Yesterday, in a Twitter conversation about the romance community and its actual, or perceived insularity – one thing led to another, as they are wont to do on Twitter – and Miss Bates ended up posing the question: “How old were you when you read your first romance? Name it, please. She really likes lists.” Miss Bates is grateful to all respondents who shared memories of that one book, or author that/who sparked their love of the genre. What was interesting to Miss Bates wasn’t solely the titles and authors, the ages more so, the stories around them and the effect, impressions, and responses the romances elicited in their readers. These books, in the life of the reader, were threshold books, no matter how humble the category romance now dead to all except the squeal of the find at a church bazaar, books that led and guided romance readers to the genre.
What emerged, from what is only anecdotal evidence, is that these spirit-guide books are sometimes Poohs to our Christopher Robin. Many romance readers/tweeters read their first romance, though by no means all, at twelve, or thirteen, that important moment in a girl’s life when she’s tasted a bit of independence. Her body is strong; her mind, acute. But changes are on the horizon: she’s a filly nosing the spring air: something is coming, something new. A burgeoning sexual self, a budding and newer awareness of her identify. The blessings of being a reader (please read to your kids, parents, please take them to libraries and bookstores and let them explore and choose books) is that we can rehearse and muse and consider so many lives between the pages of a book.
Miss Bates cannot speak for her fellow-tweeps: why that book? What did she get out of it? We most surely bring so many things to our reading of a narrative. Miss Bates speculates that sexual curiosity may have led us to the romance novel. But it’s not the sole reason we read romance: the need to redefine how we negotiate relationships, relationships+: not family, not friendship, but the seeds of what we’d later understand as “cleaving,” to use an old-fashioned term, the physical and emotional attachment to The Other, daunting, exciting, and necessary.
For her part, Miss Bates was twelve, or thirteen. She remembers she was heavily involved and invested in the school musical, Baum’s The Wizard of Oz. She had a behind-the-scenes role as assistant director. It was thrilling to be a part of. But changes were on the horizon: she was leaving her inner-city neighbourhood and school, rich with cultural diversity and history, and moving to a new school and neighbourhood, something more staid and suburbaney. She recalls making production posters, setting up cues, pounding away at the stage set, and rehearsing actors and singers, all the while keeping her copy of Kathleen Woodiwiss’s The Flame and the Flower in her locker and sneaking a few pages during her lunch hour. What happened when Miss Bates posed this question about when and which romance on Twitter? To follow, her list of wonderful women and their younger selves and ur-romances (links to things are provided where Miss B. can). If you were part of the Twitter convo and Miss Bates inadvertently left you off the list, please let her know in the comments, or tweet her!
Those Who Read Their First Romance On the Cusp of Adolescence, Or Younger … Eek!:
Olivia at five read a Johanna Lindsey “space romp” (but it was confiscated by her mom!)
Helena Kendrick at seven read L. M. Montgomery’s The Blue Castle
Meoskop at nine, or ten read Kathleen Woodiwiss’ The Wolf and the Dove
Shelley Ann C. at nine, or ten read Betty Layman Receveur’s Oh, Kentucky
Kat at ten read a Mills and Boon and, at twelve, remembers Charlotte Lamb’s Secret Obsession
Julia Broadbooks at ten, or eleven read ALL of Barbara Cartland
Gen Turner at ten, or eleven read Angela Wells’ Fortune’s Fool
Las at eleven read two HPs by Emma Darcy and Charlotte Lamb
Heather Stanton at eleven read gothics by Phyllis Whitney & Victoria Holt, then Loveswepts & Harlequins
Anne Gresley at eleven read Shirlee Busbee’s Gypsy Lady
Allison at eleven read her mom’s copies of Harlequins and Kathleen Woodiwiss’ The Wolf and the Dove
Vi at eleven, or twelve read Lillian Peake’s Man of Granite
Elizabeth Blackwell at twelve read Willo Davis Roberts’ To Share A Dream
GC at twelve read Georgette Heyer’s Arabella
Joanne at twelve read Heyer’s Beauvallet, or False Colours
Emily Jane H. at twelve read Emilie Loring’s Here Comes the Sun
Janet Webb at twelve read Georgette Heyer’s Regency Buck
Alanna at twelve read Sandra Brown’s Hidden Fires
Kaetrin at twelve read Shirlee Busbee’s Gypsy Lady
Miranda Neville at twelve read Georgette Heyer’s Powder and Patch
Vassiliki at twelve read a title she can’t remember, set on an Australian station, also Sara Craven’s Sup With the Devil
Ruth at twelve, or thirteen read Mary Stewart’s The Ivy Tree
Amie Stuart at twelve, or thirteen read The Wolf and the Dove
Christine at twelve, or thirteen read a Barbara Cartland
Liz at twelve, or thirteen read a Barbara Cartland
Jessica at twelve, or thirteen was sick at home when her mother brought a bag full of romances!
Ros Clarke at twelve, or thirteen, read Barbara Cartland and Georgette Heyer
Lexxi Callahan at thirteen fell in love with Violet Winspear
Clarissa at thirteen read a Barbara Cartland
Ronnie at fourteen read Nora Roberts’ Honest Illusions
Claudia at fourteen read Kathleen E. Woodiwiss’ Shanna
Lazaraspaste at fourteen read Mary Stewart’s Nine Coaches Waiting
And there were other times, places, and memories of first romances that emerged.
Those Who Read Their First Romance In, or Past Adolescence:
Miss Bates loved Molly O’Keefe’s enthusiastic love for a Harlequin Desire she read about a formerly married couple, with a racing car driver hero, who crashes, is nursed and then abandoned by the nurse heroine. He woos her back. If anyone can help Molly find this title, we’d both be grateful!
Jeannie Lin whose first romance was Jayne Ann Krentz’s Gift of Gold
Isobel Carr, turned off from the genre when she read Johanna Lindsey’s The Fires of Winter; Heyer brought her back
M. Harvey reading Kathleen Woodiwiss’ Ashes In the Wind
Michele Mills reading M. M. Kaye and Victoria Holt
Penny Watson, who adopted a baby and felt the pressures of new-mom-dom acutely, turned to romance as respite
Brie at fifteen reading Jude Deveraux’s The Velvet Promise
MN Bonnie, at fifteen, reading LaVyrle Spencer’s Years
Elizabeth Lane, at sixteen, finding her love of romance with a Julie Garwood
Kathy Kent, at sixteen, reading Linda Lael Miller’s Emma and the Outlaw
Donna Thorland, at seventeen, cementing her love of romance with a discovery of Dorothy Dunnett
Sandra Schwab, at 23, finding the genre when she read Stephanie Laurens’ A Rake’s Vow
Lisa Hendrix, at 23, reading Kathleen Woodiwiss’ The Wolf and the Dove
Keishon, in early 20s, reading Victoria Holt’s The House of A 1000 Lanterns
Ridley, at 28, experiencing losses, started to read romance
Simone St. James whose first romance, at 29, was the sublime A Summer To Remember by Mary Balogh
Emma Barry, at 29, reading Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels and, like Miss B., using All About Romance’s 100 top romances and DIKs to search for more titles!
Sheila Athens, whose first romance, in her 30s, was Catherine Anderson’s Only By Your Touch
LVLMLeah, at 48, reading Tami Hoag
Diana, at 50, reading Linda Howard and Nora Roberts
For some of us, the early discovery of romance resulted in a reading romance hiatus. We left, to return years later. For Miss Bates, that hiatus took the form of 35 years of reading intensely, but outre-genre. What brought us back? Reasons vary, but again, Miss Bates ventures an idea, an idea that romance served not as Pooh to our Christopher Robin in this case, but as Virgil to our Dante. The beautiful opening to The Divine Comedy: “In the middle of the journey of our life I came to myself within a dark wood where the straight way was lost” (trans. John D. Sinclair). Hinting at dark places, romance lead us, if not back, then to a place of possibility and reconciliation.
If nothing else, Miss Bates hopes this post shows one iota of the myriad romance readers: We Are Not A Monolith. And love for the genre, but most of all for weaving the life of the imagination into our everyday lives. And finding in beloved books, milestones, stepping stones, hearths, and bulwarks against the buffeting of our lives. And sharing them, with each other, family and friends. There are as many reasons we read romance as there are variations on a trope-theme. Thus, dear readers, what of you? What started you reading romance? The hows and wherefores? Miss Bates would love to hear the story of how old you were, where you were, and what you read that sparked love for the genre. Tell her all about it in the comments.