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The myth that the British are strangers to romance persists in spite of the UK having produced some of the most famous romantic literature of all time.
As if Elizabeth Barratt-Browning, the Brontes and Jane Austen weren’t enough, here are British female romance authors A. S. Byatt, M. M. Kaye, Nancy Mitford, Louise Douglas, and Holly Martin to make nonsense of the stereotype.
~ Mandy Baldwin
Oh la la! It seems that the stodgy British read more romantic novels than the love-obsessed French: nearly twice as many per head, to be exact. Even more surprisingly, we export more romantic novels to our continental friends than any other country in the world.
Is it Britain’s chilly drizzle and tradition of keeping the emotional hatches battened down, that leads to this blossoming of literary hearts and flowers?
Whatever it is, Britain’s mistresses of romance lead the world – and these female romance writers are, in my opinion, among the best.
Image Source: Amazon
Antonia Susan Byatt is a rare creature – a Booker Prize winner who produces intellectualised romantic novels.
She was born into an academic family, which has morphed into an artistic one (her sister is author Margaret Drabble). Many of Byatt’s early novels contain a strong autobiographical element: she had an unhappy childhood, feeling crushed by her domineering mother.
Along with essays, short stories and biographies, Byatt has written eleven novels: ‘The Shadow of the Sun’, ‘The Game’, ‘The Virgin in the Garden’, ‘Still Life’, ‘Possession’, ‘Angels and Insects’, ‘Babel Tower’, ‘The Biographer’s Tale’, ‘A Whistling Woman’, ‘The Children’s Book’, and ‘Ragnarok: the End of the Gods’.
Byatt’s style is drier than usual for a writer of romances, and don’t expect the standard ‘happily ever after’: she has a personal horror of domesticity. But her stories are complex and beautiful – and there is a rare emotional intensity between her characters.
Book Recommendation: ‘Possession’ (1990)
This is a unique book which has everything a romance addict could wish for. I read my first copy until it fell apart, repaired it, wore it out again, then bought another one.
‘Possession’ is not just one love story but two – plus a literary puzzle and an emotional conflict. Want more? Well, it is set in two different centuries – with simultaneous romantic action – and a dash of family-history mystery thrown in. Oh, and there’s a side-story of Gothic fantasy.
The result is complete reading satisfaction: as rich and scrumptious as a four-tier chocolate cake with whipped cream and cherries on top.
The novel opens with the hero in action: the hero being a scholar of 19th century romantic poetry who is researching rare documents in the London Library, for his employer, a professor.
What he finds there leads to the discovery of an old scandal, and a heartbreak which has reverberated down the decades.
Most importantly, when he teams up with a woman who is as wary of involvement as he is himself, the pair find that their love of literature leads to them writing their own love story.
Image Source: Open Letters Monthly
The drama and landscapes of Mary Margaret Kaye’s books reflect her close ties to India and the British Raj.
Kaye was born in Simla, in 1904, where her father worked for military intelligence in the British Indian Army. Her husband was also a serving officer, so after the Indian independence, they travelled a lot before retiring to England.
Kaye was very prolific, but unlike many women romance writers, she crossed genres, writing romances, historical novels, autobiographies, suspense novels, radio plays, and children’s books. She also illustrated children’s books. Her historical romances include ‘Shadow of the Moon’, Trade Wind’, and ‘The Far Pavillions’.
Considering how full of exotic references Kaye’s novels are (and their time and background), they are startlingly modern. Her writing style is instantly accessible, and her characters are endearing and believeable.
Many of her novels give a surprising perspective on relationships across cultures.
Book Recommendation: ‘The Far Pavillions’ (1978)The words ‘sweeping’ and ‘epic’ could have been coined to describe this novel about love which knows no boundaries.
A baby boy, ‘Ash’, is born in India to English parents who die soon after. The boy is entrusted to his Indian nanny, Sita, who is told to take him to his extended family.
Finding them all dead, Sita brings the boy up as her own child. Not until Sita’s death, does the boy discover his true identity, and by then he has become attached to a neglected princess, Anjuli.
Sent to England to study, Ash is in constant conflict about his identity. He returns to India where he falls in love with Princess Anjuli, only to find that Anjuli has been forced into marriage – and she now risks death.
The love story is told in several stages: the childhood attachment, the period of unrequited love when Anjuli is married, the drama of the attempt to rescue her – and the hope they have of building a life together far from the prejudices of their different cultures.
The background is the Raj of the 19th century, so there are uprisings and wars which threaten their safety, as well as political machinations which the couple become involved in.
Don’t be daunted by the 964 pages: the story is so engrossing that one chapter leads to another and you won’t want to put it down until it is finished. (Best to set aside a weekend alone!)
Oh, and make sure you have a box of tissues to hand. This is a love story which is so heartfelt (and a happy ending seems so impossible) that I challenge anyone to read it and remain dry-eyed.
Image Source: Chicago Tribune
Nancy Mitford’s witty romances give a window into a life of privilege and eccentricity.
British female authors don’t come more controversial: she was was one of the aristocratic – sometimes notorious – Mitford sisters.
Unlike the more contentious of her siblings, she stayed out of politics and dedicated herself to writing, socialising, and a dramatic lifelong affair with an unfaithful French politician. Mitford’s early novels include ‘Highland Fling’, ‘Christmas Pudding’, Wigs on the Green’ and ‘Pigeon Pie’, but she is most famous for her post-war, semi-autobiographical novels: ‘The Pursuit of Love’, ‘Love in a Cold Climate’, ‘The Blessing’, and ‘Don’t Tell Alfred’.
I would describe the experience of reading Nancy Mitford’s books as rather like having a very long gossip with a witty, interesting friend.
Considering that she drew heavily on her family background for inspiration (and her family was, to say the least, unusual) this easy conversational quality surprises me every time I read one of her novels. Her love stories are told with tenderness and understanding – and she documents her own heartbreaks without self-pity.
Book Recommendation: ‘The Pursuit of Love’ (1945)
One of the most entertaining romances out there, ‘The Pursuit of Love’ follows the girls of a large aristocratic and rather mad family, as they grow up and begin to look for love.
Their successes and failures, and the outcomes of the marriages they make are all observed by Mitford, who is sharply witty without ever being cruel. But Mitford doesn’t pull any punches, either: it’s not all white lace and orange blossom. There are infidelities, abuse, and scandal.
Maybe it’s the light, witty commentary, or the theme (the search for advantageous marriages), or maybe it’s just the feeling of love between the sisters, but reading this book I have a distinct sense of the ghost of Jane Austen.
Perhaps, if she had been born a century or so later, this is what ‘good Aunt Jane’ would have been writing.
Image Source: Goodreads
Louise Douglas has a gift for creating flawed characters who are amazingly easy to identify with.
Louise was born in Yorkshire, but moved to Somerset as a teenager and has stayed there ever since. One of the most ‘grounded’ British women writers, she has never given up her ‘day job’, and despite being published in several languages, she writes her novels in the evenings, sitting at her kitchen table.
Since her first book – ‘The Love of My Life’ – was published in 2009, she has written five more novels: ‘The Secret by the Lake’, ‘Your Beautiful Lies’, ‘Missing You’, ‘In Her Shadow’, and ‘The Secrets Between Us’.
Louise’s style is instantly accessible. She tends to begin stories at a point of some crisis in the protagonist’s life, which ensures you will dive straight into the action.
Book Recommendation: ‘The Love of My Life’ (2009)
An intensely moving story with a heroine I found impossible to like, and a romance I found impossible to forget.
The story opens as Olivia is grieving her dead husband, Luca, who she has known all her life. The long love story of Luca and Olivia emerges in flashback as Oliva tries to deal with bereavement and find peace alone.
The lifelong romance between the pair is told so powerfully that the couple come to life – with all their weaknesses – making this one of the sweetest and saddest romantic novels you will ever read.
Image Source: Madeleine Milburn
Holly Martin writes romantic comedies which make me laugh out loud.
Holly has all the necessary backstory a rom-com writer could dream of. After a frankly bizarre career which included travelling the country dressed as a Viking, luckily she found that it was safest to share her wilder fantasies in book form.
Holly’s novels so far include: ‘Christmas at Lilac Cottage’, ‘Snowflakes on Silver Cove’, ‘The Guest Book’, ‘Fairytale Beginnings’, ‘One Hundred Proposals’, ‘Beneath the Moon and the Stars’, and ‘Tied up with Love.’
Her writing is breezy and stylish, and her books cheerfully dip into fantasy when it enables a good story – and why not?
Book Recommendation: ‘Fairytale Beginnings’ (2015)
Clover Castle, which nobody has ever heard of, in a village which isn’t on the map, Sat Nav showing a big question mark… and a mysterious handsome stranger waiting there.
For our heroine, a Disney-obsessed loser-in-love, nothing could be better than this.
But in spite of the fantasy setting and the Disney allusions, these are real characters, with real emotions. Anyone who has ever been in love – or thought they were – will recognise what drives them.
In fact, if you look beneath the froth – and there’s a good deal of froth – you will even find the tiniest hint of a moral to this story…
…because these authors have put into words what everyone secretly knows:
roses may fade, and fashions may change – but love and romance are evergreen.
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