Romantic love is far too complex to be covered in a two-hour movie, so on this Valentine’s Day, instead of hunkering down in front of the big screen (or the little one), we recommend curling up in your favorite chair and immersing yourself in a classic novel highlighting the joy, complexities and heartbreak of a romantic relationship.
Here are five favorite classic novels that highlight the various highs and lows of romance:
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
Plain, small, and serious, the orphaned Jane Eyre endures a brutal childhood, first under the “care” of her abusive aunt then at the spartan Lowood School. Despite the almost unbearable tragedies she suffers, Jane becomes a strong, intelligent, and moral woman. Her belief in a good future for herself is evident when she finds work as the governess at Thornfield Hall. In time, she falls deeply in love with the Byronic master of Thornfield Hall, Edward Rochester. Unfortunately, Rochester—like his estate—is consumed with dark secrets, which challenge not just his relationship with Jane but also force Jane to choose between what is desired vs. what is right.
Published in 1847, Charlotte Brontë’s novel follows the form of bildungsroman novel yet also includes Gothic elements, Christian themes, and fantasy components.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë
Gossip surrounds the arrival of “Helen Graham” at the old mansion, Wildfell Hall. Who is this repressed widow? Why is she rude and dismissive to overtures of friendship from the locals? And what about that mollycoddled boy of hers who bears a resemblance to a town resident? Gilbert Markham, a twenty-four-year-old farmer, slowly draws out the secrets of the fascinating Helen. The novel, written in the form of a letter by Gilbert to a friend, follows Helen’s journey from a young girl who believes romantic love can turn a bad man into a good one to an older woman who has grown in her understanding of what love—between friends, between parents and children, between mature adults—really means.
Written by the youngest Brontë sister, Anne, this book was an immediate and phenomenal success. However, due to Charlotte’s preventing its republication, Ann is the least known of the three Brontës (the other sisters are Charlotte and Emily, author of Wuthering Heights)—though Ann’s popularity is resurging.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
The second oldest of five Bennett sisters, Elizabeth is known for her sharp wit, liveliness, and, unfortunately, hasty judgment of people (the “prejudice” in the book title). Her first impression of Mr. Darcy—the wealthy yet aloof (the “pride”) owner of the legendary Pemberley estate—at a local dance is unfavorable, and she immediately judges him based on information from the slanderous Mr. Wickham. As Mrs. Bennett strives to get her five daughters married off, Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy meet at social events and exchange barbs and insights. Their path to a romantic love is slow, for each character must overcome their great flaws of pride and prejudice.
Published in 1813, Jane Austen’s novel was well-received by both critics and the public. This novel was named the second most-loved UK book (second only to the Lord of the Rings trilogy). Myriad books have been spun off it from contemporary authors and the novel has inspired several movies.
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
A classic Gothic novel, this lyrical work explores jealousy, power, and powerlessness between married people. The unnamed narrator of the novel, the young and immature second Mrs. de Winter, tells the story of how she met and married Maxim—then how jealousy and her sense of helplessness as well as Maxim’s secrets infected their home, the world-famous Manderley estate. Maxim bears a great resemblance to Mr. Rochester of Jane Eyre, but the narrator is almost a sort of anti-Jane, lacking her fire. What makes this best-selling classic novel worth reading is the gorgeousness of the prose and the mystery surrounding the first Mrs. de Winter (the titular Rebecca).
Daphne du Maurier’s novel has been in print since its first publication in 1938. Though critics were unimpressed by its familiar storyline, the lyricism of the writing and the highly charged scenes make it a page turner and a “how not to fall in love” story.
Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare
A play makes this list of classics to balance out the heaviness of Jane Eyre and Rebecca and the button-down tension of Pride and Prejudice. In William Shakespeare’s comedy, Benedick and Beatrice banter constantly, teasing, flirting, and mocking each other to hide their true affection for one another. The plot follows the story of the characters Hero and Claudio, who openly share their love for one another until Claudio is tricked into ditching Hero at the altar. However, the love of Hero and Claudio cannot compare to that of Benedick and Beatrice, who finally recognize their mutual love as they work together to help the younger couple.
Probably written in 1598 or 1599, Shakespeare’s most loved comedy is not just bantering, but a moving story about betrayal, anger, despair, and healing.
What classic novels would you add to this list? Why? We’d love to hear your book recommendations.
Image via Anthropologie