Like many other readers, my first experience with romance in fiction was with the “girl books” popular with generations of female readers. I loved these books because the heroines are strong and independent, rebelling against societal expectations that would limit them. I loved the confidence—and the vulnerabilities—of the heroines, and I also loved that each of them found a hero who loves her for who she is. These heroines are not in search of a mate to define them, but they fall hard when they find a hero who is strong in his own right and who delights in the heroine’s strength.
The combination of a strong but imperfect heroine and a hero who sees past the surface and unreservedly falls in love with an unconventional heroine has kept me reading romance for more years than I’m willing to count. I still have keeper copies of the stories of the March sisters and their matches, Anne Shirley and Gilbert Blythe, Betsy Ray and Joe Willard, and Laura Ingalls and Almanzo Wilder.
I can never forget the series of Louisa May Alcott. I still marvel that she wrote the first half of what we know as Little Women in six weeks. Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy became as real to me as the friends who shared my real life. Naturally, Jo the writer was my favorite; the quick temper we shared endeared her to me even more. I was among a minority of readers who was perfectly happy to see Jo paired with Professor Bhaer. Little Men and Jo’s Boys convinced me that I was right. (Read more about the Laurie vs. Bhaer debate.)
I also adored Alcott’s Eight Cousins and its sequel, Rose in Bloom. Like Rose, I was blessed with an abundance of boy cousins and well-meaning aunts, although I certainly never cherished any romantic dreams about my cousins. Certainly none of them had the charm and good looks of Bonnie Prince Charlie. I wept buckets when bad-boy Charlie died, but I was relieved that Rose’s true hero was the bookworm poet. Perhaps my love affair with beta heroes stems from my early affection for Mac Campbell.
As often as I reread the Alcott books, I spent even more time with Anne Shirley. Mark Twain, in a letter to L. M. Montgomery called Anne “the dearest and most lovable child in fiction since the immortal Alice” (The Green Gables Letters, 1960). I beg to differ with Mr. Twain. I think Anne is more loveable than Alice. Anne’s imagination gave me the White Way of Delight and the Lake of Shining Waters, and I never looked at blooming fruit trees and local lakes as ordinary again. I hated my straight hair as passionately as Anne hated her red hair, and I longed for a red corduroy coat as fiercely as she longed for puffed sleeves. I eagerly followed Anne and her “kindred spirits” (a phrase I adopted and made my own) through their school days, college experiences, teaching trials, and eventually marriage and children. I read not only Anne of Green Gables but also Anne of Avonlea, Anne of the Island, Anne of Windy Poplars (where she finally becomes engaged her to Gilbert Blythe), Anne’s House of Dreams (where I wept along with Anne over the death of her first-born child), Anne of Ingleside (which convinced me for a time that I too should have six children), Rainbow Valley, and finally, Rilla of Ingleside (a book that evoked oceans of tears).
But the story line I followed most eagerly was Anne’s relationship with Gilbert Blythe, whom I understood was her destiny from their very first meeting. The Anne books, like some romance series, allow readers to see beyond the standard HEA to the heights and depths of a successful marriage.
My favorite heroine was Betsy Ray. I have a theory that my love for connected books goes back to one of my earliest reading experiences when I was five. Since I wasn’t yet in school, reading a book aloud and writing my name were the prerequisites to being granted a library card, a privilege I coveted. The book I read to the librarian was Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy and Tacy Go over the Big Hill, and I was enchanted by the adventures of these two best friends growing up at the turn-of the-century in Deep Valley, Minnesota, a place that seemed as exotic as another planet to my mid-twentieth-century Southern mind.
When I conquered the Children’s section and was allowed to move on to the YA books three years later, I read five more books in the series: Heaven to Betsy, Betsy in Spite of Herself, Betsy Was a Junior, Betsy and Joe, and Betsy and the Great World. These books covered the high school years of Betsy Ray and her friends and Betsy’s post-graduation trip to Europe. Betsy was a character after my own heart: a voracious reader who dreamed of being a writer, a girly girl who loved dresses and hairdos, and one of a tight circle of friends with her two best friends as her dearest and most trusted confidantes.
Betsy ties to make herself over for one boyfriend, enjoys the friendship of a good-looking guy who’d like to take their relationship to the next level and, after years of alternating near perfect communication and misunderstandings, makes a commitment to Joe Willard, a fellow writer who accepts her for herself and challenges her to be her best. Betsy’s Wedding was the perfect ending to the series. I know I’m not alone in my love for Lovelace’s books because when HarperCollins reissued the six YA books in three duets last year, the forewords were written by Meg Cabot, Anna Quindlen, and Laura Lippman.
And then there was Laura. Years before a later generation curled up in front of a TV set to watch the adventures of the Ingalls family, I curled up with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books and journeyed with Pa, Ma, Mary, Laura, and Baby Carrie from Wisconsin westward to Dakota Territory. Little House in the Big Woods, Little House on the Prairie, On the Banks of Plum Creek, By the Shores of Silver Lake, The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie, and These Happy Golden Years—I read and loved them all (including Farmer Boy, Almanzo’s story). One friend numbers Almanzo among her favorite heroes even after years of reading romance fiction.
When I think about the romance novels that bring me the greatest reading joy as an adult, I realize that the things I value most in them are the things that made me love the stories of Betsy, Anne, Jo, Rose, and Laura: the bonds of family and friends, the strength of the heroines who hold true to the selves they grow to be, and the discovery of a true love and an earned HEA (with a peppering of reality to keep it credible).
What about you? What girls’s books did you read? What did you learn from them? Do you see any connection between what you read as a child and your love of romance fiction?
Janga spent decades teaching literature and writing to groups ranging from twelve-year-olds to college students. She is currently a freelance writer, who sometimes writes about romance fiction, and an aspiring writer of contemporary romance, who sometimes thinks of writing an American historical romance. She can be found at her blog Just Janga and tweeting obscure bits about writers as @Janga724.