Our 1963 dinner, with Ian Fleming, Barbara Cartland in fine style (centre), and Denise Robins
The Romantic Novelists’ Association was set up in 1960 by a roll call of notables in women’s commercial fiction: film-starry Denise Robins and Barbara Cartland, first President and Vice President respectively; poetic, ethereal Elizabeth Goudge, a Vice President to be; Netta Muskett who wrote such scandalously sexy books that librarians hid them; a pre-Mallen Catherine Cookson, then chiefly known for the Mary Anne books; a very young Rosamunde Pilcher.
They wanted respect for their genre. In her inaugural address, Miss Robins said that although romantic novels, according to the libraries, gave the most pleasure to the most people, the writers almost had to apologise for what they did. This had to stop.
But this was not Grub Street. Lady novelists took taxis and dined in Dior. Robins (black velvet and chinchilla, dramatic contemporary stories) and Cartland (sequins and white fox, strong on virginity) dominated the UK market. The RNA Awards Dinner was black tie and glittering frocks. Guests were addressed by HE Bates and Ian Fleming. It was a confident, ordered and prosperous world.
Then Robins and Cartland decided they didn’’t want to be called romantic any more and left, leaving much loved Harlequin Mills & Boon author of the Warrender series, Mary Burchell, to take over as temporary President in 1966. Her first task was to reunite the warring membership. “I concede,” she wrote in the RNA’s Newsletter, “that a bad romantic novel is embarrassing and indefensible. So is a bad so-called realistic novel. (And it is usually pretentious into the bargain which is insufferable.) But a good romantic novel is a heart-warming thing which strikes a responsive chord in those who are happy and offers a certain lifting of the spirits to those who are not.”
Incoming Vice President, Carnegie Medal Winner Elizabeth Goudge, spoke for the more fundamentalist romantic persuasion: “As this world becomes increasingly ugly, callous and materialistic it needs to be reminded that the old fairy stories are rooted in truth, that imagination is of value, that happy endings do, in fact, occur, and that the blue spring mist that make an ugly street look beautiful is just as real a thing as the street itself.”
Though even in the sixties, not all RNA novels ended Happy Ever After. RNA Committee member Maynah Lewis ascribed this to women’s widening horizons. Winner of the Romantic Novel of the Year in 1968 and 1972, she said, “In my first novel the heroine didn’t get her man, in my second the heroine was 64 years old, my third was a romantic suspense set behind the Iron Curtain, my fourth had no wedding bells, not even in the far distance.”
Temporary President Mary Burchell stayed for 20 years, until her death, instituting riotous summer parties at Dolphin Square, where she had acquired a flat to house the refugees whom she and her sister Louise helped to escape from Nazi Germany. (Mira Books have re-published her memoir of that time, Safe Passage under her real name Ida Cook.) Rollicking RNA members would swim in the basement pool and stroll in the garden before drinking pink champagne with publishing’s great and good—including, on one memorable occasion, Alan Boon, in morning coat and carrying a topper, having come straight from Ascot. Professor Higgins, eat your heart out!
Burchell was a hard act to follow, but the next RNA President managed it—Diane Pearson is not only a best selling author (Csarsdas, seminal text for lovers of the wide canvas historical) but also distinguished Senior Editor at Transworld (British Book Award Editor of the Year 1994). Just as well, given the huge lurches in publishing fashions and the fortunes of women’s fiction that have characterised recent years.
Since 1960, the RNA has given prizes to (and nurtured in its New Writers’ Scheme) many emerging genres: big meaty historicals; woman-rising-above-adversity tales; heroine-of the-family sagas; the troubled marriage Aga saga; hard-drinking chick lit; second chance romance; and, in the 00s, Fantasy with Fangs. Okay, no vampire novel has won any of our prizes yet, but give it time. There’s one in our 50th anniversary collection of short stories by RNA members, Loves Me, Loves Me Not.
These days we count among our members, best sellers from every aspect of women’s fiction: Joanna Trollope, Penny Jordan, Elizabeth Buchan, Nicola Cornick, Katie Flynn, Elizabeth Chadwick, Maureen Lee, Carole Matthews, Adele Parks, Katie Fforde and many more. The days of swimming pool and toppered-gent parties may be over, but women are realising their ambitions and expanding their horizons more widely than they did even twenty years ago. Plus opportunities for sisterly support have increased through the online members’ group, as well as the conference, meetings, parties, local chapters. The gossip, of course, is just as good as it ever was. Oh, and there’s lashings more sex, too. In the books, of course.