Prize contenders speak volumes about changing face of romantic fiction

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The Independent Culture

Historical fiction has broken free from its fusty, corseted past and claimed a place among Britain's finest love literature.

Five of the eight novels shortlisted for the Romantic Novel of the Year award feature historical settings – a reversal of years of domination by the chick-lit brigade of thirtysomethings.

Among the writers vying for the £10,000 prize, to be awarded in London in April, are the historical novelists Philippa Gregory, Joanne Harris and Elizabeth Chadwick.

Chadwick, whose 600-page epic Lords of the White Castle is set in the 10th century, said: "A couple of years ago historical romance wasn't on the agenda. It's a bit of a vindication.

"Films like Gladiator have made a difference and Tolkien [author of Lord of the Rings] is a medievalist that may have an effect on novels next year. But the general epic feeling is back. People have said that, perhaps because of 11 September, readers want to explore the past. Historical romance has certainly become sexier."

Joanne Harris, author of Chocolat, which was made into a film, has been nominated for Five Quarters of the Orange. Ms Harris said there was "a lot of drama and romance in historical themes", but that the stereotypical bodice-ripping yarn was a thing of the past.

"None of these novels shortlisted have got the words 'his hand caressed her silken thigh' in them," she said. "That's the thing people associate with romantic novels. My book doesn't conform to the lady novelist cliché ... I don't think there was much bodice-ripping in history anyway."

All of the authors said romantic fiction was a serious business. Cathy Kelly, a journalist who won last year's award with Someone Like You and has been nominated again for What She Wants, said: "There is snobbery about books but, for romantic novels, the Barbara Cartland era has gone. It's not all pink chiffon dresses."

The other nominations are The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory, on the younger sister of Anne Boleyn; Eye of the Wind, by Jane Jackson, set in 18th-century Cornwall; and A Place in the Hills by Michelle Paver, set in ancient Rome. Contemporary entries are Precious Time by Erica James and Silent Truths by Susan Lewis.

The prize will be judged by a panel including the television presenter Vanessa Feltz.