As I thought through my favourite romances in fiction, I realised how few I read. Even with the pitiful collection, it became clear the best romances are often found outside of their native genre.
For some reason, relationships between characters seem more powerful when they aren’t the sole focus of the novel. Perhaps because there’s more to life than romance, who knows? Whatever the case, these subplots are often overlooked in favour of the obvious. So, since it’s February, here are five underrated romances in fiction.
Prue and Kester: Precious Bane
Precious Bane is a romance by Mary Webb, complete with dark drama and purple prose. It’s set in a rural farming community on the very edge of the industrial revolution and follows Prue Sarn, daughter of a local farmer and her coming of age. When Prue’s father dies, she’s left under the thumb of her ambitious and somewhat ruthless brother who promises her a better life if only they work as hard as they can — after all, no man would marry Prue, not a girl with a hare lip.
But then comes the travelling weaver, Kester, and all at once Prue falls for him. But like Gideon tells her again and again, no man could love a girl with curse like hers. It’s a deep, rich tale of love, loss, and the choices that make us who we are. It’s not every girl would run into the middle of a dogfight with a carving knife to save you.
In all he wrote, I’d find him. For you canna write a word, even, but you show yourself–in the word you choose, and the shape of the letters, and whether you write tall or short, plain or flourished. It’s a game of I Spy and there’s nowhere to hide.
Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth: Persuasion
I know everyone is all over Pride and Prejudice. You meet these girls draped over their fainting couches ‘just waiting for my Mr Darcy’, but they’ve missed out on Austen’s greatest work.
Persuasion is the story of Anne Elliot, the oldest daughter and only sensible member of her family. Several years before the book opened, she allowed herself to be persuaded against marrying the love of her life because he wasn’t affluent and respectable enough for her vain father. Years later and she remains unmarried, all but fulfilling her late mother’s role as the voice of reason in the home, unappreciated and uncared for.
Circumstances throw Captain Wentworth across her path once more and it turns out that her old feelings, though dormant, never died. As for the Captain, now a rich and successful naval officer (and bachelor), it’s hard to tell where his affections lie.
I’m not sure why this story is so compelling. It may be the depth and maturity, such a contrast to Emma’s childishness or Lizzie and Darcy’s hot tempers. Their faithfulness to one another despite the dashed hopes and the years that stretched between makes them one of the most tragic but satisfying romances.
All the privilege I claim for my own sex (it is not a very enviable one: you need not covet it), is that of loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone!
Jo March and Professor Baehr: Good Wives and Little Men
In my humble opinion, Jo and Laurie were never an ideal couple. On the other hand, you have Professor Baehr. His calmness and maturity in contrast to Jo’s fire makes for an excellent balance. I love that he proves to be a steadying and maturing influence on her. Their romance is sweet in Good Wives but the development of their married relationship through Little Men makes for an excellent read.
In this third book of the series, Jo has inherited her Aunt’s old house and begun a school for boys. Though she has mellowed and lost a little of her tomboyishness, her energy and vivacity make her an excellent mother to a household of wayward boys. Baehr provides the perfect balance of discipline and fatherliness required to raise and educate the brood.
Jo and Baehr rank on underrated romances because their story of meeting and courting(?) is sweet but the continuing of their story as a married couple and how they affect the lives of those around them gives you something to aspire to. Here’s a snippet from Good Wives after Amy’s marriage:
By-and-by Jo roamed away upstairs, for it was rainy, and she could not walk. A restless spirit possessed her, and the old feeling came again, not bitter as it once was, but a sorrowfully patient wonder why one sister should have all she asked, the other nothing. It was not true, she knew that and tried to put it away, but the natural craving for affection was strong, and Amy’s happiness woke the hungry longing for someone to love with heart and soul, and cling to while God let them be together.
Liesel and Rudy: The Book Thief
We’re gradually straying out of the romance genre but Liesel and Rudy are one of the most bittersweet romances I’ve ever read. The Book Thief follows the story of a young girl called Liesel as she is sent to live with foster parents on Himmel Street, Munich during WW2.
It’s a deeply compelling read, following the lives of the poverty-stricken inhabitants as they survive under the rule of the Nazi party. Some are sold out to the ideology, others learn to rebel in their own ways, but mostly the story follows the day-to-day life of Liesel Memminger and her various misadventures (usually at the prompting of her best friend Rudy).
Underneath it all is the thread of Rudy’s love for Liesel. He loves her from the moment he first sees her and as they grown up on the streets of war-torn Munich, sharing in the loss, the danger, and the small daily triumphs, love blossoms between them.
He must have loved her so incredibly hard. So hard that he would never ask for her lips again and would go to his grave without them.
Twig and Maugin: Midnight Over Sanctaphrax and The Stone Pilot
The Edge Chronicles are one of the best series on the shelves, yet they’re weirdly unknown in the reading community. The books are set in the fantasy world of the Edge, a world with floating stones and lightning dust that can purify water – and that’s before you come to the incredible creatures roaming its lands.
The series follow members of the same family down throughout the history of the Edge. Twig appears early on in these books, inheriting captaincy of a Sky Pirate ship from his father, Cloud Wolf (Quint). On that ship is a stone pilot (standard for sky ships) who turns out to be a female trog who missed her coming-of-age ceremony and is stuck as a human-like being.
Through their various adventures, they grow close and Maugin (the stone pilot) ends up waiting for generations at Riverrise (the mystical source of the Edge River) for Twig to return from saving Sanctaphrax, the floating city. Maugrin’s full story is made more clear in The Stone Pilot, a short book produced for World Book Day. Their romance is moving and faithful and the whole series of books are most definitely worth reading.
- What are your favourite underrated romances in books?
- What makes a romance (or romantic subplot) worth reading?