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
Willaful at eleven, or twelve read Barbara Cartland’s Bewitched and later wrote this great post about rereading first romances at Heroes and Heartbreakers (check it out!)
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.
65 thoughts on “Of Twitter and Other Things: “How Old Were You When You Read Your First Romance? Name It, Please!””
I love this!
I should admit that I read, quite literally, buckets of romance before Dunnett, probably starting around the age of 12, but none of it stuck with me. I was a voracious reader, but had already picked up on the none-too-subtle vibe that smart girls “didn’t.” During the school year I read all the “good” books my teachers gave me and I’ll confess that I’m still a sucker for the clean prose of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Faulkner, but my summers were consecrated to genre reading: scifi, mystery, horror, romance. My brother and his wife would save up their books all year and I’d consume them in a white hot streak, then lug them to the dear departed Paperback Exchange in downtown Bergenfield and turn them in for a percent of cover price, and of course more books. I still have the crumbling 1960s paperbacks where I first met Lovecraft and E. E. Doc Smith and Dorothy Sayers. I know that I read Woodiwiss and Rogers and Small during that period, but in those days my heart belonged to deep space and dead bodies and eldritch horrors.
It took me a little time after finishing the Lymond Chronicles to realize that while those books were marketed as historical fiction, the pleasures they delivered belonged to the romance genre. I kept trying to recapture the magic of Dunnett–the thrilling adventures and complex relationships–in other books set during the same period, but it wasn’t Scotland or the 16th century I was craving. It was a deeply emotional story about flawed but fundamentally good characters that I wanted.
Thank you for sharing that wonderful story! I don’t think there’s anything as magical as childhood reading. Maybe because, those those of us who read this way, or at least for me, school wasn’t much of a challenge time-wise, I wasn’t being ushered to any activities, and the long leisurely summers left no time but to read. I mourn how BUSY young people are these days … boy, don’t I sound like an old fogey! I didn’t have a bucolic childhood, grew up in the heart of the city, but there was always a nook, a corner, and some quiet to read read read. I think this childhood reading is what makes readers and writers. Also schoolmarms and English majors … 😉
There are still plenty of kids and teens reading in every spare moment of the day, I promise you! Everything they can lay their hands on, just like we did.
That’s great: I hope I get to meet some!
Awesome post, thanks for putting it together! I guess I didn’t give my age — I was the mean, 11 or 12. I believe I was given my first romances by my older sister’s friend.
Thank you! I’ll actually move that around, I do like my symmetry.
I missed your Twitter poll! I was about 12, complaining of boredom during our annual summer visit to Mom’s family. My aunt, a soap opera and Harlequin devotee, gave me a brown paper grocery bag full of Harlequin Presents. I devoured them, and another bag every summer for the next six years or so. Then came college, and no more mandatory family trips; I didn’t read another romance novel until I was in my late 40s. My rediscovery of the genre came through encountering Smart Bitches’ plagiarism posts, and falling hard for Candy’s recommendations.
I love this story!! And you’re here now: yay!
I was also around 12 – amd it was one of my mother’s Georgette Heyer’s – I think it was Powder and Patch
Another adolescent cusp! I love it. Thank you for sharing.
So cool to see everyone’s first books! It’s interesting that Fires of Winter turned another historical author off of the genre because it was the book that hooked me on to historical romance. My first Johanna Lindsey. First of many. *blushes*
That is truly a wonderful juxtaposition how one book can turn someone off and the same book can turn someone off! I remember taking a college course with a lovely very serious woman who spent the whole course arguing that the romance narrative was destructive to women, that is fostered/bolstered/colluded in violence against them … as a final paper we had to read a category romance and analyze how it supported paternalism, and the submission of the heroine. Admittedly, there was no beta hero in the one I read, but I still remember vividly it’s orange-glow cover (it had “Lion” in the title, I think) how much I secretly loved reading it. And yet, I really liked my teacher, and I wrote that paper too, ashamed of my enjoyment, but agreeing with her that there were problems here. I’m not angry with this long-ago and now lost to the mists of memory teacher, but I sometimes wish I could meet her again and throw a few titles at her and say, “Look, these wonderful things are being written.” I’d include a Jeannie Lin in that conversion package too.
Discovering AAR’s top 100 romances was life changing for me. Because of AAR I learned PNR existed – devouring Nalini Singh, JR Ward, and Kresley Cole like a hungry teenage boy. AAR also lead me to Patricia Gaffney and Loretta Chase. I’m forever grateful to their treasure trove of lists and DIKs, going back to 1996? The best thing evah! 🙂
Yes, like Emma Barry, when I started reading romance again after many many too many years, those lists meant everything to me because I knew that if I read one title from them, then a whole possibility of glom an author’s backlist lay behind it. For example, did I ever read a lot of Balogh and I still love her. So, they didn’t just give me great romance novels to read, but led me to other too. I also loved the search feature with the DIK narrowing, I read a lot of those too and still have some in the TBR!
Oh, I’d almost forgotten. When I was about 20, I borrowed a Balogh from the library – Dancing With Clara. I loved it, and looked everywhere for more books by her, but never found any. She’s not shelved in bookstores here and back then I couldn’t find her in any other libraries either. I do wish romance was more prominently featured in bookshops and libraries here. It tends to be just categories, and then anything else is shelved in general fiction, which makes it hard for beginning genre readers. Other genres (mystery, SF etc) get their own sections, but not romance.
Romance on the shelves is an interesting, i. e., disappearing entity. We only have one major English bookstore chain here and it does have a diminishing romance section. Heck, it has a diminishing book section. The store used to be about 80% books, now I’d say it’s no more than 50% books, with the rest made up of knickknacks, food, a café, and tech section. The romance section is getting smaller and smaller and it was, and still is, situated at the store’s backend, along with a horror section. The mystery section has its own nook and is quite lovely, with an armchair and all. I think that a lot of romance is read as “e” and that may also explain the diminished shelves. Our one or two good English libraries do the same: they barely have a category section and the romance is shelved with general fiction and there isn’t very much of it.
The year–1958. I was ten and there was this brand new book–‘The Witch of Blackbird Pond’. I loved it and from then on I was on the hunt for historical fiction with a love story. By age twelve or so, I had graduated to adult historical fiction (Costain–The Black Rose! sigh…) and was voracious in my reading . I added modern settings by reading my first Mary Stewart (Moonspinners,1962, the year it came out). I didn’t discover Heyer until the Bantam re-print of ‘These Old Shades'(1967?). And the Barbara Cartland reprints that soon followed. So of course, by the time ‘The Flame and the Flower’ came out, I snatched it up.
I have never fallen out of love with romance (even my favorite mysteries all have a love story buried in them somewhere and woe betide the mystery author who kills off the protagonist’s significant other!(I never read the author again!). (I am more willing to forgo the love element in my SFF reading for some reason, though I do like it when it appears.)
Thanks for the wonderful lists and discussion.
You are most welcome! I loved reading about the trajectory of your reading: it is really a reflection of mine! I read Speare’s The Witch of Blackbird Pond, from our school library, and then ordered it from Scholastic Books (how I loved those order forms when they came in!) and read and reread and reread it. That final court scene: totally sigh-worthy. Then I read all of Costain: going to Classics Bookstore and begging my mother to buy me books, books, books. The Black Rose, read for the romance and setting, was my favourite!!!! Mary Stewart I read for the first time as Miss B. and in my middle age: but I loved Madam, Will You Talk? fiercely. I’m hoarding her other titles to read this summer!
I fell in love with romance … abandoned it for what I thought were more exalted waters … and returned as a supplicant!
Thank you for sharing your reading story!
Oh yes! Scholastic Book Club!! I would guess that at least half of the books on my early bookcases were from that source. I know that my first copy of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ was from the SBC!. Happy memories.
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They are lovely memories! Me too: my bookshelves were filled with their books!
This is so interesting. Is it okay, even though I’m not on twitter, to contribute my own experience as a reader?
By the time I was ten, I had read countless of Corin Tellado (see here) and Barbara Cartland stories in magazines when staying at my grandmother’s for one reason or another. I never thought of them as romances. I have always marked the beginning of my addiction to romance novels as my reading, at 11, of EM Hull’s The Sheik. I still have that copy, night on four decades and four countries later.
I have read other things, at times more of those other things (notably mystery and science fiction) than romance, but I have never truly stopped reading romance.
Of course, it’s absolutely okay!! That’s why I posted the list: to give everyone a chance to tell their story, especially if you’re not on Twitter. (It’s a time-suck, but I love it.)
Oh, I love that your first romance is such an ur-romance: I have it and mean to read it one day. I think that I can’t review sheikh romances without having done so as it informs that particular romance convention.
Wow, Corin Tellado was so incredibly prolific: she puts Betty Neels to shame. I’m fascinated by the telenovella. I quite like reading mysteries too: and have even reviewed a few here. If they have a strong romantic thread woven into the mystery narrative, I like them even better.
It’s worth noting that most of Ms Collado’s stories are quite short, and most are also very much of the times. She did write some erotic romance later on, but I can’t say that I’ve read it–I was never too fond of her writing voice.
If you do decide to read The Sheik, be aware that the eponymous character rapes the heroine, repeatedly, as the story unfolds. The rapes are never on page, though, but still, the whole relationship hinges on the two characters falling for each other while he holds her hostage and rapes her as the whim strikes.
Yes, I’m aware of THE SHEIKH’S content: if it’s problematic, and it is off-page, as you put: my tolerance is pretty low (despite reading mysteries for years), I’ll skim, or skip, or stop reading altogether. 🙂
My first romance was Heyer’s Lady of Quality, and I didn’t read it until my late twenties. When I read Faro’s Daughter (the first Heyer I loved) and found Loretta Chase and Mary Balogh, I knew that historical romance was the genre for me. I’ll be emailing soon, Miss Bates.
Greetings! Thank you for sharing your first romances! Don’t worry about email: when you can 🙂
I’m sorry I missed that Twitter convo! Anyhow, I’m going to guess that I was 11-12 and while browsing in the youth room at the public library, I found a series of books about twin sisters and their dating adventures and more. I wish I could remember the titles and author because I re-read them several times. I think one of the twins was named Peggy. But the series definitely included the sisters’ romances and I was hooked on anything that hinted at romance. Not too much later I discovered Emilie Loring, Grace Livingston Hill, and Barbara Cartland. I spent a ton of babysitting money buying up those books at used book sales. When I was 16 I discovered Heyer. And so on and so forth…
What a wonderful story! Thank you for sharing it. Maybe someone will read the thread and find your titles! I think I had a similar experience with Beverly Cleary’s Fifteen about a girl in love with the HS hunk. It stayed with me how much I loved that book: I think there was a fight, with brass knuckles, or maybe I’m mixing it up with something else I read, in any case, it was very 1950s-ish, but I loved it. And the romance stayed with me too!
I’m fascinated by the financing of romance: I don’t know about you, but the babysitting money hints, but I didn’t have free rein to spend as much as I wanted on books. That’s really all I ever wanted to spend money on; oh, and clothes/shoes. I guess some things never change! But how we financed and still finance our romance reading is fascinating to me. I suspect that, for most of us, writing it doesn’t make us a lot of money and buying it isn’t always easy.
Back in my home town, the local chapter of the AAUW held an annual used book sale that attracted a ton of donations. The sale was held over several days and on the last day you could fill a paper grocery bag for a dollar. I made $0.50 an hour back then. I didn’t have much money, but I could buy enough to last for months on the last day of the sale. I remember doing that for some 5 or 6 years in a row until I moved away when I was 18.
That is such a terrific story: I have paper bags filled with categories and other romances dancing around in my head and I love it!
Well, I’m late to the party, but there’s a really good reason. I couldn’t remember the name of the darn thing and wasn’t sure of the author’s name. All I could remember for sure was something about the outback and tennis and that the cover art had the heroine in an unfortunate pair of pigtails. But Eureka, I finally found it!
My first romance was a Harlequin I bought at a used book store when I was 15. There’s a whole boatload of irony incoming when I tell you the title. It’s …. This Too I’ll Remember by Mons Daveson. 🙂 But I recognized the cover immediately (Google it. You’ll see what I mean.) and, of course, the synopsis gave me Blair (my hero) and Deirdre (pigtails!). After that I began to haunt that bookstore every weekend. I was such a regular customer that the owner would put ones in a stack with my name on them. So it may not have been the most memorable, but it led to lots of other great books.
To the romance feast, all are invited and welcome, early or late!
What an absolutely marvelous story: I loved it. And yes, I did google the cover and it is priceless. (As are Mons Daveson’s other covers, though, of the ones I saw, they are sans-pigtails.) I was so happy to ride your irony-boat, the belly-jiggling laughter is still going strong.
That ‘do is outrageously awful, isn’t it? So many of those old Harlequin covers were really beautiful, but this one is just sad. I wasn’t very discriminating then. In fact, I know I bought some pretty awful books just because I liked the cover art. After reading the books I would sketch the covers I loved or ones that needed tweaking. My mom rescued that sketch book from the trash and kept it for years in her mother’s trunk. I’m not sure what happened to it. I couldn’t find it in when I inventoried her house.
But, I very vividly remember trying out new hairstyles for poor Deirdre. That’s probably why I remembered the cover and not the title. 🙂
You know, truth be told, I AM A SUCKER FOR A HARLEQUIN COVER … which may explain my numerous DNF posts. I think I might want to explore the attraction of the romance cover and their reflection in notions of pop and classical art. That would be so interesting. Since they’re marketed specifically to women, I wonder what they tell us about the “female gaze.” Do you, or anyone reading this thread, know of any studies of this specific to romance covers?
I find the idea of your reworking the Harlequin covers utterly adorable and touching! I do wish you’d found that sketch book.
I don’t know of any specific studies, but that would be a fascinating post! I recently ordered a couple of used books on romance novel cover art, specifically the Harlequin line. One that I’m waiting for anxiously (I’d added it to my wish list after I did the Betty Binge last year) is titled The Art of Romance Harlequin Mills & Boone Cover Designs which allegedly has 200 covers. There’s bound to be a Betty in there! One reviewer complains that the artist’s/illustrator’s name is not consistently attributed with each cover in the book, but I’ll worry about that when (if!) it gets here. The other is The Look of Love: The Art of the Romance Novel by Jennifer McKnight-Trontz. This one has *some* Harlequin covers and spans 1940 to 1970. Hopefully these will arrive soon!
Those sound fantastic! Thanks for the titles: I’ll look for them too! I love the original Betty covers.
I have that book The Art of Romance Harlequin Mills & Boone Cover Designs. Lovely, lovely collection of covers, some styles that I remember from my childhood.
I remember how lovely those old Harlequin covers were! My first Harlequin was Call and I’ll Come by Mary Burchell (first published in 1936). The cover on Goodreads is the same one I have. I read it as a library book first, then found it in a bargain bin at the lake one summer many years later. Still in perfect condition!
Thanks for this opportunity to take a walk down memory lane, Miss Bates. A great post and fascinating discussion!
You are most welcome! You were truly blessed in your first romance: I’ve read such great things about Burchell and she’s one romance writer I must read. Of course, beyond that, her personal story is fascinating. I’m so glad you were able to find and still have it!
Hi Kay, I’m way behind on weighing in, but, can’t resist adding another comment I love, love, love this post, and your thoughtful comments on adolescent girls (body strong and mind acute – beautiful) and hearing everyone’s stories and thoughts. Someone’s comment about starting to read romance in young motherhood reminded me that although I read a lot less romance in my 20’s and early 30’s the main thing that brought it roaring back was being the mother of newborn-toddler age child, and the pressures of working, mothering, etc. along with chronic sleep deprivation. I really got into escaping back into romance, and I’m still enjoying it! Thanks for this wonderful forum for hearing so many other women talk about what it has meant for them.
I remember, years ago, reading a study that said girls are at their most powerful when they’re in grade six. This may not be true today: I don’t know, I haven’t kept up with that kind of research. The comment resonated for and with me. I think this time before we’re embroiled in dating and choosing SOs and so forth is one of the most powerful moments in our lives, when we can take on the world and conquer. I think that late middle-age has that same potential, if we retain our mental and physical health. Or, at least I hope it does 😉
Yes, I loved Penny’s story about mom-hood: her story is especially poignant because her baby was adopted. Her tweets were so strong about how romance helped her deal with the confusion and sense of helplessness: loving that little bitty thing, being insecure/uncertain about one’s self. I think romance’s focus on women’s lives (I really hate the word “issues”), but not like “women’s fiction” solely women’s lives, but in tandem with partners, especially, a great comfort: witnessing the unfolding of things turning out so well and people changing for the better, the promise of it all is empowering. I’ve always hated the idea that romance makes women feel like their lives are less than; on the contrary, I think that they show you how things can be better, people can be better.
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Great roundup, Miss B. I enjoyed reading this post and thank you for sharing. My mother got me started on romances with Victoria Holt and I went through her entire backlist (or almost) and then a friend of my mom’s recommended LaVyrle Spencer’s Hummingbird. Later on, on AOL forums back in the day when I had dial up (cough) I got a list of authors to read that included Mary Balogh, Laura Kinsale, etc and with specific titles. I will be forever grateful to whoever that reader was who gave me a great list of authors to start with in the romance genre. I’ve moved onto mysteries now but I still re-read my favorite romances. Nothing beats a love story with a happy ending. When I’m down or depressed about something, romances are my go to books for comfort. Again, thank you.
You are most welcome! I’m fascinated by the link, and it does come up occasionally, between how readers started to read romance and if that start came from their mothers. I think that is such a great generational link. Thank you for sharing your story! (Romances are a great comfort read, so true!)
I missed this wonderful Twitter conversation yesterday. I was busy cooking All Thingz!
I read my first M&B at age NINE! I sneaked it from the older girls in my neighborhood. I didn’t understand a lot but I wanted to read what made them gossip in whispers about and stop talking when us younger girls were nearby. I didn’t read any more romance in my mid-teens when I read “These Old Shades” by Georgette Heyer. I still have that copy, the 1967 Bantam reprint. I read sporadically through my mid-teens and only in the summers. My late teens onwards, I was too busy to read much of anything. Then when I had leisure to read, I read primarily literary fiction. I was in my mid-thirties when I returned back to reading romance regularly. This is the first time, I started buying romance, too. I openly owned that I read romance. Last year and more so this year, for the first time since then, I’m reading less romance. But that’s OK. I haven’t given it up, and I’ve discovered that reading tastes are cyclical for me.
And your meal sounded absolutely stupendous!
That is such a great trajectory of reading: I love the story of books whispered about, that hints at reading romance to learn about sexuality, but I don’t think, like you, that it’s the reason we keep reading romance. And then to read one of the masters of the genre … I loved These Old Shades, I read it before I started MBRR.
I agree: I think that reading is cyclic, especially for beloved genres, because we tend to gorge on them. Then, we tire a tad and want to read other things. I think I did that with mysteries; then, I think what happens is that we miss them. Because that particular narrative arc means something important to us, we’re exploring and or affirming something in it. So we go back.
I was 13 or 14 and it was Nevada Nights by Ruth Ryan Langan – a 1980s historical western complete with virginal convent-raised heroine, her long lost family out to do her harm (I recall a lecherous, incestuous half-brother – but I haven’t reread in ages, so memory hazy!), and a mysterious gunslinger hero named Colt.
It was the first “grown-up” book I read in 24 hours – while trapped in a mini-van on a road trip to attend a family wedding. The book was loaned to me by an older high school friend (16, I believe) who also loaned me Jude Deveraux shortly thereafter (Velvet Angel and A Knight in Shining Armor).
Alas, it was a brief flirtation with romance. I returned to mystery/suspense soon after, although I did glom on to Victoria Holt and Barbara Michaels. It was interesting for me, years later, to realize romance readers read those as well – but for totally different reasons than I did. I LOVED the Gothic-ness of the stories, and really the “romance” elements were completely incidental to me (so I believed at the time, but maybe my subconscious was trying to tell me something?).
I didn’t rediscover romance until my early 20s, and came back to it via chick lit – with Watermelon by Marian Keyes.
A superb reading trajectory here too … and I really really want to read the Langan book. I mean WESTERN and VIRGIN & hero named COLT!!!!
The first romance that I read non-stop, for about five or six hours, was Jennifer Crusie’s Bet Me. It was summer. I was on holiday, significantly older, late 40s I guess. And I immediately went out to buy Marsala wine and make chicken Marsala for supper that night. I didn’t know you had to pound the chicken, realized I didn’t have one of those meat pounder things, so I used a hammer! The chicken Marsala looked like it had been abused. It was pretty awful actually: I’m not a very good cook. But I loved the book so much, I wanted to connect with it tangibly in some way.
I’m really glad that chick lit brought you back and thank you for sharing your early romance reading story!
I reread it after rediscovering romance and I firmly had to wear my 1980s-trope reading glasses. Nevada Nights is VERY 1980s and the writing was…..well, you could tell it was one of Langan’s early books (her first historical I believe!). I did my reread through the eyes of “teenage Wendy” and got swept up in it all over again. So soapy! So over-the-top! No wonder the 13/14-year-old me was riveted and couldn’t put the book down. So while you can buy the book in e now, it’s one that I think you need to read through the long lens of genre history and development. Which hey, that’s fun too 🙂
I did the same a few years back with The Flame and the Flower and what I discovered was quite interesting to me. I found that the bits I found thrilling when I read it at 12 were pretty awful: mainly Heather and Brandon’s overwrought love-making and his complete ass-dom in the first third of the novel. The ending was too melo for me too.
What I discovered was actually written with sensitivity and skill were, for example, the passages when Brandon left on a trip and pondered how much he missed his wife. It was the quieter moments of the book that were really quite tender and touching. I don’t know that Woodiwiss would have, as a writer, gotten beyond the Old Skool ethos, but I’d rather have her here with us to see what she’d have done. (RIP, Kathleen.)
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Missed this, but what a fun conversation!
I read Shanna when I was 11 or so. I was fascinated if perhaps puzzled. I might have read it twice, but it didn’t lead me to read more romance at the time.
Then in my mid-teens there were some hand-me-down Harlequins from a relative, and I read through a number of them. I don’t know if they all had a similar age gap of a young heroine with a late-30s hero, or if the one I remember most clearly did. (I imagine my relative had specific storylines she enjoyed.)
But mostly I remember, as a teenager myself, being completely baffled that the 18-year-old heroine ended up with this older man—since at 14 years of age, late 30s seemed closer to my parents’ age! Plus the heroine would mistakenly think she was attracted to a young guy her own age but come to realize this was a mistake (huh?), and her true love was the 30-something. This made no sense to me. I wrongly assumed this was the storyline of all Harlequins if not romances, and wandered away from the genre until my 30s. I think I was actively repulsed by some of the harsh kisses too. (Unlike some readers I was not particularly precocious when it came to romance reading or searching for physical descriptions of love. Though perhaps Susan Howatch and Sydney Sheldon also put me off those.)
Welcome to Temptation by Crusie brought me to really reading romance. Such a great book to discover! And I have of course discovered how varied romance actually is.
What a terrific story: Woodiwiss’s Shanna seems to have been many readers first romance … I read it too, but after I’d already read The Flame and the Flower, which I loved at the time. I wasn’t crazy about Shanna, but, like you, I was fascinated by it.
Yes, I remember reading Harlequins that were much like that, with the significantly older hero. And the punishing kisses, I wasn’t too keen on those. And then I went on to reading a lot of classics and litfic: I wanted to read EVERYTHING important and influential.
I didn’t like Welcome To Temptation when I read it, but I loved the audiobook. Strange.
I picked up Julie Garwood’s Shadow Music (2007) at Costco out of some feeling of nostalgia for my early romance reading. I stayed up all night reading it and went to work so bleary-eyed. But I was hooked and here I am.
I occasionally think of revisiting Shanna, which is all vague, hazy impression and very little concrete in terms of what I remember. But I kinda fear I’d just hate it and should thus just leave it alone. One day I may be curious to read it anyway.
Oh wow, what a great post, Miss B! You are one of the most generous public goods providers we have.
I think I read Mary Stewart and Victoria Holt first, but my first *romance novel* memory is April Lady by Georgette Heyer. I can still see the cover in the paperback rack at our public library. I think I was 12. After that I read all of Heyer, the rest of Stewart for sure, plus Holt and Hodge and other gothics and regencies. I didn’t read Harlequins until after college, I don’t think, but I read them steadily from then onward.
I had a hiatus for more than a decade (still reading M&B and trads but no other romances), and then I came to Historicals via AAR. I still remember being puzzled by the designation “European Historical” because I had completely avoided the Bodice Ripper Era and therefore I was way, way behind on historicals that weren’t trads. So while I’ve read romance continuously for many decades, I have a huge gap in my reading knowledge because I still haven’t read Lindsey, Woodiwiss, etc. It’s too late for me at this point. 😉
Thank you! It was all the generous commentators and Twitter respondents who made the post possible! But it was a blast to put it together. I’m glad you offered your reading romance story! I love the cover story at the library: it’s funny how those moments stay in our memory, like a snapshot. I wonder if we realise their import at the time, or if we remember back to them because of how important they become for us?
I think that, other than the great reading romance stories, it’s telling and compelling that the same writers’ names keep coming up as readers segues into romance: so YES to Heyer, Holt, and Stewart and an GREAT YAY to public libraries.
As for your “hiatus,” if there’s one “era” that’s worth missing, the bodice-ripper one is the one. I tried to read a Lindsey this year and ending up DNF-ing both her cover-bosoms on Twitter!
I’m a lot younger than my sister–13 years, to be precise. So in many ways she was my second mother. So when she offered me a book to read when I was 16, I was blown away; this was an act of a peer, not a parent. I was beyond thrilled.
Then I saw that it was a Barbara Cartland novel.
I had all the stereotypes of romance in my head, and I just didn’t want to read this. But then again, my sister offered it to me. But then again, romance. But my sister, but romance, sister, romance….
Sister won out by telling me the hero’s mother was an opium addict. And since I couldn’t reconcile that to the image of Barbara Cartland wearing pink holding poodles, I had to give it a try.
I really enjoyed the book, A Hazard of Hearts, and talking to my sister about it. The cover had the tag line, “in the tradition of Georgette Heyer.” This lead to the obvious question: who is Georgette Heyer? And so began a many-years odyssey for me and my sister, in that pre-Internet age, to find all of Heyer’s books. And that led to my love of romance novels.
In some ways, I mourn the loss of those gateway romances like the trad Regencies. They were a great path of discovery!
That is a really fantastic story: especially the way you were torn between your admiration of your sister and doubts about romance. And then, the Cartland cover (clever publisher) leading you to Heyer and two sisters embarking on this search for books just like this one! I just loved it. Thank you so much for sharing it.
I know what you mean about trad Regencies: I wish they were still procurable. Even in e: you’d think there’d be enough nostalgia to encourage publishers to make them available.
Miss Bates, I’ve read these comments, stories, experiences, thoughts, etc. on romance novels with amazement, amusement and some awe as well. Thank you for creating and holding a space for so many of us to share here. It is comforting, inspiring, validating, challenging, and my TBR pile is getting taller from reading it as well!
LOL! I didn’t think that the “fall-out” of the post would be additions to the TBR, but I have the same problem …
I’ve oh-ed and ah-ed my way through every comment and been touched, heartened, guffawed, moved to tears. It’s been a real privilege to gather all these stories, personal and readerly. Thank you for your kind words!
I missed the poll on twitter! My first romance book was Judith McNaught’s Almost Heaven at age 13. Life changing! I raided every shelf at home and the cottage to find all the books my mom had. First job was in a library and I was in heaven with all the books I could have access to and hide in the corner and read.
Wow, you really started with a doozie and at just that ripe-ready age for romance that we’ve been seeing over and over again! McNaught is my secret, not any more, comfort read … I can’t blame you for the raiding of the shelves and life-long love for romance. I am so envious of your first job! Thank you for sharing your story 🙂
I think I must have been ten or so when I stumbled on to a stack of books at a relative’s house. The discovery that there were whole stories revolving around romance was intoxicating (I still remember re-reading the part where Tom Sawyer kisses Beckie in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer just before I made this discovery).
While at the relative’s place, curious, I’d picked up one of the books and had been completely absorbed in reading a scene where a man kisses a woman when I was “caught” by an older teenaged cousin whose tone of voice made me feel very ashamed and dirty.
It was back when I was at my own place that I started reading stacks of my aunt’s old MBs, as we used to call them. (I’ve always been so appreciative of my mom never ever putting a ban on anything I’d wished to read, no matter what anyone else said). I still remember the first book I read–the heroine was called Fran, the hero was Rick. The hero had had a fling with Fran and had then moved on because he wasn’t ready for a relationship… they meet up again very shortly (of course) in France… don’t remember the name of the book though!
Anyway! Romance, especially historical romance (including Victorian authors), is one of my go-to comfort reads when I want some solace or to simply unwind.
thanks for the trip down the memory lane and for sparking this conversation!
Thank you for sharing your story! I’m sorry that someone shamed you for your reading choices, but I’m so glad you had such an enlightened mom. I won’t hand a young girl a romance, but if she discovered and wanted to read it, like your great mom, I wouldn’t stop her either. And certainly never shame her … okay, maybe five is a little young. It might confuse her.
Your first romance, from you aunt’s stack, sounds so marvelously, belovedly category-ish! You’re most welcome: the privilege has been mine!
I came to romance via the children’s/young adult books that had romances or romantic elements in them. Off the top of my head the list would include Irene Hunt’s Up a Road Slowly, the courtship of Laura and Almanzo in the Little House Series, Patricia Clapp’s Constance: a Story of early Plymouth and Jane-Emily, Louisa May Alcott’s Rose in Bloom, Jean Webster’s Daddy-Long-Legs, and of course Anne Shirley and Gilbert Blythe.
I don’t remember my first “adult” romance novel — in part I suspect because romance as separate genre/marketing category didn’t really come into being until the late 70s/early 80s. So the libraries and bookstores that I visited as a pre-teen/teen shelved the romances indiscriminately with the best sellers and literature. I saw the romances as just part of the pile of books I would take home to read. I didn’t categorize them off into their own separate “special” category in those early years (unlike mysteries, westerns, and sff which were shelved in their own special spaces in my home town’s library).
I do know that by 11 or 12 I was reading Barbara Cartland, Georgette Heyer, Harlequins (Betty Neels, Essie Summers, Mary Burchell, Charlotte Lamb), and Pride and Prejudice. My late teens coincided with the rise of the big “bodice-ripper” romances (Rosemary Rogers, Patricia Matthews, Woodiwiss), the explosion in the romance category lines from Silhouette to Last Chance at Love, and the rise of the Regency trads. And I read across all of these — although over all I preferred the trad regencies, Barbara Michaels/Elizabeth Peters, and the new American writers in the new category lines (e.g., Krentz, Howard, Roberts). And when Krentz et al. moved to single titles I followed them.
In fact although I read lots of romance back then — my favourite genre as a pre-teen/teen was SFF — C.S. Lewis, Madeline L’Engle, Lloyd Alexander, Heinlein, Asimov, Edgar Rice Burroughs, George MacDonald, Andre Norton, Sylvia Engdahl, Patricia McKillip, Ruth Nichols, and of course J.R.R. Tolkien (I reread and reread the LOTR over and over for many, many years). But many of my favourite SFF reads had romantic elements in them so maybe romance really was my favourite genre back then.
The Little House books and Anne and Gilbert, also Little Women, were my obsessions when I was 10 to 12. I loved those books and read them over and over again. You make such a good point about romance “appearing” as a separate category late 70s/80s. I hadn’t thought of that. I think the first romance I read, The Flame and the Flower, may have been a part of that.
I’m in awe at your reading: you were obviously a bookworm child. I was too. 🙂 Thank you for sharing your reading story!
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