Friday, February 8, 2013

Reading My Mother's Books: An Introduction

Girl Reading by Charles Edward Perugini

You don’t hear much about them these days, but before the romance revolution that began with the publication of Kathleen Woodiwiss’s The Flame and the Flower in 1972, women were reading romance fiction. The first romances I read were my mother’s books. One muggy Georgia summer weekday, a short time before I turned ten, I was complaining because I had nothing to read and my dad couldn’t take me to the library until Saturday. Tired of my whining, my mother pointed me toward her books and said “Read.” I did. 

By Saturday, my reading interest had changed because I had discovered romance. I had read Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, and a half dozen romances by Emilie Loring and Grace Livingston Hill. I was an avid reader from the time I was five, but it was that summer that my appetite for more and more to read became voracious. I carried a book with me everywhere, snatching a few moments to read lying on a towel at the swimming pool, following my mother down the aisles of the grocery store, even a few times stealing minutes during a Sunday morning sermon. (The last reached a forcible conclusion when my mother found me out.) Over the next couple of years, I discovered other treasures on my mother’s bookshelves—books by Faith Baldwin, Elizabeth Cadell, and D. E. Stevenson.

These were the books that started my life-long love affair with romance. I still have a double handful of my mother’s romances on my keeper shelves. I have since discovered that my experience was not unusual. Some studies suggest that most women who think of themselves as heavy readers began reading for pleasure between the ages of five and nine (63%), and a significant number (44%) read books that were recommended by their mothers or another close relative. (Many of my earlier favorite books—the Anne of Green Gables books and Louisa May Alcott’s books, for example—were also books my mother had loved and wanted me and my sister to read.)

It was many years later when I was in graduate school that I discovered just how popular the romance writers whose books my mother loved and shared with me had been. When I left my romance-reading closet where I had lurked throughout most of my academic career and joined the online romance fiction community, I was bothered by the fact that Loring and the others seemed largely forgotten. I toyed with the idea of writing a book about these gentle romance authors whose books tens of thousands of women readers devoured in an age when the only steam in romance fiction was that rising from the heroine’s tea cup. I even did some research and filled notebooks with copious notes, but other writing for profit and for pleasure always seemed to take precedence.

This week I did some cleaning and decluttering, and one of the decisions I had to make was whether to trash my notes on gentle romance along with some of the books by these authors. Somehow it seemed a betrayal of my mother and the gift she gave me that long ago summer to do so. That’s when a new idea was born: to use this blog for a series of posts paying tribute to the five romance writers I discovered on Mother’s bookshelves. So, beginning tomorrow and continuing through March, appropriately Women’s History Month, every other Saturday, I’ll be posting a tribute post to one of these writers. I’ll still do my regular Tuesday reviews and irregular bonus reviews on Thursdays, but the Saturday posts for this period will be focused on my mother’s books. I hope you will enjoy them.

How old were you when you discovered reading for pleasure? Who introduced you to romance fiction?


Wendy said...

Excellent idea! I always feel like I missed out in my youth because, while my parents encouraged their children to read they weren't the sort of parents to recommend books to us. On one hand this was great since they RARELY looked over our shoulders (I was pretty much given free rein at the public library - which is a very liberating experience for a kid) - but on the other hand it's kind of sad because I never had that common experience among some readers of "sharing" books with my Mom.

My introduction to romance? The Gothics - particularly Victoria Holt and Barbara Michaels - although at the time I was mostly drawn to them for the "Gothic" and "suspense" than the "romance" aspects. Then in high school I had a brief flirtation with the genre via an older friend loaning me Jude Deveraux's Velvet series. Wowzers!

Looking forward to your posts!

Janga said...

Thanks, Wendy. I think the sharing sometimes works well. It certainly did for me. But so far,I haven't had much luck in sharing with a succeeding generation. My thirteen-year-old grand-niece reads a book or more a week, but she loves the Twilight and Hunger Games books and fails to see the appeal of Anne Shirley.

I read Gothics too. One of my aunts used to give me big, brown grocery bags full of them. I've forgotten the names of most of those writers, but I still have an almost complete collection of Mary Stewart and a few Holts and Whitneys.

irisheyes said...

I found reading for fun in high school. I enjoyed reading Jane Eyre, but never searched out similar books. A neighbor loaned me a romance novel and it was really racey - woman captured by a pirate and raped and then of course falls in love with the pirate! I can't remember the name of it.

Later on in my teens I remember reading Harlequins - the ones with the purple/lilac covers - Janet Daily or some other contemporary author I think. I can't believe I never stumbled across a Nora Roberts! That would have sealed the deal for me back then but I lost interest in reading and didn't pick it up again until a little over 10 years ago.

I'm not really sure why my mother never pushed reading. I have a memory of her reading a lot, but I suppose not when I was little, maybe moreso through my teen years and early adulthood. The names Belva Plain and Maeve Binchey come to mind. I also remember going to the library but not very often.

I'm trying to get my two kids to read for fun and it's like pulling teeth. My 15 year old son has managed to get to the middle of the 4th Harry Potter book. Then he just stopped. My 17 year old daughter rolls her eyes at me when I suggest she curl up with a good book. She doesn't have time! And she really doesn't. She sleeps, goes to school, is in after school activities and works. She doesn't even have time to read a recipe let alone a book. I keep telling her when she's ready though I have a real treat for her!!! LOL

Janga said...

Irish, maybe your daughter will discover the glories of romance later. I shudder when I read comments from people who say English teachers ruined reading for them, but that does seem to be a problem for too many young readers. Based on anecdotal evidence, I think many young women start reading more when they have young children. Maybe books help make up for missing adult conversation during that period. :)

I understand the time problem too. One of the twelve-year-old grands is reading fewer books already because sports take up so much of his time. OTOH, one of his cousins, who's the same age, takes his Kindle everywhere and can read even surrounded by his brothers and cousins in video game competitions or Nerf warfare.

Anne said...

Oh, I remember Grace Livingstone Hill and I loved Elizabeth Cadell. I was always looking for books to read and on the way home from school there was an antiques store that also had tables and tables and shelves and shelves of old books, all for 20cents each. Bliss.

In retrospect, I realize they must have been from deceased estate clearances, but I probably wouldn't have cared. And these days, I actually love that I have some old lady's collection of Heyers and Cadells.

Janga said...

Anne, here in my hometown, there's an antique shop next to one of my favorite lunch spots. I can never resist dropping by the shop after lunch and checking out the old books. I've uncovered some treasures that way. I find old books and old letters immensely interesting for several reasons. The downside to email and ebooks is that no one will discover them in a trunk or a shop in 2073 and wonder about the person who wrote the letters and read the books.