By Kenneth Gloss
Romance novels, in one form or another, have been around virtually as long as writers have been penning stories. Some of the more famous ones were written by the Bronte sisters and also by Jane Austen. Many of these early novels are resurging in popularity as Hollywood takes them and converts their tales into movies. Those box office dollars often translate into increased demand for the early works. An original first edition of a Bronte or an Austen novel can be worth thousands of dollars, depending on the rarity of the edition.
What sets those two authors apart is their innovation in writing. Their plots and themes set the trend for many novels that followed. Decades of authors have written stories about mysterious men and strong women who escaped the traps of their lives by the end of the book.
The true original romances are found in fairy tales, in the love story between Cinderella and Prince Charming who swept her away from her dreary life. The romances that were written in the ensuing decades either repeated this theme or were so grand in scale and scope that they allowed readers to live vicariously through the exciting lives of the characters. Gone with the Wind is a classic love story (even though it didn’t have a happy ending), complete with a larger-than-life panoramic backdrop and multi-generational scope.
The popularity of that novel is clear in its price tag, too. A first edition of Margaret Mitchell’s classic (which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1937) runs $2500 to $3500, depending on its condition.
It takes a special combination of story, tragedy and conflict to create a romance novel that endures decades of reader popularity. Not every book written 100 or 200 years ago was good, however. Many people complain about the paucity of quality modern novels, when in fact, many of the books written in the 19th century weren’t all that well written. Some of the books were very formulaic and predictable. Ultimately, as with any book, it’s the writing and the story that set one book apart from another.
The books of the 19th century also weren’t as explicit in description of romantic encounters as today’s books are. A great deal was inferred, leaving the rest behind closed doors. There were a few books that bucked that trend, like Tom Jones, but it was rare. What little sexuality there was in those books was frowned upon by censors. The novels written around the turn of the century were mainly sold by subscription because they weren’t deemed proper enough to be sold in stores.
The popularity of romance novels skyrocketed 50-plus years ago when Harlequin began producing paperback versions that made the books cheaper and more accessible to the general public. Collecting a vast number of Harlequins is a nearly impossible task because they were meant to be read and eventually discarded. People who collect one certain author and want earlier Harlequins that someone like Nora Roberts has written may end up paying 20 to 100 dollars for a book that probably cost no more than three dollars when it was released. It’s the books that were worth the least at the time of release that are usually the hardest to track down.
With the wide selection of romance novels and types of novels, from the gothic romances to the paranormals like Anne Rice’s Dracula, one can begin a collection at almost any point and have a great deal of selection available. There are people who collect books by certain authors, ones that had interesting covers or books that were illustrated. As far as I know, there is no bookstore that specializes in antiquarian romance novels. However, nearly all good stores will stock a variety of romance novels and carry the high-demand ones by Austen, Bronte and other romantic writers.
Romance novels provide a vivid social picture of the mores and customs of the time when they were written. Mitchell’s novel paints a picture of a world filled with balls and debutantes that was ripped apart by a brutal war. Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare’s classic romantic play, shows the devastating consequences of wars between families. Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina depicts the constraints of life in Russia at that time, coupled with the consequences of bucking social traditions. Many collectors seek books that provide the fictionalized version of life at a particular time, find that the authors often had a true handle on their world.
Some people collect books written in specific settings or romances from particular time periods, like Regency England. Each individual collector’s interests will usually dictate the area on which he or she chooses to focus.
No matter which type of romance novels a collector selects, there is bound to be a wide variety of books to choose from. These types of books are sometimes even spotted at garage sales or library sales because the value of an early Bronte isn’t always as clearly seen as that of a first edition Dickens, for instance. These were books that were read and enjoyed by hundreds of people over hundreds of years. Their classic themes of love conquering all live on in the hearts of many readers and collectors. Starting a collection of romance novels can provide both reading entertainment and a glimpse of the enduring power of love.
Ken Gloss is the owner of the Brattle Book Shop in Boston, the oldest antiquarian bookstore in the United States. 2011 is the 65th year of Gloss family ownership. Ken has been seen numerous times on PBS’ Antiques Roadshow. For further information about his upcoming talks visit the shop in Boston’s Downtown Crossing, the website at www.brattlebookshop.com or call 1-800-447-9595.