Nothing puts us in the mood quite like an unforgettable love story. And while there are plenty of great contemporary romances available today, there’s always room on your shelf for the classics. Long before Nicholas Sparks and Fifty Shades of Grey became genre mainstays, authors like Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë were penning tales about tragic, intoxicating, head-over-heels love—and readers gobbled them up. Below you'll find the classics that started it all and defined what it means to have a happy (or not-so-happy) ever after.
Jane Eyre is the story of an orphaned girl who finds love, but it’s also so much more than that. Due to its focus on the experiences of the individual self—a feat achieved through the internal narrative voice of its heroine—the novel revolutionized the way people perceived and wrote fiction. Any time you read a romance that explores the inner thoughts of its love birds, you can thank Ms. Brontë.
The Age of Innocence
The Age of Innocence is Edith Wharton’s tragic, swoony masterpiece set in Gilded Age New York City. Complete with romantic scandal, unforgettable characters, and compelling observations on marriage, it won Wharton the Pulitzer Prize in 1921—making her the first female recipient ever.
Charlotte wasn’t the only talented writer of the Brontë brood! Her sister, Emily, was a similarly accomplished novelist—and Wuthering Heights was her claim to fame. Its blunt depictions of cruelty, and the toxic sides of love, didn't immediately win over critics. Nowadays, though, there are few fictional couples as famous as Cathy and Heathcliff. We love the novel more than we love the Kate Bush song it inspired (and that's saying something).
A Room with a View
Forster’s A Room With a View places a love story within the context of Edwardian England. It makes thoughtful critiques of the culture without becoming overwhelmingly bleak (or boring). This was no easy task, considering the era was sexually and sensually repressive, but Forster certainly succeeded.
You probably assumed that Pride and Prejudice would be on this list, but we’d like to shed light on a different Austen romance. Emma is one of the author's better-known novels, but it still lives in the shadow of Elizabeth and Darcy. Just like love—it deserves a chance!
Alcott’s novel is one of the lighter romances on this list, but it made a deep impression on the public. It’s a coming-of-age story that offers a multidimensional portrait of sisterhood, female friendship, and how women are both deserving and in need of love.
Gone With the Wind
Gone With the Wind was a sensation, but Margaret Mitchell never wrote another book after its publication. Maybe she didn’t need to—Gone With the Wind is still one of the world's most beloved love stories, thus sealing Mitchell as a legendary author. While we're huge fans of Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable's onscreen portrayals of Scarlett and Rhett, our hearts belong with the book.
Romeo and Juliet
We had no choice here—Romeo and Juliet had to be included. Shakespeare’s most famous work is a must-read (or must-see) play for any romance fan. Of course, the Bard wrote plenty of other tales featuring great love stories. If you’ve already read Romeo and Juliet—or have exhausted yourself on its thousands of modern reiterations—we recommend trying The Tempest.
Anna Karenina dates back to the era of the Russian Empire. Trapped in an unhappy marriage with an older statesman, Anna's search for love—and subsequent affair—sparks a massive scandal. It's a romantic tragedy that still pulls at the heartstrings over one hundred years after its release.
Lady Chatterly's Lover
Love is messy—and Lawrence recognized that. His novel’s descriptions of adultery, considered obscene by most, outraged readers at the time and got it removed from store shelves. Since then, it has been established as a staple of English literature, though you could argue it's also history's version of Fifty Shades.
This post originally appeared on The Reading Room.
Featured still from "Gone With the Wind" (1939), via Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer