Reading about Romance

Once upon a time there was a little girl who loved stories and fairytales.  She discovered Andrew Lang’s colored fairy books and read through them—pretty colors first and not-so-pretty colors (like olive!) later.  She had a peculiarity though,she only read the stories with princes or princesses.  And, she felt cheated if there wasn’t a romance.  (And very cheated if the romance ended in tragedy.)

I was that little girl.  As I grew up, my love of stories grew, too.  The winter I turned 12, my mother checked a book out from the library.  I remember inspecting the cover, intrigued.  Since Mom loved the book, I listened to the audio version.  And so I met Jane Austen and the Bennet family.  Now, when asked my favorite books—let alone romances!—Jane Austen’s classics are at the top of my list.  What is it about her books that make them such good romances?  Here are a few thoughts.

  • Her stories are fairytales come to life since the England of Jane Austen seems almost as remote as fairyland.  While fairytales introduce standard romance, Jane Austen brings the wonder of romance into everyday life.
  • Each of her heroines is different.  Lizzie Bennet is vivacious, Elinor Dashwood is quiet, Emma is outspoken, Anne is understanding.  No matter your personality, you can find a heroine whom you understand—a heroine who is even a little like you.
  • Beautiful, intelligent women are valued, appreciated, and pursued by upstanding men.  Interestingly, love in Jane Austen never happens at first sight; it’s gradual.  In a culture where men have often abdicated responsibility, it is refreshing to read a romance where men and women take traditional roles.

When romance is considered as a separate genre, Jane Austen always comes in first.  But other genres often contain strong romantic storylines.  In fact, some of my favorite love stories occur in mysteries, such as Ellis Peters’ medieval mysteries set in 12th century England.  Brother Cadfael is a crusader turned monk and when not tending the abbey’s herb garden, his keen eye for detail often involves him in mysteries.  Each mystery, in turn, features a romantic subplot.  While the books don’t need to be read in order, some of the earlier ones such as A Morbid Taste for Bones and One Corpse too Many are great places to start.  (And there are some great audiobook versions of Brother Cadfael!)       

Dorothy Sayers, however, has written one of my favorite literary romances, between Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane.  Lord Peter Wimsey is a British aristocrat with the embarrassing hobby (in his family’s opinion) of detecting.  Readers—and Lord Peter—meet Harriet Vane in Strong Poison, when the young writer is accused of murder.  Harriet appears again in Have His Carcass.  Then, in Gaudy Night, she becomes the main character.  Gaudy Night is my personal favorite, especially since the romance moves closer to front stage with the mystery receding.  As Peter and Harriet’s characters are developed throughout the books, it is evident that Peter loves and values Harriet for her intellect and character, and not her appearance (which is rather plain).  Busman’s Holiday, originally a play, provides another glimpse of Harriet and Peter while they have a cameo appearance in “Talboys”—incidentally my favorite among Sayers’ short stories.

For laughing at love, in the comic genre, P. G. Wodehouse is a gem.  Yet still, beneath the laughter is the fun, exciting formula: boy and girl fall in love, difficulties (usually in the form of draconic aunts) arise and are overcome.  If not in the mood for this massive collection, try the Blandings Castle series, or Wodehouse’s novella, “A Damsel in Distress.”

Moving beyond mysteries to the broader realm of fiction presents a plethora of books that include romance.  Within historical fiction, we have already reviewed and mentioned my favorite historical romance, Mara, Daughter of the Nile (as well as Perilous Gard, a great Elizabethan-esque adventure and romance).  One more favorite that falls within historical fiction is Rifles for Watie by Harold Keith, an excellent Civil War novel.  While it has enough action to engage boys, it also has a sweet  romance.  Jefferson Davis Busie is, despite his name, a loyal Union soldier, determined to fight for his country and his beliefs. This book can help readers understand that the Civil War was much more than a fight about slavery, and the audio version is excellent also.

The following books could almost be considered historical fiction because of their settings, but due to their lack of historical circumstances and emphasis on story, I’m going to label them as general fiction.

  • Keeper of the Bees by Gene Stratton Porter

Known to Living Book lovers, Porter has some wonderful stories involving romance.  We’ve written about Freckles and Girl of the Limberlost here, but we haven’t mentioned Keeper of the Bees.  A young man, back from WWI and battling a life-threatening illness, happens upon an old man in trouble.  The old man’s last words before collapsing are “Keep my bees.”  And so begins a tale of healing, self-discovery, and romance.

  • They Loved to Laugh by Kathryn Worth

True to its title, this book is full of laughter as well as a nice dose of love.  After her parents die, quiet Martitia Howland is taken in by a Quaker family.  At first overwhelmed, she begins to come into her own and is noticed by not one, but two of the older brothers.  If my memory serves, this is based on a true story, but regardless, it is a wonderful, sweet romance.

  • Emily of Deep Valley by Maud Hart Lovelace

Lovers of Betsy, Tacy, and Tib will recognize this author’s name!  While I’ve never read the Betsy-Tacy series, Emily of Deep Valley is a stand-alone story of one girl’s life following high school and her transition from girlhood to womanhood with some romance along the way.

  • Stepping Heavenward by Elizabeth Prentiss

This fictional journal is a Christian spiritual classic.  One of the professor’s wives at Southern Seminary has named this book as one of the most spiritually encouraging books she has ever read.  Stepping Heavenward begins as a young girl’s journal and follows her girlhood, coming of age, romance, and later life.

Whether in classics, mystery, humor, historical or general fiction, romance shares many of the same appealing elements.  Why do we love good romance in books?  Because, unlike life around us, we can read the last page and find a happy ending.

We have eternity written in our hearts.  We know that really, once upon a time, a prince came to his country in disguise, ready to give his life to win an undeserving bride.  We know that the bride, despite her faults, is loved, valued, and cherished by Him, made beautiful in His sight.

And we know, deep within us, that stories were meant to conclude with “…and they all lived happily ever after.”  As Christians, we can hold to the hope that someday that is just what each of our stories will do, and the end will be but a better beginning.  All this is romance!

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Hayley Morell

Born in a library and raised by books, or rather, raised by a book-loving family, Hayley loves talking and writing about books. She lives in the middle of Wisconsin and works with children as well as with words.

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