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The history of the romance novel

Created date

February 16th, 2017
Portrait of Jane Austen

Portrait of Jane Austen

It's a tale as old as time. Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Against all odds, the besotted couple overcomes adversity, unites in marriage, and lives happily ever after.

This same basic story has played out in countless novels for hundreds of years, yet the public’s appetite for romance novels is stronger than ever. It continues to outsell other fiction categories. In 2013, romance sales totaled $1.08 billion.

As romance author Maya Rodale points out, while the audience for romance novels is constantly expanding, it remains the most popular and profitable genre written by women, for women, about women.


Scholars cite Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded as the first modern romance novel. The story of a teenage maidservant courted by her landowner master, it was enormously popular when it was first published in 1740.

While Pamela wasn’t the first novel about a romantic relationship, it was the first to be presented from the heroine’s point of view. The novel’s happy ending was also unique for the time.    

Jane Austen

Jane Austen is an author whose name will forever be associated with classic romance—somewhat of an irony given the fact that Austen’s name did not appear on her books until after she died. 

When Sense and Sensibility was published in 1811, the cover noted only that the book had been written “by a lady.” At that time, penning a novel, particularly one about love and relationships, was not considered a respectable profession for a young woman of Austen’s upbringing. 

In addition, Sense and Sensibility was essentially self-published. Austen paid roughly one-third of her annual income to have 750 copies printed. The book did well, earning Austen a modest profit and selling out, so a second printing was ordered.  

Austen today

Today, Austen’s novels are beloved, inspiring an entire catalog of modern retellings. From Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary to Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible to Seth Grahame-Smith’s parody Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, readers never seem to tire of rereading Austen’s tried and true plots.

Austen’s novels are also unique because they are among the relatively few romance novels considered to be literary, frequently appearing on academic syllabi. By contrast, most romance novels are often (unfairly) described as trashy or dismissed as “bodice rippers.”

In addition to her twelve romance novels, Maya Rodale also authored the book Dangerous Books for Girls: The Bad Reputation of Romance Novels, Explained. Rodale conducted a survey of attitudes toward the romance genre and found that 85% of romance readers think the genre has a bad reputation and 89% think romance readers are looked down on. This, despite the fact that 75% of those who identified as romance readers had a college degree—with over 39% holding advanced degrees.


Canadian publishing company Harlequin has been around since the 1930s, originally known for its books with the plain brown covers. In the 1970s, however, the company made significant changes. Seeking to increase sales, they stocked their books “where the women are,” in supermarkets and drugstores.

They also sponsored large-scale giveaways, placing their novels inside boxes of sanitary pads, household cleaners, and cosmetics. The idea paid off, as women found themselves addicted to the escapist novels with reassuringly predictable outcomes. 

Sales took off, elevating the earning status of both Harlequin and romance novels. 

In the early 1980s, the brand received another boost when they started using a muscly male model on their covers. You may have heard of him. His name is Fabio.

Hallmarks of the genre

According to the Romance Writers of America, a trade group for romance novelists, a romance must focus on a central love story and have “an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.”

Beyond that, it’s up to the writer’s imagination and the readers’ interests. While subgenres such as romantic suspense and historical romance have always attracted readers, new subgenres are also gaining traction. Inspirational romance has blossomed in recent years, as has Amish romance. On the other side of the spectrum, books like 50 Shades of Gray have made erotic romance more popular. LGBT romances are also in great demand.

Modern romance

With the advent of e-books, established authors like Debbie Macomber and Carolyn Brown are now competing with relative unknowns who, like Jane Austin, self-publish their romance books. Once considered the lowest tier of the publishing food chain, self-published novels are exceedingly popular, often appearing on The New York Times bestseller list. 

Just don’t look for romance novels in the book review section of The New York Times. Despite their robust sales and legions of fans, serious book reviewers practically never crack open a romance. For example, while Nora Roberts has published over 200 books, many of them New York Times bestsellers, the newspaper has reviewed her books only twice.