Discovering Romance Novels...
I’ve been thinking lately about the earliest romance novels I ever read in my youth. In our house my Mum was very dismissive of romance novels as trash-reading although she did not object to Georgette Heyer as they had so much historical accuracy involved. I loved Georgette Heyer, although it was the funnier ones I treasured, “The Quiet Gentleman” and “Cotillion” being great personal favorites of mine. The ones more grounded in actual historical figures “My Lord John” or real battles “An Infamous Army” did not captivate me as well and the ones more realistic about love and marriage lost me completely! I am still disturbed by “A Civil Contract” to this very day! Poor Jenny deserved far,far better!
I also managed to get my hands on many of Victoria Holt’s gothic romances from our local library where the heroine was never sure if the hero was trying to murder or seduce her! My teenage self was probably just as confused as the poor sheltered heroines as they were pushed off rocky cliffs in Cornwall in their nightdresses, but I lapped them up!
The first actual ‘bodice ripper’ that I ever remember getting hold of was one of my Mum’s sly reads… (Yes, she did read them, but was in complete denial of the fact! ) This one I consumed over a long weekend and was enthralled from the very first page. It had a glossy cover with a woman in a long red dress and I thought I remembered the title but when I tried to find it, I had it mixed up completely in my memory. The heroine was a plain child who grew to great beauty later in life with the pre-requisite violet eyes that became so popular in romance! She had a wicked stepmother and two beautiful stepsisters, one of whom was terribly lazy and the other always carrying on clandestine love affairs. The first thing that blew my mind was the fact the oldest step-sister and the heroine became secret allies. I loved that twist!
Her first love was a dark, tortured type who had been dispossessed from what he was convinced was his rightful inheritance, (though I don’t remember if he was ultimately deluded about this or not?) Anyway, she laid it all on the line for this guy, including her v-card, but his obsession came first and she came a poor second. Alas! Then on her father’s death her wicked stepmother took them to London and started running a gambling den – I particularly remember this as unexpected turn of events as being very thrilling! In villainess style she then she ‘sold’ the heroine to some wicked blonde lord who was the older brother of her first love. Being a spirited heroine, she naturally ran away in the dead of night and joined an acting company where she became the star actress of the company and got in many lively fights with the theatrical director – and possibly playwrite? I don’t remember. I do remember thinking he was not a typical hero although I don’t much remember why? They became romantically involved and all was hunky-dory for a while until a play she advised him against did badly (he would not listen!) and another scheming actress came between them. She left the company and in a plot turn I don’t remember, ended up marrying the wicked blonde lord and becoming lady of the manor! The wicked lord became a most devoted husband, even though he was ostracised by all of decent society for marrying an ex-actress who had openly lived in sin. He did not care one whit and completely redeemed himself as a character. THEN, the final act of this roller coaster was the fact that her husband and lord died a tragic death, she forged a will or legal document so that her surly first love inherited all, and then she ran off to re-join the theatre and her second love as he was the one who had made her happy and carefree! Or this was how I remember the ending anyway…
I am strangely reluctant to re-visit this novel as I could not possibly read it now with the eyes of my younger self. It also strikes me now that romances do not tend to have multiple loves for the heroine, but maybe this was more popular in the eighties? Anyway, it was fun to reminisce about what got me hooked on reading romance novels!