If you're looking for page-turning, guilty-pleasure fiction, then you might enjoy one of these vintage novels! Bestsellers of their day, they're now public domain; and most are available for free at Project Gutenberg.
1. Leonora (Maria Edgeworth, 1806)~ A nineteenth-century Fatal Attraction! I kid you not... Despite the lovely and long-suffering heroine, this novel is not the conventional web of polite misunderstandings; rather, it's a Regency version of Lifetime TV-- and once started, there's no looking away.
2. St. Elmo (Augusta Jane Evans, 1866)~ A beautiful and freakishly erudite teenager wins the heart-- and saves the soul-- of an embittered Byronic hero... And as the characters Edna and St. Elmo both love to gab about ancient history/literature, the novel is filled with obscure references that I once (at age 14) tried to list-- although I quickly gave up on the project, as there are just so many! This story is at once unabashedly romantic and pro-education, especially female education. If you really want to fall in love, for goodness' sake study your classical languages! Worked for Edna.
3. The Lamplighter (Maria Cummins, 1854)~ If you don't mind its rather florid moralizing, this is a sweet and heart-wrenching tale of a virtuous girl finding happiness in the cold, mercenary world. And it kept my heart in my throat (What will happen when Gertrude and Willy meet again??)...! Fans of Louisa May Alcott should check it out.
4. Camilla (Fanny Burney, 1796)~ As with Evelina, I wanted to scream "JUST TALK TO HIM!!" But social and economic traps-- some of them humorous, all of them deplorable-- close around the naive, loyal Camilla in such agonizing succession that I always had to read "just one more chapter." Let me tell you, modern romances have nothing on this one.
5. The Italian (Annotated) (Ann Radcliffe, 1797)~ By the author of The Mysteries of Udolpho, this Gothic novel doesn't offer the most accurate or sympathetic view of the Catholic Church; but it does provide plenty of page-turning suspense and vivid imagery. One eerie scene-- in which the heroine Ellena walks on a lonely beach, shadowed by the distant figure of a monk-- is imprinted on my memory.
6. Belinda (Maria Edgeworth, 1801)~ I'm less enthusiastic here, as the hero lost major points with me by the end; but I enjoyed the ever-evolving friendship between Belinda and Lady Delacour, which proved the most important and interesting aspect of the story. I think that Lady Delacour's arc alone makes it worth a rainy-day read through!
7. The Phantom of the Opera (Gaston Leroux, 1910)~ In comparison with the musical, the original version of this well-known story was more horror/thriller than romance-- and interestingly, too, I find it evocative of what a life devoted to music might mean for an unprotected, single girl of the nineteenth century (when a stage career would be incompatible with, say, an aristocratic marriage). Here music isn't just a vehicle for romance; it's an all-absorbing force, almost a character in itself! And it demands all of her... (Definitely an all-absorbing book, too!)
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