Rupert Brooke, the World War I poet, once wrote in thinking of his beloved, “Today, I have been happy. I held a memory of you.” Brooke’s sentiment resonates with many of the characters in the romantic reads listed below. Here is a sampling for your Valentine’s Day pleasure.
Classic Romantic Novels
Persuasion by Jane Austen (1818) This is Austen’s last published novel. It is a moving love story that features as its central character, Anne Elliot, a woman who by the standards of the time, is well past the first bloom of youth. It is as Austen biographer Claire Tomalin says “Austen’s present to …. all women who had lost their chance in life and would never enjoy a second spring.”
Middlemarch by George Eliot (1874) In this novel, Eliot, the pen name of Mary Anne Evans, looks at marriage from the perspective of three couples in the village of Middlemarch. Eliot argues that short, romantic courtships lead to trouble because both parties entertain unrealistic ideals of each other. Using the plots in Middlemarch, Eliot argues that marriages based on compatibility work better. This is a highly complex novel but very much worth the time and effort to dissect its themes.
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (1878) This novel, adapted for movies and the small screen, explores the themes of jealousy, faith, family, marriage, and fidelity. This last theme — fidelity — is a key message in Tolstoy’s novel, “No one [Anna Karenina] may build their happiness on another’s pain.”
Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy (1891). Hardy, in Tess of the D’Urbervilles, takes aim at the sexual double standard to which Tess falls victim. Despite being a good woman, Tess becomes despised by society after losing her virginity before marriage.
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (1920). Wharton’s novel won the 1921 Pulitzer Prize. The story is set among New York’s upper class in the 1870’s. It centers on the impending marriage of Newland Archer and May Welland and the introduction of a “scandalous” woman, Ellen Olenska, whose presence threatens their happiness. It is one of my favorite books.
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell (1936). Another Pulitzer Prize winner (1937), the story is set in Jonesboro and Atlanta, Georgia during the American Civil War and Reconstruction. Mitchell’s novel follows the life of Scarlett O’Hara, the daughter of an Irish immigrant plantation owner, and her loves. Of particular interest to readers is the love – not always mutual – between Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler. This is Mitchell’s only novel.
Contemporary Romantic Novels
The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles (1969) Fowles was a great aficionado of Thomas Hardy and likened his heroine, Sarah Woodruff, to Tess of Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Sarah lives in the Cornish coastal town of Lyme Regis as a disgraced woman, abandoned by a French naval officer married – unknown to Sarah – to another woman.
Sophie’s Choice by William Styron (1979). The story revolves around a young American Southern writer who befriends the Jewish Nathan Landau and his beautiful lover, Sophie, a Polish (but non-Jewish) survivor of the Nazi concentration camps. It explores the complicated nature of war and suffering and its after effects.
The Reader by Bernhard Schlink (1995). Written by German law professor and judge, Bernhard Schlink, this is the first German novel to top the New York Times bestseller list. Set in postwar Germany, the novel deals with love and secrets between an adolescent German boy and a woman twice his age. It also grapples with how Germans view their history and the Holocaust.
The Twentieth Wife by Indu Sundaresan (2003) The novel tells the story of India’s Empress Mehrunissa of the Mughal Empire. At the age of eight, she sees Prince Salim and decides she will marry him one day. Salin and Mehrunissa fall in love over the years, but are unable to marry because Mehrunissa is betrothed to a soldier. Despite time and distance their passion for one another never dies.
The Piano Teacher by Janice Y.K. Lee (2009). Set in 1950’s Hong Kong, Claire Pendleton, a provincial newlywed, is hired by a wealthy Chinese couple to be their daughter’s piano teacher. She soon begins an affair only to learn that her lover’s demeanor hides a past that will force her to choose between love and safety. It is Lee’s first novel.
Love in the Western World by Denis de Rougemont (1940) For a history of eight centuries of romantic passion try De Rougemont’s book which pays special homage to love in the context of marriage. He argues that “marriages fail when the partners want a romance that can continue through a lifetime. But succeed when the partners recognize that marriage can be more satisfying, and more intense than even the brightest sudden flare of romance.”
Whatever state you find yourself in this Valentine’s Day, we hope these reads give you the opportunity to engage your romantic side because as we all know: Romance is the spice of life.