Archive for October, 2010
I am so very sad to see from the Observer’s obit column on Sunday that Eva Ibbotson has died. She drew obits from The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph and the New York Times, quite rightly. All focused on her work as an accomplished children’s author. But they were sadly light on appreciation of her romantic novels for adults.
She did, of course, win the Romantic Novel of the Year with Magic Flutes in 1983, as the Telegraph noted. Um – recently re-issued, it has been given a new title, Reluctant Heiress, presumably by some pale eyed genius with a degree in Applied Bum-Numbing and no truck with allusion, ambiguity or intriguing the reader. Ibbotson was not impressed. She didn’t much like the new covers, either, which is why I have scanned in my own much loved, much read and just a tiny bit battered copy of my fabourite Ibbotson, below.
But she did more than win the UK’s main award for Romantic Fiction. She brought a fresh, idiosyncratic and deeply humane voice to romantic fiction. She was, you felt, a writer who knew what a happy ending was for.
Last year Anne Gracie (friend of mine and most excellent writer) interviewed Ibbotson on the always rewarding Word Wenches Blog. In her answers, Ibbotson said she thought of her books as presents for the reader and ‘not too much about my soul and the sunset’. She certainly gave her readers every last drop of satisfaction from the romantic entangling of her delicious, generous, healing heroines and her troubled heroes.
In the matter of heroes, even an enthusiast for romantic fiction like me has to admit that, sometimes, the modern author can short change him. He may end up not much more than an idealised loved object, dimly perceived through a fog of lust, sentiment and fag smoke. Not in Ibbotson’s novels. She knew her hero and she loved him, quite as much as she loved her heroine. Usually, he is not intrinsically glamorous; indeed there is a dash of nerd in most. Even my beloved Quinn in Morning Gift, has more than a hint of Gussie Fink Nottle about him. But when he applies that intensity, that seriousness, to the objective of his heart as well as to scholarship, he is breathtaking– especially as he struggles between what he wants, what he thinks the heroine wants and what it would be the right thing to do.
Ibbotson told Anne Gracie: ‘The kind of dichotomy between honour and passion is as old as the hills and I must say getting my heroes out of their dilemmas has sometimes not been easy.’ She always did but they travel a hard road before they get their reward.
Also, she loved her minor characters. As she told Gracie ‘the word minor hardly fits.’
I never forget the truly terrible scene from Countess Below Stairs, in which the washed-up and slightly disreputable Great Uncle is banished to his own rooms by an in-coming Eugenecist bride. After the heir’s marriage, Uncle will be condemned to stay upstairs, away even from the servants, who have known and cared for him all his life. He will be effectively a prisoner, with a nurse-jailer to ensure his good behaviour. Our heroine by now is breaking her heart for a man she cannot have. But she hauls herself out of her own misery, knowing that the humiliated old man can only be led back to some sort of peace through his music. So she persuades him to play a piano duet with her. Her hands are chapped and she’s out of practice. (She’s now employed as a housemaid.) His fingering has been ruined by rheumatism. So they sit down and play – and they do it, Ibbotson says, ‘Not well. Better than that.’
No, the word minor does not fit.
My own favourite of her novels is The Morning Gift, with its unlikely St George of a hero and its gloriously logical and slighty loopy heroine. Viennese Ruth, another refugee, not wholly in tune with Belsize Park or the stolid English, works everything out from first principles. As a result, she often gets them crashingly wrong. (By the way, for writers, this book contains a love scene so perfect that one despairs of ever writing one comparable, it is so heartfelt, so truthful, so sexy, with just the right spice of surprise and the faintly ludicrous.) But Madensky Square is perhaps more emotionally profound; A Company of Swans more magical; Countess both funnier and more of a fairytale. In all of them, though, Ibbotson has fantastic villains– smug, narrow minded people who throw their weight about because they can. You do not see for ages how decent people can possibly stand out against them. And then Ibbotson gives you the wonderful present of their come-uppance. They are trounced, usually by a divine alliance of the hero, the heroine and those life-enhancing not-minor characters.
But nothing I can say is as good as what Eva Ibbotson wrote herself. In that interview, Gracie also gave a link to a piece Ibbotson had written herself about what public libraries meant to the dispossessed refugees from Hitler’s Germany in 1930s Belsize Park. It was published in The Observer on July 9th 2006 and anyone who, like me, adores Morning Gift, will find familiar faces there. I’d quote from it but I don’t want to spoil it for you. It’s like a short story and it’s wonderful.
Please, please, please, read it here and see what a writer we have lost. But also enjoy!
The RNA Memoir, Fabulous at Fifty is published, out there, and we’re starting to get feedback. So far it’s all been very nice, which is a relief as the book is supposed to be a celebration.
But it set me thinking about reviews. Who writes them. What they say. Why we care.
And we do care. I’ve seen fellow authors in tears over a nasty review on Amazon. Sometimes they were pure spite; sometimes they were clearly written by other authors with a hobby horse to ride. (Academics do this too, only more so. ) But adverse reviews are not all bad if they tell you something useful about what’s between the covers. The reviewer might not have liked it but, hey, you’re an independent reader and you make up your own mind, don’t you? By contrast, ‘another cracking book,’ flattering though it may be to the author, doesn’t really tell you anything.
The very nicest comment we have had so far on Fab @50 is from author Elizabeth Hawksley. She writes: ‘I think you’ve pitched it just right, part history, part biography, part anecdote and a bit of social history as well. It’s a great record for the future. Some new editor in 2060 is going to love you!’ It is a particularly welcome comment because Elizabeth, as a novelist and long time member of the RNA, gets it. She sees what we were trying to do and thinks we brought it off. Yay!
But what of the reviewer who doesn’t get what you’re trying to do? Someone like, for sake of argument, my friend Theophilus Ecologicus were he to be forced to read one of my novels. He doesn’t have much truck with fiction anyway and is particularly picky about anything romantic. (7 Brides for 7 Bros is okay, where the guys keep moving and singing and nobody does any of that embarrassing looking-into-each-other’s eyes muck.) An adverse comment from him could be the highest compliment in my terms and the terms of my favourite readers.
So, here is my Wish List of comments on my next novel, whenever it is published:
I laughed, I cried, I couldn’t put it down – Katie Fforde
A hero to die for – Sara Craven
Fantabulous. I loved it. Thank you! – the Kind Reader who took time out to contact me after reading my short story in the RNA Collection LOVES ME, LOVES ME NOT. Thank YOU, Kind Reader
I want to play that man – Hugh Jackman
Truthful, funny and hopeful – the World’s Best Librarian.
A bit soppy – Theophilus E
And the last one clinches it. Let’s hear it for Theophilus.
Burrowing in the RNA Archives (never happier than when burrowing, me), I splorted when I read the adjudication for the 1973 Romantic Novel of the Year.
The co-ordinating judge was Tom Eagle, who had run the romance list at Herbert Jenkins until 1968. When he retired, the publisher closed the list. Eagle had been a bookseller (Hatchards) and a magazine editor before Herbert Jenkins recruited him. As far as authors were concerned, his philosophy was clearly treat ’em mean and keep ’em keen.
RNA President Diane Pearson, then an editor at Corgi, describes that year’s winner, The House of Kuragin, as a ground breaker. It was the first time an historical novel had headed the short list and also it was the first time Heinemann had been one of the RNA’s winning publishers, reported the News. Diane says that it made the book trade sit up, shocked that a ‘big sweep’ novel could win the Award. As a result, it radically broadened the range of books that would be entered henceforward.
Mr Eagle’s assessment was more moderate. ‘This is a novel on a not unfamiliar pattern, with something of the Gothic atmosphere but nicely written and admirably characterised. The early Nineteenth Century is lightly but adequately sketched in, and the feudal Russian scene with its extremes of wealth and poverty is well described – witness episodes of autocratic cruelty and sabotage by vengeful serfs.’ The love story, he said, ‘runs its uneven and, seemingly, disastrous course, culminating eventually in a not too contrived happy ending. To briefly sum up: romance, intrigue, tragedy and suspense are skilfully blended in a novel which should certainly satisfy many readers.’
‘Not too contrived happy ending.’ Wow.
When Tom Eagle retired, Marjorie McEvoy, who had sold him her first romantic novel in 1960, wrote a farewell in The RNA News. ‘Never extravagantly over-enthusiastic in praise of manuscripts, a word of congratulation from him was all the more to be treasured when it did materialise.’ Too right.
What would the You’re Worth It generation have done to the old curmdugeon?
Over a year ago, the Romantic Novelists Association decided to publish a memoir to mark its 50th Anniversary in 2010. President Diane Pearson and I have been working on it and next week it is published. Yay!
Going through the archives, I felt I’d met some wonderful people, I never knew in person. Amazing to see how publishing, bookselling and libraries changed totally over the course of the sixties. And as for sex . . . Philip Larkin was right. It started in 1963. Well, sex as we know it, Jim.