Freya North’s first novel, Sally, was one of the publishing successes of 1996, and was followed by Chloe, Polly and Cat, all bestsellers. Her latest novel, Pillow Talk, won the Romantic Novel of the Year award earlier this month.
Throughout my life, romantic fiction has sustained me. I read recently that, as a genre, it is purchased more than any other. From tales of chaste love to bawdy shenanigans, from historical dramas to contemporary affairs, romantic fiction is as multi-faceted as love itself. The unifying factor is there’s no better premise for a novel than love, in all its guises. I like to live vicariously through my heroines – they get up to things I’d never dare do …
1. Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe
Possibly my desert island book. If Defoe can be revered as the godfather of the romp, his spunky protagonist, Moll, is the godmother of feisty literary heroines. The pace is frenzied and the plot outrageous. Our heroine marries every eligible male between Lancashire and Virginia – including her brother. She’s a very modern icon – whatever befalls her, she picks herself up, dusts herself down, rearranges her cleavage and rampages off again.
2. Tom Jones by Henry Fielding
Fielding’s best-known novel was attacked at the time as “a motley history of bastardism, fornication, and adultery” – which, to me, is just what a classic romp should be. The cast is a lurid, wonderful hotpot of prudes, whores, libertines, bumpkins, scoundrels and virgins. Tom has a weakness for women but a good heart. I’ve often thought what a happy couple he and Moll Flanders would make.
3. Riders by Jilly Cooper
All the essential elements of a classic romp, which gallop along together over the course of almost 1,000 pages: the cad, the bitch, the beauty – all in skin-tight breeches and long leather boots. There’s also the bucolic setting of the English countryside (the aptly named, sadly fictional county of Rutshire). In Rupert Campbell-Black, Cooper creates a loveable rogue on a par with Fielding’s Tom Jones. Funny, saucy and beautifully written.
4. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
Another classic – but where Moll Flanders is deliciously bawdy, Jane Eyre is devastatingly romantic. The passion comes from the love between Jane and Rochester, so pure yet so constantly thwarted – they literally go through fire for it. I read somewhere that you won’t understand true love until you’ve read this book.
5. Herb’n’Lorna by Erik Kraft
A quirky, whimsical, kinky but sweet romance. At his grandmother’s funeral, when the narrator inherits a box containing 22 pieces of erotic jewellery, he begins to explore the people his grandparents (Herb and Lorna) were. This is a thoroughly original book – a mock biography of sorts, complete with illustrations and photos that are as entertaining as the text.
6. After You’d Gone by Maggie O’Farrell
How I sobbed, reading this book. The intensity of Alice and John’s love story comes from being told in retrospect – despite the compelling romance of their story, the reader is constantly aware of the dreadful tragedy to come. Alice is such a lovely character; I wanted to be her, to befriend her, to mother her. And I fell a little bit in love with John. This novel is beautifully and masterfully constructed – essential to the power of the plot.
7. I’m a Believer by Jessica Adams
This is a book about love after death and life after love. It is jaunty and quite comic – but also very sensitively told. Mark Buckle, a scientist and bit of a sceptic, loses his girlfriend Catherine in a car crash. Soon enough, and initially much to his disbelief and displeasure, she appears to him. Catherine becomes instrumental in helping Mark heal, move on and continue with his life. Have tissues close to hand!
8. The Best a Man Can Get by John O’Farrell
With O’Farrell’s trademark sardonic wit and observational humour, this book is essentially a reflective and tender tale of one man shaking off the habits of singledom to become a good husband and father. Michael has a perfectly nice home, child, baby and pregnant wife but of course doesn’t realise their worth until he’s about to lose them. Initially, “just being tucked up warm and cosy” is what Michael resists most; by the end of the novel, he embraces it as the best thing known to man.
9. Not that Sort of Girl by Mary Wesley
This book inspired me to write. I love the way Mary Wesley marries gentle romance with quite surprising sexiness in all her novels – here in particular. Rose marries Ned and is deeply loyal to him while simultaneously carrying on a rampant relationship with the louche but wonderful Milo. And, being a tough cookie, she manages to keep this happy balance for over half a century. This novel is a romp that is both feisty yet romantic. It is not about duplicity, it is about dual constancy.
10. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
A highly engaging caper through the 1930s. Set in a dilapidated Suffolk castle, there’s the beautiful stepmother wafting around, the older hot-headed sister who’s a slave to thoughts of love, the handsome but lovelorn Stephen and the arrival of dashing Americans. And any book whose last sentence is “I love you, I love you, I love you” gets top marks from me.