Romantic Novelists’ Association 60th Year

RNA 60th Anniversary logoOne 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

Rose M Banks HarlequinI 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.

Goblin Court cover by Sophie Weston

2nd book, revised and re-published

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

author in hatThe RNA started with 115 members. It now has 1,000. The original presiding trio were Denise Robins, Barbara Cartland and Alex Stuart.

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.

60th Anniversary award starWhat’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

Busy fizzAs 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.

And the queenly Anne Weale – a definite upholder of Standards  – told me that she had always been determined to earn her own living.

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.

And Today?

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.

Romantic Novelists Association Berta RuckBut… but…the marketing might have changed, but are writers all that different?

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.

Sophie Weston Author


17 thoughts on “Romantic Novelists’ Association 60th Year

  1. Elizabeth Bailey

    Such lovely memories! I knew Anne Weale but none of the others. I was absolutely terrified when I joined and suffered from false pretences syndrome. My Mills and Boon editor told me about it when my first book was published, but I still felt like an imposter. There was quite a lot of glamour about too and that’s definitely not me! But a few years down the line and having made some friends, it became my haven where I was recognised as a pro.

  2. lesley2cats

    Anne Weale was the only one I knew, via our newly set up Email Chapter! Happy days. And happy 60th, RNA.

    1. Sophie Post author

      Jay (Anne Weale) was a very early adopter of all things Internet. She wrote a column for the Bookseller for a while on good websites for authors.

      She could be pretty astringent on email but in person she was very easy to get on with – strong opinions if invited to share them but very interested if you disagreed and delighted to discuss and, sometimes, even change her mind. I always remember how she was touchingly surprised to be included on envelope stuffing party, where she really pulled her weight. She came along to the pizza session that followed and was tremendous fun. And she must have been by far the most successful author there but you would never have guessed it. I miss her.

  3. Sophie Post author

    Sadly, I only know the others through their contributions to the Archive, Liz, and some of Di Pearson’s reminiscences. I’ve done a bit of research over the years but quite a lot of this is word of mouth.

    Di was Barbara Cartland’s editor for a while. Also, she was Patricia (Denise’s daughter) Robins’s editor from the start, I think, and really good friends with her. Of course Di didn’t start working in publishing until the mid 60s but her first boss was Mike Legat who was close to the RNA from its earliest inception.

    1. Sophie Post author

      She was always so interested in everything new. I try to remember that when I get grumpy about yet something else I’m supposed to learn.

      1. Joanna

        This may be in danger of becoming an Anne Weale tribute, as well as an RNA one 😉 Not a bad thing…

        My first meeting with Anne, 20+ years ago, was at a Mills & Boon authors’ lunch at the Sloane Club. I was a newly-contracted M&B author. Like Sophie I was coming from work and I’d warned the organiser, Mary Lyons, that I’d be late. So when I sneaked in, I’d missed the first course and everyone was wondering who that ill-mannered newbie was. They’d saved me a seat next to Anne, on Mary’s table. Anne was very welcoming. She introduced herself by her real name and I didn’t know who she was. When I eventually twigged, she laughed and said that no one would recognise her from her author pic which was years and years old. But if she used an up-to-date one, she’d “look like a prune”. She had me from that moment on. Great woman.

        1. Liz Fielding

          I remember that lunch, Joanna – the first time I met you. And yes, Anne could be astringent online but in person was the kindest person. John and I used to have breakfast with her at the New Cavendish club and she was great company

    1. Sophie Post author

      Thank you Ros. Just the tip of the iceberg – probably best not to get me started…

  4. Liz Fielding

    Lovely post, Sophie. I heard of the RNA when, aspiring to be a romance author, I bought Mary Wibberley’s book, To Writers With Love. My biggest regret is not joining the NWS then, but I joined as soon as my first book was accepted. I lived in darkest Wales so couldn’t make many meetings, but nervous newbie that I was, I knew I’d found my tribe. And I so wish I’d met Berta Ruck!

  5. Liz Fielding

    And I think that Netta Muskett was the first author’s name that made an impression on me. My mother was a huge fan and took me with her to Boots Library every week – always hoping to find a new book by Netta. I had my own Boots card – aged 5 – and when I’d read all of their short collection of books for small people, I moved to the Public Library. My mother stayed loyal to Boots until they closed their libraries, when she joined me at the Public LIbrary. She was never without a book.

    1. lesley2cats

      I’ve got quite a few ex-Boots library books with the green shield label in my collection,Mum, Dad and I were all members, and sad when they closed. Our local small department store also had one, where I practically lived.

  6. Anne Harvey

    Fabulous post, Sophie! What wonderful memories to have! I have only ever been to one meeting in London and that was when I was in the NWS. I took a coach from Chesterfield early morning (lunch in a bag!) but the coach hit all sorts of problems, driver shortages/exchanges. traffic hold-ups etc so that although I should have had time to get from Victoria to the meeting (the Cavendish?), I didn’t have time so the driver obligingly dropped me somewhere near Marble Arch and I found my way there. I could only stay about an hour before making my way back to Victoria to catch the coach home. I never tried it again!

    1. Sophie Post author

      Great Heavens. That sounds an absolute Odyssey, Ann. Fabulous determination on your part, though.

      Reminds me a bit of the heroic obstacles overcome by people coming to the 2007 Conference at Royal Holloway in Egham. The pre-conference Thursday was the day of the Kings Cross and other bombings in London and the transport system was completely up the creek. But people soldiered through in the most impressive fashion.

  7. Elaine Everest

    What a wonderful blog post. Thank you so much for giving us a taste of the past. It would be wonderful to return to those days and enjoy lunch meetings – and wear hats.

    1. Sophie Post author

      I think there was quite a lot of hat rivalry at one point, Elaine. When we were putting the memoir together more than one person told us stories of Barbara Cartland bulldozing them out the way of a camera when they were wearing particularly chic headwear.
      Maybe we should try a Diamond Anniversary-plus-1 be-hatted tea next year, virus permitting?

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