The problem with identifying the first romance novel that I ever read is the age-old question of what constitutes a romance novel. I devoured anything to do with history, so Jean Plaidy, Nora Lofts, and all derivations thereof made up a large part of my reading diet from about the age of nine. I encountered Cherry Ames, Student Nurse, and at least one of the medical romances of the Dashing Dimpled Doctor Daring variety. I’m not even sure how I got my hands on that last one, since my mom never read fiction (still doesn’t) and my dad was into English murder mysteries with occasional side trips into action-fantasy like The Tarnsman of Gor.
Their idea of what a young girl should be reading wasn’t very defined. At twelve, I received a critical analysis of medieval literature for my birthday. The year before, it had been The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (all five volumes in one handy paperback). I read both, but also the Nancy Drew a friend gave me the same year. At that age, I didn’t fret over the disparities in content. If it was a book, I liked it and sponged up everything with equal interest.
Around the same time, I outgrew my Pepto-Bismol pink bedroom and opted for a virulent mauve. My sainted mother barely winced at the colour and, during the scorching July heat that only a prairie can produce, tackled the walls with brush and roller. This meant I had to sleep on the living room couch, a place of strange shadows and unfamiliar noises come the night.
That same year, my aunt (who knew what young girls liked) mailed me three books: Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Treasure Island. Interestingly enough, they were all from Signet. I do recall staring at the stylized S on the logo and thinking how cool it would be to write a book. Funny old world that I would end up publishing under a version of that same logo.
Anyway, I started with Jane Eyre because Treasure Island was about hairy pirates (Jack Sparrow was far in the future) and Wuthering Heights had long passages in a Yorkshire dialect with which I was not yet familiar. So, while sleeping on that couch on a hot night with the strange noises and shadows, I devoured the adventures of Jane and Mr. Rochester, lapping it up with the intensity that only a pre-teen can. I can’t say that the romance portion of the book rang my chimes all that much—that held much more resonance when I reread Jane in high school. What I remember from the first go-round was the orphanage, the mad wife, and my steadfast (and still current) opinion that St. John was a boring dork.
I think what stuck with me from that first encounter with a bona fide romance was the concept of having to earn the right to happiness. Both Jane and Rochester have to confront their demons in much the same way current romance protagonists must—and I wonder how much Charlotte Bronte and her contemporaries influenced what we write today. My guess is: a lot. After all, wasn’t her sister Emily’s creation, Heathcliffe, one of the original dark and dangerous heroes?