No need to feel guilty about the pleasures of a romantic novel

Romantic author Jessica Hart, from York. Picture by Gerard Binks
Romantic author Jessica Hart, from York. Picture by Gerard Binks
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Mills and Boon, romantic novels, the sort of fluff that the literary, high-minded among us wouldn’t dream of reading, right?

Wrong, say Jessica Hart and Jane Lovering, two Yorkshire- based novelists who will find out tomorrow if they have been shortlisted in this year’s Romantic Novelists’ Association Award (RoNAs). Both authors say more people than you might realise are reading novels which according to the cliché are full of women with heaving bosoms and tall, dark, handsome strangers.

Hart is in a great position to refute the suggestion that romance novels are dead – or only for the dead lowbrow.

Her real name is Dr Pamela Hartshorne, she has a PhD in Medieval Studies and teaches romance fiction writing at the Lifelong Learning Centre at the University of York. In short, she’s no mug. She also happens to have 58 Mills and Boon books to her (pen) name.

Writing as Jessica Hart, she has notched up more titles than her characters have had lovers and says not only is there no shame in writing or reading Mills and Boon, she takes great pride in her work.

Born in Africa, raised in Newbury, Hart also has a degree in French from Edinburgh University and did a stint at secretarial college in London which turned out to be “the most boring and most useful experience of my life”.

“We learnt to touch-type on manual typewriters, which became a very useful skill for me in what I ended up doing for a living,” she says.

While landing a job as a translator, the inner-adventurer wanted out and she left to travel to Jakarta, where she taught English, worked on a cattle station in the Australian outback and went on an expedition to Cameroon, where she worked with Operation Raleigh.

“I was the sort of person who had very itchy feet,” she says.

While she was in Australia, she read the book The Sunne in Splendour, the historical novel by Sharon Penman, which is set around the War of the Roses and the life of Richard III. It proved a turning point in her life. Realising she wanted to study history, she returned to England, sold up her flat in London and moved to York.

“I was very impetuous and decided I was going to do this and that York was the best place to come to if I wanted to study history,” she says.

But how to pay for it?

“A friend had written for Mills and Boon and funded her degree by doing that, and the very unpleasant truth is that I thought, ‘Well, I’ll do that to pay for my MA’. I thought that I could write the book, they’d give me a cheque and I could pay for my masters,” she says. It didn’t quite turn out the way she’d planned. Her first book was turned down, as was her second.

“After the second time I read a book about structuring romance novels – I was determined to get it right. My third novel wasn’t accepted, but I had an encouraging letter and the publishers said they liked my voice. I had the entirely wrong attitude when I started out. I should have had a lot more respect for the romantic novel writing as a genre.”

She’d started the process of having a book published in her late twenties and her first was finally published when she was 33. “If I’d have known at the time how long it would take, I’m not sure I would have even tried it,” she says.

Fortunately for fans of the genre and the author herself, she did and, with 58 novels behind her, is one of Mills and Boon’s top authors. She is also set to see a first book published under her own name – Pamela Hartshorne, a novel that draws on her medieval history expertise, set as it is in York in 1575 and the present day. It will be published by Pan Macmillan in September. When it came to approaching a publisher other than Mills and Boon, the fact that she could clearly write to deadline, had over 50 books published and was a winner previously of the RoNAs was, she says, a great help.

“Mills and Boon books sell something one every six seconds and they are disparaged largely by people who have never read them,” she says. “I get a great thrill when I think about the fact that women all over the world are connecting with my work and reading my books. I’m thrilled to find out tomorrow if I have been shortlisted for this year’s RoNAs, but even if I am shortlisted, winning awards doesn’t beat receiving a letter from a reader about one of my books.”

Another Yorkshire author, waiting for the announcement tomorrow of the RoNAs shortlist is Jane Lovering. The Kirkbymoorside-based writer, and mother-of-five, is also a science technician at Lady Lumley’s School. Lovering writes romantic comedy fiction, published by independent publisher Choc Lit in her own name. She has written four novels, Please Don’t Stop the Music is her latest and the one she hopes will be announced in the RoNAs shortlist tomorrow.

“With a name like Lovering, I think I was destined to write romantic fiction,” she says.

With five children ranging from 15 to 23, the 51-year-old says the secret to writing is simple.

“No housework. I don’t watch television, apart from Time Team which is like a religion, so I have those three or four hours in the evening which most people spend in front of the TV to work on my writing,” she says. “Really, it was once I realised that housework is essentially unnecessary that I realised I was able to find the time for writing.”

These days she gets up to feed the cats, dogs, chickens and five children who share her home, before heading to work at school until 12.45pm – which means she has the afternoons, before the school run, to write. The writing career began when she took an MA in creative writing, part-time, at Hull University.

“The tutors were really encouraging and my first novel was picked up by a publisher in America,” she says.

“I think of my work as dark psychological romance with jokes thrown in. People don’t like to admit to enjoying things that are popular, but with the more people owning Kindles, I read that more men are reading romantic fiction.

“Because people have this image of romantic fiction, they don’t want to be seen to be reading them, but thanks to the Kindle, no-one knows what you’re reading. It means they don’t have to be a guilty pleasure any more.”

Jane Lovering’s Please Don’t Stop the Music, published by Choc Lit and Jessica Hart’s Ordinary Girl in a Tiara published by Mills and Boon have been longlisted for The RoNAs. The shortlist will be announced tomorrow.