Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

In 2020, romance novels accounted for 24% of all print books sold, making them the most popular genre in the publishing world.

That number climbed to 27% in 2021, with romance fiction representing 2.3 billion USD in sales.

How has the evolution of the romance genre throughout history contributed to its current popularity and commercial success?

In this article, I will take you on a journey through the history of romance literature, exploring its origins, evolution, and impact on popular culture.

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What is Romance Literature?

Romance literature is a genre that focuses on the complexities of romantic relationships, often highlighting themes of love, passion, and emotional connection.

It typically involves a plot around two characters falling in love and overcoming obstacles to be together. These narratives, which can be heartwarming and heart-wrenching, have captivated readers for centuries.

Over time, the genre has developed and adapted to reflect societal and cultural values shifts. From chivalric romances in the medieval era to modern-day romantic comedies, romance literature caters to all audiences.

Romance Novels History

Origins of Romance novels

The history of romantic fiction spans thousands of years, dating back to ancient cultures. Throughout the centuries, the genre has evolved and adapted to the changing times, giving rise to numerous subgenres and themes.

Examining the history of romance literature allows us to understand its impact on society, how it has shaped our ideas of love and relationships, and its significance in the literary world.

We can trace the ancient roots of romance literature to the love poems and myths of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Greece. For example, the Sumerian tale of Inanna and Dumuzi is one of the earliest known love stories.

Chivalric romance emerged as a distinct genre during the medieval era, blending courtly love, chivalry, and adventure elements. Key works from this period include Tristan and IseultLancelot, the Knight of the Cart, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

Romance Novel History

Chivalric romances were popular among aristocrats and the upper classes during this time. These romances typically involved a knight or nobleman who goes on a quest to win the love of a lady. The stories were often full of adventure and danger, with the protagonist fighting to protect his lady love.

The Renaissance saw a renewed interest in courtly love, which idealized the passionate and unattainable love between a knight and a noblewoman. Notable works In English from this period include Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene and Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella.

The emergence of the novel in the 18th century provided a new platform for romance literature, allowing for longer and more complex narratives that delved deeper into characters’ emotional lives.

Some key romantic novelists from this period include Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and, in the 19th century, Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.

In the 20th century, romance books continued to evolve, with authors like D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf exploring themes of sexuality and gender roles. The genre also saw the emergence of popular romance novels, such as Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell and The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller.

Romance Novel History

Along with authors, Mills & Boon, a prolific publisher of romance novels, significantly influenced the genre in the 20th century. Producing accessible and formulaic stories, they popularized romance literature, created a loyal readership, and established market trends that shaped the industry for decades.

Popular Romance novel Subgenres

Romance literature has evolved to encompass various subgenres with unique themes, settings, and character types. In this section, we explore the most popular of these subgenres.

  • Historical romance is set in the past, often incorporating actual historical events and figures to create a rich, immersive experience for the reader. Examples include Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander serires
  • Gothic romance combines elements of romance and horror, often featuring dark, brooding settings and mysterious, supernatural events. Classic examples include Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho and Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca.
  • Regency romance is set during the British Regency period (1811-1820) and often features aristocratic characters, elegant settings, and witty banter. Georgette Heyer is a notable author in this subgenre.
  • Contemporary romance is set today and typically focuses on the characters’ emotional journey as they navigate modern love and relationships. Examples include Nora Roberts, Danielle Steel, and Colleen Hoover.
  • Paranormal romance blends elements of romance with supernatural themes, featuring otherworldly creatures such as vampires, werewolves, and witches. Popular paranormal or fantasy romance authors include Charlaine Harris, J.R. Ward, and Stephenie Meyer.

The Evolution of Romance Themes

The Evolution of Romance Themes

Over time, romance literature has explored various aspects of love, including unrequited love, forbidden love, and love that transcends societal boundaries. These narratives often challenge conventional ideas of love and relationships.

The portrayal of gender and sexuality in romance literature has evolved significantly, with modern works exploring themes such as LGBTQ+ relationships, gender fluidity, and non-traditional relationship dynamics.

Happy endings are a hallmark of romance literature, offering readers hope and satisfaction. This convention remains popular, even as authors experiment with unconventional narrative structures and themes.

The Influence of Romance Novels

Romance novels have significantly impacted society, shaping our thoughts about love, relationships, and gender roles. Critics argue that the genre perpetuates unrealistic expectations of romance, but it has also been praised for empowering women and providing an escape from everyday life.

Romantic stories have left an indelible mark on popular culture, inspiring countless films, television shows, and other creative works. Examples include the film adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels and the television series “Outlander.”

Romantic fiction continues influencing popular culture, with books like Fifty Shades of Grey and Twilight inspiring films and merchandise. The genre has also expanded to include subgenres like LGBTQ+ romance, paranormal romance, and Christian romance, reflecting readers’ diversity and interests.

Romantic fiction has also influenced other genres, with elements of romantic relationships and themes of love appearing in science fiction, fantasy, and mystery novels.

Romance Novel History

Controversies in Romance Literature

The romance genre has faced criticism for being formulaic, escapist, and lacking literary merit. However, many argue that the genre’s focus on emotional connection and character development makes it a valuable and enjoyable form of literature.

Critics of the romance genre have long accused it of perpetuating misogyny and reinforcing traditional gender roles. This is mainly because many works in the genre romanticize relationships often characterized by unhealthy, toxic dynamics. Through these depictions, authors perpetuate outdated ideas about women’s roles in relationships and their place in society.

Feminist literary criticism has often examined romance literature, exploring its portrayal of gender roles, relationships, and female empowerment. This examination has led to the developing of more inclusive and diverse narratives within the genre.

Historically, critics have criticized romantic fiction for its lack of racial and ethnic diversity. However, recent years have seen an increase in diverse voices and stories, including works by authors like Beverly Jenkins, Alyssa Cole, and Helen Hoang.

Romance Literature in the Digital Age

The digital age has revolutionized romance fiction, with ebooks, self-publishing, and online platforms enabling authors to reach a wider audience and diversify the genre.

Online communities, such as Goodreads, Romance Writers of America, and fanfiction websites, have provided a space for romance readers and writers to connect, share, and discuss their favorite works.

The future of romance literature looks promising, with new voices, subgenres, and digital platforms continuing to shape and expand the genre.

Five novels from the 21st century

Here are five 21st-century romance novels that showcase modern love, diverse characters, and unique storylines guaranteed to steal your heart and sweep you off your feet. Click on the tabs below to see a summary of each book:

Fifty Shades of Grey, by E.L. James (2011)

Subgenre: Erotic Romance

Themes: BDSM, Love, and Self-discovery.

Summary: College student Anastasia Steele encounters the enigmatic billionaire Christian Grey, sparking a passionate affair that explores the boundaries of their desires, the complexities of love, and the importance of emotional growth. 

Twilight, by Stephenie Meyer (2005)

Subgenre: Paranormal Romance

Themes: Forbidden Love, Self-acceptance, and Sacrifice.

Summary: High school student Bella Swan falls in love with the mysterious Edward Cullen, only to discover he’s a vampire. Together, they navigate the perils of supernatural forces and the challenges of a love that transcends human limitations.

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes (2012)

Subgenre: Contemporary Romance

Themes: Disability, Love, and Personal Growth.

Summary: When Louisa Clark becomes a caregiver for the paralyzed Will Traynor, their lives transform. Their unexpected romance confronts the difficulties of disability, challenging them to redefine love, happiness, and the meaning of a fulfilling life.

Title: It Ends With Us, by Colleen Hoover (2016)

Subgenre: Contemporary Romance

Themes: Love, Abuse, Personal Growth.

Summary: Lily, a young woman, is caught in a complex love triangle with her charming new boyfriend Ryle, and her first love, Atlas. As she confronts her troubled past and difficult present, Lily must make life-altering decisions to protect her well-being and determine love’s true meaning.

Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon (1991-2021)

Subgenre: Time-Travel Romance

Themes: Love, Loyalty, and Identity.

Summary: When World War II nurse Claire Randall is transported back to 18th-century Scotland, she encounters the dashing Highland warrior Jamie Fraser. As their passionate love story unfolds, they navigate the perils of a dangerous time, testing the strength of their bond and their sense of self.

Conclusion

From its earliest beginnings to its present-day forms, romance literature has undergone significant transformations, adapting to the changing times and reflecting society’s evolving attitudes towards love and relationships.

This kind of fiction remains an essential and influential genre, offering insights into human connection, emotion, and the complexities of love.

For those interested in delving further into this rich genre, consider reading works from various periods and subgenres to understand its evolution and impact comprehensively. 

FAQ

Romance novels have evolved by incorporating diverse characters, addressing various themes, and reflecting societal changes. They now encompass various subgenres, from historical to paranormal, showcasing different cultural perspectives and relationship dynamics.

Romance novels are rooted in ancient civilizations like Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Greece, where love poems and stories were a significant part of their culture. These tales laid the foundation for the development of romantic literature.

Often considered the first modern romance novel, "Pamela" by Samuel Richardson, published in 1740, sparked a new trend in literature, focusing on love, courtship, and the emotions of its protagonists.

Romance novels typically emphasize love, emotional relationships, and a journey toward a satisfying, optimistic ending. They often involve character growth, strong emotional connections, and overcoming obstacles for love.

Romance novels serve to entertain, evoke emotions, and provide insights into the human experience of love, relationships, and personal growth. They often explore themes of trust, vulnerability, and the transformative power of love.

First-person narration is popular in romance novels because it helps readers forge a deeper connection with the protagonist's emotions and experiences in love, allowing them to immerse themselves in the story entirely.