The Blue Rinse and Bodice Rippers: In twin-sets and pearls meet the ladies behind Britain"s steamiest novels

The Blue Rinse and Bodice Rippers: In twin-sets and pearls meet the ladies behind Britain”s steamiest novels

12:10 AM on 21st May 2011

With her cheeks flushed with anticipation, her ruby lips trembling and her heart racing beneath the satin folds of her gown, Claudia shivers against the chill spring air as she braces herself for a night filled with passion and intrigue.

OK, I know it’s a bit over the top but I’m about to enter a room filled with more than 100 of the country’s leading romantic fiction writers andI’m trying to get into character.

Whether it’s historical Mills & Boon bodice-rippers or family sagas and modern chick-lit, the authors are all here, in a grand library closeto Buckingham Palace, for a party being thrown by the Romantic Novelists’ Association.

More than 100 of the country

More than 100 of the country”s leading romantic fiction writers were middle-aged and elderly women in their pearls and support tights

It’s a world where heroines swoon with alarming frequency and heroes, with names like Troy and Cassius, must have permanent bad backs from forever scooping fair maidens into their manly arms. So why does it feellike I’ve accidentally stumbled into the Annual General Meeting of the Jam Makers and Knitted Toy Association

All around me are middle-aged and elderly women in their pearls and support tights. They look like the kind of ladies you’d find working in charity shops or arranging the church flowers — can they really be penning the sort of racy novels that would make a convent girl like me blush

It seems so. ‘Oh, I love writing a juicy sex scene!’ chuckles June Tate,77, the author of 14 titles including For The Love Of A Soldier and To Be A Lady. A retired hairdresser and former member of the Merchant Navy,she says: ‘Some authors like to just leave it at the bedroom door closing. Not me. I really go for it and leave nothing to the imagination.

‘I’m not embarrassed at all. I just sit at my typewriter and get stuck in. Admittedly I get carried away at times and have to say to myself “June, you’ve gone too far there old girl, you’d better tone it down”.’

White-haired and impeccably turned out in a navy blue twin-set, surely June’s X-rated bedroom scenes aren’t drawn from real-life experience ‘Of course they are!’ she snorts. ‘You don’t spend years at sea with a bunch of sailors without learning a thing or two.’

Like many of the women I speak to, June took up novel writing late in life and had her first book published around the time of her 60th birthday. Her husband Alan, a pilot, had died after 39 years of marriage, her children had grown up and she needed a hobby. But what do her two daughters make of Mum’s new career

‘My oldest hasn’t read them,’ says June, ‘But Maxine, my youngest, read one and rang me in horror to say: “Mum, how could you” I think my exactwords to her were: “Oh get over it. Do you think you were an immaculateconception”’

Famous for her racy novels authoress and writer Jilly Cooper

Famous for her racy novels authoress and writer Jilly Cooper

While I’m pretty sure I’d prefer my mum to see out her retirement by enjoying more traditional pastimes — weeding the garden or doing giant jigsaws of Hampton Court Palace, for example — I find myself really warming to all the women here. They’re fun, feisty and boosting their pension pot by doing something that brings them, and others, great pleasure.

And June isn’t the only septuagenarian making a comfortable living with the aid of a typewriter and a fertile imagination. Annie Ashurst, 72, from Rugby, is the current chairman of the RNA and author of more than 90 Mills & Boon novels.

Writing under the name Sara Craven (she thought her own wasn’t glamorousenough) Annie likens her racy books to a box of chocolates. ‘It’s a little treat. You feel a bit naughty at the time, guilty even, but it’s enjoyable and when you’re done it’s quickly forgotten about.’

Annie insists that she puts sex scenes in her books only when they are ‘absolutely essential to the plot. It’s never gratuitous. They’re steamy, certainly, but never shocking’.

A former Mastermind champion, who names Jane Austen as her all time favourite author, Annie is quick to put me straight when I ask if she ever feels she has sold out or is embarrassed to write for Mills & Boon.

‘Well I’m not holding my breath for a Pulitzer Prize, my dear,’ she quips. ‘People are very snobby about the novels I write, but when you get a letter from a lady in her 80s telling you that she read your book and felt like a girl of 21 again then, frankly, I couldn’t give a fig what anyone thinks.’

June’s books may be steamy but they don’t compare to The Stallion, written by Georgina Brown and published by Black Lace, the infamous — and now defunct — paperback erotica company. Georgina, a hoot of a lady in her early 50s, dives into the dainty canaps as she tells me: ‘I set it in the world of show-jumping and it was absolute filth from beginningto end. Just when you’d get to the end of one romp they’d be at it again. It was Jilly Cooper with knobs on.’ Ooh-er.

I feel like the biggest prude in the room, but Georgina reassures me: ‘Of course, nobody has a sex life like that in real life, especially notat my age — I’d put my back out.’

The Romantic Novelists’ Association was set up 50 years ago to offer support and encouragement to budding writers. Catherine Cookson, Rosamunde Pilcher and Barbara Cartland have all been members.

At a time when book sales are declining and publishers are reluctant to take on new authors, the Association offers an invaluable service including, for a fee, the critique of manuscripts.

Jan Jones, 55, who writes romantic novels set in the Regency period, is the RNA’s events manager.

‘Most of our members are female, but when you consider 93 per cent of romance is bought by women, that makes sense,’ she tells me. And romance is one of the few areas in publishing where sales are steady.

‘People have always looked down their noses at us,’ says Jan. ‘Let them.Most of our readers are ordinary women with unremarkable lives who justwant to lose themselves in 20 minutes of fantasy before lights out. What’s wrong with that’ As the wine flows and more canaps do the rounds, my eyes glance across the room full of gossiping women and fix on an astonishing sight. It’s a moustache! It’s a man!

Popular: Catherine Cookson

Popular: Catherine Cookson”s famous books – but the older generation are also keen on racy writing

It is Roger Sanderson, 72, Mills & Boon’s only male author — although you wouldn’t necessarily know this as he writes under the name of Gill Sanderson. He was recently the star of a TV documentary where hewas shown writing books such as Hot Shot Doc and Village Midwife, Blushing Bride from his static caravan.

But in a turn of events offering more drama and intrigue than you’ll find in one of their books, Roger, has parted company with Mills & Boon. He looks uncomfortable when I ask him for the juicy details.

‘Well, let’s just say that it was felt that, after 44 books, I was no longer delivering what they want,’ is all he’ll say on the matter, though he does insist that the parting of ways was amicable.

I get the feeling that Roger, who like everyone I meet is highly intelligent with a cracking sense of humour, tired of writing endless schmaltz that always followed the same formula: girl meets boy, boy behaves like arrogant brute, girl hates boy, boy shows soft side, girl falls for boy and they all live happily ever after.

‘I’ve written a book called Angel In Liverpool,’ he tells me. ‘It’s a romance but it’s a bit grittier than the sort of stuff I’ve previously written, and it has humour in it too.

‘Comic writing is something I’ve always longed to do and if I don’t havea crack at it at my time of life then I never will. I don’t have a publisher at the moment and if nobody goes for it then it won’t be the end of the world.’

I can’t help but admire Roger for walking away from a safe income as a Mills & Boon writer (the successful ones can earn in excess of 100,000 a year), but when I ask if his new material will appear under the name of Roger Sanderson he laughs.

‘No, I’m using James Sanderson, I really don’t think anybody wants to read a romance novel by someone called Roger, it’s such an unsexy name.’

Established writers like Roger are struggling to be published, so it’s harder still to secure a deal when you’re a total unknown. That’s something that Cathy Mansell, 68, from Letchworth, Herts, knows all about.

A retired office administrator, she has been writing for seven years andhaving now secured the all-important literary agent is hopeful that herfourth book, Shadow Across The Liffey, a family saga spanning many generations, will be published.

Ever since Victoria Wood described sagas as ‘cobbled streets and poor people in shawls cutting the heads of mackerel’, it’s put me off readingthem. But Cathy assures me that while her book is gritty, there’s a happy ending and plenty of sex and romance along the way. And no mackerel.

Just when I’m beginning to think that everyone in the room is a sex-obsessed pensioner, I meet Trisha Ashley from St Helens, in Lancashire, who is not only a mere whipper-snapper at 49, but is also something of an oddity here tonight as none of her 14 books features anyX-rated bedroom antics.

‘If people want explicit sex in a book they can go and buy a copy of The Joy of Sex,’ she tells me.

The Romantic Novelist

The Romantic Novelist”s Association was set up 50 years ago to offer support and encouragement to budding writers and Barbara Cartland, pictured, was once a member

‘We’re all adults, we know what goes on behind a bedroom door, and it doesn’t always need to be spelled out. The sex in my books is implied and no more.’

Leaving a little to the imagination certainly hasn’t harmed Trisha’s sales — her latest book The Twelve Days Of Christmas has sold 155,000 copies, making it one of the most successful paperbacks of the past year. She describes her books as ‘yum-lit’ as food is a central theme inher work and, unusually, every one features a recipe at the back.

Her work sells particularly well in the United States, where American readers can’t get enough of quaint olde English village life.

So, for good measure, Trisha is sure to throw in as many vicars, church wardens and Lords of the Manor as she can.

Key to the success of any romance writer in the UK, steamy or otherwise,is getting the supermarkets to stock your work, as the average reader of dreamy romantic literature doesn’t tend to set foot in Waterstone’s or download to a Kindle.

Most of the major supermarkets carry Trisha’s titles. ‘Women tend to popone in their trolley when they are doing the family shop,’ she tells me.

Suddenly I have a vision of housewives up and down the country writing their weekly shopping lists: bread, milk, butter, Brillo pads, filthy novel . . .

With the last of the wine drained and the cocktail sausages and cheese straws long gone, the party-goers head home. The ones who wore heels areslipping back into their comfortable shoes and some even produce rain bonnets to protect their perms from the light drizzle outside.

I’ve enjoyed meeting all the characters and am truly impressed by how friendly and supportive everyone is — especially when you consider they are arch rivals.

As I arrive home after midnight, I spot that a light is still on in the home of Pat, my elderly widowed neighbour. Behind the gleaming net curtains I can see that she’s sitting in her armchair with a pen in her hand. Sudoku Or slaving over a steamy novel

After tonight’s eye-opening encounters, there’s simply no knowing.