Charlotte Lamb and the Allure of Old Skool HPs

One of the truly wonderful things about the internet in general and the online romance community in particular is how someone like me, who thinks she really knows an author or a genre, can come across new information which shakes her sense of certainty. I’ve read HPs since they were introduced in the early 1980s. But I’ve always read very narrowly within the line. Above all, I never used to read the ones with foreign alpha heroes and lots of angst. I liked my angst to be restrained, à la Mary Burchell, or absent, à la Betty Neels.

But in the past couple of years, various discussions online have made me curious about some of the 1980s authors I’ve avoided, such as Charlotte Lamb, Robyn Donald, Daphne Clair, and the like. What really pushed me over into finding used copies and reading them one after the other last year, though, was Tumperkin’s love of Charlotte Lamb. She persuaded Jessica to read Lamb’s Dark Dominion, which is is a marriage-in-trouble book.  In her review, Jessica observes that the beginning of the book could easily be “the beginning of a hopeful story of a woman who escapes her batterer and starts a new life.” Of course, in Ms. Lamb’s hands, the book involves the successful rejuvenation of the couple’s marriage. Jessica found that even though she could acknowledge the skill Ms. Lamb showed as a writer and storyteller, she could not think of the book as a romance.

The review and the comments that followed were so intriguing that I found a copy to read, despite my long aversion to alphahole heroes and doormat heroines. And I was hooked. I saw exactly what Jessica meant and why she couldn’t enjoy the book, but I was fascinated by what Ms. Lamb was doing with the plot and characters. It was a really insightful portrayal of how uncomfortable love can be, especially when one partner in a couple has a jealous streak that he cannot control, and how the other partner can be attracted in spite of that flaw, or maybe even because of it. After finishing Dark Dominion, I realized that I really enjoyed seeing the author take well-worn tropes (marriage-in-jeopardy, alpha hero, etc.) and push them as far as she could. Even more importantly for me as a reader, I realized that when I was younger and reading for relatively uncomplicated happy endings (my personal life was complicated enough that I didn’t seek it in my downtime), I missed some really interesting romance novels.

I started hunting for more of the same. I began with a couple from Tumperkin’s Top 5 and went on from there. Here are some of the other Charlotte Lamb HPs I’ve read:

Frustration. Young widow is attracted to hero because he reminds her of her dead husband. Hero becomes lust-obsessed with heroine, who is attracted to him in turn but ambivalent and guilty about betraying dead husband. They torture each other for most of the book until she falls in love and finally admits it. She works for him, so there’s workplace drama thrown in. The title describes it to a T. A t-is also-for-terrific read.

Obsession. Secretary for family firm is pursued by alphahole rake of a boss. He wants her without strings, she’s disgusted with herself for being attracted to him. H’s near-seduction of h’s married sister, H threatens to slap h silly because of his jealousy, h taunts H by dating his brother, and so on until the HEA. Awesome portrayal of two people who don’t want to fall in love but literally cannot stop themselves.

Temptation. Rich 30-something man crashes his car near the house of a widowed artist and his teenaged daughter. Man seduces daughter, ‘fesses up that he’s married, and then goes away, leaving daughter devastated and near-suicidal. Years later, daughter/our heroine goes to London, acquires an admirer who turns out to be the man’s son. Heroine dumps son, marries now widowed H (ostensibly for revenge), tortures him and finally admits she is still in love with him. The quintessential HP of its type; enormously compelling but seriously creepy at the same time.

Abduction. Young innocent h marries alpha-tycoon H after whirlwind courtship, walks out on him six months later. H & h are reunited when their toddler son is kidnapped, which is also when H discovers he is a father. Toddler is found, and H, who has gotten h to come back to the marital mansion while they are searching for the kid, gets h to stay while he tries to persuade her to give their marriage another try. Pretty good, w/some amusing tycoon-as-father-of-toddler scenes.

Haunted. Heroine is shattered when she finds out that artist she had walked out on two years ago was killed in a car crash. Goes to France and sees man with uncanny resemblance to H. Is H still alive? How could he be? Have you read an HP? Then you know the answer. Not one of Lamb’s best, but okay.

Runaway Wife. After 10 years, wife can’t take her marriage anymore (surprised more wives in HPs don’t feel like this). Can’t get H to talk to her, so she walks out while he’s away on yet another emergency business trip. But goes back to work for his partner in the firm she helped them start (because of course she won’t take her money from their bank account)! Only in HP-land. Despite ridiculous setup, it’s well worth reading. The alphaH actually learns in the course of the book, and the h stands her ground (especially for an HP). Some funny scenes as he tries to become more worthy.

Vampire Lover. Written before the Paranormal Onslaught, so the hero is a metaphorical vampire, not a real one. Famous film director H comes to town and buys old mansion from real-estate agent heroine, who is practical and self-sufficient enough to have wandered in from a Mary Burchell Harlequin. Heroine thinks H is vampiric in his ability to entrance and then use women and she is determined to resist. The entire last chapter takes place with the H and h handcuffed together.  Recommended by several commenters at DA and elsewhere and it lived up to its advance billing.

After reading all these and some other HPs in succession last summer, I (not surprisingly) took a break. But just writing this up has made me want to go back for more. Luckily I have a couple more of Tumperkin’s favorites in the TBR, and if I run out of recommendations I’ll just revisit the great HP threads on the Amazon romance discussion boards.

About these ads

19 thoughts on “Charlotte Lamb and the Allure of Old Skool HPs

  1. Ah, Lamb. Read a number of her books, under both Lamb and her pen name Sheila Holland, until one that effectively broke my mind. (I can’t remember anything about the book except the hero’s name is Muir, which I thought was hilarious.) I couldn’t touch any of her books since.

    Same with Carole Mortimer, Sara Craven, Miranda Lee, Emma Darcy and Penny Jordan. The exact same pattern: ride on the “this is certainly a train wreck, but I’ll keep reading to see how far it’d go” bus until there is one that thoroughly messes with me that I step off the bus and avoid author’s books altogether.

    After finishing Dark Dominion, I realized that I really enjoyed seeing the author take well-worn tropes (marriage-in-jeopardy, alpha hero, etc.) and push them as far as she could.

    You should give Theresa Weir’s One Fine Day a try. While she doesn’t push them as far as some category rom authors do, she does explore some areas of a marriage that I rarely see in other romances. Basically, the heroine left her husband because of his Alpha personality that left her emotionally exhausted. In spite of her dread and ambiguous feelings towards him, she returns to care for him when he has a stroke for their adult children’s sake. Their journey into darkness and back is quite interesting. Uncomfortable at times, even. There are some humorous moments that give us a break from the dark tone, to be fair.
    I still have mixed feelings about OFD, but then again, the last (and only) time I read this was well over five years ago. Perhaps it’s time for a re-read as there are loads of Weir readers who liked/loved it.

  2. I enjoyed some HP’s in my twenties including some by Lamb, although I remember some Penny Jordan and Emma Darcy books better. Some of the HP’s I read back then were enjoyable, others less so. Very few were keepers for me. More recently I read Vampire Lover and thought it was interesting, but not a true standout.

    It is funny because I can enjoy angst a lot but I find I prefer it in historical single titles. I think there are a few reasons why. (1) The books are longer, so there is more space to resolve the conflicts, and I think that it is harder to write a convincing and satisfying resolution to a serious conflict in a shorter book. It can be done, but it takes a lot of skill.. When I was reading HP’s, I found that they often relied on clearing up a Big Misunderstanding for their conflict resolution and that could make them feel less convincing to me. (2) Maybe because the setting is further away from me, I find it easier to suspend disbelief in a historical, whereas in a contemporary the alpha-jerk behavior and the heroine’s putting up with it can make it harder for me to relate to the characters. (3) I find historicals more romantic than contemporaries even when there is no angst in either, so my general preference for historicals (and paranormals) means that I don’t get to HPs that often.

    Can I ask a question? What’s with the capital H for hero and the lowercase h for heroine? Why does the male character get the capital letter? Is it just me that it strikes as sexist?

  3. Oh my–and y’all left out Anne Mather and Helen Bianchin!! OMG! I read them all in the day. And I came to the conclusion that Charlotte Lamb and Carole Mortimer hated women–elsewise they wouldn’t have written the books they did! (I remember A LOT of doormats putting up with abuse–A Lot of Abuse!).
    For real angst–try Anne Weale. Her heroes were typical a-hats, but heroines were not as doormat-ish as others. She was an auto buy for me (way back when)(and, yes, I am old enough that I read these when they first came out!!). I will confess that I have, on my keeper shelf, Robyn Donald’s Mansion for My Love. Hey, we all have our weak spots!!

  4. @FiaQ: I must track down Muir! I don’t think he’s in my TBR. Thanks for the Weir rec, I keep meaning to get some of her novels because she sounds right up my alley. I can understand the train-wreck feeling, I certainly felt that way about Temptation.

    @Victoria: What an interesting question. I hadn’t thought of Lamb that way but I see what you mean. I would put her squarely within romance rather than WF, because the stories are really about the heroine waiting for (or actively facilitating) the hero’s coming around to acknowledging being in love and wanting an HEA. But they are a bit British in their orientation toward the focus on the heroine.

  5. @Janine: Yes, I agree the H/h designation is sexist. I can’t remember where I first ran across it but it’s used around the ‘net. I’ve tried to think of other shorthand but haven’t come up with anything. That said, given the hierarchical relationship in these books, giving the hero the capital H seems kind of appropriate!

    I don’t think these books are romantic, per se, in that they don’t end with a relationship which necessarily feels healthy or complete. In some way that’s what fascinates me about them. They show a different aspect of romantic love, i.e., it’s not just uncomfortable, it’s probably not good for you. I don’t know if that’s what Lamb was aiming for, but that’s what I get out of them. I find them compelling as examples of what can be done with the form, but not emotionally satisfying in a positive way, if that makes sense.

  6. @Barb: Thanks for the comment! I’ve read comments about Mansion for My Love on the Amazon board and I have to get that one. I don’t think I’ve read any Anne Weale, or at least I don’t remember any by her, but I’ve read older Carole Mortimer and found them interesting and enjoyable for similar reasons. I’ve got a review of a Donald written up that I’ll post soon. It’s more of a vent than a review, but I had a great time writing it.

  7. great post! Funnily enough, a few of the books you mention I’ve not read.

    I would highly recommend :

    - Duel of Desire (a great story that focuses much of the conflict on the heroine’s desire to belong to a family after being orphaned very young – also features a flood-in at the hero’s mother’s house in France)
    - Fever (for the insouciant heroine and a great final chapter in which she drives the hero to distraction)

    Also I’d recommend, though less highly
    - Desire (fantastic opening chapter – goes a bit downhill after but that is an amazing opener)
    - Stranger in the Night (unusual for a category of its time)
    - Sensation (modern marriage of convenience)
    - The Long Surrender (couple who separated over heroine’s sexual dysfunction)

  8. @Tumperkin:
    Glad to find a few that you haven’t read! With well over 100, there were bound to be some. I’ve got the first two in my TBR and will look for the others, thanks!

    @Barb:
    I hadn’t seen that (b)log post. :-) Very helpful, I’ll have to try Weale (another author who I’d heard of but not known much about).

  9. @VacuousMinx

    I don’t think these books are romantic, per se, in that they don’t end with a relationship which necessarily feels healthy or complete. In some way that’s what fascinates me about them. They show a different aspect of romantic love, i.e., it’s not just uncomfortable, it’s probably not good for you. I don’t know if that’s what Lamb was aiming for, but that’s what I get out of them. I find them compelling as examples of what can be done with the form, but not emotionally satisfying in a positive way, if that makes sense.

    I don’t know that I have to feel that a relationship is healthy or complete to find a book romantic or satisfying. I found the secondary Allegreto-and-Cara threads of Kinsale’s For My Lady’s Heart terribly romantic, even though the characters were clearly wrong for each other and indeed, the story ended with Allegreto’s reward for a huge sacrifice being the knowledge of Cara’s happiness with another man.

    Healthy and complete I wouldn’t call that relationship but it was incredibly romantic to me because he sacrificed so much for her and changed for the better as a result of doing so. I thought he was more heroic than the main characters or indeed than he seemed later in his own book.

    In fact I find it kind of strange when readers say that they found a romance lacking because the characters weren’t entirely healthy. Most entirely healthy people face few internal conflicts and thus their stories wouldn’t necessarily be that compelling. At least to me.

    So what doesn’t work so well for me about many of the HP’s I’ve read isn’t that the relationship is dysfunctional, but rather, that I’m intended to believe that the clearing up of a misunderstanding clears up the dysfunction in the relationship as well. I don’t know how to articulate that better, really.

    What I need to believe is that either (A) the relationship pattern has changed for the better over the course of the book, with the partners working hard to change their patterns of behavior so that at the end, the relationship is not necessarily healthy and complete, but they as people are healthier than they were in the beginning, and I can believe that their future will be happier (if not necessarily perfect) as a result.

    Or (B), which is less satisfying, that if the relationship isn’t ever going to be healthy, but they complete each other in some dysfunctional way, that the resolution to this issue feel less flimsy. IOW, I want to get the sense that things will never be perfect, but that doesn’t mean they will always be bad. Instead what I get is “Oh, now that I see you didn’t [fill in the blank: sleep with my brother, spy on my company, take a payoff from my family to dump me] everything will be wonderful.”

    Though I have enjoyed my share of HP’s, and there were some I liked that didn’t follow that pattern, much of that time I was left with a frustrated feeling by that clearing up of the misunderstanding and the way I feel I’m meant to believe that the problem was the misunderstanding, which has changed, and not the hero’s domineering ways, which likely aren’t going to change.

  10. I don’t think I read a lot of Charlotte Lamb back in the day, but I do still have my keepers from that line, all by Anne Weale (now that I check). I had more by Anne Mather and Anne Hampson, but they’ve been winnowed out after all these years. I actually have more keepers from even-older Harlequin Romances: Hampson, Nerina Hilliard, Mary Burchell, Margaret Rome, Eleanor Farnes, etc.

    But your blog prompts me to wonder why I like Anne Weale’s asshat heroes (thanks, Barb) and not Charlotte Lamb’s. I think I liked the heroes who tortured the heroine as a side-effect of their own efforts at self-torture. There was a lot of angsty, “I can’t love you but I can’t stay away from you” stuff in those older Weales. Incidentally, I think she beats Betty Neels by a mile for longevity: nearly 50 years of writing. (There’s no way I’m going to live that long.)

  11. @Janine:

    So what doesn’t work so well for me about many of the HP’s I’ve read isn’t that the relationship is dysfunctional, but rather, that I’m intended to believe that the clearing up of a misunderstanding clears up the dysfunction in the relationship as well.

    I agree with this, in that I’m really talking about the relationship rather than the people. I think the characters in Lamb’s books are frequently pretty messed up (the heroine in Vampire Lover is a bit of a departure). But in most of the books I’ve read, there’s not much sense that the hero is going to change all that much, so the dysfunction remains. That is, I think, different from many of today’s HPs.

    I also prefer to see imperfect people getting imperfect but still believable HEAs.

  12. @Magdalen:

    Thanks for those names, those are definitely authors I should give a try! The Weale heroes sound very interesting to me.

    Weale must have started earlier than The Great Betty, if she could write for 50 years, because Neels wrote for a pretty long time considering she was well into middle age when she began. Burchell also wrote for close to 50 years, I think; she began in the 1930s, if I remember correctly and finished in the 1970s. What amazes me about some of Burchell’s books is that the hero and heroine don’t necessarily date the book so much as the setting. I’ve read ones released in the 1960s or 1970s that turn out to have been written decades before, and I couldn’t tell until I looked at the copyright.

  13. @VacuuousMinx,

    But in most of the books I’ve read, there’s not much sense that the hero is going to change all that much, so the dysfunction remains. That is, I think, different from many of today’s HPs.

    Good point.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s