Roses are red, violets are blue…I’m not sure what Romanticism books are…how about you?
Romanticism, contrary to what you might think, is not all about love poetry. Rather, it refers to a movement in literature, music, and art that occured in 18th and 19th centuries.
The Top 10 Romanticism Books for Every Taste
Let’s take a look at a few books from this time period that are still impactful today.
This novel by Mary Shelley is one of the most popular stories of all time. A young scientist creates a monster and brings it to life, which opens a whole can of proverbial worms that we won’t go into, lest we spoil the plot. Suffice it to say the ending of the book is a bit…twisted.
Shelley was heavily influenced by her travels around some creepy castles in Germany, in particular, one where an alchemist (those dudes who turn stuff into gold) had conducted some weird experiments two centuries before. Her attempt to bring the past to life through a fresh narrative was part and parcel of the Romantic journey.
Moreover, the novel was the result of her contest with fellow Romantic Lord Byron to see who could craft a better horror story—horror and terror being some of those sublime emotions that Romantics loved to focus on.
Finally, the very thematic premise of Frankenstein was quite Romantic. Nature and artifice (that is, the question of man-made stuff vs. the all-natural) is at the core of the novel. Dr. Frankenstein himself gets in touch with the sublime for sure…by stepping into the role of a creator and literally forming a human being—an experience that is certainly above and beyond most of us.
#2: The Scarlet Letter
This novella (a shorter novel) by American author Nathaniel Hawthorne is pretty standard reading in High Schools across the US. Hawthorne writes about a colony of Puritan settlers, who have condemned one woman, Hester Prynne, to wear a scarlet letter “A” for adultress. She and her daughter Pearl are forced to live on the outskirts of society.
The townsfolk want to separate Pearl from her mother, but the Reverend Dimmesdale, who gives passionate, powerful sermons, comes to their defense. Meanwhile, a local doctor, Roger Chillingworth, starts turning up the heat against the Reverend, because he suspects something shady is going on. We won’t give away “who done it,” but suffice it to say, the ending is worthy of a featured spot on The Maury Show.
The book is an American example of Romanticism through its exploration of solitude and guilt. The cast of characters are wrapped up in the secret of the adulterous union, either attempting to conceal it or reveal it. Hester stands out as an individual, because she decides to forge her own spiritual path of acceptance and repentance, even though the Puritan society she lives in has condemned her for good.
This emotive trailblazing is a hallmark of the Romantic tradition, which often pits the individual against society in an emotionally fueled struggle. Who will win? Guess you’ll just have to read to find out…
#3: Grimm’s Fairy Tales
This one probably has you raising an eyebrow, but let us explain…recall that we mentioned Romanticism turned to the past for inspiration, and championed the story of the common man. To that end, Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm toured the German countryside, collecting yarns from housewives and maids, and assembling them into the most popular fairy tale anthology of all time: Kinder und Hausmärchen (let’s just call it Grimm’s Fairy Tales).
Everyone knows these stories, from “Cinderella” and her glass slipper to “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.” Romantics loved the imagination, and these fairy tales certainly present a wondrous world of magic and happily-ever-afters.
Moreover, the anthology was part of the Grimm brothers’ attempt to solidify a German identity through language, literature, and culture (they also created the largest and most comprehensive German dictionary of all time). Their work reflects the Romantic journey of relating to the common folk (who originally told these stories by the fireside) while again, tapping into something great than the self: a national identity.
Many of the fairy tales have their origins in ancient German mythology. As the Grimm brothers compiled the tales, the heavily edited them into an idealized blend of pagan and Christian symbolism. However, you’ll probably be able to do without meditating on all that as you read these cozy bedtime stories.
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#4: The Golden Pot and Other Tales
While we’re on the topic of fairy tales, an especially Germanic genre, we would be remiss to avoid ETA Hoffmann. His stories are downright…weird.
You may recognize a distant relative of one of his tales, The Nutcracker. The ballet by Tchaikovsky was actually based on a story by French author Alexandre Dumas, which in turn was a rewrite of Hoffman’s own tale. If you’ve ever seen The Nutcracker, you can understand a little bit just how imaginative and strange the mind of ETA Hoffman was (and the ballet is two steps removed from Hoffman’s own hand).
Hoffman’s signature tale—found in this anthology—is perhaps “The Sandman,” the story of Nathanael, a somewhat dorky fellow with glasses who has incredibly painful and creepy memories of his father being tortured by a sadistic wizard-lawyer. Oh, and did we mention that Nathanael falls in love with a robot?
Put all of this together, and you’ve got a twisted fairytale that puts us front and center to the sublime feeling of terror and something familiar…the uncanny.
This short story was used by Freud to address psychological problems his patients faced, in confronting life moments that gave them stress—it was reminding them of painful memories buried in their subconcious (hence the expression of “the uncanny”).
#5: The Castle of Otranto
We’ve got to include this work of English Romanticism because it opened the door to a whole new spinoff genre: the Gothic novel. You know, those stories of dark family secrets that take place in an ancient castle?
The author, Horace Walpole, was a nobleman turned author and architect. His own Strawberry Hill House drew heavily from medieval Gothic castles of the past, and initiated the Victorian trend in architecture of turning to the Middle Ages for inspiration.
The lord Manfred witnesses his son Conrad crushed to death by a gigantic helmet that mysteriously falls on him, echoing a dismal prophecy of doom and gloom. Manfred divorces his wife and attempts to marry the (now deceased) Conrad’s future bride himself. Unfortunately, she’s not so down with that, and decides to flee off into the woods to marry the peasant Theodore, which ends up resulting in a Star Wars like moment where Darth Vader says to Luke: “I am your father.”
The Romantic elements of the book are found in the supernatural and the reader’s confrontation with fear. It set the tone for Gothic novels (and movies) to follow, with trap doors, secret passageways, and ancient twisted family secrets. If you’ve ever seen the movies Gaslight or Rebecca, or for that matter, any scary movie, you’re seeing a descendant of this Romantic novel.
#6: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
If you’re a fan of metal band Iron Maiden, you’ll recognize this title from one of their albums. Regarded as the first work of English Romanticism, this poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge tells the story of an old and withered dude who has just washed up from a long adventure on the high seas. Some pivotal moments include shooting a giant bird (albatross) out of the sky with a crossbow, and looking around to see “water, water everywhere…nor any drop to drink.”
This epic poem is shared by the mariner with the initially unwilling audience of a young man on the way to his wedding. At first the young man is amused, then impatient, and finally both afraid and fascinated. This emotional progression is truly Romantic, as the “audience” journeys from lighter feelings into the real of heavy emotion.
Moreover, the story of the mariner pits man against nature. If you’ve ever been lost at sea (we’re guessing that most of you haven’t) you know that one can feel quite…alone as the sun beats down and the endless waves rolls by, evoking the Romantic focus on the individual touching something sublime as they are surrounded by nature—in this case, the ocean.
#7: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Rip Van Winkle, and Other Stories
Washington Irving is the author of this American Halloween classic. Irving’s stories center around the Dutch settlers of America, and almost everyone has come to know and love the scene of the headless horseman, pumpkin head in hand, chasing after the gangly Ichabod Crane.
Irving also authored “The Legend of Rip Van Winkle,” the story of a dude who goes hunting in the woods, meets the ghosts of Henry Hudson and crew, and plays a game of ninepins (somewhat like bowling) with them. They get drunk and Rip falls into a deep sleep for twenty years, emerging to find that everything about the town he used to know has changed.
Irving’s stories pit the individual against nature, through its focus on a tiny group of settlers living among the vast natural setting of a New World. To get a sense of this, place yourself in their clogs and think about how vast New-World wilderness surrounds you on every side. Moreover, thematic elements of the past are also explored, through the superstitions and legends of the townsfolk.
Of course, in Irving’s story about Rip Van Winkle, there is also the drama of an individual pitted against society; he’s been asleep for decades, but the world has moved on, and the town he knew is now a new place, something that we can all relate to perhaps.
#8: Wuthering Heights
This is the quintessential chick flick, or at least one of the originals…not to mention a seminal work of Gothic fiction. Thought this book (Emily Brontë only published novel) was written after the Romantic period, it contains many tropes and themes of the movement.
If you’re looking for torrid elopement, mystery, haunted castles, and dark family secrets, you’ll find it all in Wuthering Heights—the story of a storm-tossed and unconsummated love between the dashing Heathcliff and the fiery Catherine.
The story is indeed romantic and Romantic. The idea of unconsummated love, forever barred by some impediment (in this case, the societal standing of the respective lovers) was often expressed in the Romantic poetry of John Keats, especially his poem “Ode to a Nightingale,” in which the subject pines to become spiritually united with a Nightingale in the woods.
The lonely natural landscape of the English moor also plays a prominent role in the scenery of Wuthering heights, once again highlighting the Romantic penchant for individuals standing out ins stark contrast to the sublime and awesome world of nature that surrounds them. Then of course, there is also the element of the supernatural, with ghosts and dark secrets.
This novel by Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott is a quintessential example of the Romantic tendency toward looking back into the past for meaning, inspiration, and beauty. This book set off the trend of romanticizing the Middle Ages—that is, portraying them in an adventurous and idealistic way. Everything that comes to mind when you think of Richard the Lionheart and Robin Hood comes from this book.
The book follows the adventures of the knight Ivanhoe, and pits the hero against the cultural mores of larger society—echoing the Romantic theme of the individual, in this case standing out from the pack. But more than this main plotline, the book also fosters the “Robin Hood” myth through one of its characters, the bandit Locksley.
Locksley robs from the rich and gives to the poor, which, in a literary sense, could be viewed as a metaphor for the Romantic movement taking away the spotlight from grander subject matters and focusing instead on the common man and the beauty found within his life.
#10: The Count of Monte Cristo
The Romantic movement is most famous for the literature it produced in England, Germany, and to lesser extent, the United States (through the Gothic works of writers like Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Washington Irvine). But the movement eventually spread to other countries as well, such as France—where it was particularly crystallized in the writing of Alexandre Dumas.
It’s the story of an innocent man, just about to marry the love of his life. He is unfairly framed for crimes he did not commit, and thrown in jail. While imprisoned, he makes friends with a seemingly brilliant philosopher who lets him in on the location of a vast amount of hidden treasure. The count escapes the prison in a dramatic scene that involves him pretending to be a corpse, and swims to the island of treasure. Exorbitantly wealthy, culture, and now speaking several languages (which he learned from his prison mentor) he makes his way around the world, pulling the strings of cruel revenge against those who wronged him.
Here is the story of a dashing individual, his life dedicated to satiating one overwhelming emotion: the desire for justice and vengeance.
The book also has select scenes that play into the Romantic fascination for exotic cultures, such as the Count’s penchant for feasting and partying amid Oriental decor. In this way, the book opens the door to yet another offshoot of Romanticism: Orientalism (the depiction of the East as an exotic place, most famously in The 1001 Arabian Nights).
Above all, the Count, in his desire for revenge and justice, will bring the reader into his internal struggle that Romantic writers, artists, and poets sought to address: what reigns supreme: the head, or the heart?
What was the Romantic movement all about, if not romance?
It was all about feelings, nature, the individual and connecting to something above and beyond ourselves: the sublime. Romantic poets, writers, painters, and composers treasured the emotional faculties, rather than logic and reason.
Romanticism actually began as a reaction against the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment—the former a movement that mainly impacted economics, and the latter a movement in philosophy (see my 5 favorite books on that topic here) —both of them holding up logic and reason as pretty much the best thing since sliced bread.
But the rapid industrialization, mass production, rampant poverty, and pollution of newly transformed urban centers (like London) led to a sense of loneliness, pain, and suffering. The crystallization of rational ideas in the bloody French Revolution led many to become disillusioned with the ideals of the Enlightenment.
Enter the Romantics.
Romantics were all about embracing, celebrating, and depicting our feelings through poetry, prose, painting, and music. They were into the weird, the supernatural, the mystical, and any kind of experience that put a person in touch with something above and beyond their own sense of self: the sublime.
They often turned to the past for inspiration, like the Medieval days of yore. They glorified the individual, the common man, and his daily struggle, putting them on the pedestal and bumping off larger subjects like King and Country.
Romanticism was not just an isolated movement, but it spread all over the world, forever changing the landscape of art, music, and literature.
Writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby) were neo-Romantics, while writers like Stephen King have drawn inspiration from American predecessors like Edgar Allen Poe. Beethoven, The Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and Nationalism were all products of the Romantic movement.
No matter your style, any of these top 10 Romanticism books above will give you a great introduction to the life and thought processes of the Romantic Period.
Remember: there’s no bad book to start with…all you have to do is start reading!