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Get passionate over these ten books about love, sex and romance

Where would we be without love, sex and romance? As part of Novels That Shaped Our World, we’re using the month of St Valentine to get passionate about books which fulfil our universal desire to find human connections. From the societal Pride and Prejudice to Jilly Cooper’s steamy Riders, join the conversation on novels that speak to the heart.

The panel have chosen these novels on the theme of Love, Sex & Romance: Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding; Forever by Judy Blume; Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin; Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen; Riders by Jilly Cooper; The Far Pavilions by M.M. Kaye; The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak; Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston; The Passion by Jeanette Winterson; The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton

Love comes in all forms: from Jane Austen, exploring the search for the appropriate partner in Pride and Prejudice, to its latter day spin-off, Helen Fielding’s much-loved Bridget Jones’s Diary, which follows the life of a single woman in London trying to make sense of life.

Controversy lurks behind many of these novels, as in Judy Blume’s Forever and Jilly Cooper’s Riders, which have both been subject to questions over their content.

What is undeniable is the love that readers have for these books, finding in them the escape and desire they seek. Read on to get under the skin of the 10 novels and then join the debate.

The Novels Survey

Helen Fielding worked for many years in London as a newspaper and TV journalist, and Bridget Jones’s Diary began as a newspaper column.

Bridget is a ‘singleton’ navigating life in London in her thirties - love, friends, family and career. Her constant resolutions to lose weight, and to quit smoking, drinking, and bad men, are hindered by her loveable lack of will power, making her a relatable and iconic character.

Bridget Jones epitomises the woman trying to ‘have it all’ and wondering if that is possible in the 1990s.

Book Club Questions

1. How does the book explore gender relations in the 1990s?

2. Is Bridget Jones a feminist? And can Bridget Jones’s Diary be read as a feminist text?

3. Bridget is often described as a quintessentially modern English woman. Is this description still relevant to women in 2020?

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I honestly expected the Bridget Jones column would be axed after six weeks for being too silly.
Helen Fielding on Bookclub

Making the choice about when, where and to whom she should lose her virginity is a big decision for Katherine – until she meets Michael.

Katherine and Michael, who are both in their final year of school, fall in love quickly, deeply and promise to remain in love forever. Within this candid tale of first love, Forever tackles themes ranging from teen sexuality and friendship, to mental health crises and grief.

Book Club Questions

1. Why has Forever been such a frequent target of banning and censorship? Do you agree that it should be censored?

2. What role do the attitudes of other characters towards sex and love play in shaping Katherine’s own feelings? For example, her various friends, Michael, her different family members, or even society?

3. Forever was first published in 1975. How relevant would you consider the book today?

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This was a pivotal book for my generation. It was so important for exploring the undoubted adolescent interest in relationships and sex.
Gemma Cairney

Giovanni’s Room explores the subject of love and sex from a gay perspective. A tragic tale of homosexual love in 1950s Paris from the viewpoint of an American protagonist freed from homeland constraints.

David renounces a tortured and passionate affair with Italian barman Giovanni, abandoning him in favour of marriage to fellow American Hella with terrible consequences for all involved.

Book Club Questions

1. How does the novel treat the theme of relationships and marriage?

2. How are women treated in the novel? Do you agree with the views portrayed?

3. How does Giovanni’s room become a metaphor for his relationship with David?

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In quitting America, I began to see it as an attempt at self-delusion, a fear of looking any deeper into myself. I had told myself I was going to be free - free even of colour - and I was going to be as good a writer as I could be. God and Satan and Mississippi notwithstanding.
James Baldwin, Guardian Archive,1962

Pride & Prejudice follows Elizabeth Bennet and her four sisters as they feel the pressure from their family, and wider society, to find appropriate suitors and be married off.

A classic of English literature, this novel is filled with comedy, giving a fascinating insight into manners, education, marriage, and money during the Regency era in the United Kingdom.

Book Club Questions

1. We only hear about Lydia’s exploits through the lens of Elizabeth and her other family members. How do you think Lydia would tell her side of the story?

2. In a time period and social class where women have little agency over their romantic lives, what kinds of things does the book portray as valuable currency for women when attracting suitors?

3. How relevant is social class to the novel? How do you think it influences the behaviour of the characters?

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Jane Austen is the only writer I have adapted whom I feel awe and reverence for.
Screenwriter Andrew Davies at Hay Festival 2003

Riders details the often-explicit lives of upper class equestrian enthusiasts in the English countryside. The novel follows underdog Jake Lovell and aristocratic anti-hero Rupert Campbell-Black - rivals both in show jumping and in sex - as they gallivant between lavish parties and international courses.

Affectionately labelled by the media as the “original bonkbuster”, the first instalment of Jilly Cooper’s Rutshire Chronicles has become synonymous with sex, scandal, and more sex.

Book Club Questions

1. The explicit descriptions of sex in Riders were seen as shocking when it was first published in 1985 – how would these be received if it was released now?

2. How do sex, class and power intersect in the novel?

3. Do you think the novel admires or satirises the excesses of the aristocracy?

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Jilly Cooper is capable of making a show jumping event sound so compelling that readers risk damaging their hands, because they’re gripping their books so hard.
Daisy Buchanan

This is a swashbuckling story of adventure and romance. It tells the story of Ashton Pelham-Martyn, an English man brought up as a Hindu (and struggling with his identity), his life in the British Army in India, and his passionate love affair with an Indian mixed-race princess.

It is also a vivid picture of India under the Raj – from the cool of the mountains to the overwhelming heat of the plains, and the rich variety of its life and social and religious conflicts.

Book Club Questions

1. To what extent do you think that the relationship between Ash and Juli mirrors that between England and India in the nineteenth century?

2. What do you think of Ash’s attitude towards Juli? Is he heroic or selfish?

3. How does the book make you feel about the attitude of the British to other nations? And how much do you feel that has changed now?

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Too many would-be writers seem to think one must wait for inspiration. But if I had, I’d never have written a line.
MM Kaye

Ella Rubinstein has the perfect life – a husband, three children, a Labrador, and a lovely home. Or does she?

When faced with a manuscript charting the spiritual union of Sufi mystic Shams of Tabriz and poet Rumi, Ella is forced to confront the increasing loneliness and emptiness she feels inside. Not to mention her growing infatuation with its mysterious author, Aziz…

Book Club Questions

1. Why do you think the author interspersed the manuscript of ‘Sweet Blasphemy’ between the chapters about Ella? Was this an effective literary device?

2. How did Ella’s view of love change throughout the book?

3. How do you think people would view Shams and Rumi’s friendship today?

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Populism is a fake answer to real problems... Now we know that no countries are immune to toxic populism or toxic nationalism, in fact we’re all in the same boat together.
Elif Shafak at the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2019

Set in Florida in the early 20th Century, Their Eyes Were Watching God charts the romantic quest of Janie Crawford, a sixteen-year-old girl married off to an older man.

The reader sees Janie evolve from girl to woman through three marriages, seeking to find her voice, identity and real love.

Book Club Questions

1. What expectations do the characters in the novel have of the role of women - particularly wives - and how does Janie react to these expectations?

2. In what ways has society’s notions of love and marriage changed since the time in which the novel was set?

3. The novel is set in Eatonville, an all-black community in Florida, during a period of enforced segregation in the Southern United States. In light of this setting, how does the novel portray the themes of freedom and restriction?

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Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me.
Zora Neale Hurston

The Passion is an astonishing exploration of two interrelated narratives during the Napoleonic wars, across the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Seen from the perspective of Henri, a servant to Napoleon himself, and Villanelle, a Venetian girl shrouded in myth and superstition, the novel is an unflinching examination of love, passion, desire and sexuality set against the backdrop of one of the most influential chapters of Europe’s history.

Book Club Questions

1. Why is the book called The Passion? What is ‘passion’ in the novel?

2. What is the importance of telling stories in the novel? What about truth?

3. How do the real historical characters and action affect the novel? Does it matter if they are accurate representations? Do you trust the narrators?

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The Bible shaped me; Virginia Woolf’s Orlando shaped my imagination; and Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities gave me the courage to write whatever I wanted.
Jeanette Winterson, Financial Times, 2009

A bleak yet comic tale of life in a wartime boarding house. A set of mismatched, dispossessed and solitary characters are thrown together by the war.

The Second World War is being waged and at the same time these characters are undergoing their own war of personalities every time they sit down to eat in the dining room. This novel cleverly unpicks the idea that war brings people together.

Book Club Questions

1. Mr Thwaites is a great comic creation – which other monstrous characters from other novels does he bring to mind?

2. Why do you think Miss Roach was so named by the author?

3. Are there any ‘decent’ people in this novel?

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I'm so full of love for that character, I just think it's a work of brilliance.
Kathy Burke on Patrick Hamilton's Hangover Square

Book Club Questions on Love, Sex & Romance

To round off our 10 novels in the Love, Sex & Romance theme, here are five stimulating questions to ponder. And below, to continue exploring, try our further reading suggestions.

1. Why do you think love, sex and romance feature so much in novels?

2. How does social class intersect with love, sex and romance?

3. Many novels are seen as ‘of their time’ in the way they portray sex and relationships. What do you think has changed?

4. Do you think it’s right that many ‘sexually explicit’ novels have been banned or censored in countries around the world?

5. Romance is one of the oldest subject matters, which be traced back both to stories of knights and maidens in medieval stories, and the ancient myths. Why do you think it has stayed so popular?

The Novels Survey

More novels exploring Love, Sex & Romance

Call Me By Your Name by André Aciman

Dangerous Liaisons by Choderlos de Laclos

The Mystery of Mercy Close by Marian Keyes

The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride

The Pisces by Melissa Broder

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