The History of Romance Novels

For centuries, people have fallen head-over-heels for romantic stories. Historians believe the first written romantic fiction dates back to the 1st century BC in Greece, and yet the human obsession with love stories continues to grow exponentially. Romance novels in particular have been must have experiences for millions of readers over the past several decades, despite the stereotypes some believe about the genre.

The First Modern Romance Novel

In 1740, author Samuel Richardson published Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded, which is considered to be the first modern romance novel. It quickly became a bestseller and even inspired people to create plays and write “fan fiction” about the characters. Richardson’s work was unique in two major ways: it was told from the perspective of the heroine and the book had a happy ending (for the time period).

Despite its initial success, modern readers might find Pamela rather disturbing. The heroine is a servant who has to continually resist her employer’s numerous sexual advances throughout the book, which sounds more nightmarish than romantic. The novel ends when Pamela’s employer sincerely proposes to her and she no longer has to work as a servant. Not exactly a modern-day fairytale, but it did set the stage for less problematic stories to emerge.

Romance Novelists of the 1800s

During the 1800’s, the literacy rate of women increased and publishing companies and authors scrambled to create content to appeal to them; and it worked. The novels published under Minerva Press flourished until roughly 1820, “silver fork” novels prevailed from the 1820s to the 1840s, and cheaply produced yellow-back novels became common during the late 19th century. A few especially influential authors from this century include:

  • Jane Austen. Austen completed a total of six novels, including the timeless titles of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. Although these books were published in the 1810’s, they have stood the test of time and are still beloved by modern readers around the world.
  • Charlotte Brontë. Brontë is best known for her 1849 novel, Jane Eyre, but she also published three other novels and several poems before passing away at the young age of 38. Some speculate that Brontë’s romance novels were partly inspired by her unrequited love of a school headmaster.
  • Leo Tolstoy. His wildly popular novel published in 1878, Anna Karenina, details a love affair between a married woman and an army officer that continues to entrance readers to this day. It has inspired several adaptations including ballet performances, opera, television series, and other forms of media since its release.
  • Thomas Hardy. Hardy’s novels were originally met with negativity and shock from the general public when they were published in the late 1890’s. Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure were romantic novels that also acted as social commentaries, and his opinions on marriage and religion upset many within his society at the time. Today, Hardy’s novels are seen as eye-opening works of fiction that accurately depicted social hierarchies during his lifetime.

Evolution of Romance in the 1900’s

A wide variety of sub-genres were introduced to the romantic fiction genre throughout the 1900s as women fought for their rights to vote and to participate in previously male-dominated workspaces. Romance novels evolved to portray heroines working in different career fields and inspiring novelists began to push the boundaries of the genre, including:

  • Margaret Mitchell. Gone with the Wind may have been Mitchell’s only published book, but this revisionist historical romance novel about love and life in the midst of the Civil War sold over thirty million copies and earned a Pulitzer Prize in 1937.
  • Georgette Heyer. Heyer published a total of 57 bestselling novels from 1921-1975, making her one of the most influential authors of the historical romance subgenre. During her career, she wrote one thriller and one romance novel every year, which were always successful despite the fact that Heyer never once had an interview or advertised her books.
  • Kathleen Woodiwiss. Her debut novel, The Flame and the Flower, was rather controversial due to writing out sex scenes rather than alluding to them, but it was still devoured by millions of readers. Woodiwiss went on to publish 12 other bestselling novels and is considered to be one of the first authors to create the modern type of erotic romance novels.

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