At first I thought naming my top ten favourite romantic novels would be easy…but then I began to ponder what exactly constitutes one. For after all, love in its various forms plays an important part in most of the greatest fiction written, though it isn’t always central to it (and in the classics a lot of it is somewhat dismal and doomed). Perhaps that’s the key: a relationship should run through the whole book like the letters through a stick of rock, to truly be called a romantic novel?
But does it matter what form this love affair takes? For instance, can I include Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, when the great love affair is that of Scarlett for Tara, the family home? Or Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, a coming-of-age novel where the heroine mainly observes the romantic progress of her sister?
I think I can: or at least, I will. My selection will be a very personal ragbag of those books I find romantic and have kept on my shelves to read over and over again, even if they would be classed in another genre. Some will not surprise you, but one or two just might and, as you will find, I’m going to take a couple of liberties.
I have to put Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice here at the top of the list: this small, perfect, precious gem of sarcastic wit and acute observation. Because of the chemistry she creates between her two main protagonists, Elizabeth and Darcy, it’s one of the sexiest novels you could possibly read – yet they never actually touch each other, except when dancing. Recent authors whose books read like the instruction manual to some kind of plastic snap-together kit containing anatomically correct male and female body parts, could well learn something from this.
Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights is, of course, a doomed love affair between Heathcliff and Catherine, and despite neither of them being remotely nice or likeable characters, we still want the happy ending that is clearly impossible. If you’ve ever been up on the moors above Haworth in winter, it’s all too easy to imagine them both still out there, searching for each other…with the added bonus of having Kate Bush singing in my head as the soundtrack.
Now, this one is a cheat, because it’s a whole series of big chunky novels by Dorothy Dunnett and you need to read all of them. They follow the occasionally entwined lives of Francis Crawford and a young English girl, Philippa – this is a slow burning love affair in the extreme. The novels take you on a journey through a 16th century world of such complexity and richness that when you get to the end and look up, all the colour and life will have been sucked out of the world around you. The romantic element is like a fine silk thread woven throughout this tapestry and you have no idea until the very last pages which way it will all end.
Georgette Heyer's Cotillion – I could fill up the list with Georgette Heyer’s Regency novels – but not her other historicals, which are clunkers. This is my favourite, though I adore them all for their wit, sparkle and romantic comedy. We grow to love Freddie, who is a likeable and surprisingly resourceful young man of a P G Wodehouse persuasion and so, eventually, does misguided Kitty… once she’s helped that comic creation of genius, Lord Dolphinton, to escape from his dragon of a Mama.
Mary Stewart's Nine Coaches Waiting. I could fill the list with the novels of Mary Stewart, too. Her books are of their time, often set in exotic (for the post war years) locations like the south of France, but her heroines are in control of their destinies and the novels are written from their viewpoints. We used to call this type of novel 'Women in Jeopardy' and they were hugely popular (they still are, though publishers like to tell us differently), but no one came close to Mary Stuart. If you want the flawed, bad-boy, hugely attractive hero and the quiet heroine who is clearly going to twist him around her little finger in the end, then Nine Coaches Waiting has those in spades: it’s an exciting and scary ride.
Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind. As I said in my introduction, the great love affair here is that of Scarlett for Tara, the family home. The heroine is even less likeable than Catherine in Wuthering Heights, yet soon we are rooting for her despite our horror at some of the things she does to attempt to get what she wants. As to Rhett Butler, I don’t think a leopard can change his spots, but his character is redeemed by his love for his daughter, tragic though the outcome is.
Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle is a coming-of-age novel where the adolescent heroine mainly observes the romantic progress of her sister, though also examining her own budding romantic feelings. It’s funny and quirky – and you could call it the portrait of the writer as a young woman, too. The opening line is a classic: "I write this sitting in the kitchen sink."
Leah Fleming's The Captain’s Daughter. There is more than one love story in this huge and sweeping novel and more than one kind of love, as the stories of several families are entwined over the years. To say a novel took you on a journey is somewhat of a cliché, but this one certainly did, and a mystery tour at that, since I found it impossible to guess where we were going until we got there. It’s a lovely novel, a worthy winner of the Rome Prize, and I often find myself thinking about the characters in it as if they were real people I’d met. I know I’ll be visiting them again soon.
Barbara Taylor Bradford's A Woman of Substance. It must be over 30 years since the rags-to-riches saga of Emma Harte was first published, a trail-blazer of its time, and it’s still as gripping (and bestselling) as ever.
M. M. Kaye's Death in Zanzibar. I know what you’re thinking: didn’t she mean to put The Far Pavilions? Well, no, because although I enjoyed that book, the novels of M. M. Kaye that I actually read over and over are her Women in Jeopardy ones and, if I have to name a favourite, it’s this one. Auberon Waugh described it as ‘Agatha Christie with a touch of romantic suspense’, though I would say there’s more than a touch of romance in it.
Another liberty here, since I’m finishing with a play and not a novel: Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare. Like I Capture the Castle, it’s about first love, though it all goes horribly pear-shaped at the end. But the language is beautiful and it has inspired wonderful ballets and West Side Story among other things. And yes, there is a soundtrack in my head to this one, too, by Dire Straits.
Trisha Ashley's latest book is Wish Upon a Star, out now, published by Avon.