Researching the genre's family tree, Sherri Skanes explores ten historic works of
literature that paved the way for modern day romance novels...
With lazy summer evenings upon us, I like nothing better than to curl up on my wicker porch swing and escape into a good novel. Of course I prefer romance, preferably with historic settings and feisty, intelligent characters. I usually imagine myself as the heroine, and sometimes plot her heritage—whether or not the author has supplied the information. I can’t help it. I was trained as a herald and genealogist for an international position I had years ago, and it is forever stuck in my brain. Add that to an over-active imagination, and you end up with questions like, “What was Elizabeth Bennet’s favorite book?” and, “How did her heritage influence her taste in literature?”
As much as I love to read, it took me by surprise to learn the romance genre as it is known today is only about 45 years old. In my head I quickly counted off works I considered to be of that genre, including Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice. Surely she started the whole thing, right? Wrong. And thus began my journey into the ancestry of romance novels. Pedigree chart in hand, I dove down the Google rabbit hole in search of history’s most romantic tales.
Of course if you go back far enough in Western civilization, the average person couldn’t read. Before the Reformation, only clergy were deemed intelligent enough to cope with the written word. It might have spread ideas—er, poison throughout the masses. Oral stories, however, were an extremely important part of people’s lives, well, since the beginning of time. They provided both entertainment and the preservation of history. Later the Greeks introduced stories as plays, which often carried a commentary on life itself, both comedy and tragedy. There are five romance themed written works by the Greeks known to have survived to the present day in various states of near-completion: Chareas and Callirhoe, Leucippe and Clitophon, Daphnis and Chloe, The Ephesian Tale, and The Ethiopian Tale.
By the 16th century, Shakespeare was carrying the torch for romance in many of his plays. The star-crossed lovers of Romeo and Juliet have lived many lives in many eras, their influence so obviously apparent in modern works like West Side Story and Twilight.
In the mid-18th century we finally find what most experts feel is the first actual romance novel. Published in 1740, Pamela by Samuel Richardson (also known as Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded) is the tale of a beautiful young maid-servant being sexually preyed upon by her land-owner master. Young Pamela holds fast to her morals and virtue and eventually her master offers her a legitimate marriage proposal. This narrative contains the primary hallmark of a true romance novel: it revolves around two people as they develop romantic love and build a relationship. Here is where literature fully explores romance for the first time. It’s number one of my Top Ten Major Influences on the modern romance genre.
As we enter the 19th century this theme picks up steam. Jane Austen threw her hat into the ring, though because she was a woman, her books were published anonymously. Sense and Sensibility burst on the scene in 1811, followed up by Pride and Prejudice in 1813. Her first novel was credited as being written "By a Lady” while her second played upon the success of it’s predecessor and was billed as written “By the author of Sense and Sensibility”.
Charlotte and Emily Bronte each gave us classics in 1847. Charlotte’s Jane Eyre and Emily’s Wuthering Heights are now widely regarded as literary masterpieces, but their initial reception was controversial. Both books challenged strict Victorian ideals. The Bronte sisters (Charlotte, Emily, and Anne) were also initially deprived of authorship credit, and they were published under the male pseudonyms Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell.
Published in 1856, Madame Bovary was the debut work of France’s Gustave Flaubert. While it lacks the “happily ever after” conclusion required of modern romance novels, it begins to develop the steamier side of the genre. Flaubert was actually prosecuted for “obscenity” after an excerpt appeared in La Revue de Paris. He was acquitted, and when the book was finally published it became an instant bestseller.
By the end of the 19th century it becomes apparent that people all over the world were looking for love, romance and passion in their good reads. Russian author Leo Tolstoy became familiar to Western readers with his ground-breaking novel War and Peace. But honestly, have any of you ever read the whole thing? His second novel, Anna Karenina, dove into the realism of fidelity, carnal desire, passion, marriage, jealousy and hypocrisy. Though not quite in line with the modern romance requirements, its international appeal was an intrinsic contribution to the defining of the genre.
The new millennium brought new technology to the game. The Sheik, a 1919 novel by Edith Maude Hull, was almost immediately turned into a “motion picture”. Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel Gone With The Wind was also snatched up by Hollywood upon its debut. While The Sheik’s script was fairly faithful to the book, Gone With The Wind was not. If any of you are familiar with this story solely from the movie, I urge you to read the book. The character depth and development is much deeper and questions left unanswered in the movie are fully explained in the text. The plot is slightly different as well. One of my greatest treasures is a first edition of this wonderful novel!
Hollywood also feasted on Doctor Zhivago. This 1957 work by the internationally published Russian author, Boris Pasternak, is a highly complicated story written in a complicated style. What sets it apart is that the Hollywood adaptation made it easier to understand and appreciate the romance and love story within it’s twisted plot, and for the first time a movie brought readers to a book.
Published in the years prior to the last two books I mentioned was a lesser-known novel called The Black Moth. Though it doesn’t have the fame of the other works on this list, it is a milestone worthy of mention. Georgette Heyer's 1921 novel was the first historical romance to be a commercial success. Set in the Georgian era, it has all the defining elements of a true modern romance novel. I have not read this piece, but I assure you it is the first one from this list I am going to pursue. I can picture myself on my porch swing, reading of Lady Diana Beauleigh’s love for the scoundrel Jack, and wondering of her possible connection to the Beaulieu family and their French ancestors…
What great works of literature are the ancestors of your favorite romance novel? We'd love to hear from you here or on social media using #RomanceAncestry.