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The Book That Started It All

Cover of "Bitterleaf"

When I was in 10th grade, Judith McNaught’s Whitney, My Love took my high school by storm. Even girls who didn’t normally read romance novels felt compelled to pick it up, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a few boys tried to find the “good parts” in their sisters’ copies.

But, honestly, the book kind of left me cold. And the book pictured above is the reason why.

I discovered it thanks to my best friend’s mother. She had a whole collection of romance novels stashed away from where the little ones could find them, and she didn’t mind me reading or borrowing them. This book — this one — kind of blew my mind for reasons my little 14-year-old mind could not have articulated, and I read it again and again. I bought the copy pictured above online, but it’s a pretty accurate representation of what my copy looked like.

“But, Alexa,” I hear you say. “If this book is so darn good, why have I never heard of this author?”

Dear reader, if you enjoy Regency or Victorian romances, I guarantee that you have heard of her. This was one of her early pseudonyms, but she eventually traded that in for her real name and became a bestselling author. I even have a copy of this book that was republished (and probably slightly edited) under her better-known name: Candace Camp.

Now, I cannot wholeheartedly recommend this book. It’s a very early 1980s romance novel, which means it’s all kinds of problematic. Among other things, I know that some of my friends will hear that it’s set on a plantation before the American Revolution and has several characters who are slaves and be like, “Nope, not reading that.” I’m not going to defend it — those parts have not aged well, and it’s probably one of the reasons it’s out of print.

And yet … two enslaved characters are the secondary romance in the book, which was pretty unusual for this sub-genre at the time. Not only that, the author fully acknowledges that it’s a big damn problem that the main characters own slaves and that the entire system is brutal, and comes up with a way for the hero and heroine to free all of them, in a book set in the Carolinas around the 1760s or 1770s, though the year is never specified.

The other major thing that sets this apart from other books of the time is that there is the then-obligatory scene where the hero is driven mad with desire and has an opportunity to rape the heroine and … he doesn’t. He pulls away and berates himself for what he almost did, which is the final thing that makes her realize that he could never hurt her and is not the one trying to kill her. (I told you it was a very 1980s book.) When McNaught came to a similar point in her book, the hero went through with it.

All of the elements that I love in the romance genre are gathered together in this one book: an interesting historical setting with a stubborn heroine, a rakish hero who secretly longs to be reformed, and an inclusive cast of characters that gives additional insight into the story and the historical period. It wasn’t until recently that I realized that this one book really set the template for me when it comes to historical romance. Despite its flaws — and there are even more than the ones I mentioned above — it still speaks to me as what romance can and should be.