Friday, March 26, 2010

Writing Her Back Into History

March marks, among other celebrations, the annual observance of Women’s History Month. This year is the 30th anniversary of this communal recognition of women’s contributions to culture, history, and society. I think it’s a celebration that should resonate loudly within the romance community. Ours is a genre that is still ignored or derided by many, and the conviction that this status is due in part to women being a great majority among the creators and consumers of romance fiction is widely shared. In 2009, the Romance Vagabonds used Women’s History Month as the occasion to celebrate thirteen women who contributed significantly to the history of romance fiction: Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, E. M. Hull, Georgette Heyer, Faith Baldwin, Barbara Cartland, Nancy Bruff and Frances Shelly Wees (as representatives of Harlequin writers), Mary Stewart, Kathleen Woodiwiss, Nora Roberts, LaVyrle Spencer, and Jayne Ann Krentz. At the time, I especially regretted our omission of one writer whose books filled my teen years and whose story I find particularly inspiring. Since the 2010 theme is “Writing Women Back into History,” this seemed like the perfect time to write Eleanor Alice Burford Hibbert back into my tribute to the women of romance fiction.

You may not recognize her legal name, but those of you who were romance readers during the golden age of the 20th century gothic romance probably have read some of her books. Hibbert was born in 1906 in London. Little is known about her early life; two of her publishers even list conflicting dates for her year of birth. But we do know that she completed nine long novels before her first book was published in 1941. She seems to have had ambitions to write literary fiction until an editor advised her to write something “saleable” instead and suggested romance fiction. She read fifty romances as research and then wrote Daughter of Anna for which she received the munificent sum of £30. The book was a success, and Herbert Jenkins contracted her to write first one novel, later two, each year. She went on to publish twenty-nine novels as Eleanor Burford over the next two decades; all were romances with youthful protagonists, with titles like Passionate Witness (1941) and The House at Cupid’s Cross (1949).

However, the pseudonyms she adopted later were the names that won her international fame. In 1945, she began writing as Jean Plaidy, a name she borrowed from a secluded Cornwall beach. During the 1950s and 60s, she was Britain’s most popular historical novelist, publishing ninety books under that name. The last one in 1994 was published posthumously. Catherine de Medici, Katherine of Aragon, Isabella of Spain, Lucrezia Borgia—Plaidy wrote about all of them. Her Plantagenet Saga (15 volumes, 1976-1982) covers English history between 1066 and 1901. As Elbur Ford, she wrote four novels (1950-1954) based on infamous murderers of the 19th century, and as Kathleen Kellow, she wrote another eight (1952-1960). Several of the latter were also mysteries.

It was in 1960 that she first used the name that set me haunting bookstores and searching library shelves. Hibbert’s first book as Victoria Holt was Mistress of Mellyn. I was enthralled when I encountered the book’s heroine, young governess, Martha Leigh; its powerful, enigmatic hero, Con TreMellyn; the great, haunted mansion; the suggestions of scandal and betrayal. Kirkus called MOM “a legitimate successor to Jane Eyre"; rumor said that it had been written by Daphne DuMaurier. I was hooked on Holt after that first book. I read all of the more than thirty books that followed MOMKirkland Revels, The Legend of the Seventh Virgin, Menfreya in the Morning, The Judas Kiss, all the way through The Black Opal in 1993. All of the traditional gothic elements were there, but the books still had a power and a freshness that made Holt books superior to the multitude of imitators who followed her into gothic territory. No less a source than the New York Times Book Review called her books “magic.” I was just one of millions of readers who agreed. Hibbert’s popularity as Holt surpassed her fame as Plaidy, especially in North America. The Holt books were translated into twenty languages and sold more than 75 million copies. Hibbert had started a revival of the gothic romance that persists into the 21st century.

Although never as popular as her Holt books, Hibbert’s books written as Philippa Carr also gained a considerable following. Family saga rather than romance, the nineteen books she wrote under the Carr name were narrated by women. The Daughters of England series begins with The Miracle at St. Bruno’s (1972), a sixteenth-century saga that claims Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, and Sir Thomas More as characters and ends with We’ll Meet Again (1993), set against the backdrop of the end of World War II. The Elizabethan-set The Witch from the Sea may be the best known of the Carr books.

Hibbert died at the age of 87 on board a cruise ship, the Sea Princess, between Athens and Port Said, Egypt, while on what her agent described as “her annual winter trip.” She had sold more than 100 million copies of her nearly two hundred books written over more than half a century. Using her own name and half a dozen pseudonyms, she wrote gothic romance, historical fiction, mystery, children’s books, and non-fiction. She won praise from critics and loyalty from untold numbers of fans. Her particular focus, she said, was “"women of integrity and strong character" who were "struggling for liberation, fighting for their own survival." Her advice is as sound today as it was when she gave it decades ago: “Never regret. If it's good, it's wonderful. If it's bad, it's experience.”

I think she is a woman and a writer well worth celebrating and writing back into the history of romance fiction.

Have you read any of Hibbert’s books under any of her names? What romance writers of the past would you like to see “written back into the history” of the genre?

"Eleanor Alice Burford Hibbert." Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale, 2003. Literature Resource Center. Web.
Dalby, Richard. “All about Jean Plaidy.” Book and Magazine Collector 109 (April 1993).

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Reading Pleasures

I have friends who from time to time feel compelled to tell me why I should not be reading or, God forbid, writing romance. Despite what you may think, they are friends. They have my best interests at heart, and they sincerely fear that my brain will atrophy from my reading romance. When I ask them why I should give up a genre with a guaranteed optimistic ending to read only novels that will end in destruction, despair, and death, they use words like “complexity,” “multilayered,” and “universal.” I ask, “Is human sexuality not complex? Are relationships not multilayered? Is love not universal?” Then I end with the question they will not answer: “I’ve read many hundreds of works of ‘literary fiction.’ How many romance novels have you read?” They are engaging in the very worst stereotyping based on little to no evidence, a practice they are the first to condemn in other circumstances.

I read an interesting article in the books section of The Guardian yesterday. The long list for the Orange Prize for Fiction, a prestigious UK literary prize presented annually to a woman author of any nationality for the best novel written in English and published in the UK in the preceding year, has just been announced. Generally these are novels that critics and scholars have deemed significant literary fiction. But the chair of this year's judging panel found the current crop of 129 competitors lacking in one quality. Author and TV producer Daisy Goodwin said, “There's not been much wit and not much joy, there's a lot of grimness out there. . . . Pleasure seems to have become a rather neglected element in publishing.” My immediate reaction was that I could easily give them a long list of books that were complex, multilayered, as well-written as literary fiction, and filled with wit and joy and pleasure—every book on my list a romance novel.

My friends, and other literary scholars and critics, somehow think that writing books in which people suffer wounds that cannot be healed, discover life is essentially meaningless, and conclude happiness is an illusion takes more talent and intelligence than writing books in which characters find healing, meaning, and happiness. I really like what Jennifer Crusie wrote in “Emotionally Speaking: Romance Fiction in the Twenty-First Century,” a 2003 essay for Writer’s Market: “Dying is easy, commitment is hard, and romance has no room for writers who weasel out by killing people off or leaving them to yearn hopelessly for lost passion. Romance is about optimistic, life-affirming emotional catharsis.” I’m weary of weaseling; I want that “optimistic, life-affirming emotional catharsis.” That’s why I read and write romance.

To be fair, not all literary fiction is gloom and doom. Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte gave us heroines who grow and win, and even in contemporary literary fiction, a rare book that ends in an affirmation of life and human potential can be found. Alice Walker’s The Color Purple is filled with the atrocities human creatures perpetrate upon their fellows, but Celie is a survivor. The book ends in an affirmation of her spirit and the possibility of moving through horror into hope. And Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead is also a wonderful book, one filled with the pleasure of characters who find meaning in the ordinary moments of life and discover forgiveness, hope, and love great enough to offer transcendence. It's also filled with the pleasure of words that sing in the ear and linger in the memory—words like these: “There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, everyone of them sufficient.” But in literary fiction, such books are rare. Not so in romance fiction.

I’ve read romance fiction for almost all of my reading life, including the years I was in graduate school analyzing literary texts and the years I was in classrooms teaching them. I perused Putney along with Proust, chose Chase along with Chaucer, and read Roberts along with Rossetti. For many years I was a closet romance reader, fearful that acknowledging my love of a despised genre would render my intelligence and achievements suspect. But I’m out of the closet now, ready to wear my “I <3 Romance Novels” button and march in HEA Pride parades and feel sorry for friends who lack the joyful, pleasurable reading in which I indulge every day.

Why do you read romance fiction? Have you ever been a closet romance reader? Do you read literary fiction as well? Do you agree with Daisy Goodwin’s claim that much of current literary fiction is joyless?

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Celebrating St. Patrick's Day

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! If all the world is not Irish, at least a good portion of its population will declare themselves so on March 17. Green clothing, green nail polish, and even green faces will abound, the Chicago River will turn green for a few hours, MacDonalds will sell Shamrock Shakes, and nine million St. Patrick’s Day greeting cards will be sent. And there will be parades, hundreds of them. Dublin boasts “the best parade in all the world” and a week-long festival. New York brags that it has the biggest parade—150,000 parade participants and more than two million spectators. Thirty-three states plus Washington, D. C. will host parades, as will England, Australia, and Japan. Celebrations here in Georgia may seem small when compared to NYC’s venerable parade (marking 249 years in 2010), but the early celebration in Atlanta (Saturday, March 13) is supposed to be the biggest and best attended since the first Atlanta St. Patrick’s Parade in 1858. And Savannah’s 185th celebration of the Irish holiday, the second largest in the United States, will draw a crowd of 400,000, an impressive number for a small city with a population half that size.

Like approximately 35,999,999 other U. S. residents (according to the 2006 census), I claim Irish ancestry. I’ll wear a shamrock brooch Wednesday, a gift a friend brought me from Ireland, but I’ll pass on the green beer, the corned beef and cabbage, the Shamrock Shakes, and the parades. I'll celebrate my way by rereading some of my favorite romances with Irish settings and/or Irish characters.
I have a mountain of romances to choose from. I could go way back to a favorite from childhood that I still reread every few years: Mrs. Mike (1947) by Benedict and Nancy Freedman with its Irish-American heroine, Katherine Mary O’Fallon from Boston. Or I could reread my #1 favorite Carla Kelly novel, Reforming Lord Ragsdale (1995). It not only features an Irish heroine but also makes the Irish-English conflict central to the story. Another old favorite, Jo Beverley’s Dangerous Joy (1995), offers an Irish setting along with Miles Cavanaugh, a heart-stealing rogue, his wild child ward, Felicity Monahan, and Irish magic in feline form. Then there’s one of my choicest Southern romances, Deborah Smith’s A Place to Call Home (1997) with Claire Maloney, Georgian by birth and Irish by family roots. APTCH has one of my all-time favorite openings, one perfect for March 17: "It started the year I performed as a tap-dancing leprechaun at the St. Patrick's Day carnival and Roanie Sullivan threatened to cut my cousin Carlton's throat with a rusty pocket-knife." I can’t forget Kathleen Korbel’s Daughters of Myth trilogy, especially the first one, Dangerous Temptation (2006), which pairs a Kendall hero with the daughter of an Irish fairy queen. And even though it’s a recent book, I’m definitely ready for a reread of Loucinda McGary’s The Wild Sight (2008)with Donovan O’Shea, an Irish hero worth celebrating.

Of course, I could just go to my Nora Roberts keeper shelf and find enough Irish books to reread every day from now to March 31. I’d start with the Concannons of County Clare—Born in Fire (1994), Born in Ice (1995), Born in Shame (1996). I always linger over the sections in all three that feature Murphy Muldoon, the hero of book 3 and my favorite Irish hero. Then, I’d move on to the Gallaghers of Ardmore—Jewels of the Sun (1999), Tears of the Moon (2000), and Heart of the Sea (2000)—and enjoy an Irish pub, Irish music, and Irish folklore along with three great love stories and what may be the best girlfriends bonding scene in contemporary romance. I don’t read the J. D. Robb books, but I know lots of people who swear Roarke is the sexiest Irish hero in romance fiction.

What else should I include in my Irish romance reading celebration? Hmmm . . . Jack Devlin is half-Irish. Now where is my copy of Lisa Kleypas’s Suddenly You?

Are you celebrating St. Patrick’s Day? What’s your favorite Irish romance?

And Happy St. Patrick’s Day to all of you!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Many a Tear (Recycle #2)

When RL gets a bit more manageable than it is right now, I promise completely new blogs again. In the meantime, I hope you like this oldie from my early Vagabond days.

Women do it 64 times a year, men just 17. I do it at least 122 times a year.

With dismaying frequency I release lachrymal fluid, a watery physiologic saline, with a plasma like consistency, from my light-detecting organs. I confess. My name is Janga, and I am a weeper.

Strangely, I don’t cry during real crises. Then I move like an automaton and feel as if the real me is on another plane watching some image of myself responding to the right cues. I am an empathetic weeper, crying in response to the trials and tragedies that affect characters real and imaginary. Especially imaginary.

Sad movies do always make me cry. ET, It's a Wonderful Life, Ghost, Bambi, My Girl, Beaches, Terms Of Endearment, Sophie's Choice—they all evoke tears. I have seen Steel Magnolias eight times, and I wept more the eighth time than the first. Sally Fields in that funeral scene breaks my heart every time. And Big Fish! Every time I watch Will carry Edward into the river I sob.

I cry when I listen to certain music. Chopin nearly always makes me teary (although I know my admitting it embarrasses some of my musician friends). So does “Amazing Grace” and Janis Ian’s “At Seventeen” and Paul Simon’s “I Am a Rock,” and Trisha Yearwood’s “On a Bus to St. Cloud.”

And you chase me like a shadow.
And you haunt me like a ghost.
And I hate you some, and I love you some,
But I miss you most.

Sniff, sniff. Those lines just get to me.

But my most heartfelt tears are reserved for books. One of my early reading memories is of sitting in a circle in a second-grade classroom while my teacher read Peter Pan aloud and of the tears that started flowing when it seemed as if Tinkerbelle were dying. I can still remember how hard we all clapped to show we believed, hoping our belief would keep Tink alive. Then there’s Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia. I was an adult when I read the book, but I sobbed as much as any kid when Jesse learned of Leslie’s death and again at the end when he leads May Belle across the bridge and makes her the new Queen of Terabithia. Then there’s L.M. Montgomery’s Rilla of Ingleside. Just thinking of faithful dog Monday is enough to bring on the tears. And Walter’s death requires a box of Kleenex. I need a separate box when Rilla reads her brother’s last letter.

Rilla carried it unopened to Rainbow Valley and read it there, in the spot where she had had her last talk with him. It is a strange thing to read a letter after the writer is dead–a bitter-sweet thing, in which pain and comfort are strangely mingled. For the first time since the blow had fallen Rilla felt –a different thing from tremulous hope and faith–that Walter, of the glorious gift and the splendid ideals, still lived, with just the same gift and just the same ideals. That could not be destroyed–these could suffer no eclipse. The personality that had expressed itself in that last letter, written on the eve of Courcelette, could not be snuffed out by a German bullet. It must carry on, though the earthly link with things of earth were broken.

Part of my love for romance fiction is predicated on its emotional appeal. My favorite romances make me sigh, laugh, or cry. The ones at the top of my list of favorites, books like Eloisa James’s Pleasure for Pleasure, Julia Quinn’s When He Was Wicked, Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels, Anne Gracie’s Gallant Waif, Kathleen Gilles Seidel’s Till the Stars Fall, make me do all three. Here are some of the books I turn to when I need a good cry:

One Good Turn (2001) by Carla Kelly

Benedict Nesbitt, Duke of Knaresborough, is a recovering alcoholic, a psychologically scarred veteran of Badajoz, and a rejected suitor. Liria Valencia is a survivor who has endured brutality and loss that is barely imaginable. While I love Nez, it is Liria whose determination to move forward even if she cannot leave the past behind and her son Juan, a child old and wise beyond his years, whose every breath affirms that something good can come from horrifying evil, who move me to tears—tears of sadness and tears of joy over an ending that shows love as redemptive.

One Perfect Rose (1997) by Mary Jo Putney

The final book in Mary Jo Putney's Fallen Angels series, this book is the story of Stephen Kenyon, brother to Michael, hero of Shattered Rainbows. Stephen has been given only a few months to live, and he determines to escape the confining responsibilities of his dukedom and spend whatever time he has discovering who he is and what life is. He discovers joy in small things and he discovers that he is capable of experiencing and inspiring passion and love. Even knowing that MJP will provide the requisite HEA does not stem my tears over Stephen’s reaction to his death sentence, over the poignancy of his finding love with his Rosalind as he is dying, over his desire to make peace with his sister and brother. Then there is the near-death experience that requires multiple hankies on its own.

Paradise (1992) by Judith McNaught

I am not a big fan of McNaught’s historicals, but two of her contemporaries, Perfect and Paradise, are cherished keepers, and just thinking about Paradise makes me reach for a tissue to catch the tears. I cry over Meredith’s lonely childhood, I cry over her separation from Matt, I cry over her miscarriage, I cry over her father’s lies, and I cry over the immensely satisfying HEA. I pretty much cry through this whole book, all 700 pages. Then I cry because I know publishers will probably never again give me a 700 page romance to cry over.

No Place Like Home (2003) by Barbara Samuel

There are some wonderfully humorous moments in this book that I classify as a hybrid of romance and women’s fiction, but reading it is nevertheless a weep fest. Jewel Sabatino has been estranged from her father for more than two decades: they "had not exchanged a single word in twenty-three years." Her best friend Michael is dying of AIDS, and her son is 17, on the cusp of adulthood. Any one of these facts is enough to inspire tears, but Jewel has courage, determination, and a sense of humor, and she meets a "big, alligator-blood-drinking tough guy," so her story is also life-affirming. The book reminds me that letting go is painful but also necessary for growth. The reminder also makes me cry. So does the beauty of Samuel’s prose:

The more he kissed me, the more peaceful I felt. Everything about my life that worried me or hurt me or scared me just slid away as I touched him. Peace came into my shoulders, spread through my chest. He felt like the smell of supper and the sound of Mass, like walking into my own bedroom and closing the door.

Christmas Past and Presents (Harlequin Everlasting Love #21, 2007) by Janice Kay Johnson

Perhaps because the years Johnson covers—from the turmoil of the Vietnam era to the present—are pieces of my own life, my emotional connection to this book was especially strong. I wept over Will and Dinah as young lovers who struggle to bridge differences in experience and world view, I wept at their reunion, I wept at the tragedy that seems to me the greatest heartbreak, and I wept buckets when their marriage fell apart—and when they gave one another the gift of trying again.

Researchers tell us that 85 percent of women and 73 percent of men say that they feel better after crying. This change, scientists suggest, shows that tears may help remove chemicals that build up after stress. If these experts think crying will make me feel better emotionally and purge some of the harmful effects of stress, I am going to keep indulging myself in the stories in print, on film, and in sound that make me cry.

Tell me, my friends, what makes you cry? What movies, songs, and books cause you to produce that lachrymal fluid? And do you share my love for any of the tearjerkers I named?


Thanks to everyone who played Romance Buzzwords. The Randomizer's pick to win a free book is Calila1988. Calila, if you will email me your contact info at jangarho at gmail dot com (using the appropriate email address format, of course), I'll send you your book complete with Buzzword title.