I will easily admit that I am among the great multitude of Downton Abbey fans feeling bereft after the second season’s final episode. Everyone has something to say about the series’ phenomenal success in the United States. After all, what do Americans want with this story of life in an Edwardian country estate? My answer is what could we NOT love about this romantic drama? As New York Times’ reviewer Emily Nussbaum writes, watching Downton is like “ scarfing handfuls of caramel corn while swigging champagne.”
I like caramel corn and champagne an awful lot, and who could blame me? We all need a little sweet and bubbly in our lives. When I want to read something that will envelop me in sugary goodness, I often reach for romantic historical fiction. I don’t read romance as a genre, but I love romantic stories, particularly if they are historical. I suppose there’s nothing inherently romantic about historical settings. In fact, I’m pretty sure dying of tuberculosis was anything BUT romantic. Call it consumption, though, and it changes. It is an illness that consumes people—usually young, beautiful poets. Pretty darn romantic or maybe I should say Romantic. Romanticism with a capital R is the stuff of Byron and Shelley, Coleridge and Keats, and it is that tradition that captivates me when reading historical fiction.
I recently saw the film Midnight in Paris . Owen Wilson plays a writer, dissatisfied with the type of work he’s been doing, who romanticizes 1920s Paris. While there on vacation, he stumbles across a portal to that era. As a clock chimes midnight, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald pick him up in their carriage and take him to a bar where he naturally meets Hemingway. Gertrude Stein eventually reviews the manuscript of his novel. It’s a lovely movie. It’s a very romantic movie.
When I saw Midnight in Paris , I happened to be reading a novel that was set in 1920s Paris. Funny, how these things converge. The Last Nude by Ellis Avery is based on the lives of Tamara de Lempicka, a Polish born painter, and her model, 17-year-old American Rafaela Fano. This novel is pure escape—emotional and seductive. You will read it over a weekend. This unconventional love story is passionate and tragic; those who demand happy endings need not read. Remember, romanticism capitalized has a dark, brooding, and melancholy side. If you’re still interested, check it out, and prepare to swoon.