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The meaning and origin of the expression: Bodice ripper

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Bodice ripper

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Meaning

A sexually explicit romantic novel; usually in a historical setting and always with a plot involving the seduction of the heroine.

Origin

These books owe much in style to the work of English romantic novelists like Jane Austen and Emily Bronte. Nevertheless, the term itself is American. The first reference in print is from The New York Times, December 1980:

"Women too have their pornography: Harlequin romances, novels of 'sweet savagery,' - bodice-rippers."

It soon caught on and appears numerous times in the US press from that date onward. Here's an early example, in a story about [then] emerging novelist, Danielle Steel, from the Syracuse Herald Journal, New York, 1983:

"I think of romance novels as kind of bodice rippers, Steel says."

book coverThe genre is commercially highly successful, but isn't taken seriously by most literary critics. Most examples are judged by more base criteria than the classic works of Austen or the Brontes. Bodice rippers are strictly formulaic and the plot usually involves a vulnerable heroine faced with a richer and more powerful male character, whom she initially dislikes. Later, she succumbs to lust and falls into his arms. The formula requires the books to be fat 'page turners', that is, a plot device, usually a seduction scene, must happen at frequent intervals. Depending on the author or publishing house style, the principal characters must marry. It is virtually obligatory for the cover picture to show the swooning, ample-bosomed heroine.