Classic romance stories of boy and girl meet, fall in love, marry, and live happily ever after very rarely happen in real life. Where is the turmoil, the heartache, the deceit, and the messy breakup?
What happened to the unrequited love affairs, the stories of forbidden love and the treacherous feeling that you will never be truly happy?
Whatever the storyline may be, we all know that with each great classic comes the ‘emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending’. Or is this really always the case?
Some classic novels have been known to pull at the reader’s heartstrings, making sure that the story is full of lust, love, and fairy tale endings, but what about the others? Some classic narratives explore the darker side of romance, the poisonous side effects that result from giving your heart to another.
So, when looking for a new classic romance novel, which one should you delve into first?
Below, you will find a mixture of happy-ever-afters and heartbreak, stories of true love, adultery, unreciprocated feelings, and intimate liaisons.
It’s a list guaranteed to evoke mushy, soppy, and perhaps even tender loving feelings amongst all of us, regardless of whether you are already starry-eyed or cold-hearted and cynical when it comes to the idea of finding that one true love.
Each of the books listed here were written before 1980; therefore, I have classed them as either a classic or a modern classic. These are the books that, even now, years after they have been written are remembered widely and often quoted from; several have even been converted into Hollywood films so there is clearly something about the storyline.
Our Classic Romance Novel Recommendations
#1 Romeo and Juliet (Shakespeare)
I know this one is technically a tragedy and a play so already goes against the grain, but no romance list is not complete with it)!
Shakespeare creates a world of violence and generational conflict in which two young people fall in love and die because of that love. The story is rather extraordinary in that the normal problems faced by young lovers are here so very large. It is not simply that the families of Romeo and Juliet disapprove of the lover’s affection for each other; rather, the Montagues and the Capulets are on opposite sides in a blood feud and are trying to kill each other on the streets of Verona. Every time a member of one of the two families dies in the fight, his relatives demand the blood of his killer. Because of the feud, if Romeo is discovered with Juliet by her family, he will be killed. Once Romeo is banished, the only way that Juliet can avoid being married to someone else is to take a potion that apparently kills her, so that she is buried with the bodies of her slain relatives. In this violent, death-filled world, the movement of the story from love at first sight to the union of the lovers in death seems almost inevitable.
#2 Great Expectations (Charles Dickens)
In what may be Dickens’s best novel, humble, orphaned Pip is apprenticed to the dirty work of the forge but dares to dream of becoming a gentleman — and one day, under sudden and enigmatic circumstances, he finds himself in possession of “great expectations.” In this gripping tale of crime and guilt, revenge and reward, the compelling characters include Magwitch, the fearful and fearsome convict; Estella, whose beauty is excelled only by her haughtiness; and the embittered Miss Havisham, an eccentric jilted bride.
#3 Gone with the Wind (Margaret Mitchell)
Margaret Mitchell’s epic novel of love and war won the Pulitzer Prize and is one of the most popular and celebrated movies of all time.
Many novels have been written about the Civil War and its aftermath. None take us into the burning fields and cities of the American South as Gone With the Wind does, creating haunting scenes and thrilling portraits of characters so vivid that we remember their words and feel their fear and hunger for the rest of our lives.
In the two main characters, the White-shouldered, irresistible Scarlett and the flashy, contemptuous Rhett, Margaret Mitchell not only conveyed a timeless story of survival under the harshest of circumstances, but she also created a classic romance about two of the most famous lovers in the English-speaking world since Romeo and Juliet.
#4 Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen)
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”
So begins Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen’s witty comedy of manners–one of the most popular novels of all time–that features splendidly civilized sparring between the proud Mr. Darcy and the prejudiced Elizabeth Bennet as they play out their spirited courtship in a series of eighteenth-century drawing-room intrigues.
#5 Wuthering Heights (Emily Brontë)
Wuthering Heights is a wild, passionate story of the intense and almost demonic love between Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff, a foundling adopted by Catherine’s father. After Mr. Earnshaw’s death, Heathcliff is bullied and humiliated by Catherine’s brother Hindley and wrongly believing that his love for Catherine is not reciprocated, leaves Wuthering Heights, only to return years later as a wealthy and polished man. He proceeds to exact terrible revenge for his former miseries.
#6 Madame Bovary (Gustave Falubert)
When Emma Rouault marries Charles Bovary she imagines she will pass into the life of luxury and passion that she reads about in sentimental novels and women’s magazines. But Charles is a dull country doctor, and provincial life is very different from the romantic excitement for which she yearns. In her quest to realize her dreams she takes a lover and begins a devastating spiral into deceit and despair.
Flaubert’s novel scandalised its readers when it was first published in 1857, and it remains unsurpassed in its unveiling of character and society making it one of the most read classic romance tales of all time.
#7 Doctor Zhivago (Boris Pasternak)
Dr. Yury Zhivago, Pasternak’s alter ego, is a poet, philosopher, and physician whose life is disrupted by the war and by his love for Lara, the wife of a revolutionary. His artistic nature makes him vulnerable to the brutality and harshness of the Bolsheviks. The poems he writes constitute some of the most beautiful writing in the novel.
#8 Women in Love (D.H. Lawrence)
The novel tells of the relationships of two sisters, Ursula and Gudrun, who live in a Midland colliery town in the years before the First World War. Ursula falls in love with Birkin (a thinly disguised portrait of Lawrence himself) and Gudrun has an intense but tragic affair with Gerald, the son of a local colliery owner.
#9 The Graduate (Charles Webb)
When Benjamin Braddock graduates from a small Eastern college and moves home to his parents’ house, everyone wants to know what he’s going to do with his life.
Benjamin falls haplessly into an affair with Mrs. Robinson, the relentlessly seductive wife of his father’s business partner. It’s only when beautiful co-ed Elaine Robinson comes home to visit her parents that Benjamin, now smitten, thinks he might have found some kind of direction in his life. Unfortunately for Benjamin, Mrs. Robinson plays the role of protective mother as well as she does the one of mistress. A wondrously fierce and absurd battle of wills ensues, with love and idealism triumphing over the forces of corruption and conformity.
#10 The French Lieutenant’s Woman (John Fowles)
The scene is the village of Lyme Regis on Dorset’s Lyme Bay and the major characters in the love-intrigue triangle are Charles Smithson, 32, a gentleman of independent means and vaguely scientific bent; his fiancée, Ernestina Freeman, a pretty heiress daughter of a wealthy and pompous dry goods merchant; and Sarah Woodruff, mysterious and fascinating deserted after a brief affair with a French naval officer a short time before the story begins.
Obsessed with an irresistible fascination for the enigmatic Sarah, Charles is hurtled by a moment of consummated lust to the brink of the existential void. Duty dictates that his engagement to Tina must be broken as he goes forth once again to seek the woman who has captured his Victorian soul and gentleman’s heart.
#11 Anna Karenina (Leo Tolstoy)
Leo Tolstoy’s classic story of doomed love is one of the most admired novels in world literature. Generations of readers have been enthralled by his magnificent heroine, the unhappily married Anna Karenina, and her tragic affair with dashing Count Vronsky.
In their world frivolous liaisons are commonplace, but Anna and Vronsky’s consuming passion makes them a target for scorn and leads to Anna’s increasing isolation. The heartbreaking trajectory of their relationship contrasts sharply with the colourful swirl of friends and family members who surround them, especially the newlyweds’ Kitty and Levin, who forge a touching bond as they struggle to make a life together.
Anna Karenina is a masterpiece not only because of the unforgettable woman at its core and the stark drama of her fate but also because it explores and illuminates the deepest questions about how to live a fulfilled life.
#12 Jane Eyre (Charlotte Brontë)
Orphaned into the household of her Aunt Reed at Gateshead, subject to the cruel regime at Lowood charity school, Jane Eyre nonetheless emerges unbroken in spirit and integrity. She takes up the post of governess at Thornfield, falls in love with Mr. Rochester, and discovers the impediment to their lawful marriage in a story that transcends melodrama to portray a woman’s passionate search for a wider and richer life than Victorian society traditionally allowed.
With a heroine full of yearning, the dangerous secrets she encounters, and the choices she finally makes, Charlotte Bronte’s innovative and enduring romantic novel continues to engage and provoke readers.
#13 Rebecca (Daphne du Maurier)
The novel begins in Monte Carlo, where our heroine is swept off her feet by the dashing widower Maxim de Winter and his sudden proposal of marriage. Orphaned and working as a lady’s maid, she can barely believe her luck. It is only when they arrive at his massive country estate that she realizes how large a shadow his late wife will cast over their lives presenting her with a lingering evil that threatens to destroy their marriage from beyond the grave.
#14 The Thorn Birds (Colleen McCullough)
Powered by the dreams and struggles of three generations, The Thorn Birds is the epic saga of a family rooted in the Australian sheep country. At the story’s heart is the love of Meggie Cleary, who can never possess the man she desperately adores, and Ralph de Bricassart, who rises from parish priest to the inner circles of the Vatican…but whose passion for Meggie will follow him all the days of his life.
#15 A Tale of Two Cities (Charles Dickens)
After eighteen years as a political prisoner in the Bastille, the aging Doctor Manette is finally released and reunited with his daughter in England. There the lives of two very different men, Charles Darnay, an exiled French aristocrat, and Sydney Carton, a disreputable but brilliant English lawyer, become enmeshed through their love for Lucie Manette. From the tranquil roads of London, they are drawn against their will to the vengeful, bloodstained streets of Paris at the height of the Reign of Terror, and they soon fall under the lethal shadow of La Guillotine.
#16 A Room with a View (E.M. Forster)
While vacationing in Italy, Lucy meets and is wooed by two gentlemen, George Emerson and Cecil Vyse. After turning down Cecil Vyse’s marriage proposals twice Lucy finally accepts. Upon hearing of the engagement George protests and confesses his true love for Lucy. Lucy is torn between the choice of marrying Cecil, who is a more socially acceptable mate, and George who she knows will bring her true happiness.
A Room With a View is a tale of classic human struggles such as the choice between social acceptance or true love.
#17 The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Victor Hugo)
In the vaulted Gothic towers of Notre-Dame lives Quasimodo, the hunchbacked bell ringer. Mocked and shunned for his appearance, he is pitied only by Esmerelda, a beautiful gypsy dancer to whom he becomes completely devoted. Esmerelda, however, has also attracted the attention of the sinister archdeacon Claude Frollo, and when she rejects his lecherous approaches, Frollo hatches a plot to destroy her that only Quasimodo can prevent.
Victor Hugo’s sensational, evocative novel brings life to the medieval Paris he loved and mourns its passing in one of the greatest historical romances of the nineteenth century.
#18 Les Liaisons Dangereuses (Pierre Choderlos de Lacios)
The complex moral ambiguities of seduction and revenge make Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1782) one of the most scandalous and controversial novels in European literature. The subject of major film and stage adaptations, the novel’s prime movers, the Vicomte de Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil, form an unholy alliance and turn seduction into a game – a game which they must win.
#19 A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Shakespeare)
A story portraying the adventures of four young lovers and a group of amateur actors, retelling their interactions with woodland fairies and a duke and duchess. Taking place in a mythical Athens and an enchanted forest, there is a handsome fairy king, a misguided parent, star-crossed lovers, a weaver who’s transformed into a half-donkey, wood sprites, and elves.
#20 The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald)
The story of the fabulously wealthy Jay Gatsby and his love for the beautiful Daisy Buchanan, of lavish parties on Long Island at a time when The New York Times noted “gin was the national drink and sex the national obsession,” it is an exquisitely crafted tale of America in the 1920s.
#21 Lady Chatterley’s Lover (D.H. Lawrence)
Lawrence’s frank portrayal of an extramarital affair and the explicit sexual explorations of the central characters caused this controversial book, now considered a masterpiece, to be banned as pornography until 1960.
#22 The Emerald Peacock (Katharine Gordon)
They eloped to an exotic palace high in the majestic hills. Bianca O’Neil, a beautiful Irish girl and Sher Khan, the passionate Prince of Tigers, ruler of Lambagh, and heir to the Peacock Throne.
It was a turbulent passion shadowed by treachery and greed, consumed by the flames of rebellion that swept the country and ultimately challenged by enemies who coveted the emblem of Sher Khan’s power, the rare and wondrous jewels of the emerald peacock.
#23 Breakfast at Tiffany’s (Truman Capote)
In this seductive, wistful masterpiece, Truman Capote created a woman whose name has entered the American idiom and whose style is a part of the literary landscape. Holly Golightly knows that nothing bad can ever happen to you at Tiffany’s; her poignancy, wit, and naïveté continue to charm.
#24 Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Anita Loos)
If any American fictional character of the twentieth century seems likely to be immortal, it is Lorelei Lee of Little Rock, Arkansas, the not-so-dumb blonde who knew that diamonds are a girl’s best friend. Outrageous, charming, and unforgettable, she’s been portrayed on stage and screen by Carol Channing and Marilyn Monroe and has become the archetype of the footloose, good-hearted gold digger, with an insatiable appetite for orchids, champagne, and precious stones.
Here are her “diaries,” created by Anita Loos in the Roaring Twenties, as Lorelei and her friend Dorothy barrel across Europe meeting everyone from the Prince of Wales to “Doctor Froyd” – and then back home again to marry a Main Line millionaire and become a movie star. In this delightfully droll and witty book, Lorelei Lee’s wild antics, unique outlook, and imaginative way with language shine.
#25 The Weather on the Streets (Rosamond Lehmann)
Taking up where Invitation to the Waltz left off, The Weather in the Streets shows us Olivia Curtis ten years older, a failed marriage behind her, thinner, sadder, and apparently not much wiser. A chance encounter on a train with a man who enchanted her as a teenager leads to a forbidden love affair and a new world of secret meetings, brief phone calls, and snatched liaisons in anonymous hotel rooms.
Years ahead of its time when first published, this subtle and powerful novel shocked even the most stalwart Lehmann fans with its searing honesty and passionate portrayal of clandestine love.
With so many great, classic romance novels out there why not take this opportunity to snuggle up on the sofa and enjoy reading about the one thing we all truly crave: True Love.
What classic romance novels would you add to this list? We would love to hear your recommendations.
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