Twenty of the Most Romantic Novels of All Time
By Autumn Topping
When you consider the most romantic books of all time, Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice will always come up and for good reason. Jane Austen knows how to tell unforgettable love stories that stand the test of time. There is just something about Mr. Darcy that resonates with us as this timeless, romantic icon. Is it the familiar story of misguided judgments between Lizzie and Darcy? Pemberley? The way Mr. Darcy will do anything for Elizabeth, including secretly saving her family from a terrible scandal? Or perhaps, today, our love for Mr. Darcy partially stems from imagining Colin Firth or Matthew McFadyen sensually and passionately gazing at Elizabeth from across a room or even dance floor. Whatever our reasons may be for loving Mr. Darcy, Pride and Prejudice is without a doubt one of the most romantic novels of all time, as I would argue are the entire Austen collection. From Mr. Darcy, Mr. Knightley, to the dashing Captain Wentworth, there are never shortages of dynamic, romantic heroes to fill the pages of an Austen love story. But aside from a Jane Austen novel, what other stories make you swoon and sigh all at the same time? What novels make you believe in love?
Originally, narrowing down to ten romantic novels became increasingly difficult, so in the end, I selected 20 of the most romantic books ever published. I say ‘of’ as choosing the most romantic books can be rather subjective and running out of space, I left some big ones off the list (honorable mention for The Notebook). Nevertheless, for this romantic month of February, let us celebrate love and romance in literature; let us celebrate some of the greatest and most romantic novels ever published, whether from classic literature, Gothic romances, to even fantasy:
1. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
“In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.” – Mr. Darcy, Pride and Prejudice
As clearly stated above, what is a romantic novel list without Pride and Prejudice? In Austen’s most known novel, Elizabeth and Darcy must overcome prejudices to ultimately come together. I don’t know about anyone else, but if Darcy had slighted me in such a mortifying manner as he did to Elizabeth at the dance, I would have despised him equally as much. Thus, Elizabeth’s distaste for Mr. Darcy becomes particularly enjoyable to read because her ‘prejudices’ against him are so easy to identify with; the witty repartee equally engrossing. As for the rest of the love story, what could be more swoon-worthy than two proposals? Besides being purely romantic, however, Pride and Prejudice is so much more than that. Austen examines humanity in all her ironic glory and her examination of love and marriage when love IN marriage was less commonplace (think Charlotte Lucas and Mr. Collins) is very powerful.
2. Persuasion by Jane Austen
“You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope...I have loved none but you.” ― Jane Austen, Persuasion
Okay, so I may have cheated a little and chose two of Austen’s novels (if I could I would include all six) but these two stand out as the most romantic as the two tell completely different, yet equally memorable love stories. As for Persuasion, the love story between Captain Wentworth and Anne Elliott is just as dreamy as the one between Elizabeth and Darcy. This time around, the story is about love lost and love regained when Anne reunites with the man she had once turned down (because she had been persuaded not to marry him) years later. When she crosses paths with Wentworth, she has lost her youthful bloom and perhaps even the chance for love as he seemingly wants nothing of the woman who had once rejected him. But is his love for her truly gone? What follows is surely one of the greatest love stories of all time and perhaps even Austen’s most passionate, Wentworth’s letter and intense devotion for Anne about as romantic as one could ever imagine.
3. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
"I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being, with an independent will; which I now exert to leave you.” ―Jane, Jane Eyre
Jane Eyre tells the story of an orphaned girl first raised by a cruel Aunt who eventually abandons her to a harsh school and environment. As she ages, she enters the adult world alone and friendless, until she becomes a governess at Thornfield and meets the moody, yet charismatic Mr. Rochester. In a house full of secrets and gothic mysteries, Jane and Rochester’s souls connect in one of the most passionate love stories in the history of literature. Can Jane find love with a man in need of redemption? Can she save him and in the process, can he save her from her own lonely fate?
4. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
“If he loved with all the powers of his puny being, he couldn't love as much in eighty years as I could in a day.” ―Heathcliff, Wuthering Heights
Love it or hate it, Wuthering Heights does have one of the most complicated romances ever written. Cathy and Heathcliff are unlikeable; Cathy selfish and Heathcliff a villain but their eternal love for one another redeems their love and makes for one compelling, and even supernaturally spooky read. Like Emily’s sister Charlotte, with the creation of the cruel, yet romantic Heathcliff (he has some of the best speeches in all of literature); she paved the way for all future Byronic Heroes.
5. North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
“He shook hands with Margaret. He knew it was the first time their hands had met, though she was perfectly unconscious of the fact.” ― Mr. Thornton, North and South
For those who have seen the fabulously romantic 2004 BBC adaptation of North and South starring Richard Armitage, I can promise that the novel is just as good (fair warning though: no train station at the end). Part Charles Dickens (he was even the book’s editor) and part Jane Austen, Elizabeth Gaskell weaves the love story between Margaret Hale (who just moved from the more idyllic South of England to an industrial town in the North) and Northern cotton mill manufacturer, John Thornton. Like Elizabeth and Darcy, the two clash and misjudge one another as Margaret feels compassion for Thornton’s poor labor workers she believes he mistreats. A social novel at its best, Gaskell simultaneously weaves in the romance seamlessly, some scenes so romantic and passionate, that it will literally take your breath away.
6. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” – Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
Sometimes, unrequited love can be just as powerful of a love story because occasionally love really is one-sided. What happens to those characters who love someone so deeply that they can love in patient silence? What happens when that love always remains unrequited? Charles Dickens created numerous romantic stories in his social novels: Little Dorrit, Great Expectations, and Our Mutual Friend are just a few that come to mind. However, A Tale of Two Cities takes an original path. Set during the French Revolution (so it can even be considered historical fiction), Sydney’s love for another man’s wife ends in an ultimate sacrifice, one that emphasizes sacrificial and unrequited love to be just as romantic as those stories with happy ends.
7. Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
“Your face is my heart Sassenach, and the love of you is my soul” ― James Fraser, Drums of Autumn
Originally published in 1991, and with seven novels in total, Outlander stands apart from the other classics as a modern series of books with a historical/fantastical twist. Set in WWII, a nurse named Claire ends up time travelling to 18th century Scotland! It quickly becomes a super, entertaining romantic fest when she is forced to marry James to protect her as she had been labeled an ‘outlander,’ an outsider of the Scottish culture. Danger ensues and passions emerge in this gripping historical romance.
8. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Well, my dear, take heart. Some day, I will kiss you and you will like it. But not now, so I beg you not to be too impatient.” ― Rhett Butler, Gone with the Wind
Set during the American Civil War, Gone with the Wind tells the story of spoiled and selfish, Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara who overcomes every obstacle to survive, including losing what she deems the love of her life Ashley Wilkes to another woman. But like anything else, she never gives up without a fight, not realizing in time that her true love is actually the more scandalous Rhett Butler. Nevertheless, being a survivor, Scarlett realizes that “tomorrow is another day….”
9. Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier
“I'm asking you to marry me, you little fool.” ― Maxim de Winter, Rebecca
Greatly influenced by Gothic romances and Jane Eyre, Rebecca is more mystery than pure romance but that is what makes it so fascinating of a read. When the new Mrs. De Winter is brought back to Manderley (Maxim’s large estate), the ghost (not literal) of Maxim’s dead wife seems everywhere, but can the shy Mrs. De Winter live up to the memory of Rebecca? This is a great, atmospheric love story; Maxim particularly interesting because his love is so ambiguous and mannerisms mysterious.
10. A Room with A View by E.M. Forster
“For a moment he contemplated her, as one who had fallen out of heaven. He saw radiant joy in her face, he saw the flowers beat against her dress in blue waves. The bushes above them closed. He stepped quickly forward and kissed her.” ― E.M. Forster, A Room with A View
Published in 1908, A Room with A View follows Lucy Honeychurch, a repressed woman of Edwardian era England. While traveling in Italy, Lucy and her chaperone complain about the view in their hotel room. Overhearing their predicament, Mr. Emerson and his son George offer to trade rooms and thus begin the unlikely love story between Lucy and George, George a kind boy who reveals to Lucy a freer way of thinking and acting. When she becomes engaged to another man, Lucy must overcome Edwardian repression to escape a man, who only sees her as a possession, for the man who loves Lucy for being Lucy; a wonderful coming-of-age story about love and self-identity.
11. The Princess Bride by William Goldman
“My Westley will come for me.” ― Buttercup, The Princess Bride
While I think most of us will first think of the film, the novel shouldn’t be forgotten. For those readers who love a good pirate adventure or a romantic fairy tale, The Princess Bride by Goldman is pure magic from the first time Westley says to Buttercup, “As you wish,” to the very last line of the book. This is romantic fantasy at its finest.
12. Daniel Deronda by George Eliot
“There was not the faintest touch of coquetry in the attitude of her mind toward him: he was unique to her among men, because he had impressed her as being not her admirer but her superior.” ―Gwendolen, Daniel Deronda
Daniel Deronda, a social and Victorian novel, also contains one of the most compelling love triangles in literature between Daniel, the selfishly fascinating Gwendolen, and the suicidal Jewish girl Mirah. While many side with the Daniel/Mirah subplot about discovering one’s family roots, for me, what makes Daniel Deronda such an ingenious piece of literature is the story between Daniel and the three-dimensional Gwendolen. Is their love unrequited on Gwendolen’s part only or something more? Can Daniel save her from a frightfully, horrible marriage? The themes are dark and compelling, and most certainly romantic at the same time.
13. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
“Whatever our fate is or may be, we have made it and do not complain of it." ― Count Vronsky, Anna Karenina
Anna Karenina is a tragic love story about Anna and the affair she has with Count Vronsky but it is so much more than that. The novel is also political and biting in commentary in Anna’s hypocritical treatment by society in comparison to her brother’s own bad behavior at the beginning of the story. This is one brilliant work of literature that proves not all good love stories will have or even need a happy outcome; an insightful look into the world of adultery and unhappy families.
14. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
“How I wish I lived in a Jane Austen novel!” ― Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle
I first came across this book in a college bookstore. The premise intrigued me, I bought it, and from that point on I was hooked and desperately, much like the main character Cassandra, in love. Dodie Smith’s, while most known for writing 101 Dalmatians, best novel is I Capture the Castle, a story about an eccentric family (two sisters, father, and nudist stepmother) living poorly (and barely getting by as their once successful father is suffering from a ten year writer’s block) in a rundown castle. Told from the point of view of Cassandra, life finally gets interesting for the two sisters (much like an Austen novel) when two brothers (Simon and Neil Cotton) become their new landlords. Rose (the beautiful, yet naïve sister) soon catches the eye of Simon who Cassandra begins to have her own affection for. With more than one love story and dynamic characters, this is definitely one of the best coming-of age novels ever written.
15. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
“He had known the love that is fed on caresses and feeds them; but this passion that was closer than his bones was not to be superficially satisfied.” ― Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence
The first novel written by a woman to win the Pulitzer Prize, The Age of Innocence is an ironic commentary of New York High Society but at the same time, Wharton’s masterpiece is also immensely romantic. The story follows lawyer Newland Archer, newly engaged to May Welland. Soon after his engagement, however, he meets May’s cousin, the scandalous Countess Ellen Olenska and begins to be captivated by this independent woman, falling in love. Rumors of a bad marriage surface, Ellen’s reputation ruined when whispers of divorce begin to circulate amongst society. Newland convinces her to just stay separated and she agrees, but as their passion for one another increases in the midst of societal pressures, their attraction becomes more intense and forbidden in this unforgettable tale of love.
16. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez
"There is no greater glory than to die for love." ― Florentino Ariza, Love in the Time of Cholera
Originally published in Spanish, an English translation finally came out in 1988. Love in the Time of Cholera tells the story of Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza and how they first fell in love when they were young only to be separated when Fermina marries another man. For fifty years, Florentino loves her (in spite of his promiscuous behavior), waiting faithfully for his professed love. The contrast between Fermina’s husband’s rational love, in contrast to a more passionate one, makes for a captivating story of love, life, and endurance.
17. Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
“Inman's only thought looking on the enemy was, "Go home.” ― Charles Frazier, Cold Mountain
Cold Mountain, set during the American Civil War, tells the story of shy Inman, a soldier for the South, and Ada Monroe who is left to fend for herself when her Reverend father dies. Disillusioned by war, Inman deserts and starts to make his way back home to Ada, the love he left behind. As both learn to survive, they finally reunite in this tragic tale of love, friendship, and loss.
18. Anne of Green Gables Series by L.M. Montgomery
"I don't want sunbursts or marble halls, I just want you.” ― Anne Shirley, Anne of the Island
Can anyone truly despise Anne Shirley and Gilbert Blythe? I first fell in love with fiery, red-haired Anne and her handsome, yet childhood rival and eventual friend when I watched the Kevin Sullivan mini-series. Immensely attracted to the creation of Avonlea (Anne’s fictional town in which she gets adopted) and all the memorable characters, I turned to the books where the world became even richer and greater in detail. While not entirely a love story (this is mainly coming-of-age), those kinds of novels tend to hold the most romantic of stories. From the moment Anne first broke a slate over Gilbert’s head, Montgomery hit gold. With the slow build up between friends, the romance finally reaches a climax in the third book when Anne FINALLY realizes she loves Gilbert, the man she had once turned down, the man who gave up a school for her and the man who helped Anne overcome her imaginary ideal.
19. Possession: A Romance by A.S. Byatt
“No mere human can stand in a fire and not be consumed.” ― A.S. Byatt, Possession
Set during two different time periods (present day and Victorian era), Byatt tells two love stories in this literary novel that are equally as riveting as the other. When scholar Rowland Mitchell discovers romantic, handwritten drafts of a letter penned by Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash (which would be a remarkable discovery), he sets out to prove, with the help of Dr. Maud Bailey, a connection with another Victorian poet, Christabel LaMotte. Soon the novel becomes both a historical romance and a detective novel as the two love stories parallel one another, and as Maud and Rowland race for the truth, suspense builds into a satisfying conclusion between some fabulously crafted characters.
20. Atonement by Ian McEwan
“Come back, come back to me.” ― Cecila Tallis, Atonement
In a dark tale of false accusations and misguided perspectives, the story comes to a head when 13 year old Briony’s fanciful imaginings cause her sister Cecilia to be parted from her sweetheart Robbie after she accuses him of being the one to rape her friend. Sent to prison, Robbie and Cecilia can only write through letters, until the war that is, when they reunite, if only briefly. Now older, Briony seeks redemption in the terrible part she played; but during war, was it ever possible for a happy ending? Could she ever right her wrong? This romantic, albeit heart-rending tale will pull at the heartstrings and transport you to a different time as McEwan explores innocence, jealousy, and the devastation of war.