COVER STORY: First Loves ; It's 14 February - and to Celebrate Valentine's Day, We Asked 14 Leading Writers to Recall Their Earliest Romantic Encounters Interviews by Isabel Lloyd

Article excerpt

Alain de Botton

Novelist & commentator

I was 12, and staying in a hotel in France by the seaside. There I fell in love with an angelic creature who was staying at the same hotel; I never found out her name. The interesting thing is, I had no idea it was love that I was feeling. I didn't know what was wrong with me. I thought I might be ill: I felt sad and moody, I didn't want to play with my sister, I didn't want to go swimming, I couldn't explain to my parents why I didn't want to leave the hotel. I didn't connect this girl with my emotions.

Michel Foucault said something like, "There are some people who would never have fallen in love if they didn't know what such a thing felt like", and that certainly applied to me. It was a real experience of mystery, as my feelings were completely unrequited and I was both unaware and unable to capitalise on them. All I could do was skulk round corners and stalk her as she sat in the hotel library.

There is a line to be drawn between that girl and my wife, a kind of continuity. Maybe it's something commanded by biology, or maybe it's simply that I'm desperately unoriginal, but I've always gone for similar types: rather bookish, a little sad, and desperately beautiful when they take their glasses off. She became an ideal figure that, ever after, I was looking for.

`Status Anxiety' by Alain de Botton (Hamish Hamilton, pounds 16.99) is published on 4 March

Stella Duffy

Novelist

I was 15, and Michele was 16 - and you know how that really matters at school. It began with us looking at each across a crowded lunch-room. For about three weeks we would just stare at each other, several tables apart. They say when you stare at somebody, you fall in love without realising that's what you're doing.

Michele was the first person I knew who talked about teachers like they were people. If we had a teacher who was in a bad mood, Michele would say: "They've probably been having a hard time at home." She had a really adult attitude, and I didn't know anyone else my age like that. She was good-looking, but it wasn't that that attracted me to her: it was her brain, her response to the world.

We'd stay up really late together at our Catholic boarding school, talking until 3am, which you absolutly weren't supposed to do. My friends and I used to drink and smoke dope, but she didn't - not because she was "good", but because she thought it was uncool. Basically, I wanted to be like her: I was gawky, a loud mouth, whereas she was quite reserved and only spoke when she had something to say. When she went to the sixth-form ball she put her hair in a French pleat - she knew things like that, things I didn't.

When she left school to travel round the world with her parents, I was heartbroken: I sobbed for ages. But I didn't know I was gay, I didn't know what I was feeling. In retrospect, it's clear I was in love with her, but I didn't have any context. I didn't realise you could be in love with another girl.

Years later, when I was about 23 and she was already married, we had drinks, and I told her how I finally recognised that what I'd felt for her was real love. She said, quite simply: "Yes, I know."

`State of Happiness' by Stella Duffy (Virago, pounds 12.99) is out now

Thomas Keneally

Booker-prize winning novelist

My first love was a girl from the western suburbs of Sydney. She was head prefect of the local convent school, and we nearly went all the way at the Christian Brothers' Dance. "All the way" for us was holding hands. We nearly did it, but, thank God, we gave ourselves a shake, re-examined our priorities, and didn't quite cross the line. Anyhow, not long afterwards, she was called to the deathbed of an old Irish nun, who asked my beloved to become a nun herself and take on the same name: Benignus. This old Irish nun was anything but benign. …