Sometimes you have to prepare yourself to be disappointed. That book you loved, loved, loved years ago just doesn't hold up when you read it again. You're older and probably a little wiser, and the things that made you love the story and the characters aren't there any more. Or they're embarrassingly corny, and you wish you had never told anyone how much you loved it.
The first adult historical romance novel I ever read was The Highland Hawk by Leslie Turner White. My dad had belonged to one of those subscription book clubs in the 1950s, and this was one of many similar titles he acquired. It's also one of the very, very few that I haven't found a copy of to replace that original. Over the years I've found almost all the others, either as paperback reprints or at garage and yard and library book sales. The Highland Hawk isn't among them.
Old movies on television -- Captain Blood, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Prince of Foxes, The Flame and the Arrow -- had turned me on to historical adventure sagas, but they lacked something.
First of all, they couldn't be enjoyed in private. We only had one television in those days (early 1960s) and it was in the living room. I didn't feel comfortable sharing my enjoyment with family members who would disparage it.
(I still don't. When I bought a DVD collection of Burt Lancaster movies a year or so ago, I did not want to watch The Flame and the Arrow with anyone. Eventually I did, but I still felt uncomfortable.)
Second, television wasn't dependable. Weeks or months could go by without an exciting film scheduled during my available viewing hours, which were limited to after school and week-ends. And we only had four channels!
Third, television wasn't portable. So once I found the books, I was hooked. For life.
I'm not sure how soon after reading The Highland Hawk I found Lord Johnnie, but find it I did. By my best guess I read both of them the summer before my freshman year in high school. (Gone with the Wind had to wait until the following summer.) I was not quite fourteen years old.
What followed can only be described as a feeding/reading frenzy.
I went through everything on my dad's shelves. When my mother expressly said I couldn't read anything by Frank Yerby, I went immediately to his books. More about those books in the future, because this post is about Lord Johnnie. Others would become favorites and have enormous impact, but Lord Johnnie was a book apart.
Over the years, I read it many times. When I moved out of my parents' house, I somehow managed to grab my dad's copy of Lord Johnnie and a couple other of those book club editions; I have them to this day. For the most part, they've held up in terms of the writing, the storytelling, the characterization. In many cases, in fact, the writing is far superior to just about anything being published today.
So when Moonlight Reader came up with this "personal canon" idea, the first book on my list had to be the book that truly launched me into writing historical romance. I can't even give The Highland Hawk credit for that; it never stirred my imagination, my passion, the way the adventures of Johnnie the Rogue did. But it's been years and years since I've read the whole thing first page to last, and I knew I had to do that before I could honestly put it on the list. Given the world's situation last night, I decided to grab one of my three copies (don't ask) and curl up in bed with this old, old favorite.
I was prepared to be disappointed. I knew there were aspects of the story that I vaguely remembered as problematic. How would I react to them now, older and wiser and more radical than ever?
The book club edition, its cheap high-acid paper a little brittle after 67 years, is 308 pages. I reached page 57 before I forced myself to quit, turn out the lights, and get some sleep.
I wasn't disappointed.
The writing is splendid, the characters all fully-fleshed and more than a little Dickensian. The opening set in Newgate prison the day before the notorious outlaw known as Johnnie the Rogue is to be hanged brings the London lowlife of 1760 into clear focus. (For perspective, Henry Fielding's novel Tom Jones was published in 1749.) The raucous, bawdy "going away" party is interrupted by the arrival of a young woman dressed all in black, who begs the gaoler to let her wed a condemned felon; as her legal -- though barely -- husband, he will assume her debts and his death will free her of them. The handsome young highwayman, sometimes called Lord Johnnie for his ability to mimic the nobility, is the only one available, and so the marriage is performed. And though the young woman does not give her full name, Johnnie picks her pocket and identifies her as Leanna Somerset.
She departs Newgate believing he'll be dead by the next night and she'll be free of both him and her debts.
Johnnie has other plans.
What struck me as one of the most significant aspects of the story, and especially about Johnnie himself, was the awareness of class distinctions. The London poor are little better than animals, barely surviving while the rich live in splendor. And while Johnnie has aspirations to the gentry, he also recognizes that there is an innate honesty and humanity about those condemned to wretched poverty through no fault of their own.
I wondered, after I had closed the book for the night, if I might have had a different attitude toward my own writing career if I had read Georgette Heyer Regencies before I read the swashbuckling adventures of Leslie Turner White, Samuel Shellabarger, and (of course!) Frank Yerby. I read David Copperfield and The Return of the Native before I read Pride and Prejudice. Glitz and glamour never appealed to me as much as the struggle for justice and fairness. To this day, I rarely enjoy novels that focus on the wealthy and powerful.
And having no personal experience of being wealthy or powerful, I don't know enough about them to write about them!
The other issue that interested me as I began re-reading was the way Leanna Somerset was portrayed. These books were written primarily for a male audience, and most of the writers were male. The emphasis was on male adventure, not romance and not on female characters.
But within this first 57 pages, there are already two female characters, very different from each other and yet with certain common characteristics. First there's Leanna, the desperate upper-class lady who has gotten herself into debt and needs a way out. Pretty, delicate, emblem of all Johnnie aspires to and cannot have.
Then there's Moll Coppinger, with her broken nose and straw hat, who carries her own romantic torch for the dashing outlaw. She is his for the taking, but she's not what he wants.
Unlike the fragile, helpless heroines of silent films perhaps, both Leanna and Moll are quite capable of self-preservation. Were they products of the era in which they were written? Lord Johnnie was published in 1949, so written in the immediate aftermath of World War II when women proved themselves capable of just about everything.
But, I'm only 57 pages in. I remember how the story develops, and of course how it ends, and I know there are some twists and surprises in store for the characters. Maybe there will be some surprises for my memories, too.