Friday 11 August 2017

First Remembered Read ~ Romantic Novel

Those of us who read, and who are influenced by books, tend to squirrel away our memories of all the stories we have read over the years. 

And yet, there is always that one special book tucked away in the far corner of your mind which reminds you just why you love reading so much…

During July and August I've invited a few friends to share their First Remembered Read

I'm thrilled to welcome to Jaffareadstoo

Helena Fairfax, author of Felicity at the Cross Hotel

Alison Uttley's A Traveller in Time – My First Romantic Read

by Helena Fairfax

When I was eleven I started my first year at a Catholic convent school. The convent was founded in the seventeenth century, at a time when Catholics were persecuted in this country. My school was in an old, rambling building, complete with a draughty chapel and a priests' hidey-hole. The nuns told us many harrowing stories of Catholic martyrdom, such as the death of Margaret Clitherow, who had hidden priests in her home and was executed in a horrific way. She was stripped and laid on a sharp rock. The door of her own house was laid on top of her, weighted with a great pile of rocks and stones, and she was crushed to death. It wasn't hard in that ancient school building to feel all the horror of this death, the paralysing fear of the Catholics, and the brutality of the time.

It was also at this time that I had to spend a couple of weeks off school with a severe throat infection. My dad was away, my other brothers and sisters were at school, and my mum had to go to work. I spent a lot of time alone, feeling feverish and sorry for myself. This was in the days before computers – before even daytime television – and there was nothing for me to do but read. Every day my mum would place a great pile of books by my bed, along with a large jug of juice to drink. One of the books she left me was A Traveller in Time, by Alison Uttley. I absolutely fell in love with this book. It was my first ever romantic read, and I still have my old copy.

A Traveller in Time tells the story of Penelope Taverner, who, like myself at the time, was a solitary and imaginative child, recovering from an illness. Penelope is sent to stay with relatives who live at Thackers – an old farm in Derbyshire which has been there for centuries. There is an absolutely lovely sense of place in this book – the descriptions of the old farm-house, the scent of herbs, the cosy kitchen, and all the old furnishings and artefacts that Penelope comes across already give the story a wonderfully romantic atmosphere. The real romance comes from the dual timeline. Penelope discovers she can travel back in time, to the sixteenth century and the reign of Queen Elizabeth, and the home of the Babington family. The fictional Thackers is based on the real house of Dethick Manor, which once belonged to the Catholic Babingtons. Anthony Babington was involved in a plot to murder Queen Elizabeth and place the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots on the throne. He was executed, and his actions led to the later execution of Queen Mary.

With the stories of the nuns in my head, I could well imagine the terror Penelope feels, knowing what will happen to the Babingtons, and knowing she is powerless to change history. Penelope meets Francis Babington – the younger brother of Anthony – and as the story progresses, and Penelope grows older, she and Francis begin to fall in love. Their love for each other is beautifully drawn, and all the more moving because they both of them know it is doomed.

The book was first published in 1939. I re-read it recently and it is still a wonderful, enthralling, romantic and poignant read today. I passed the book on to my own daughter when she was a child, and she called the author "Alison Utterly Brilliant". :) I heartily agree!

Photo of Dethick Manor attribution: mickie collins
[CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Common

Author Biography:

Helena Fairfax is a British author who was born in Uganda and came to England as a child. She's grown used to the cold now which is just as well, since these days she lives in an old Victorian mill town in the north of England, right next door to the windswept Yorkshire moors. Helena walks this romantic landscape every day with her rescue dog, finding it the perfect place to dream up her heroes and her happy endings. Subscribers to Helena's newsletter receive news of free stuff, competitions with prizes, gossip, and links to cool websites she's been looking at when she should have been writing.

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Helena Fairfax
July 2017

Cassandra Grafton, author of A Quest for Mr Darcy

My First Romantic Novel

by Cassandra Grafton

Thank you, Jo and Jaffa, for this fun opportunity to share my thoughts on the first romance novel I ever read!

It was back in the summer of 1975, and I was thirteen years old. There was no Internet to search for recommendations of books to read. In general, you relied on local bookshop displays, the mobile library van or the compulsory reading on the school curriculum.

Across five years in grammar school, the latter focused very much on classic authors, including Chaucer, Shakespeare, the Brontës and Austen, and I had yet to discover them all as my second year at grammar school drew to a close.

Then, a class friend offered to lend me a novel she had just read. Her name was Janet Davies, and I can picture her clearly even though I haven’t seen her since I left the school in 1978.

Her mum was a big fan of a Mills & Boon author called Betty Neels and bought all her novels. The book Janet offered me was called Enchanting Samantha, and that was all I knew about it when I took it from her.

It turned out to be a sweet love story about an English nurse and a Dutch doctor, and I devoured it in one go, feeling by the end I had made a huge discovery.

I had all the typical awkwardness of a being a teenager, feeling plain and ordinary at the best of times, yet the heroine was someone I could instantly relate to.

Samantha wasn’t a glamorous or stunningly beautiful girl, she was, to quote from the novel, “a small, pleasantly plump figure, her cap perched very precisely on the top of her neatly piled brown hair, a frown marring a face, which, while by no means pretty, was pleasant enough, with hazel eyes fringed with short thick lashes, a nose turned up at its end and a mouth which though a little too large, could smile delightfully.”

I had brown hair, a by no means pretty but hopefully passable face, hazel eyes and though I avoided smiling much because of the braces on my teeth, I somehow felt an immediate connection with Samantha.

The story is gentle, and the barriers to a happy ending merely those of misunderstandings, but all the same, it whet my appetite. When school finally ended for the long summer holidays, Janet kindly handed over half a dozen other titles by the same author, and that was it - my long love affair with romance novels had begun!

Over time, I collected all of Betty Neels’ books, browsing jumble sales, second-hand book stalls and then, when I had more money to spend, buying brand new stories as they were released. I took them all away to college with me, frequently re-reading my favourites, but later, with a growing family and a lack of space, the books ended up in storage.

Betty Neels began to write in 1969, after retiring from many years in the nursing profession (she had married her own Dutch doctor - a common theme in her books!) The story goes that she was in the library one day and heard a lady complaining about the lack of good romance novels, so decided to write one of her own! In the end, she penned 134 of them for Mills & Boon!

Did Enchanting Samantha remain my all-time favourite Betty Neels novel? No, it was soon superseded by several others, but I will always retain a fondness for the book that introduced me to romance novels, and I still have a copy up in the attic.

Enchanting Samantha
was first published in 1973. It has been re-issued with various covers over the last few decades, but my original dog-eared copy looks pretty much like this one!

Mills and Boon



Co-author with Ada Bright of The Particular Charm of Miss Jane Austen
Author of the A Fair Prospect trilogy
Author of A Quest for Mr Darcy
Co-author of The Darcy Brothers

Visit me:

Our Blog: Tabby Cow
My Website: Cass Grafton

CreateSpace Indepenent Publishing Platform
July 2017

Huge thanks to Helena and Cassandra for sharing the memories 

of their First Romantic Read with me today.

Next week : My First Historical Read


  1. Loved reading about Helena's first romance read - sounds like a book I would enjoy!

    Thank you for asking me to be part of your fun First Reads posts, Jo and Jaffa! I had a blast!

    1. Thanks so much for being part of My First Reads. I enjoyed reading all about your Mills and Boon days. I was hooked on Barbara Cartland novels !

  2. Cassandra, I was a big fan of Betty Neels, too. My sister has a whole stash of vintage M&Bs in her attic which she's promised to give me. I'm sure there'll be some Betty Neels in there. You're really whetted my appetite to re-read them!
    Thanks for hosting us, Jo. It's been great fun revisiting my first book love :)

    1. Thanks for being part of My First Reads and for sharing your love of Alison Uttley's novel. Definitely one for me to look out for ..

    2. This experience has made me want to re-read the books too, Helena! I have the stashed in the attic back home.

      I really enjoyed reading about your first romance novel! Alison Uttley's story sounds right up my street!

  3. Cass, your post reminded me of an occasion when I was in the 3rd year at grammar school when, for some reason, we were all required to empty our brief cases and the two girls sitting in front of me both brought out huge stacks of M&B novels. Thanks for sharing your memories.

    1. Hi Susanna, thanks for taking the time to read and comment. Much appreciated.

    2. LOL Are you sure that wasn't me as well?

      Thank you so much for reading, Susanna!

  4. Thank you Helena and Cassandra. I haven't read the novels you mention, but isn't it extraordinary how you can both still recall the wonderful feelings you experienced when you first read them, and how these stories touched you and inspired you? I think we can all remember the first 'proper' novel we read as an older child or a teenager. In my case, it was the novels by Delly - all historical romances - that made me dream of love and romance...

    1. Marie, I cannot tell you how much fun it was to think back to this and identify that first romance. No, it wasn't anything well known or generally revered but I'm so touched others remember Beety Neels and her gentle romance as well as I do!

    2. Hi Marie, I love this series of Jo's about first books. I agree it's extraordinary what we remember as readers. I remember the books I read as a child and teenager with far more intensity than the films and TV I watched. I've never read any of the novels by Delly. I will definitely check them out. I might even be able to understand the French!

    3. Thank you for all your kind comments. I'm thrilled that 'My First Books' has reawakened some lovely memories for everyone.

  5. Lovely! those Betty Neels look great:-)

    1. So gentle, Jenetta, but perfect fodder for a thirteen year old's first venture into romance!

    2. Such lovely memories. Thanks for sharing :)

  6. I read Fifteen by Beverley Clearly when I was the same age as the title. I loved it, and it's cover by Peacock (a "teen" branch of Penguin for a time) and I still have it on my shelves - in case I want to read it again. I still remember the joy I felt for the boy and girl and their chaste meetings before their first kiss.... and I hoped that my own life would pan out in a similar way to theirs. It did, but in a different way altogether!

    1. Not a book I'm familiar with but it's great to read your memories. Thanks for sharing, Susan :)

    2. I haven't heard of that either, Susan, but will look it up! I love that we all remember our first reads so well. This was a great idea, Jo!!


Thanks for taking the time to comment - Jaffareadstoo appreciates your interest.