If I say that I just did a quick tally of the historical romance keepers on one of my eight overflowing bookshelves and counted 180, you will have some idea of how daunting I found the task of selecting five favorite couples from among all the characters I have loved in historical romance. After a long struggle, I persuaded myself that it would be acceptable to fudge the assignment a bit and choose five top couples from 20th century romance novels and five from 21st century romance novels. I’m allying myself with the purists for the purpose of this list and not counting Jane Austen as a historical romance author, although I certainly include Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy and Anne Elliot and Frederick Wentworth among my favorite fictional couples.
Top 5 Couples from 20th-century Romance Novels
(in order of publication since I cannot choose among them)
1. Frederica Merrivale and the Marquis of Alverstoke, Frederica (1965) by Georgette Heyer
Frederica is my favorite Heyer for many reasons. Certainly one of those reasons is the pairing of Frederica, one of Heyer’s intelligent, competent heroines, and the arrogant, self-centered Alverstoke who grow in love rather than falling in love. I delight in Alverstoke’s bewilderment over what is happening to him: “Then came Frederica, upsetting his cool calculations, thrusting responsibilities upon him, intruding more and more into the ordered pattern of his life, and casting him into a state of unwelcome doubt.” They truly are the best thing that ever happened to one another.
2. Derek Craven and Sara Fielding, Dreaming of You (1994) by Lisa Kleypas
The coupling of a self-made man who rises from nothing to a position of power and an innocent miss is a much used trope in historical romance, but it has never been done more perfectly than in Kleypas’s story of Derek Craven, a man born without a name, a former thief, grave robber, and lover of countless women, and the proper, passionate Sara who begins their relationship by saving Craven from attackers. I reread Dreaming of You recently and found this couple as captivating in 2014 as I did on that first reading twenty years ago.
3. Jessica Trent and Sebastian Ballister, the Marquess of Dain, Lord of Scoundrels (1995) by Loretta Chase
Jessica and Dain make me laugh, leave me teary-eyed, and give me some of the most sigh-worthy moments in all of my romance reading. Sometimes when I’ve read several disappointing books in a row, I pull this book from the shelf and reread just the scene with the kiss in the rain or Dain’s bathtub thoughts to remind myself of how great romance can be. There are good reasons that Lord of Scoundrels is a perennial top historical romance for many readers.
4. Catherine Melbourne and Lord Michael Kenyon, Shattered Rainbows (1996) by Mary Jo Putney
Honor is one of the qualities most frequently cited as essential for a romance hero, but the hero’s honor often lacks complexity and treatment of the heroine’s honor is rare. Putney takes two honorable people in this story and tests their honor when they fall in love with one another. The issue of honor is further complicated by errors of judgment in Michael’s past and by Catherine’s decision, with which Michael complies, to engage in deceit. This book also includes one of my all-time favorite love scenes.
5. Desdemona Carlisle and Harry Braxton, As You Desire (1997) by Connie Brockway
The famous “You are my Egypt” speech alone is enough to win this book a place on my list. Then, there is a genius heroine, a beta hero who challenges the stereotype, and an unusual setting (1890s Egypt). Harry’s secret may not seem so unusual to contemporary readers just discovering As You Desire, but it seemed revolutionary in 1997. For me, romance fiction doesn’t get any better than this—except perhaps in My Dearest Enemy, my favorite Brockway novel.
Top 5 Couples from 21st-century Romance Novels
(in order of publication)
1. Anne Jewell and Sydnam Butler, Simply Love (2006) by Mary Balogh
I’m sure no one is surprised to find a Balogh couple on my list. I could easily do a top five Balogh list (as is true with most of the authors represented here), but even among favorite Balogh couples, Anne and Sydnam are special. They have both suffered greatly. Raped and impregnated by a vile man and rejected by her family, Anne is a loving, devoted mother to her illegitimate son. Sydnam, deeply scarred in body and spirit, lost an eye and an arm when he was captured and tortured by the French. An artist no longer able to paint, the younger son of the Earl of Redfield has found a measure of contentment as steward of the Duke of Bewcastle’s remote Welsh property. Neither Anne nor Sydnam expects to find love. Indeed, they are even surprised by the lust they inspire in one another. Watching them arrive at their HEA is a joy.
2. Josie Essex and Garrett, Earl of Mayne, Pleasure for Pleasure (2006) by Eloisa James
Josie and Mayne have the distinction of being the only couple in romance fiction about whom I have written an essay—and I wrote it before Pleasure for Pleasure was published. I am not generally a fan of romances that match older, experienced heroes with young, innocent heroines, but Mayne, suffering from ennui as far back as Your Wicked Ways (2004) in which he was a secondary character, and Josie, who combines pragmatism and imagination, confidence and vulnerability, with wit and a youthful zest for life, is perfect for him. I’ll always be a proud Bonbon (the name adopted by EJ readers who actively campaigned for a Josie-Mayne match).
3. Nell Freymore and Harry Morant, His Captive Lady (2008) by Anne Gracie
I have been a buttonholing-to-rave-about-her Anne Gracie fan since I first read Gallant Waif (still my #1 Gracie book), and I considered a half dozen of her couples before settling on Nell and Harry. An illegitimate son who has had his unworthiness beaten into him, Harry is understandably leery of falling in love, but even though he refuses to admit it, he falls for Nell from his first sight of her and his drive to protect her kicks in before he knows her name. Life has dealt Nell a series of harsh blows, but nothing will deter her from her poignant quest. Harry’s willingness to join her in that quest is just one indication of why these two belong together. Following them on their journey to a sublime HEA always moves me to laughter and tears.
4. Beth Ackerley and Ian Mackenzie, The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie (2009) by Jennifer Ashley
Ian Mackenzie is one of the most unusual heroes in the romances I have read, and I found him mesmerizing from the start. Convinced that he is incapable of love, he nevertheless focuses unswervingly and completely on Beth from their first meeting. Beth has some reservations, but slowly her emotional attachment to Ian is as strong as the passion she has felt from the beginning. One of the reasons Ashley’s Highland Pleasures remains one of my favorite historical series is that each book confirms the transforming love of Beth and Ian.
5. Justine DeCabrillac and Adrian Hawkhurst, The Black Hawk (2011) by Joanna Bourne
“Epic romance” is an abused, misused term, but it applies to the story of Justine and Adrian, a story that begins when they are thirteen and culminates more than two decades later. Adversaries and allies, enemies and lovers, the two enjoy scattered, stolen moments, usually a great risk and with love battling with mistrust. Although they are on opposing sides for much of their story, they are fundamentally alike in experience, intelligence, and dedication. They know each other intimately on multiple levels. Their story grows more complex and more satisfying with each rereading.
+Check out more reading recommendation lists:
- The Ten Romances You Should Read, An Opinionated Opinion
- 10 Regency Romances You Should Read
- When Historical Goes Hot: Best in Erotic Historical Romance
- A Sigh of Lovers: Top 5 Nora Roberts Couples
- Great Couples You’ve Never Heard Of from Kleypas, Burton, James, and more!
- Man Oh Man!: Top Five Male/Male Couples
To find out more about each book mentioned:
Janga spent decades teaching literature and writing to groups ranging from twelve-year-olds to college students. She is currently a freelance writer, who sometimes writes about romance fiction, and an aspiring writer of contemporary romance, who sometimes thinks of writing an American historical romance. She can be found at her blog Just Janga and tweeting obscure bits about writers as @Janga724.