Behind the Book: “Secrets of a Wedding Night”

First-time romance novelist Valerie Bowman ’96 talks about the genre as a feminist statement

Yes, I went to Smith and I’m a romance novelist. And I already know what some of you are thinking.

Let’s be clear. I’m a card-carrying feminist. In fact, I like to think my “card” is my degree from Smith. But I also believe passionately in two things: that the world could use more happiness and that love does, indeed, make it go ’round. Valerie Bowman

So I am thrilled to announce my debut historical romance novel, Secrets of a Wedding Night. It’s the story of a widow who takes matters into her own hands, and the man who got away. It’s a tale of secrets and seduction between equally matched partners and, frankly, it’s just fun. Set in Regency England, Lily Andrews, the young, beautiful, headstrong Countess of Merrill, has been left widowed, and penniless—this on top of suffering a great heartbreak just five years earlier. To warn other women from falling prey to such misery, she anonymously authors a scandalous pamphlet, “Secrets of a Wedding Night,” which seems to be doing its job of steering the young ladies of London away from marriage. When a recently jilted Devon Morgan, the Marquis of Colton, learns that it is his former fiancée, who has written the pamphlet, he issues a challenge that could change both their lives.

At Smith, I majored in English, and minored in history. I wanted to take a fencing class one semester but I thought it wasn’t practical. When would I use it, I mean really? (That same logic didn’t keep me from taking two hardcore semesters of Latin, though.) I’ve always been interested in history and writing but didn’t think a career in academia was for me. So I happily settled into corporate America working as a technical writer and editor.

In February 2007, I found myself stuck in an airport with my flight delayed for several hours. I strolled into the airport bookstore and ended up browsing in the romance section. I purchased a book called Scandal in Spring, written by Lisa Kleypas—a Wellesley alumna, with a degree in political science, and a bestselling romance novelist. It was the first time I thought, “Hmm, maybe I can write a romance novel.”

So I began, and the romance novel-writing community embraced me. The Romance Writers of America (RWA) national conferences often remind me of my days at Smith. Smart, savvy women in a large group helping each other, learning, and laughing. Romance doesn’t discriminate. I happen to write stories about heterosexual couples, but there are all sorts of fabulous romance authors out there writing gay and lesbian stories to great success. And we don’t judge. Our products run the gamut from conservative Christian books to full-on erotica.

Secrets of a Wedding NightRomance is the best-selling fiction genre and sold over a billion dollars worth of product last year—and that was before everyone and her grandma was openly enjoying Fifty Shades of Grey, by E.L. James. The RWA raises tens of thousands of dollars a year for literacy programs, library grants, and honors librarians from all over the country.

So if there’s all this good stuff going on, why do romance novels have such a bad reputation? Could it be because it’s a genre written for women by women? Could it be because it’s a genre that celebrates women’s sexuality?

In a talk titled “Real Heroines Rip Their Own Bodices,”at the Penn State Gender Conference in April 2012, New York Times bestselling romance novelist Sarah MacLean (Sarah Trabucchi ’00) spoke about romance and sexual agency: “Men in society are expected to be sexual—to experience fantasy and to act upon it—but women are told to feel ashamed of their fantasies—and certainly never to read about them. Romance shatters that expectation, providing women with a cultural space in which to read, explore, and discuss their sexuality. Romance is, ultimately, a genre by women for women. And it’s an innately feminist genre. It’s no coincidence that in 1972, as Gloria Steinem ’56 was speaking at the Democratic National Convention and the Equal Rights Amendment was before Congress, the first modern romance novel was published.”

Romance author Saralee French Etter ’80 adds, “Raise a child, and you get moments of unequaled joy. Donate to a cause, and you get a sense of satisfaction and self-worth. Build a healthy relationship with a loving partner, and you experience great sex and emotional intimacy. Romance novels celebrate these things. Too many people—women included—fail to value these qualities that make us most human and joyous.”

As you can see, I’m far from the only Smithie in the romance-writing community. In addition to Etter and MacLean, our ranks include New York Times bestseller J.R. Ward (Jessica Bird ’91) as well as Stephanie Draven (Stephanie Accongio ’93), and Penguin Publishing executive editor Cindy Hwang ’93.

The fact is, I couldn’t be more proud to be a romance author. And If I’d known then what I know now, I totally would have taken that fencing class.

Secrets of a Wedding Night (St. Martin’s Press, 2012), by Valerie Bowman is out now. Publishers Weekly called it an “enchanting, engaging debut that will have readers seeking future installments.” Follow Bowman on Facebook and Twitter.