM-themed literature has brought more options to choose from.

    • I agree, Dicey. Crossing boundaries is a good way to explore ideas that aren’t always acceptable by the mainstream, but beg for stories to go with them. It is sad that once they gain popularity they can get too commericalized. I’d been reading erotica/bdsm for awhile before Fifty Shades of Grey came out, but it seemed that book caused a whole new set of authors to appear out of the woodwork. The ones I mentioned above had already been doing their thing quiety and had an established fan base of those who could appreciate it as it was. There are actually some more great authors in the genre, but space only allowed for so many mentions. Maybe we should swap favorite authors sometime 🙂

  2. Have to confess, Mistress, I wasn’t even familiar with the term until this post. I haven’t read any BDSM yet, but I have read a few bodice rippers in my time. I agree with you – books have to be judged on their merits and the times they portray (and are written in and for). I can also see the point diceyblog references – that when a certain genre becomes popular, there’s the risk of it being seen as “the thing” to write, which can attract those with more interest in the money than passion or style for the form.

    • PL, if you mean the term “bodice ripper” I didn’t know it until a couple years ago when I saw it on an Amazon dsicussion. I’d been reading them forever and had no idea, lol. For BDSM, it was one of those dirty words I heard whispered about as a teenager that everyone refused to elaborate on, but you knew it had something to do with whips and leather. Of course, once I got into the literature, I discovered there was a whole heck of a lot more to it than that! With either sub-genre, though, they certainly need to be considered for what they are for. Most are clearly labeled or at least the reviews will give you a good hint. It about drives me crazy when I see people purposely buy and read a controversial book they had to know what it was about and still they write a nasty review on those well known elements. That’s like me hating spinach, buying a can, eating it, and then posting a review on why it sucked. Ugh.

  3. I love “bodice rippers”. Growing up in the late 70’s/ early 80’s I just adored them. Silly, I know. I’m a very modern gal and if any guy treated me that way I’d whack him upside the head with a shovel. They are still a guilty pleasure.
    I read and reviewed Kitty Thomas’ The Last Girl, and had a hard time with it. (Vampire/BDSM) It wasn’t so much the BDSM as the whole Stockholm Syndrome thing. Yeah, funny that I can get into a nasty 11th century Saxon lord dragging a maiden off by the hair and having his brutish way with her, but in a modern setting, it weirds me out.
    I do like the modern BDSM erotica/erotic romance, where the characters are well adjusted accountants and lawyers who like it kinky in the sack.

    • It’s funny for me too because I’d never put up with the kind of abuse in those types of books in real life, but find it entertaining in fiction. I totally understand what you mean.

      About Kitty Thomas’ The Last Girl. I told myself I’d read it just because she wrote it, but for some reason I just can’t bring myself to do it. I love vampires and I love the way she does the Stockholme Syndrome thing in most of her books (getting into the psyche like she does is fascinating to me), but I just can’t get into mixing the two together. It just doesn’t feel right for what she normally writes. On the other hand, J.R. Ward has a novel in her Black Dagger Brotherhood Series with some BDSM and vampires, but it wasn’t really about the BDSM so much as using it to heal psychological wounds. Weird, but I understood the intention behind it. Plus there wasn’t the prisoner/slave thing going on with that book.

      Sorry you didn’t get into it. Her books are very off the beaten path and aren’t for everyone.

      • I have Comfort Food on my Kindle. I do want to give her books another shot. One of my favorite movies back in the 70’s (cannot recall the name) had Stockholme Syndrome as the driver of the romance, and it didn’t wig me out. Maybe it was just a combo of that/modern setting/and vampires that turned me off? Who knows.

        Love your “snow” BTW 🙂

        • Let me know how Comfort Food goes. I’ll be curious to see what you think of it. I still ponder what I would have done in the heroine’s shoes for that book. You’re stuck in her head the whole time with little dialog since she’s a prisoner. It’s engrossing (at least to me) to see how she fights the situation she’s in. She does not give in easily. The messed up part is there are times where you begin to feel a tiny bit of sympathy for her captor. It’s not meant to be a romance, but you do get a kind of twisted HEA. I’ll just leave it at that. I could go on and on about how that book screwed with my head. She has another one called Guilty Pleasures that isn’t nearly as psychological and actually a lot more fun, but it didn’t stick with me as much on an emotional level.

  4. As we talked about on the podcast the other day, I have always been a fan of the bodice ripper. To me, Virginia Henley and Susan Johnson do them right – hot, sexy but there is love. Johanna Lindsey to a lesser degree but the three of them all wrote stories with an Alpha Male that would do anything to get his woman. I am not really into the BDSM books though. About 10 years ago I read Panic Snap and found the whole immersion into the lifestyle disturbing due to the characters instability. A little light kink is fine but I dont want to read a book based solely on that – I just need more than that being the main plot of the book. But, I did like how JR Ward handled it in BDB series. 🙂

  5. […] Suzie mentions her blog post “Is BDSM The New Bodice Ripper“, which asks if the erotica sub-genre has taken the place of the popular genre of the 70s and […]

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