When people think of romance in books, they think of those cheesy books with shirtless male models on the cover and an abundance of juicy language between the pages. While there is nothing wrong with books like this, and fans of them come from all walks of life, some of us just can’t consider them truly “romantic”. Romantic love has more to it than steamy physical contact between our hero and the hopeless heroine in some English garden. Although, having read that back, it isn’t a bad start.
Classic romantic novels are those books that we read over and over, those tales of passion and desire (and maybe just a touch of steam) that have stood the test of time as great manuals of what romance really is.
Eight of the Best Classic Romance Novels
Here is a list of eight classic romance novels, from all periods of history.
1. The Tale of Genji, Murasaki Shikibu
(trans. into English by Royall Tyler) Some literary types tell us that this text is considered the “first novel”, or at least the first “romantic novel” – it was written sometime between 1002 and 1020 CE by a Japanese noblewoman. The text tells the story of Genji the son of a Japanese emperor, who is relegated to citizen status for political reasons and has to work hard to attract women. There is no traditional “plot”, rather the text simply tells stories over time, in succession. We read about Genji’s early loves, his first unsatisfying romantic experiences, even his marriages and divorces. A powerfully romantic and ancient text, The Tale of Genji is also not very popular or well read. Treat yourself to a unique reading experience, and pick of the translation by Royall Tyle.
2. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte
This novel from the mid-19th century is still a classic romantic tale because the story is so powerful, and the characters incredibly vibrant. Featuring many elements of the classic gothic novel (a kind of theme on this list of classic romantic novels) Jane Eyre tells the story of the title character’s life in the form of a simple narrative divided into parts. We see Jane Eyre in her childhood, her education, her first love, separation from love, and reunion. Studied in schools all over the world, there is perhaps no better known example of gothic romance.
3. The Scarlet Pimpernel, Baroness Orczy
This classic, set during the French Revolution, offers the reader a full house of romance, intrigue, dangerous missions, and clever disguises. The main character goes about freeing French noblemen from certain death at the guillotine — embarrassing the French authorities and earning the hearts of beauty young women all over the countryside.
4. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
This list would not be complete without including Jane Austen, whose books have stirred our hearts for almost two centuries. This novel follows the romantic adventures of the Bennet sisters, whose relationships grow from flirting and courting to proposal and marriage. This is a “classic romantic novel” by anyone’s definition, and is often considered to be the prolific Jane Austen’s best novel.
5. Tristan and Isolde, (various)
A classic myth available in many different novels and books (as well as in Hollywood), this tale handed down to us from Celtic traditions centers on chivalry and meditations on doomed love and romance. There is plenty of action, including plenty of jousting and sword fights, and the unforgettable scene of our hero Tristan’s death at the hands of six knights. Looking for a classic romantic romance set in the Middle Ages? Pick up any of the hundreds of versions of the story of Tristan and Isolde.
6. Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier
Published in 1938 and eventually made into a film directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Rebecca is essentially a ghost story – but it takes its place on the list of great romantic novels because of the story. A classic example of the Gothic novel, Rebecca takes the form of a flashback – a woman recounting the story of the beginning of her marriage and how it has led to her house being burned down. An intriguing plot for a romantic story, this is the romance novel for lovers of mystery books, thrillers, and even a touch of horror.
7. The Fox, D.H. Lawrence
Set in Berkshire, England during the first world war, this novella by one of the West’s great romantic writers is often overlooked as a wonderful piece of literary romance. The story revolves around two sisters who have taken over a farm – they survive hardship after hardship against all odds. The farm is their entire world and their safe place until a young and attractive soldier walks in and upsets their normal lives. If you’re in the mood for a shorter classic romance, Lawrence’s fascinating novella will satisfy you.
8. Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
I had to throw in something contemporary on this list of “classics”. Some books written in the past fifty years are so or just destined to become “classics”. Marquez’ story of romance in the Caribbean in the early 20th century. Known for incredible dialogue and an intricate plot, this novel deals with love in many of its form, from adultery to budding passion.
9. Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller
Released in 1934 but banned in the United States until 1961 for its salty language and extremely erotic plot situations, this classic piece of literature takes the form of one man’s confession for his wrongs during his earlier life. We read his sexual exploits, business dealings, relationship woes, and thoughts on marriage and love. Not “romantic” in the sense that the above books are, I would consider this a romance novel for guys. Plenty of adult situations and hilarious insight into the human condition to be found here. Pick it up for a very unique understanding of what romance is.
Classic Romantic Novels Summary
Romance has many definitions, and all people perceive its meaning differently. What is romantic to you may be boring to some – still others eschew romance altogether in the name of simple sexual activity. There is something for everyone in classic romantic novels – sex, intrigue, mystery, adventure, they’re all covered in the majority of these books.
There’s nothing wrong with so called “romance novels”. Everyone has to take a break from their serious reading pursuits and enjoy some trash fiction. Just remember that when you want a truly romantic experience, there may be no better conduit than one of these classic romantic texts.