This month the Jane Austen cultural juggernaut picks up steam with a quartet of creative new television adaptations on the Hallmark Channel. They’re delightful, but it made me wonder: Beyond “Bridgerton,” where are the new adaptation-worthy romance classics? Austen explored and often skewered the customs and constraints of her day, blending pure entertainment and social criticism. While their settings may only seem romantic in retrospect, some of her most beloved qualities are found in the increasingly expansive genre of historical romance: sharp observation, wit, character depth, and frequently beautiful language. Here are six inspired and enduring standouts from a murderer’s row of talent. Each one is ripe for a cinematic closeup.
1. ‘Wild Rain’ by Beverly Jenkins
“Indigo” may be the quintessential Jenkins, a story with social and political weight, steeped in period detail, that is also deeply romantic and heart-racing entertainment. But I’d also love to see more love for “Wild Rain,” a swoony western adventure with an unusual and multidimensional couple at the center. Spring is an embattled rancher who rescues and then falls in love with a journalist who’s passing through Wyoming on assignment and gets stuck in a snowstorm. Garrett epitomizes the kind of sweet hero that Black men in historical fiction are rarely afforded the space to be — soft, supportive, and quietly strong men who dote on their women and don’t mind when those women take the lead. He knows when to stand up for Spring and when to stand down. It’s great on the page and would be fantastic on screen.
2. ‘A Curious Beginning’ by Deanna Raybourn
While Deanna Raybourn’s sole contemporary title, the fabulous spy novel “Killers of a Certain Age,” was a popular and critical hit in 2022, the Veronica Speedwell historical romance/mystery series remains her most spectacular creation. (A brilliant ninth installment, “A Grave Robbery,” releases March 12.) The series starter boasts a cheeky sense of humor, crackling banter, and an intricate plot — Austen meets Agatha Christie in 1887 London. Veronica, a bold and iconoclastic spinster and dedicated lepidopterist (butterfly scholar and collector), has just survived a kidnapping and reluctantly partnered with Mr. Stoker, a roughly handsome and hostile hermit/secret Renaissance man, at the behest of a mutual acquaintance. Danger swirls around the pair as they sort through the cause of a series of very unfortunate events and try to survive without further bloodshed. Love and adventure ensue.
3. ‘Something Fabulous’ by Alexis Hall
This gloriously spicy Regency romp channels the satirical energy of “Emma” with a plot that is delightfully farcical: A runaway would-be fiancée is pursued cross country by her twin brother while he falls in love with her betrothed. Drama queen Arabella Tarleton and Valentine Layton, the Duke of Malvern, are a match made in hell, but dutiful and conventional Valentine has a hard time accepting that he would much rather shag Arabella’s brother, Mr. Bonaventure “Bonny” Tarleton. Alongside razor sharp characterization and frank explorations of sexuality, this absurd and poignant novel boasts beautiful writing. Hall’s prose reads like poetry in this pivotal moment: “this time, as the laughter broke free of his lips, it brought no tears with it. Instead, it came as easily as butterflies — and spiralled, jewel-winged, into the clear sky.”
4. ‘After the Wedding’ by Courtney Milan
Choosing just one Courtney Milan novel is a cruel exercise. This funny, heart-tuggingly romantic book — one of those historical romances in which both parties occupy somewhat precarious social positions — stars Adrian Hunter, a biracial man who grew up close to nobility but not of it. His mother was a duke’s daughter who lost her status and connections when she married a Black abolitionist. (As Milan writes, “His uncle had provided Adrian with some incredibly valuable lessons in how English society functioned. One of those lessons was that being married to the wrong person was worse than being dead.”) His costar, Lady Camilla Worth, lost her place in society and her way when her father was convicted of treason. A series of manipulations leads to a literal shotgun marriage that these two lost, lonely people never want to end.
5. ‘An Extraordinary Union’ by Alyssa Cole
In Alyssa Cole’s historical romances, hard realities and romantic love seamlessly intertwine. People don’t stop needing or falling in love in times of strife. The first in a trilogy, this extraordinary, suspenseful novel was inspired by the life of Mary Richards Bowser, a Black Union spy who was a servant in prominent Confederate households. Her fictional equivalent, Elle Burns, is a freed woman and a spy who goes undercover as an enslaved woman in Richmond, Va. As a result, Elle is able to go unobserved at crucial moments, and pass valuable intelligence to the Union based on conversations she overheard while serving Confederate leaders. Elle’s mission grows more complicated with the addition of undercover agent Malcolm McCall, a detective posing as a Confederate soldier, who visits the household where Elle works and captures her heart.
6. ‘Band Sinister’ by KJ Charles
A brilliant writer is in exquisite form with this sweet and steamy romance that is also a tribute to found family and friendship (and a spot-on Georgette Heyer homage). Guy Frisby and his sister Amanda have been living in seclusion after a family scandal. Now their ignominy may be compounded by bad luck. When Amanda breaks her leg in a riding accident and is taken in by their neighbor, her brother fears that she’ll suffer irreparable damage to her reputation, recuperating in an infamous den of iniquity. Sir Philip Rockwood is a notorious rake; rumors abound about goings-on at his “hellfire club.” But when Guy rushes to protect his sister, he’s the one thoroughly charmed and seduced. Charles elegantly uses language to build character. When a friend wonders about Sir Philip’s involvement with the younger man, six words — “a strait-laced bundle of rustic nerves” — capture Guy as well as how Philip’s friends see Guy, and the social gap between them.
Carole V. Bell is a Jamaican-born writer, critic, and media researcher.