One of my biggest regrets of 2020, this Year of Sorrows, is that we never got to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of the UK’s Romantic Novelists’ Association. The first meeting was in January 1960. This anniversary year will soon run out.
It occurred to me, therefore, that I should do something now, before Christmas takes its irresistible hold.
There are excellent up-to-date entries on the RNA’s website for current information. And I heartily recommend it.
This blog, however, is wholly personal. Here you will find a few random memories of the RNA and, above all, the wonderful people I have found there, in books and in person.
Romantic Novelists’ Association and Sophie Weston, Debut Author
I don’t remember who first told me to join the RNA but it was a long time ago. My first job was beginning to seem manageable after a very rocky start. (I’d had to take two months off with rheumatic fever!) A kindly agent had taken my first romantic novel to Woman’s Weekly and Harlequin Mills & Boon. I’d moved away from the parental home…
The agent managed to sell my story – written in a panic while nobody had yet identified rheumatic fever and I was hardly able to walk – to both her contacts! And suddenly there was this lovely Author taking me seriously as a colleague and inviting me to a meeting.
I went. In fear and trembling, but I went.
And they were, indeed, terrifyingly professional. Arriving late from the day job, I crept in to frowns after the speaker had already started. Afterwards my kind sponsor located me but not before a two others had rebuked me for discourtesy to the speaker.
I joined. But the fear remained.
And, anyway, the meetings were in the afternoon. Still trying to make my mark in the day job, I wasn’t going to be able to make many of them.
Anyway, they scared me, those real, full-time writers. I mean, only one book, right? Well, two a bit later. But…
Romantic Novelists’ Association – Origins
By the time I went to my first meeting the organisation had moved into its second or even third phase. Members no longer wore hats to meetings.
What’s more, they had largely given up on the objective of getting reviews for romantic fiction in newspapers (Robins and Stuart) or having a sort of Academy Awards Ceremony for the Romantic Novel of the Year (Cartland, always a woman to Think Big.) These days we have gorgeous glass stars to mark our Awards and a bloody good party. But, so far, no red carpet or media circus.
Beyond that first Meeting
As it turned out, I was unlucky in that first meeting.It seemed that the RNA had Standards – and I didn’t meet them. One lady told me that I would never be a serious writer until I gave up the day job. Fat chance!
These days new recruits are more often welcomed into the fold with whoops of glee and fizz. (Coffee is also available.) Festive and friendly pretty much sums it up.
Looking back, I was probably over-sensitive. When I came to share in putting together the 50th Anniversary memoir, I found that many, maybe most, of those early members wrote to put food on the table.
It was really moving to find the hugely successful Netta Muskett, one of the founding Vice Presidents, writing that she had crawled out from a bad marriage “with two children in each hand, a cat, a dog, a sewing machine and my old typewriter.” She was the sole breadwinner.
Hilda Nickson wasn’t. But, as a nurse who wrote medical romances, she wrote at a fantastic rate to provide a trust fund for her disabled child.
The only child of a divorced mother, she’d had an unhappy time when they had to live with her maternal uncle and, in her words, be constantly grateful. As a result she went straight into journalism as soon as she left school.
Thereafter she wrote her first Mills & Boon in the Malaysian jungle where her husband was working. She continued to write throughout their long and happy marriage.
She was helping stuff envelopes before a study day, at the time.
That would have been 2002 or so, I think. For I had left the 9-5 (ho ho) job behind some time before and gone consulting, travelling and regained control of my diary. At last, I was free to go to RNA meetings!
Romantic Novelists Association – So What Was Romance?
When the RNA was set up, nobody seems to have thought about a definition. You wrote romantic fiction if that’s how your publisher marketed you. Alternatively, for the New Writers’ Scheme, an unpublished author wrote romantic fiction if she thought she did. In the first year there were 10 entries, all but two dismissed by Mary Howard, the organiser, and one actually published, by Hurst and Blackett.
It was called The Generous Vine, a cracking Georgian romp starring a girl who runs a dame school by day and is a smuggler by night. Author Elizabeth Howard acquired the Renier pen name in the hands of the publisher. This cover, by the way, is probably from the US. I have a paperback copy of the UK one.
But the winners of the Romantic Novel of the Year were not so easy to pigeon-hole.
Regular reader of this blog will know that I am a great enthusiast for the author of the second winner of the main Award, Paula Allardyce, about whom I have a blogged a couple of times.
In spite of its title, Witches’ Sabbath was a mainly contemporary story, full of passion and secrets. OK there were echoes of an old witch trial. But the force of the story is a furiously painful love affair between two lovers who parted. Indeed, they parted for very good reasons of the heroine’s.
It was beautifully written and the lovers did end up together, technically at least. But many issues were unresolved. I would put no money at all on a Happy Ever After.
Successive winners demonstrated more interest in the emotional turbulence of the story than an HEA, right up until at least the late 70s. Many of those early winners are what today would be marketed as Women’s Fiction. And, sadly, very few of them were a lot of laughs.
Romantic comedy now, deservedly, gets a sub-category of its own when the awards are judged. Romantic fiction has really widened its scope and the RNA’s various Awards have followed suit.
Robins, Cartland and Stuart might have turned from paranormal romance (now a staple in the genre) with a pish and a tush.
But one of the oldest founding members, Berta Ruck, was producing a good solid paranormal back in 1925. In The Immortal Girl, a village spinster, well struck in years, drinks the elixir of life and becomes a flapper.
Friend of Rebecca West and Vicki Baum, long time Welsh resident, observer of the rise of Nazism during European trips in the thirties, Berta Ruck is one of those RNA members I really, really wish I’d known in person. Though knowing her through her very jolly letters to the RNA Newsletter has a been a huge pleasure. They sent her flowers for her hundredth birthday. She thanked them – but said she’d rather have had champagne.
Makes me quite misty-eyed. And very proud to be a member of the same team.