The romance fiction industry is older than you might think. It is unofficially credited as having developed into a specific literary genre during the English Renaissance.
Birthing a Top Romance Novel
Renaissance-period “women’s fiction” was usually written by men and those early romances were not gentle stories of pure and enduring love. Their themes generally reflected masculine attitudes towards women and plots that often incorporated harsh retributions for women’s misconduct or attitudes.
As the literacy rate of women increased, so did the popularity of romance books. Despite harsh story lines, early romance novels offered “gentlewomen” readers a certain escapist relief.
The period of the early-to-mid 1800s might be considered the “birth point” of the modern romance novel. Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë certainly were significant influencers of the genre and many of their novels remain popular nearly 200 years after their births.
Romance books of the 19thcentury evolved from being predominantly male-written and repressive in content to women-authored stories built around romance, social commentary, and (often) gothic themes of horror, suspense, and the paranormal.
Romancing the 21st Century
The style and content of romance books continued to grow through the 20th and into the 21st centuries. Traditional romance novelists like Barbara Cartland built tremendous reader followings and sales but by the mid-1970s, romance reader interests were shifting. No longer were they content with simpler, formulaic stories of romance.
Writers like Norah Roberts, LaVyrle Spencer, and Debbie Macomber began featuring heroes and heroines placed in storylines that were more grounded in the everyday. Jayne Ann Krentz was among the first futuristic romance writers; her “classic road trip romance” was set in a separate galaxy. Other writers have expanded the romance books field with sub-genres of erotica, detective/mystery, same-sex couples, modern westerns, and spiritual-themed stories.
Writers continue to romance the 21st century. Sales of romance novels have surpassed the $1 billion mark and are the largest share of the consumer book market (by 13%, as of 2013). But let’s go back to the question about what are the top romance novels?
Here are two clues:
- “You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.”
- “Reader, I married him.”
The first is from Pride and Prejudice, and the second is from Jane Eyre. Over the centuries, no other romance books have ever endured popularity like those by Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë. (Sub-genre sequels are even based on the characters from the Austen/Brontë canons.) The works of Austen and Bronte are the foundation and the inspiration for many romance writers and readers. They remain among the most popular and treasured books in literature, and the romance genre.