A recent issue of the Spectator featured a surprising article. It was self-critical, apolitical and highly readable. Commissioning editor Mary Wakefield made a confession about her reading habits: she has a passion for romantic fiction, specifically Mills & Boon.
Mention of those two names brought back memories of the 1970s that I had repressed in favour of strikes, power cuts and disappointing music. It was not Britain’s finest decade, and yet the nation’s literature still stood out, mainly at newsagents and airports. These were the chief repositories of romantic fiction, far from the gaze of sniffy booksellers and readers of the Times Literary Supplement.
I used to feel a frisson when passing those ever-changing assortments of books with their Mills & Boon rose logo and covers. Instead of feeling shame, I felt ownership. I would always look to see if my maiden aunt – and godmother – had her wares laid out on those functional racks, ready for pulping if unsold within a month. As I usually travelled with her, she was able to spot her own work quickly. Sometimes her admirers would spot her too. She was a popular writer within the niche. Of the various names she used, it was Isobel Chace who got the most fan mail.
The thing her fans around the world didn’t know was that she also lived the life of a nun. I had been a chrism carrier at my aunt’s initiation into what was, I think, the Sodality of Our Lady. She didn’t wear a habit but did take the vows.
Despite being a romantic novelist, my aunt went out into the world to do good work. She saw no betrayal of her religious principles by writing for Mills & Boon. There wasn’t much of a contradiction in those days. Romantic fiction was a different sort of animal in the 1960s and 70s. It was more of a celibate hamster than the rampant bull it is now.
Things were changing even then, though. The day she decided to get off her literary treadmill was after a visit from Alan Boon. The eponymous publisher was, in addition to being a gifted editor, very fond of my aunt. I had the pleasure of meeting him but wasn’t present on the occasion he told her that bodices needed to be ripped off rather than half-heartedly pawed. Mr Boon saw the future of romantic fiction in the late 1970s, even though he had sold the family company to Harlequin at the beginning of the decade. The name and the rose have continued until today, and the books still sell in quantities that would stun writers of the sort of fiction that wins awards.
After the editorial input, my aunt ventured into more serious territory. But she soon found that other publishers put the same pressure on her for less virginal heroines as was being applied at Mills & Boon. What held her back was not her faith but her professionalism. She was adept at writing about places and cultures, researching them thoroughly and doing field trips to such enterprising locations as Egypt during the Yom Kippur War.
I used to travel with my aunt, so I know the depth of her investigations. Never did it include escapades with salacious sheikhs or the roués of 1970s Rome. Her vows forbade this sort of fieldwork, as did her determination to write for her audience. They wanted a convincing background and as little detail as possible on anything that their imaginations could work out for themselves.
It seems that readers now want a bit more action than before, without being overwhelmed by it. The other thing that has changed is that readers know more about their writers than they used to. There was sufficient mystery in the past for those legendary retired colonels in Sussex to really exist, cranking out romantic fiction that only the publisher knew was written by a man.
The author’s biography on the dust jacket of the hardcover editions (libraries were huge consumers of these books) mentioned nothing about my aunt’s religious dimension. Until the end of her life she was truly devout, attending Mass every day. Instead, the publisher kept the info to breezy comments such as “I live with an elderly Jack Russell terrier”. The accompanying photo in secular garb created none of the shock of seeing a wimpled Sister Wendy Beckett getting passionate about nudity on television.
Even after Mills & Boon had become steamier than in her day, my aunt encouraged me to have a go at romantic fiction. She felt that I was more “of the world” than she was.
Although everyone thinks it’s easy to write romantic fiction, and despite using a female pen name and having the possibility of nepotism from my aunt, my effort was rejected. She encouraged me to become an art writer and curator after that.
At least I had options. For a woman in pursuit of a career during the 1950s, the choices were very limited. It was teaching, nursing or, in extreme cases, the nunnery. None of them appealed to her. She ended up doing the things she loved – research and writing – while at the same time observing chastity and obedience. Poverty was taken care of by the punitive taxes at the time.
Her beloved Jack Russell died eventually, but at one stage she had a fully paid up religious hermit living in her house. The dog was definitely better company. I now wish that I had spent more time with my aunt, not just when travelling in those distant teenage years.