Romance is a wildly popular genre of fiction that focuses on love between two people. Romance novels include an array of sub-genres, including historical romance, contemporary romance, young adult romance, science fiction/fantasy romance, and romantic suspense.
No matter what the sub-genre, these books focus on the evolving relationship between two characters who share a strong attraction despite myriad obstacles. While romantic fiction is often disparaged as pulpy or poor quality, some novels in the genre are genuine literary classics, while others have become cultural phenomena. Here are the some of most influential romance novels ever written.
1. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Jane Eyre is one of the most famous novels written by Charlotte Bronte. Penned in 1847, it tells the story of a poor orphaned girl taken in by her aunt after her parents die. Jane grows up as a governess at Thornfield Hall, where she meets Mr. Rochester, a man who will change her life forever.
Jane is described as plain and headstrong, a departure from the typical romantic heroine of the day. Filled with plot twists, gasp-worthy moments, and dark secrets, Jane Eyre set the standard for literary romance nearly 200 years ago and still reigns supreme.
2. The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks
When college senior Allie Wilkes moves into her late grandmother's New England mansion, she finds herself drawn to a mysterious notebook left behind by its former owner. As she begins to read, she discovers a story of passion and love — one that could change her life forever.
Through the voice of an unnamed narrator, Nicholas Sparks tells the intensely romantic story of Noah and Allie as teengers, adults, and as older people in the sunset of life. Published in 2004, The Notebook is an emotional tale about love, loss, and second chances. This novel is an unusual romance in that it was written by a male author. The Notebook has also become one of the most popular romantic movies of all time.
3. Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen
One of the most beloved literary characters ever created, Elizabeth Bennet is the epitome of an independent woman. She is intelligent, witty, and strong-willed, and though she may seem aloof at first glance, beneath her reserved exterior beats a romantic and passionate heart. Her spirited nature makes her irresistible to Mr. Darcy, a wealthy landowner whose pride is challenged by Elizabeth's refusal to marry him.
The verbal sparring between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy is one of the earliest examples of the spirited banter modern romance novels are known for. A perennial favorite for its depiction of flawed but appealingly relatable characters, Pride and Prejudice has spawned many film adaptations.
4. North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
North and South is a romance novel published in 1855 by Victorian writer Elizabeth Gaskell. Largely overlooked in her day, Gaskell has in recent decades achieved renown as a powerful chronicler of social mores and class divides.
In North and South, Gaskell describes the effects of industrialization and social division on clergyman's daughter Margaret Hale and textile mill owner John Thornton, who share a deep attraction but come from very different backgrounds. Beloved for its depiction of complex characters and the power of love, North and South has become an indispensable romance classic.
5. Tipping the Velvet
Tipping the Velvet is a historical romance novel published in 1998 by Welsh novelist Sarah Waters. The book chronicles the story of Nan King, who works in her family's restaurant in 19th century England, and Kitty Butler, a male impersonator who transforms Nan's simple, quiet life by hiring her as her dresser. Hailed for its accurate depiction of forbidden lesbian love, Tipping the Velvet details the thrilling adventures and passionate love between Nan and Kitty as they navigate 1890s England.
Tipping the Velvet was made into a popular BBC film production, and is considered a modern-day classic of lesbian romance.
6. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
Emily Bronte's first and only novel, Wuthering Heights is a gothic masterpiece of tragedy and romance. Set in the windswept Yorkshire moors, Wuthering Heights tells the story of Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw, two young lovers separated by fate, betrayal, and self-destruction. Wuthering Heights is filled with intense emotion, haunting imagery, and unforgettable characters who are some of the most enduring in romantic fiction.
Emily Bronte's lyrical style and depiction of thwarted love has influenced generations of authors, and is considered one of the greatest love stories ever written.
7. Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
Outlander is a historical fantasy romance series written by British author Diana Gabaldon. It follows Claire Randall Fraser, a married British combat nurse who travels back in time from 1945 to 1743 during World War II. Forced to travel with a roguish group of Scottish fighters, Claire falls in love with the young and handsome Jamie. Caught between two men and two different epochs, Claire must choose between the past and present again and again.
This searingly sexy novel is also a popular (and very steamy!) television series filmed in historically accurate locations in Scotland, England, and the United States.
8. Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier
"Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again." If you don't know those words by heart, you will after reading Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier. This tour de force of romantic suspense is a must-read if you like twisty plots, shocking secrets, and gorgeous/creepy settings (think an old English mansion by the sea). Throw in a mysterious, handsome male character and a scheming housekeeper, and you've got a classic romance novel you won't be able to put down.
Told in flashback, Rebecca recounts the tale of a nameless narrator and her quick marriage to an older stranger, Maxim de Winter. Their happy courtship descends into darkness after they return to Maxim de Winter's home in England, where his previous wife, Rebecca, once lived. Getting goosebumps already? Just wait until you read the last page.
9. Delta of Venus by Anaïs Nin
Scandalous in its day, this collection of 15 retro erotica stories is as addictively readable now as it was when it was written in the 1940s. Delta of Venus combines unusual scenarios and lyrical language to create a sexy literary page-turner. Nin's feminist point of view informs each story, and feels fresh and empowering. This is a great collection to keep by your bedside and read again and again.
10. Call Me By Your Name by André Aciman
Set in Italy during a hot, sultry summer, Call Me By Your Name tells the story of a young man's infatuation with the lodger at his family's home. With prose that feels honest and tender, Aciman explores Elio and Oliver's love affair from its early, awkward beginnings to its passionate crescendo as the months continue.
Already a classic of LGBT + literature, Call Me By Your Name was made into a critically acclaimed film and spawned a sequel entitled Find Me.