5 English Classic Romance Novels Featuring Strong Women

The articulate, ambitious, and passionate ‘English lady’ stereotype exists in part because of the English romance novels that have created her. She is independent and strong-willed, and knows what she wants from love. The world adores her, creating literary tours, tea varieties, and instagram giveaways to help readers pay homage to her. Where in literature can you find her?

The British romance novel is an institution in itself, and many of those produced since the 19th century have featured strong female protagonists. Such authors as Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, and Thomas Hardy have solidified England’s status at the top of the romance genre of literature; and at the same time, they have formed this gorgeous, poetic heroine for us all to admire. Let’s look at a few examples:

Jane Austen novel, Photo by Paolo Chiabrando on Unsplash 

‘Anne Elliott’ in Persuasion by Jane Austen (1818)

Jane Austen may well be known as the queen of British romantic literature. She is best known for her second novel, Pride and Prejudice; but her later novel, Persuasion, features the same type of plucky heroine as Elizabeth Bennett, showing her off with brilliant dialogue and mounting romantic tension. Persuasion was published after Austen’s death, but as with many of Austen’s other novels, it’s the tale of a woman caught between social convention and the desires of her own heart. Anne Elliott, the novel’s 27-year-old heroine, is in love with Captain Frederik Wentworth. Under the pressure of her family and friends, Anne has broken her engagement with him, causing her a great degree of pain. When their paths cross again eight years later, however, anything is possible! Elliott uses discretion, wisdom, and kindness to make her way in love, with Jane Austen lovingly urging her on.

An English manor house, like those featured in romantic novels. Photo by Malina Bien on Unsplash

‘Jane Eyre’ in Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (1847)

Like Austen, Charlotte Brontë creates a strong woman as her novel’s main character, Jane Eyre. It’s the story of a young woman with a difficult childhood, who comes to work as a governess in the home of a well-to-do bachelor, Mr. Rochester. Her association with him leads to a romance, which undergoes a great deal of complications because of his past. Where will this romance lead?

Upon release, this novel revolutionised literary prose because of the spiritual and moral themes which run alongside the romance. I’d consider it a gothic novel: mysterious and brooding, with a strong connection between a heroine and a ‘gothic’ mansion. Jane is a woman of high moral standards and this takes her far. Brontë reveals much of herself–her own experiences, values and dreams–in this character.

English Moors, like those featured in Wuthering Heights. Photo by Ethan Ridd on Unsplash

‘Catherine Earnshaw’ in Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte (1847)

Another gothic-style romance novel from England is Wuthering Heights. Set in the lonely moors of northern England, and written by Charlotte Brontë’s younger sister Emily, this book takes the mystery and brooding to a new level. Essentially it’s a ghost story, or a ghost love story, wherein a young woman named Catherine Earnshaw and her foundling foster-brother Heathcliff fall in love. Dancing between her passion for Heathcliff and her social ambition in suitor Edgar Linton, Catherine eventually brings misery to both men. A novel of intense longing and mystery, Wuthering Heights is a mixture between psycho-thriller, ghost story, and romance. What imaginations the Brontë sisters cultivated on the edge of the Yorkshire moors!

Sheep of the English countryside. Photo by Ariana Prestes on Unsplash

‘Bathsheba Everdeen’ in Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy (1874)

Any good story needs a plot complication, and Far From the Maddening Crowd is filled with them. Thomas Hardy’s strong woman in this novel, Bathsheba Everdeen, is wanted as wife by three bachelors: a sheep farmer, a reckless young sergeant, and an older well-to-do gentleman. She is caught between her independent spirit, social convention, and her desire for love. Always striving to be strong and independent, Bathsheba makes mistakes that require her to be vulnerable in the face of the men she loves. Therein lies her true strength. Hardy writes with such depth and insight into the heart of a woman, that I was surprised that the author was a man! Nevertheless, it’s a beautiful testament to the universally human tension between passion and duty, and makes a thoroughly enjoyable romance novel.

(We are reading this book this month for our online book club, Travel Europe Through Books. Join the fun on Instagram and Facebook.)

‘Juliette Ashton’ in The Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows (2009)

This novel differs in a few ways from the others. It’s written by two American authors about Guernsey, a British protectorate. It’s a 21st-century novel, written about the 20th century (post war era), so it stands apart in its setting, writing style (it’s written in letter form), and attitudes. But like the others, it follows the adventures of a strong female character, Juliette Ashton, whose attachments and life goals have prevented her from finding true love. Only when she is approached by ‘The Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society’ from Guernsey, and investigates their story, does she find it.

Photo by Artem Maltsev on Unsplash

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