Which romantic novelist helped Jews to escape from Nazi Germany? What did WAG mean back in 1974? Who was the first man to win the Romantic Novel of the Year award?
These are just some of the thorny questions posed in Fabulous at Fifty, an enthralling history that’s just been published to celebrate the Romantic Novelists’ Association’s 50th anniversary. From Barbara Cartland through to chick-lit, the book scrutinises the fans, the detractors, the prizes, the parties (the RNA throws great bashes) and the plaudits.
Romantic fiction often gets slated – largely due, as Joanna Trollope says in the book, to snobbery and the genre’s pink covers, embossed lettering and “cartoon drawings of cocktail glasses and handbags and ditsy girls falling off their designer heels.” But much of the criticism is downright unfair. Romantic fiction boasts some of the best writers around. Take Marian Keyes, for instance. Far from sticking to hearts and flowers, she’s covered everything from domestic violence and depression to alcoholism and dementia in her ten best-selling novels. If you haven’t read Last Chance Saloon or The Other Side of the Story by the way, you are in for a big treat.
The RNA also does a brilliant job in promoting the genre and supporting its members. They’re a very impressive lot, as Jeremy Paxman discovered in 2005 when the RNA team stormed through to the final of University Challenge – the Professionals, eventually losing to the Privy Council. The team, incidentally, included the wonderful Annie Ashurst (alias Mills and Boon author Sara Craven), who won the Mastermind crown in 1997.
And finally, just to answer the questions at the top: Former RNA president Mary Burchell was the novelist who helped to rescue dozens of Jews. In the 1970s WAG stood not for the likes of Victoria Beckham and Coleen Rooney, but for the Writers’ Action Group, whose members campaigned to set up the Public Lending Right. And the first man to win the Romantic Novel of the Year was Peter O’Donnell (aka Madeleine Brent), who scooped the prized award for Moonraker’s Bride in 1978.
Fabulous at Fifty is published by the Romantic Novelists’ Association at £9.99.