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This review of my historical romance Diamond Dark was posted on Amazon not long ago:
I took a chance on this book and was not disappointed. It transcends its genre by having a literary vibe and incredibly effective pacing in addition to being well-written. Ellen Tanner Marsh’s series of books could usher in the next generation of romantic fiction by advancing historical romance into something with broad appeal beyond its niche.
I admit I was flattered, but what intrigued me most was the reviewer’s reference to historical romance “with broad appeal beyond its niche.” That got me wondering how many romance novels of previous generations were able to break out of their narrow niches and transcend their genre. Ivanhoe and Gone with the Wind come to mind, of course, but I wanted to dig deeper.
So I started researching the bestseller lists of the last five decades to find more of those break-out books. Instead, I stumbled on some fascinating novels that were once a big part of popular culture but have sadly been forgotten today. And that’s a shame. Here are a few of them:

 

Lady Baltimore  #2 bestselling book of 1906

Lady Baltimore is a mixed bag plot-wise (Civil War Reconstruction, southern social mores, and a romance that unfolds in Charleston, SC), but its big claim to fame is its title, which lent itself to what remains one of the most popular wedding cakes in America.
Seems author Owen Wister (who also wrote The Virginian, the first-ever fictional western) was offered a white frosted layer cake filled with fruits and nuts during a visit to Charleston. He was so enamored that he mentioned it in his book in a pivotal bakery scene. Readers clamored for the recipe, and newspapers across the country obliged by printing several versions.
Maybe that’s why the cake’s true origins remain a mystery, though most food historians believe that Wister’s original version was created by the good ladies of a popular Charleston tea room named–what else?–The Lady Baltimore.

 

The Goose Girl  #8 bestselling book of 1909

Author Harold MacGrath achieved every writer’s dream of being able to crank out many books every year,  including the bestseller The Goose Girl, while publishing plays, short stories, and movie scripts.
How prolific was he? Eighteen of his forty novels and three of his short stories were made into films, and he wrote the scripts for an additional four. Meanwhile, he was busy writing short stories for The Saturday Evening PostLadies Home Journal, and Redbook magazine and adapting others for radio serialization and Broadway plays.
And maybe he’s not entirely forgotten today, thanks to English actor William Henry Pratt, who supposedly chose his stage name from a MacGrath novel that featured a Russian mad scientist named…Boris Karlov.

 

Mr. and Mrs. Cugat  #8 bestseller of 1941

Not long after Ohio socialite Isabel Rorick married a bank executive, she started writing lighthearted stories for the national Junior League newsletter about a young banker and his wife. The stories caught the attention of Houghton Mifflin, which published them in a book titled Mr. and Mrs. Cugat, the Record of a Happy Marriage, a top ten bestseller in 1941.
In 1945, CBS Radio launched a Mr. and Mrs. Cugat-based radio show called My Favorite Husband, with Lucille Ball playing the missus. When offered the same role in a television series, she agreed—but only if her husband could play Mr. Cugat. Since Cuban-born Desi Arnaz didn’t exactly look the part of a midwestern banker, the show was reworked into…I Love Lucy.
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