For a compelling and edifying story about love and marriage it seems that the 19th century English novel is still hard to beat. In our reader survey of great romantic novels, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was top of the pops with a dozen votes, and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre came in next with five.
The universal resonance of these two great novels of (female) character after 200 years – at least with mature readers – marks them as classics. Like other novels of the Victorian era (Austen and the Brontes strictly speaking belong to the Regency period), including Middlemarch and Anna Karenina, their popularity has been helped by film versions, as novels increasingly are.
The latter works – by George Eliot and Tolstoy – focus on marital unhappiness, and in the case of Anna, tragedy. At the same time, and especially in Tolstoy, a model of the sound and happy marriage is provided, which justifies including them here. In a similar way Kristin Lavransdatter (three mentions), an early twentieth century work by the Norwegian writer Sigrid Undset, finds the heroine redeeming her mistakes, so that the Christian moral framework remains intact.
In the later twentieth century the moral landscape becomes more varied, and the heroic figure gives way to ordinary characters, often in extraordinary circumstances, who are easier to relate to and heroic in their own way. The sheer quantity of these stories today means the submissions about contemporary novels cover a broad canvas.
About 40 individual titles were nominated by readers. Some were books in which a romance was more of a plot device than a subject in itself, as in some historical novels, so we have excluded those. A few were about non-fiction works which seem to have particular merit and we have included some of those. Here is our selection. Thanks to those who participated, and to all and sundry, let us know of any other inspirations.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Surprise events, characters who develop as human beings, and values that reflect my own – these things make for a great read. (Edwin Svigals, New York City)
The characters are very well crafted and makes the story believable. They evolve as “life” shapes them and I was captivated as events unfolded. (Alet Fick, Pretoria, South Africa)
Deals with issues of morality, manners, family conflict without vulgarity or political correctness. (Rose Marie Loria, Canada)
True equality of the man and woman in virtue education. (Susan Hanssen, Texas)
Difference is the key to true romance, and P&P is a light-hearted antidote to the modern obsession with sameness, whether via same-sex marriage or online dating agencies that promise their customers a partner most closely resembling them. (Ann Farmer, England)
Socio-economic status is not the most essential factor for the choice of a lifetime partner, but rather the firm commitment to marriage. The novel also shows the importance of independent thinking for the man and the woman. (Jovi Clemente Dacanay, Philippines)
Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, and Sense and Sensibility have strong principled heroines who attract their eventual spouse by their human virtues and not compromising themselves or their values. As a counterpoint we see the unenviable fate of those who do. (Cathy Bosotti, Australia)
It will make you change your perspective about a book traditionally related to women. I attended a conference where the speaker suggested it, especially for men. I read it and really liked it. It shows the power of marriage and love for changing lives. (Alejandro B, Nicaragua)
The Betrothed (Il Promessi Sposi) by Alessandro Manzoni
This famous tale of 17th century Milan begins on what should be the wedding day of two ordinary young village people, and comes to an end after they are finally wedded — going on for two years later. is a marvellous combination of history, adventure, tragedy, humour and social commentary — all in aid of a pure love whose course surely does not run smooth, but which survives all obstacles, thanks to help from above. (C. Moynihan, New Zealand)
Anna Karenina, By Leo Tolstoy
I hasten to say I am not recommending this book because of its main story-line, which is about Anna Karenina’s unhappy romantic life, but because of its “sub-plot” — the story of Kitty and Levin, a young couple who come to learn through sorrow, separation and mutual misunderstanding what love, betrothal, marriage and family life are really about. (Francis Phillips, UK)
Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte
Jane Eyre makes moral, Christian choices even in the midst of strong passions. She says she must do right even when her feelings are being swayed in the opposite direction. (Rhonda, Alabama)
Teaches about the respect for marriage and need for sacrifice/self-denial in the name of love. (June Kiari, Kenya)
Jane is such a down-to-earth heroine. She has no pretensions, but she is an intelligent and passionate woman with a great sense of what is moral and ethical. The romance between Jane and Edmund Rochester is intense, sensual, yet restrained. Jane always maintains decorum. (Gina Nakagawa, USA)
It is about learning to be happy maintaining your integrity (Luisa, Italy)
Middlemarch, A study of Provincial Life, by George Eliot
“Marriage,” says the heroine of this great English novel, “is so unlike everything else.” For Dorothea Brooke it was certainly not like the high vocation she expected when she fell in love with a clergyman-scholar who turned out to be a dry old pedant. A disappointed soul-mate marriage? The two unsuccessful marriages at the heart of the novel have a lot to teach us about false approaches to this vocation, but there is one (between Mary Garth and Fred Vincy) that suggests the path to real happiness in marriage is less idealism, more knowledge and a sober assessment of the other’s character. (C Moynihan, NZ)
North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell
The importance that the man and the woman know each other, through and through, before they get married, even if love at first sight made them romantic partners. The novel also shows the importance of hard work and manliness for the man, and, wisdom, clemency and affection for the woman. (Jovi Clemente Dacanay, Philippines)
Early twentieth century fiction
East Wind: West Wind, by Pearl S. Buck
This book shows in a beautiful way how marriage in the West (based on Christian ideas) results in an optimal respect for women and in equal dignity. It compares the view of the wife in marriage in China ‘the East’ with that in ‘the West’. (Enrique Alonso de Velasco, Amsterdam)
Kristin Lavransdatter, by Sigrid Undset
It’s the story of one woman’s entire life flowing from her earliest decisions about love and marriage. Tremendously insightful morally, spiritually and psychologically, combined with one of the best and most vivid description of life in the Middle Ages. (Leslie Tomory, Montreal)
Everyone who imagines themselves “in love” should read it! (Mary Long, Melbourne)
All other love is merely a reflection of the heavens in the puddle of a muddy road. You will become sullied too if you allow yourself to sink into it. But if you always remember that it’s a reflection of the light from that other home, then you will rejoice at its beauty and take good care that you do not destroy it by churning up the mire at the bottom. (Carlos A. Lanz, Venezuela)
Late twentieth century fiction
The Ordinary Princess, by M.M.Kaye.
A book like this a rare find – this wonderful story sends a message to find beauty in the ordinary and that real love is based on friendship. (Ella, Sydney)
Hannah Coulter, Wendell Berry
It is about a lasting, loving marriage that provides lifelong fulfilment for husband and wife despite the difficulties. (George Thomas, Australia)
Papa Martel, by Gerard Robichaud
My wife and I both read this many years ago and it gave us great joy in raising our family. I loved Papa Martel, the character, the focus of a warm, humorous tale of French emigres in Maine, 1919 to 1937, struggling to reconcile their Franco culture with the desire to become American. (John, New Zealand)
The Awakening of Miss Prim, by Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera
This novel demonstrates that love is more than just physical attraction – that both the intellect and the will play a role – and that unity of faith strengthens a relationship. (Jennifer Minicus, USA)
Redeeming Love, by Francine Rivers.
Everyone wants to be faithfully loved and everyone wants to love faithfully. This book portrays the difficulty of both in a page-turner that draws you in and gives true hope. (Nic, Texas)
High Divide, by Lin Enger
This near-tragedy witnesses to the role of communication in marriage, as well as to the promise of redemption. It is a beautifully written story depicting the essence of family. (Cheryl Roller, USA)
City of Tranquil Light, by Bo Caldwell.
Two young people, setting out on a church mission to China at the beginning of the 20th century, discover in their unexpected love for each other God’s love which transforms their lives and gives them the strength and courage to meet the challenges of life in revolutionary China and life in their declining years in the USA. (Rev. Ronald C Chochol, Missouri)
Range of Motion, by Elizabeth Berg.
A young wife’s commitment to her comatose husband, injured in a freak accident, shows how she applies her imagination and deep empathy in a seemingly hopeless situation. Conveyed with humour as well as compassion. (Janet Tabinski, London)
A Suitable Boy, by Vikram Seth
It’s subject is ostensibly one mother’s search for a good husband for her daughter but it portrays marriages good and bad, faithful and marred by adultery, long-suffering, punctuated by the heartbreak of loss, redeemed by simple human goodness. (Eamonn Gaines, Northern Ireland, UK)
Crossing to Safety, by Wallace Stegner
Iconic, subtle and astounding novel about marriage and friendship. It leaves you longing not just for a marriage that survives through thick and thin, but for the deep and lasting friendships that couples form with one another as they navigate the realities of life. Not a storybook romance, but an authentic portrayal of marriage at its best and worst — “until death…” (Kathryn Kime, Virginia, USA)
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachael Joyce
It is not so much a novel that exemplifies marital bliss but one that reveals the pitfalls that can be avoided if there is good communication and clear goals in marriage. Also, it is a nice example of how joy in a marriage can be rekindled despite years of difficulties. (Charlotte, Italy)
What Alice Forgot, by Liane Moriarty
A thirty something woman currently on the verge of divorce has an accident which causes temporary amnesia such that she remembers only what happened 10 years before & the dreams & plans she & her much cherished husband were making for their eagerly awaited firstborn & themselves. How did things go so wrong in the meantime? Very touching & often very amusing tale for our times by an insightful Australian author. (Cathy Bosotti, Australia)
16 Marriages That Made History, by Gerard Castillo
Although these persons are usually remembered for their extraordinary gifts and accomplishments, this book honours how their marriages transformed them in deep and personal ways. Beautiful insight into God’s plan for life and love! (Kathy Poiron, Milwaukee)
The author writes about 16 couples from Prisca and Aquila to Marie Curie, Tolkien, etc. and shows what marriage is all about and how those couples succeeded; the importance of respect and admiration for the spouse in a couple, etc. (Marie Melgarejo, Vancouver)
By Love Refined: Letters to a Young Bride, by Alice van Hildebrand
Although not a novel, this book is a must read for any newly-married woman as she faces the challenge of beginning a life with her husband. (Jennifer Minicus, USA)
My Dearest Friend: Letters of Abigail and John Adams, Edited by Margaret Hogan
Letters by the two hidden but true shapers of the American Constitution concern the domestic life of the family as well as the good of the newly-formed USA. This couple is so admirable in the respect for and trust in one another that comes through in every letter; the love between them was tried by war, hardship, death, betrayal, and disappointment, yet love and honour prevailed. I heartily recommend it. (Ruth Lasseter, Granger Indiana, USA)
The Vow: The Kim and Krickitt Carpenter Story, by Kim Carpenter
An inspirational story of a recently married couple who get into a serious car accident. The wife is in a coma for weeks, but when she finally wakes up, she doesn’t remember anything about her husband. So they have to build up their relationship again from scratch. With many difficulties along the way of course. It’s a beautiful story about the value of the commitment they made to each other and about what it means to love another person for better or for worse. (Alex, Finland)