Sep 28 2011 1:45pm

The First Blush of Romance: Girl Books from Alcott, Montgomery, Lovelace, and Wilder

Anne and Gilbert in Anne of Green GablesLike 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.

Little Women by Louisa May AlcottI 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.

Anne of Green Gables by L. M. MontgomeryAs 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.

Heaven to Betsy & Betsy in Spite of Herself by Maud Hart LovelaceWhen 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.

Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls WilderAnd 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.

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Danielle Monsch
2. DanielleMonsch
I'm afraid I have to call you out... pistols at dawn?

JO AND LAURIE FOREVER!!! Anything after the first part of Little Women does not exist in my world.
Cecilia Grant
3. Cecilia Grant
I have to side with DanielleMonsch - Laurie would NEVER have presumed to tell Jo what to write! Down with Mr. "Why don't you give up these potboiler thrillers that are making you money and write something serious" Bhaer!

Ah, Betsy and Joe, though. I can't tell you how much I love that she had a chance to marry a dreamy Italian who stood under her window throwing roses into her room, and instead she picked the proud, reserved, deeply honorable guy who'd always viewed her first and foremost as a worthy adversary in the Essay Contest. Now that's a heroine with her head on straight!
Cecilia Grant
4. Mo
Sorry, Laurie would have drived Jo to pull all her hair out within a week. As much as I adored him (and I did), he was the wrong man for her because she would have had to change into a Society wife for him, something she most definitely was not. The only problem I ever had with Laurie was his eventual choice of wife - I have always hated and despised Amy.

Gilbert and Anne are quite possibly my all-time favorite literature couple - these is something so simple and sweet and yet so refreshing about them - like a lemonade, sweet yet tart. :)
Cecilia Grant
5. Mo
Oops! "Would have driven" No idea why I typed "drived". lol
Victoria Janssen
6. VictoriaJanssen
Great post! I wish I had read the Anne books as a child, instead of post-college...but I did adore Eight Cousins in elementary school, and later bought my own copy when I visited the Alcott house. I want to re-read it, along with Rose in Bloom, one of these days.
Cecilia Grant
7. Lesley-Anne McLeod
You have named all my very favourite books. I read them all as a child, and read them all to my daughter. And we have both re-read them as adults. I think they did lead to my love of a certain type of story; and I hope I am continuing the tradition by writing that certain sort of story. One of my very favourite's is L. M. Montgomery's "The Blue Castle"--a wonderful, wonderful romance!
Cecilia Grant
9. brontëgirl
Some of my favorite books! I began reading Wilder's and Alcott's works in elementary, Lovelace's in junior high, and Montgomery's in my twenties. Of Wilder's works, I also recommend her essays in A Little House Reader and A Little House Traveler which includes On the Way Home, West From Home, and an article about their trip to South Dakota and Montana in 1931. The "good team"-ness of the Wilders and their affection for one another comes through in the way she writes about their married life. Of Alcott's works, An Old-Fashioned Girl is my favorite, and as much as I like Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables books, I also like The Blue Castle. Right now I'm rereading Betsy and Joe. As I've grown up, I've noticed and enjoyed different things about Lovelace's works (as indeed the others), including the romances and also historical details, particularly the clothing styles and different types of fabric, how the characters entertained themselves (no radio, no tv, 'net! :) ), etc. But always interesting and substantial are the major characters and their enduring friendship from childhood to adulthood.
10. Janga
Redline, I agree. From their very first meeting on, Anne and Gilbert are wonderful together. How I sighed over the Lady of Shalott scene!
11. Janga
Danielle, I believe the challenged has choice of weapons, and I choose words. I think I'm much more skilled at verbal fencing than with pistols or foils. :)

I thought Laurie, delightful as he was, was too much the boy for Jo. Maybe we can just agree to disagree.
12. Janga
Cecilia, I thought Betsy and Joe complemented each other in ways that she and Tony never would have. But I always hoped that Tony did write to Margaret and returned to Deep Valley so the two could fall in love after Margaret grew up. I wanted everyone to have an HEA.
13. Janga
Mo, I'm so glad someone agrees with me about Laurie and Jo. I fear we are in a small minority. I didn't hate Amy, but she was my least favorite of the sisters. I do think she improved as she matured, but even in Jo's Boys, she's a snob.
14. Janga
Thanks, Victoria. The Alcott books are especially dear to me because my mother loved them and read them aloud to me. She loved Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom even more dearly than Little Women and its sequels. Rereading them is like a brief visit with her.
Louise Partain
15. Louise321
I'm with Brontegirl. When I was in 5th grade, someone gave me An Old Fashioned Girl and I loved it. I reread it over the years and even found a copy recently and read it again. It still reminds me of couches and my grandfather's pipe tobacco and quiet not broken by TV background noise. Yeah, now I am the old fashioned girl.
16. Janga
Lesley-Anne, I think the generational connection adds to the appeal too. And I also agree that The Blue Castle is a wonderful story. I'm not sure why, but I read it much later than I read the other Montgomery books.
17. Janga
Kelly, Almazo is a great hero. My friend Fran would definitely join your team.
18. Janga
Brontëgirl, I read An Old Fashioned Girl too and wept copiously when Polly talked about her dead brother. Polly and Tom are sweet together, but I think the most interesting part of that book is the section on the women artists and the changes that take place in Fran. You make an interesting point about the difference in childhood and adult readings. I confess though when I researched the Gibson Girl for a freelance project, my thoughts were filled with Betsy and the illustrations from the Lovelace books.
19. Janga
Louise, what lovely memories! I was given An Old Fashioned Girl too. My youngest aunt didn't make it home for Christmas one year and, knowing how much I would miss her, she sent two books as an extra present for me: An Old Fashioned Girl and an anthology of children's poetry. I loved them both to pieces--quite literally.
Cecilia Grant
20. Janet W
I think I'll just side-step the Laurie/Prof B debate -- I'm glad Jo had a husband so that she could have her marvelous sons but the Professor just never did it for me. And I liked Amy and thought she was a wife who well-suited the grown-up Laurie.

Now An Old Fashioned Girl -- I have the edition with the Clara Burd illustrations and it's one of my most treasured possessions. It belonged to my mum. Such a sweet, dear, honourable heroine and how lovely it was when she was able to give back to the Shaws, when they came upon hard times.

I haven't read Lovelace and I find it's hard to go back in time. All the other books I have and have read to death. I even picked up an extra copy of Blue Castle the last time I was in Canada, after reading about it here.

Really the heroines you write of are stronger, or as strong as, all the heroes, possibly with the exception of Almanzo. He and Laura had a true working partnership, didn't they? How I loved his book and his family and his mother's cooking.
Cecilia Grant
21. Rose in SV
The Maude Reed Tale by Norah Lofts and The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare. The Witch of Blackbird Pond won a Newbery award. Both are sweet pre-teen or teen romances. Speare also wrote another book called Calico Captive, which I remember being very romance like. Sadly, the MR tale appears to be out of print.

Cecilia Grant
22. brontëgirl
@Janga, thanks! Via Google, I've been able to find and listen to recordings of some of the songs mentioned in Lovelace's books. @Janga, Louise321, and Janet W--Glad to read comments from other An Old-Fashioned Girl fans :). After her family's bankruptcy, Fan shows how well she's learned from Polly and her friends that one can work through adverse circumstances and grow rather than remain passive and even regress. @Rose in SV, I've read Calico Captive and yes there's romance in it, and it was based on incidents in the French and Indian War.
Cecilia Grant
23. Isabel C.
I actually wouldn't doubt Laurie's ability to be a profoundly irritating moral force, actually--he gave Meg a ration of totally unfair crap the one time the girl wanted to dress up a little and show some cleavage, so Jo's love interests can *both* shut up and sit down*. I vote for Jo going abroad and meeting someone awesome, or maybe having a youthful-enemies-turned-lovers thing with that British guy she catches cheating at croquet.

I'm a Gilbert/Anne fangirl, although, having just read The Blue Castle, I also love Barney/Valancey. LMM has some awesome romances--the heroes' names are unfortunate, but that's a generational thing: what was a perfectly nice boys' name back then now conjures up either eighty-year-old men (naturally) or the drunk guy from the Simpsons. Sigh.

I like Jean Webster, myself. Daddy Longlegs, yes--though the age difference is a bit of a thing--but Dear Enemy, the sequel, has one of the better bickery-partnership-to-romance plots I've seen.

*With Louisa May Alcott's books, I find that I love about eighty percent of the story, and the other twenty percent has some tiresome 1870s-Transcendentalist moral about the dangers of potboilers or silk dresses or saying "darn". Historically interesting, but...ew.
Cecilia Grant
24. mochabean
Love this post! @21: I adored The Witch of Blackbird Pond and Calico Captive. Those books were not only great and sweet historical romances, but they also fit the bill with lovingly detailed descriptions of historical clothing. I vividly recall how Kit's fine clothes horrified her puritan uncle. In addition to the great books mentioned in the post, I'll add The Perilous Guard by Elizabeth Marie Pope. That was the first young romance I read (in 6th grade I think) with an angst-ridden hero (who thought he was responsible for his niece's death)(he wasn't) Plus, resourceful and smart ugly duckling heroine, set in Tudor England, with the Fae, and a showdown on All Hallows Eve. What more could you want? Love it still.
25. Janga
Janet W, I confess I've been happier about Jo since I saw Gabriel Byrne as the Professor. :)

Clara Burd illustrated six of Alcott's books, I believe. I'd love to own them all.

Laura and Almanzo's romance is lovely, especially in the books. I agree that he's a wonderful character.
26. Janga
Rose, I've read and enjoyed Calico Captive, and The Witch of Blackbird Pond is another favorite. How appropriate for our discussion that Speare won the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award.
27. Janga
Isabel, I think Alcott would have been delighted if she could have written Jo going abroad, although I think her preference was to have her lead a life of single independence.

I love Jean Webster's Daddy Longlegs and Dear Enemy too. They, like Alcott's books, were books my mother loved and passed on her joy in them to my sister and me.
28. Janga
Mochabean, I read Pope's The Perilous Guard as an adult. A student begged me to read it after the class had read Malory and Marie de France. I read Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising series under similar conditions. I thought Kate Sutton was a marvelous character.
Larisa LaBrant
29. MsGodiva1
In addition to all the series discussed in the article the two other heroine driven book series I devoured were all thirty some-odd Trixie Belden mysteries by Julie Campbell. The intrigue, the sleuthing and daring amongst a close-knit group of friends topped off with a dash of will she and the slightly older, Jim go beyond friends, or won't they?
Then Nancy Drew. Can't imagine anyone on this site not knowing Nancy!
Both series have translated into enjoying heroine driven suspense novels, and a deep love of urban fantasy books by Kim Harrison, Laura Anne Gilman, CE Murphy. There is always a hot guy or two in the mix, but the heroine drives the plot, solves the mystery, and might keep one of the heroes someday...the one who accepts her and lives through the perils of being a part of her life.
My only crushing literary disappointment as a girl was the Black Stallion series didn't get a girl until book 18 or so. Dearly wished to be Alex with the Black.
Louise Partain
30. Louise321
LOved Trixie Belden so much better than Nancy Drew who I thought had too much of everything. And I agree about the Black Stallion series. Didn't the horse get a girl before the Alex did?
Cecilia Grant
31. joleesa
Almanzo Wilder and Mr. Darcy are my two longest-lasting romantic heroes. They have recently been joined by Sam Vimes from Terry Pratchett's Discworld series. My husband is very grateful that Sam is fictional!
Cecilia Grant
32. joleesa
I forgot Benedick from Much Ado About Nothing! He and Beatrice are the best couple in all of Shakespeare!
Cecilia Grant
33. StarGirl
I agree with all of your book choices! Rose from Eight Cousins is one of my favorite characters of all time. I also enjoyed a lesser known title by Alcott, The Baron's Gloves. I would like to reccomend the Austin family books by Madeleine L'Engle. Honestly anything by L'Engle. I love how her characters are all connected in her stories.
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