The Malvolio Syndrome

‘You are,’ says Malvolio in Twelfth Night to a raggle taggle bunch of rogues and roisterers, ‘lesser things. I am not of your element.’

For centuries, one lot of writers has been saying that to another lot of writers. Mind you, the ratings change a bit over time. Jane Austen has been promoted to the Premier League since her own day.

But Looking Down The Nose seems to be an occupational hazard of The Writer, witness the bunch of worthies who this year felt that the Man Booker had gone too down market– become too readable, apparently– so proposed a new, better prize.  (For unreadability?) At the time I suggested it should be called the Malvolio. On reflection, however, I feel it would be better named after a Superior Writer, even if a fictional one. The Lady Florence Craye Commemorative Cup appeals.   

But to come to my own area, romantic fiction. Allegedly it rots the brain and ruins the syntax. Indeed, there is a school of thought which claims that it is written and published by cynics, aiming it squarely at what our American Cousins call Trailer Park Trash. And there always has been.

Being, I freely admit, of the rogue and roisterer persuasion, it ill behooves me to look down the nose at any writer, be he critic, commentator or pure Malvolio. However, I do think that defining romantic fiction as the purview of certain class or IQ band is very old and is all about us not liking bits of ourselves, for whatever reason. Thus it can be a bit of a trap, both for commentators and those of us who actually write the stuff because we like reading it. 

The redoubtable Alex Stuart, one of the RNA’s co-founders and author of 4 serials a year, many of which were subsequently published by Mills & Boon, certainly worried about ‘the impressionable reader’.  By that, she seems to have meant shop girls and typists, a class to which she emphatically did not belong herself.

socially aspirational? THE CAPTAIN'S TABLE by Alex Stuart

This made her somewhat conflicted. On the one hand she wanted more respect for romantic fiction, on the other she did not set her claims too high. In a letter to the Editor of The Woman Journalist in spring 1960, she wrote: ‘Our books may be unrealistic and have happy endings, but they are almost all well written and they are read, in serial as well as book form, by hundreds of thousands of women and young girls who – if my fan mail is anything to go by – derive real pleasure from them.’ 

Um– is it just me, or do you find a faint hint of surprise in that ‘real pleasure’? Sad, isn’t it?


Yet George Orwell, in his Hampstead bookshop in the thirties, saw exactly who it was who read bestselling romantic novelist Ethel M Dell. (‘When Mrs Dell speaks, an Empire listens’ claimed her publisher.) And it was ‘women of all kinds and ages and not, as one might expect, merely wistful spinsters and the fat wives of tobacconists.’ Still, he does say that Dell’s books were read ‘solely by women’ which clearly puts them way, way down in the pecking order.


And then there was Georgette Heyer, crippled by terminal self-deprecation, as Jennifer Kloester’s stunning new biography makes clear. Oh, for God’s sake woman, you’re still in print 90 years after your first book was published. A few years ago you were the most borrowed author under PLR. Don’t let the Malvolii play mindgames with you. Be proud. 


Personally, I have a soft spot for Lady Mary Wortley Montague, blue-stocking, literary duellist, patron of Henry Fielding and no slouch in either the travel, scholarship or sheer snottiness departments.

Lady Mary Wortley Montague

Here she is, telling it like it is about Samuel Richardson, author of Pamela. Having said sniffily that he wrote for chamber maids, she is brave enough to come clean: ‘I heartily despise him, and eagerly read him, nay sob over his works in a most scandalous manner.’

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu rocks.

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