Susan Sarah here with a little pondering on a sunny Thursday….
Do you remember the first romance you ever read? And did you know it was romance–that is, was it romance genre, or did it have romantic elements?
RWA (and most others) define a romance novel as containing a central love story with an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending. http://www.rwanational.org
My question for you all–and myself–is this: what was the first romance you ever read? What path did you take to reading more in the genre, and did that influence your reading tastes today?
For a long while, I thought the first romance I ever read was in graduate school, when I picked up a battered library copy of The Wolf and the Dove by Kathleen Woodiwiss. Academic that I was, I thought that book-–and that thoroughly addictive, life-changing reading experience-–was where I first started reading romance novels (we won’t go into how I hid my growing reading habit for a while until owning up to it, or that I once saw another grad student hiding a romance novel behind a research book in the library. That’s fodder for another discussion!).
I cut my reading teeth on romance novels long before The Wolf and the Dove found me, though I didn’t realize it until much later. Where did it start? That’s hard to track back, but it was very early. I haunted libraries as a kid from the time my mother took us there until I was old enough to go there myself–I was there weekly, sometimes daily, toting out great armloads of books, blowing through those and toting them back for another armload–I would have taken them out by the wheelbarrow if I could have! (Pet peeve: when I’m in a library and overhear mothers saying to their children, you can have one book, two books, each – armloads, mom! wheelbarrows! Let them know there’s never too many books! Nuff said.)
I fondly remember the wonderful smell of that old, small-town library–the mingled scents of books, of paper and binding leather, of wooden floors, marble, brass. It’s a scent that newer libraries don’t seem to have, an aged, solid scent that’s part materials and part magic and timelessness, that holds promise and enchantment, knowledge, anticipation, and such great freedom to explore.
Library, Dunrobin Castle, Scotland
And it was in those quiet library hours that I began reading romance long before I knew I was doing so. Some of my favorite books had strong romantic elements, but where did it start? Elizabeth George Speare’s The Witch of Blackbird Pond, maybe. Or maybe I got caught by the power of the romantic thread with Jo March and her Professor Bhaer, or with Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester:
"…Are you anything akin to me, do you think, Jane?"
I could risk no sort of answer by this time: my heart was still.
"Because," he said, "I sometimes have a queer feeling with regard to you–especially when you are near me, as now: it is as if I had a string somewhere under my left ribs, tightly and inextricably knotted to a similar string situated in the corresponding quarter of your little frame. And if that boisterous Channel, and two hundred miles or so of land come broad between us, I am afraid that cord of communion will be snapt; and then I’ve a nervous notion I should take to bleeding inwardly. As for you,–you’d forget me."
"That I NEVER should, sir: you know–" Impossible to proceed.
<thud> says I….melodramatic, perhaps, and OTT in terms of romance genre today, but nonetheless, the sort of romantic power that runs deep. Very deep, and catches romantic souls all unaware, and for life.
Later, I discovered that Power Duo, Mary Stewart and Victoria Holt, and I was quickly hooked on romantic suspense and gothic romance. I gobbled through all of those that I could find, names I remember and don’t, and read my way through everything Phyllis Whitney had to offer, and through a range of historicals as well, including the medievals of Rosemary Hawley Jarman, and others, like Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind (GWTW I read at least five times in high school, plus saw the movie several times, while it doesn’t classically qualify as a romance–-certainly lacking that requisite optimistic HEA, though given, there’s Scarlett’s note of tremulous optimism, or is it blind denial, depending on how you look at it, in the end). And of course Jane Eyre got several readings (and does to this day, for me). There was Daphne Du Maurier, with Rebecca, Jamaica Inn, Frenchman’s Creek…then on to Elizabeth Peters (again, not strictly romance, though the elements are undeniably there). And of course everything Anya Seton ever wrote. If she had left a crumpled grocery list around somewhere, I would have gobbled that up too.
But noooooo, I didn’t read a romance novel until I stumbled upon The Wolf and the Dove in the library. Yah right! I was prepped for the romance genre by then. Since childhood I had been reading rich, romantic, heart-rending, classic romantic novels, stories that were deeply romantic and thoroughly exciting, whether historical settings, or contemporary romantic suspense–supposedly mysteries then, but the sort that had me on the edge of my seat with anticipation and excitement–yes, I wanted the characters to find the bad guy, solve the mystery, save that priceless treasure, whatever, but I most sincerely wanted that guy to say something of emotional substance to the girl, however scant (really, that reserve was so intriguing!)–and if that didn’t happen–I was not a happy, satisfied reader. If I cried in the end, okay, but there had to be some tears of joy, relief, satisfaction too.
I wanted that feeling where my very heart seemed to turn within me, that emotional wrench, and that sense of triumph and completion, too. I found it, and sought it out, in books long before I read that thick, battered paperback of The Wolf and the Dove. And I discovered, very quickly, why that book was so worn and well-read: those feelings were there, the gut-wrenching and the heart-turning, the anticipation, and a bit of crazymaking exasperation, too (how could she fall for such a jerk? how could he be such a pig, and she be so stupid? ah, but somehow it all worked out in the end, he learned, she learned, everybody gained).
And I went from there to more Woodiwiss, Shanna and on to more, McNaught and Garwood, and more and more, until I couldn’t deny that constantly growing and demanding urge to try writing these stories myself, to capture the feelings and the excitement that reading those novels gave me. I wanted to give back, and create that for myself and others, with the characters and situations taht had been bouncing around in my imagination for a long time.
Over the years I had absorbed the sensibilities of romance so thoroughly that I realized that I could write a romance novel of my own. Yet I thought I had read only a few romances. Not so, gentle Reader! I had long been an addict, an afficionado, with some understanding of the forms and features of the genre before I even set out to deliberately gain that for myself.
I go back regularly to those early reads to recapture that early sense of wonder and excitement, anticipation. I have this ability…or is it a flaw…to forget endings of books and movies. It’s a marvelous boon that enables me to happily re-read old favorites (Mary Jo says the strong element of Neptune in my natal chart gives me this peculiar ability *g*). Given enough time lapse, I will dive back into my favorites, Jane Eyre, Rebecca, and all of Mary Stewart’s books (the contemporaries are dated in some ways, yes, but the writing is infinitely lovely, and the datedness has a wonderful charm).
So how about you all –- where did you start reading romance, was it with Regency (as we’ve touched on before here at Word Wenches), or did you enter by another door: historical literary fiction, Gothic, romantic suspense, category, genre historicals, and so on?
And what was the very first book you read that had romantic elements in the story, with all the heart-pounding, heart-wrenching features of great romance?
And how do those reading pathways influence your reading choices now?