A Brief History of the Romance Novel

By Amanda Pagan, Children's Librarian
February 15, 2019
Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library (SNFL)
Pride and Prejudice book cover

The modern romance novel, or mass-market romance novel as we know it today, has its origins in the romantic fiction of the 18th and 19th centuries. In novels such as Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, the gothic romances of Ann Radcliffe, and the works of Jane Austen, readers were introduced to a new form of fiction, one that primarily focused on the lives and struggles of female protagonists. Although modern romance novels have expanded to include both authors and protagonists of different genders, races, sexualities, and abilities, historically, romance novels separate themselves from other genres by being primarily written by women, for women, and about women.


Early History of Romance Novels

Early romance novels featured heterosexual, white female protagonists either defying social conventions or overcoming personal struggles in pursuit of their own happiness. The heroines of these novels eventually found the loves of their lives and ended the novels secure and happy. Any development of a romantic relationship between two (or more) people—as well as an ending that was emotionally satisfying (usually happy but not always)—became the two core guidelines that romance novels follow to this day. The term "Happily Ever After" or HEA has become an industry standard regarding how a modern romance novel is supposed to end. 

Typically, romance novels reflect the desires of their audience. Jane Austen’s novels as well as the works of the Brontë sisters (especially Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre) introduced female characters who were ultimately rewarded with succesful marriages for expressing their individuality or their own desires. For female readers tied down by social norms and conventions, these romance novels became a form of escape and inspiration.

The Romance Novel Re-Energized

Gone with the Wind book cover

In the 20th century, novels such as Georgette Heyer’s Georgian-era romance, The Black Moth (published in 1921) and Margaret Mitchell’s Civil War era epic, Gone with the Wind, (published in 1936) revitalized public interest in romance novels, especially historical fiction. While Gone with the Wind is not technically classified as a romance novel, it had a longlasting influence on the genre with many novels copying its setting, themes, characterization, etc.. 

Daphne Du Maurier’s gothic romance, Rebecca (1938) became a bestseller and invigorated the gothic romance subgenre. Gothic romance blends elements of the horror and romance genres to create thrilling, dramatic novels often featuring female protagonists battling through terrifying ordeals while struggling to be with their true loves. For more details, check out our post on the history of the gothic romance!

Authors such as Eleanor Alice Hibbert, who wrote historical fiction romance under the pseudonym Jean Plaidy, and gothic romance under the name Victoria Holt, became prolific from the 1950s on. Under different names, these women could explore and create new subgenres that would appeal to a larger audience.

Modern Changes in Modern Romance Novels

The Flame and the Flower book cover

The 1950s and 1960s saw a shift towards narratives involving exotic locations and heroines who had careers outside of the expected roles of housewife or mother. Stewardesses and nurses were popular choices. In 1970, Gordon Merrick published the first bestselling  gay romance, The Lord Won't Mind; in 1983, Gaywyck, by Vincent Virga, became the first published gay gothic romance. Queer romance novels have always existed, but they were overshadowed by the success and demand of heteronormative narratives.

Published in 1972, Kathleen E. Woodiwiss’s The Flame and the Flower introduced a new subgenre: the bodice ripper. To this point, mass-marketed romance novels featured very little sexually explicit material—Woodiwiss’s work changed that. Bodice rippers were historical fiction novels that usually featured beautiful, virginal, yet fierce and independent, women who would catch the attention of a handsome alpha male who would attempt to seduce and dominate her. Bodice rippers were notorious for featuring rape and abuse as part of the "love story" and eventually were replaced by narratives that did not promote assault or violence. Bodice rippers remain a relic of their time—however, the impact of these novels has been longlasting.

Woodiwiss was not the only author changing things up. Around this time, new female authors began publishing steamy, scandalous titles that often earned them the ire of critics as well as places on the bestsellers list. Jackie Collins, Danielle Steel, Nora Roberts, etc. pushed the envelope of what female authors could get away with and many of them are household names to this day. 

Prisoner of Desire book cover

Harlequin, a division of HarperCollins, was the first publishing house to produce romance novels directly targeting female readers. Over the years, they became known for their distinctive eye-catching covers, which usually featured lovers caught in illicit embraces or otherwise dreamy images. Other publishers also began producing steamy cover art in an effort to boost sales, which it did. In the 1980s and 1990s, Italian-American model Fabio Lanzoni became a cover model for dozens of romance novels, and literally changed the face of the genre forever.

The Romance Novel in the 2000s

Night Song book cover

Within the last 20 years, there has been a steady shift towards novels that more accurately reflect the diversity of their readership. Books such as Helen Hoang’s The Kiss Quotient, Alyssa Cole’s An Extraordinary Union, and Vanessa North’s Roller Girl, have added much needed representation to the genre. This is not to discredit the work of pioneers such as Beverly Jenkins, who has been writing historical fiction romance featuring African American protagonists since her debut novel, Night Song, in 1994. Readers are simply demanding more representation and inclusivity within their romance novels, and many authors have taken up the calling. 

Modern romance novels may have adopted to a modern audience, but they continue to offer up the same feisty leads, torrid love affairs, and dreamy adventures that made them popular to begin with. So whether you’re a long-time romance novel veteran or a tentative newbie, enjoy this list of recommended titles that are sure to thrill your wildest fantasies! (Summaries adapted from the publishers.)