Romance doesn’t always play out against a backdrop of birds singing and flowers blooming, some of the most-loved romantic novels of all time make a powerful use of night-time. As a turning point, a metaphor or simply to create the most magical and mysterious atmosphere, the night is full of possibility for a writer of romantic novels. It’s a time when hopes, fears and regrets plague heroes and heroines, a time when the constraints and conventions of the day fall away, and a time when secrets will out.
For the reader, too, the night is a wonderful time. There’s something delicious about drawing down blinds, lowering the lights in a comfortable corner or retiring to bed and escaping to another place and time entirely. Of course, it’s a ritual that may take us back to our days as children, but reading by lamplight with darkness all around, it’s hard not to feel some connection to a more distant time too, when stories might have been told around fires. Ending the day with the next chapter of a captivating book is the perfect way to unwind, a portal between the demands of the day and restful sleep.
So, if you’re looking for an escapist evening read, I’m sharing my five favourite classic romantic novels that evoke night-time. They may not all offer happy endings, but they’ll more than likely help you on your way to a peaceful night. And if you’re interested in a lighter read, you can always stroll through the backstreets of Rome and Florence by night with my own romcom novel The Art Trip!
1. The Return of the Native – Thomas Hardy
Immerse yourself in the fading light of nightfall on Thomas Hardy’s Edgon Heath, inspired by his native Dorset. In an astonishing piece of writing, Hardy opens the novel with a whole chapter describing the heathland as it descends into darkness, conjuring a spell-binding atmosphere and setting up the landscape as a forceful and foreboding character in itself, before any human life appears on the scene.
Fires then begin to spring up across the bare landscape, marking out small settlements and dotting the horizon. It’s November 5th, Bonfire Night. The locals are commemorating Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot, but gather around the flames with strong echoes of older, pagan superstitions which run through the novel. In the darkness, a pony-drawn cart is being driven by mysterious red man, whilst elsewhere a hot-headed woman, the heroine Eustacia Vye, waits alone beside her own fire. You won’t be able to help but imagine yourself out there in the darkness of the heath as the connection between these strange events begins to unfold.
2. The English Patient – Michael Ondaatje
In Ondaatje’s masterpiece of a novel, the Second World War is coming to a close, but time in the story isn’t linear. Instead, along with the titular hero, Almasy, we slip between consciousness and sleep, memory and dream, drug-induced delirium and painful clarity. Nights present and past blur together, as he recovers his recollections or faces the realities of his actions, prompted by the scrapbook of memories inside his copy of Herodotus and by faces from the past.
It’s difficult to say which is most magical, the pictures Ondaatje paints of nights in a beautiful, abandoned Tuscan villa, where Almasy is tended by Canadian nurse Hanna, or those of nights at an expedition camp in the Sahara, where Almasy met and fell fatefully in love with Englishwoman Katharine Clifton. With its compelling romantic storyline, the poetry of Ondaatje’s language and underlying meditation on what really matters, The English Patient will transport you far outside yourself, leaving the day far behind.
3. Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë
The chances are you’ve read Jane Eyre at least once before, but the chances are it was years ago too. The classic novel is a rite of passage read, perhaps one of the first adult novels we tackled. If that’s the case, I’d urge you to revisit the book, and with it, Thornfield Hall, which, by night, is a fantastically eery and unnerving place.
For those who enjoy mystery and a little suspense without the full gruesomeness of the crime or horror genres, Jane Eyre is a perfect read. The strange sounds in the depths of the night, glimpses of figures stealing along the old corridors, and of course, Mr Rochester in his nightshirt, will sweep you up in the drama safe in the knowledge that whatever’s amiss is one hundred and seventy years in the past. Just don’t read it by candlelight.
4. The Wings of the Dove – Henry James
Hear water lapping at Venice’s ancient stones, slip away into the maze of alleyways and bridges, then step inside an ancient palazzo for a glittering Edwardian party with Henry James’ poignant novel. American heiress Milly Theale travels to Europe to live life to the full, and to love. Captivated by her new friends Kate Croy and Merton Densher, she explores the city with them, her spirit and her goodness captivating them in turn. In their close triangle, feelings of friendship and love blur, and motives good and ill tangle, as the three learn more about each other and themselves.
It’s hard to think of a better place to drift away to at night than Venice, La Serenissima, and it’s lovely to catch a glimpse of the city in the days before it bustled with quite so many day visitors. You can bob and roll in your own gondola, falling under the spell of the place and that of Milly yourself, before sinking gently into sleep.
5. The End of the Affair – Graham Greene
You might be warm and snug inside, but that feeling is only heightened by a storm outside, so turn up your collar and step out into a black, wet January night in post-war London with Graham Greene’s heartbreaking novel. Follow the hero Bendrix as he looks back to a chance encounter. Emerging from his bedsit one night and picking his way down bomb-damaged steps to walk across Clapham Common in the teeming rain, he saw Henry Miles approaching. The reasons Bendrix was out walking on such a vile night and why he decided to stop Henry begin to unravel, and with them the story of a tragic wartime love affair.
In a startling opening to the novel, Greene, through Bendrix, declares the story a record of hate as much as love. Read on through the initial bitterness and regret, though, and there emerges a deeply moving and thought-provoking story dealing with passion, fate and faith. If pondering some of life’s bigger questions helps you put the issues of the day aside, The End of the Affair could be for you.