Romance novels in the U.S. make more money than any other genre, despite often being some of the most stereotypical and repetitive books. Why is this? Some people say it’s because we in America prefer to live in fantasy relationships over real relationships. I personally think this is not a true. Instead, people (mostly women) are obsessed with buying the same romance plot over and over again because it is easier to read about a perfect romance then finding and working on your own (in a world were romance is pretty much dead outside of Hollywood). Perhaps I am taking a more cynical view on romance.
Either way, the massive romance industry is not a new phenomenon. Even before Fifty Shades of Grey, romance authors were shocking readers for decades (just look at The Flame and the Flower by Kathleen E. Woodiwess in 1972). Romance authors are always trying to shock readers, and E. L. James is only the latest in a long timeline.
However, romances were not always as erotic and raunchy as they are today. In fact, there is one genre of romance that I can actually stand, that being gothic romances, dating back to the eighteen hundreds all the way to the sixties. While these novels are filled with tropes like naïve heroines and unrealistic heroes, their mysteries and character interactions are much more interesting than modern romance.
Thus, before I get too carried away with analyzing the issues with romance novels, I am going to state the best and most prolific Gothic Romance Novelists. But before I do this, let me define what exactly this genre entails. According to the Free Dictionary, a gothic romance is “a romance that deals with desolate and mysterious and grotesque events.” It is that simple.
I am looking more at authors with quantity more than those who might have written one famous gothic romance (like Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre). I am also looking on books which play up romanticism, not fiction which is filled less with romance and more with mystery (like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein). Now that we are done with disclaimers, let’s go!
9. E.M. Hull
Born in 1880, Edith Maud Hull is probably the loosest gothic romantic writer on this list, and one could make the argument that she wrote straight-up romance with little mystery involved. She also wrote less books then most on this list. In fact, she is famous for only one novel: The Sheik (1919). Most probably know of this book by the film adaptation of it in 1921, starring Rudolph Valentino.
However, Hull wrote six other novels, all revolving around romance and adventure in the desert. While not as mysterious or dark as most gothic romances, it is filled with adventure and danger, which is often common to this genre.
8. Georgette Heyer
Born in 1902, Heyer wrote both romance and detective novels. Most of her romances are set in the Regency era (1811-1837), though some of her novels take place several decades before then. Her novels were often inspired by Jane Austen. However, more like Jane Eyre, Heyer’s male leads often fall into a category of rudeness, and female protagonists often lead these men to become better people.
Her first published book—The Black Moth—was published in 1921 and her last novel—My Lord John—was published posthumously after her death in 1975. Thus, her career with both ups and downs spanned over five decades. Honestly, many of her books are very similar (modern, worse written versions of Jane Eyre). But the tropes are rather amusing to read.
7. Peter O’Donnell (Madeleine Brent)
Born in 1920, this is the only male author on our list. We often hear about women writing under male pseudonym to get published, but this is one of the few male authors who wrote under a female name to publish historical romance. While not as prolific as Heyer—he only published nine books under the name of Madeleine Brent—his books are actually quite good.
He is also the most recent author on this list to die. In fact, he only passed away in 2010. His books are not clearly gothic romance, but they certainly have a lot of the themes found in this genre, including darker tones, mysterious characters, and danger around every corner.
6. Ann Radcliffe
This is the only mention on this list who did not live in the 20th century. In fact, she was born in 1764 and died in 1823, at least a century before any of the other authors were born. She is often considered the pioneer of the Gothic novel. Also, unlike many on this list, she did not receive much fame during her lifetime, living a very quiet life. Because of this, there is little information about her. One little known fast is that Radcliffe was close friends with Sukey Wedgewood, who in turn was the mother of Charles Darwin. Just an interesting tidbit.
While not strictly romance—authors were rarely writing about pure romance back then—her novels like The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne (1789) and The Italian (1797) are filled with mystery, romance, betrayal, and threats, so many consider her to be the precursor to the Gothic Romance genre.
5. Phyllis A. Whitney
Born in 1903 in Japan, Whitney’s novels are known often for their exotic locations. She has often been dubbed as the “Queen of the American Gothics,” though she prefers to call her books “romantic novels of suspense.” Astonishingly, she lived to be 104, dying in 2008. Her list of works is long, spanning from 1941 until 1997 and capping off at seventy-six books (if I counted rightly).
Some of my favorite books by her include The Trembling Hills (1956) and The Vanishing Scarecrow (1971), though there is no way that I will have enough time to read all her books. Unfortunately, like many authors on this list, her books are very difficult to access, either because they fell out of print or were not extremely popular.
4. Eleanor Hibbert (Victoria Holt)
Also born in 1903, Eleanor Hibbert was the second most prolific author on this list. She wrote under a total of eight pen names, including Katthleen Kellow, Phillippa Carr, and Anna Percival. However, for this list I am going to focus on one of her pseudonyms: that being Victoria Holt. Under this name, she wrote pure gothic romances, whereas under her other names she wrote different genres from thrillers to family sagas.
By the end of her life, she wrote more the 200 books total. Considering she lived to be eighty-six, this would suggest she had to write over two books a year. That in itself is impressive. Another interesting detail about her writing that, unlike most romance writers, Hibbert’s books are not only well written, but often historically accurate. My personal favorite of hers include Mistress of Mellyon (1960), and The India Fan (1988)
3. Mary Stewart
Born in 1916, I was actually introduced to this author through her fantasy Merlin series (which is one of the best Arthurian series I have ever read). However, most of the books she wrote were romantic suspense. Now, while romantic suspense is often not quite as dark as gothic romance, it falls into such a similar category that I could not leave this particular author off of this list.
Many of her books are reminiscent of medieval times or quite fanciful. A few of my favorite of her books are Wildfire at Midnight (1956), Nine Coaches Waiting (1958), and The Prince and the Pilgrim (1995). She was also the author of The Moon-Spinners (1962), which was adapted into a movie by Disney starring Hayler Mills in 1964.
2. Daphne du Maurier
Born in 1907, this is probably the most famous name on this list. She also wrote two of my favorite romances of all time: Rebecca (1938) and Jamaica Inn (1936). Her career, spanning again over fifty years, was not entirely devoted to gothic romance. However, many of her books—even those not straight-up romance—were filled with love and mystery.
You might also know her from a new adaptation of one of her books which is coming out just this year. That is the film called My Cousin Rachel, starring Rachel Weisz, and Sam Claflin, which is based on Maurier’s book by the same name which was first published in 1951. While I have not read this particular book, it looks interesting.
1. Barbara Cartland
Now we are onto the queen of romance herself, born in 1901. If you thought that writing two hundred books in one’s lifetime was prolific, just wait until you hear that Cartland wrote a total of 723 books during her nearly eighty year writing career. In 1983, she wrote a total of 23 novels, which makes her the Guinness World Record holder for most novels penned in a single year. That in itself is impressive.
Honestly, most of her books are very formulaic (of course, they would have to be for her to write that many books a year). However, her mystery romances (mostly set during the Victorian Era) earned her being the self-proclaimed expert of romance (let me just say, she was not, but still interesting tidbit). Some of my favorite books she wrote include A Hazard of Hearts (1949) (made into the hilarious movie of the same name in 1987 starring Helena Bonham Carter, Marcus Gilbert, and Diana Rigg), A Ghost in Monte Carlo (1951) (again, there is a movie, but it’s horrible), and The Enchanted Waltz (1955).
Personally, I prefer Cartland’s earlier novels, but then again there is no way I have time to read every single one of her novels. In the beginning her novels were considered sensational, and yet later in her life her strong views of morality received criticism. This is one thing I love about Cartland. She did not change what she wrote simply to please people. More authors should have this idea.
Who are your favorite Gothic Romance Novelists? Do you disagree on an inclusion of any entry on my list? If so, why? Digging deeper, what value (or no value) do you give to romance novels (modern or classic)? I’d love to hear your guys’ opinions are on this topic. And, as always,
Best wishes on a life full of adventure,