From the cover of Twilight, a woman's hands in black and white hold a bright red apple.

Hold Onto Your Bodices! We’re Ranking the 10 Most Impactful Romance Novels of All Time

The romance novel business is booming, and it has been for centuries! Falling in love (or lust!) is such a quintessentially human experience that it’s no wonder romance is such a popular genre for readers. While there are some novels that everyone agrees are among the best romantic stories ever told, there are others that slip past the radar.

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No worries! We can help. Below you’ll find ten of the best and most impactful romance novels written to date, ranked them from our least to most favorite.

Twilight (2005) by Stephenie Meyers

Will Forte offers to describe Twilight movies shot for shot on Parks and Recreation.
(NBC)

Love it or hate it, there’s no denying the enduring impact Stephenie Meyer’s vampire love story made on the world. Twilight came out in 2005, and audiences were immediately drawn to the forbidden, extreme age-gap love story of 17-year-old Bella Swan and 103-year-old vampire Edward Cullen. Three additional novels followed: New MoonEclipse, and Breaking Dawn. The books were later made into five equally popular movies (Breaking Dawn was divided into two parts for the film adaptation).

Gone With The Wind (1936) by Margaret Mitchell

Gone With the Wind original 1936 book cover
(Macmillan Publishers)

No list of famous romance novels is complete without a nod to journalist Margaret Mitchell’s one and only novel, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize award for fiction in 1937. Gone With The Wind is the coming-of-age story of Scarlett O’Hara, the rich, spoiled daughter of a plantation owner in Atlanta, Georgia at the onset of the Civil War. As war rips the American South apart, Scarlett does whatever she must do to regain her wealth and status, including marrying the rakish Rhett Butler. The historical romance has long been one of the most popular books in history.

Gone With The Wind was adapted into an eponymous film in 1939, and critics agree it’s one of the best movies ever made as well. The movie won Best Picture at the 12th annual Academy Awards that year.

The Notebook (1996) by Nicholas Sparks

an empty front porch overlooking a green field
(Warner Books)

The popular 2004 movie starring Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams might pop to mind when you think of The Notebook, but before it was a film, it was an achingly moving novel. It’s the story of lovers who, though separated by war and circumstance, never stop feeling a powerful connection. The Notebook was author Nicholas Sparks’ first novel, and it was salvaged from a literary agent’s slush pile before going on to become a much-loved international best seller.

Heartbeat by Danielle Steel

Heartbeat by Danielle Steel
(Penguin Random House)

As one of the inimitable queens of romance, Danielle Steele has a plethora of novels to choose from! There’s something about the sweetness of Heartbeat that sets it apart from her other works, however. The story is about a workaholic TV producer who realizes he wants a second shot at a happy family life when he meets a production assistant whose husband left her because she got pregnant. Steele deftly weaves their stories together, creating a cozy world readers might not want to leave when the last chapter comes around.

The Duke and I (2000) by Julia Quinn

the Duke and I novel by Julia Quinn
(Avon)

If you’re a romance fan, chances are you’ve already discovered the frothy source material behind the hit Netflix series Bridgerton. The Duke and I is the first in author Julia Quinn’s Regency romance series. It tells the story of Daphne Bridgerton, who is presented at court and prepared to be married off to a wealthy suitor. Daphne is unimpressed with her options until she meets her brother Anthony’s friend Simon Basset, Duke of Hastings. The two start a fake courtship that winds up becoming very real, but Simon’s hang-ups from a painful childhood cause trouble when it comes time to start a family.

Indigo (1996) by Beverly Jenkins

Indigo book cover by Beverly Jenkins
(CreateSpace Publishing)

Beverly Jenkins (sadly, no relation) is one of the most popular romance novelists ever to write about 19th-century African-American life. In Indigo, we meet Hester Wyatt, a beautiful young woman who escaped slavery and went to work for the Underground Railroad to help others get free. She’s asked to hide an injured man called “Black Daniel,” and the two discover they have more in common than fighting injustice.

Pride and Prejudice (1813) by Jane Austen

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
(Dover Publications)

The Bridgerton novels might be about a 19th-century family, but Pride and Prejudice was actually written during this period. In her second novel after 1811’s Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen writes about what she knows: courtship in suburban London in the early 1800s. Her main character Elizabeth Bennet is much loved in literary circles, and Pride and Prejudice is one of the most popular (and most adapted) books in English literature. The book revolves around the Bennet family’s drive to marry off their daughters in order to avoid poverty, but Elizabeth (and readers) learn a lot about life along the way.

Love in the Time of Cholera (1985) by Gabriel García Márquez

Love in the time of Cholera book cover
(Alfred A. Knopf)

How long would you wait for the one you love? That’s a question Love In The Time Of Cholera asks readers to ponder in this Spanish novel by Gabriel García Márquez, which was translated into English by Alfred A. Knopf. Florentino and Fermina are young when they fall in love, but Fermina’s father disapproves and they are separated. She goes on to marry another and they lead separate lives for decades before they must decide if their love was true, or merely a passing fancy.

Jane Eyre (1847) by Charlotte Bronte

Jane Eyre book cover
(Smith, Elder & Co.)

In one of the most cherished romantic novels of the 19th century, Charlotte Bronte introduces us to the meek yet powerful character Jane Eyre. After suffering a lifetime of abuse at home and at boarding school, Jane goes to work as a governess for the brooding Mr. Rochester. In spite of his darkness she falls in love with him before discovering a devastating secret in his attic. Readers delight in watching Jane transform into a woman in the book, and Bronte is widely praised for her use of character conversation as exposition.

Outlander (1991) by Diana Gabaldon

Outlander book 1 by Diana Galaldon
(Delacorte Press)

Like Twilight, Outlander is another debut novel that sparked a frenzy of fandom around the world. Diana Gabaldon’s first published novel crossed multiple genres like romance, science fiction, historical drama, and adventure to produce a book that appeals to many different readers. In the first book, we meet Claire Randall, a World War II nurse who travels to Scotland with her husband in 1946. There, she enters a circle of standing stones and travels backward in time to the 18th century, where she’s rescued by a burly Highlander named Jamie Fraser.

Ten books are planned for the Outlander series, nine of which have already been published. Additionally, a popular television adaptation, also called Outlander, premiered on Starz on August 9, 2014.

There you go: 10 books to reach for when you’re in the mood for a good bodice-ripper. Did your favorite make the list?

(featured image: Little, Brown and Company)


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Author
Beverly Jenkins
Beverly Jenkins (she/her) is a contributing writer for The Mary Sue. She writes about pop culture, entertainment, and web memes, and has published a book or a funny day-to-day desk calendar about web humor every year for a decade. When not writing, she's listening to audiobooks or watching streaming movies under a pile of her very loved (spoiled) pets.