In honor of Read-a-Romance Month, I am re-reading my all-time favorite romance novel, The Windflower by Sharon and Tom Curtis (originally published under their pen name of Laura London). It has been 30 years since I first read it (and close to 20 years since the last time I read it), and the genre has changed quite a bit.
I just started it today, and so far, I've only read the opening scene. Freud would have a field day, but I believe that was intentional. Historical romances in the early 1980s were filled with lush descriptions and euphemisms that made a thesaurus a necessary tool for any successful romance writer. The Curtises show a mastery of description and euphemism that rises to the level of affectionate satire. In the opening scene, 18-year-old sheltered virgin Merry Wilding is sketching vegetables in the kitchen garden. The authors slyly use phallic euphemisms to describe the vegetables without even mentioning cucumbers. Merry is apparently too innocent to notice the phallic symbolism (or wonder why the garden contains no eggplants or tomatoes). Then we are treated to descriptions of Merry's dreams about unicorns and how those dreams have suddenly changed in nature. Again, the Freudian symbolism is obvious to the reader but not to Merry.
One of the many things that delights me about this book is that it was obviously written by educated people who assumed that their readers were reasonably well-informed as well. While the story works even if you know nothing about Freudian symbolism or the conventions of the romance genre, there is a whole extra layer of humor for those who do. In that way, it's a lot like watching episodes of The Muppet Show from the same era.
There were fewer entertainment choices in those days, and as a culture we participated more broadly in the mainstream. For that reason, some of the biggest hits in many entertainment media were able to appeal to people from diverse subcultures and educational levels (and not necessarily by dumbing things down to the lowest common denominator). I think we've lost that in this day of niche markets and nearly infinite entertainment choices.
Re-reading this book has also reminded me, to my embarrassment, that I had a collection of porcelain unicorns on my dresser when I was 18.