Being a fan of horror and adventure more than romance I had no idea that ‘Romantic Suspense’ or ‘Gothic Romance’ was still a genre that sold until the success of Young Adult Paranormal Romances like ‘Twilight’ and ‘The Vampire Diaries’ brought stories with elements of love and fear into the mainstream from books to cinema to television. Even the BBC family sci-fi show ‘Doctor Who’ has its own brooding relationship tensions between the Doctor, his companion Amy Pond and her husband Rory. Which reminded me of a small pile of Romance paperbacks that drifted about my room in the late 1970s and early 1980s, some of which I actually read (years later – I was only born in 77), and of the girls comics I cherished like ‘Bunty’, ‘Judy’, ‘Misty’ and ‘Diana’ which often featured tales of gothic, thwarted, quasi-historical love affairs.
Of course the genre starts with Ann Radcliffe.
Mother Radcliffe, as the poet John Keats christened her, was the first writer to take the gothic horror pioneered in ‘The Castle of Otranto’ by Horace Walpole and combine it with a love story. My favourite of her books is ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho’, written in 1794, where the innocent orphan Emily St. Aubert is menaced by the vile Montoni, imprisoned in the terrifying Castle Udolpho, escapes and is reunited with her one true love Valencourt. I was passionately in love with Valencourt for about three chapters, until he dithered about handing money over to a peasant, after that – well, I tried – but it was never going to be the same.
Ann liked to keep her disgusting villains and her male love interests separate but the Bronte sisters would combine them.
Charlotte’s ‘Jane Eyre’ was published in 1847. The eponymous heroine is an orphan with no money who grows up to become a governess to a child at a large sinister mansion called Thornfield. Although mousey and plain, Jane is determined and has morals. She falls in love with her stern and rather tormented employer Mr Rochester. Strange things happen, they get engaged, it turns out he’s already married and his mad wife is kept in the attic. Jane leaves him and nearly dies until coming into an inheritance. She returns to Thornfield, finds Rochester blind, the house burned and his wife dead. They marry and he recovers. In Emily’s ‘Wuthering Heights’, published in December of the same year, the hero is the orphan, born into poverty and brought to Wuthering, not quite as a servant but not as an equal. He’s wild, violent and possessive. He and the heroine, Cathy, play together on the moors as children, she declares that he’s her life, but still leaves him to marry a man of her own class. She dies – and in the part of the book no one much remembers – Heathcliff takes revenge on her daughter. The revenge doesn’t work out, he sees visions of Cathy, and he dies.
In the 1970s and 1980s ‘Jane Eyre’ and ‘Wuthering Heights’ were the quintessential reading of a moody teenage girl. They read the books, they watched the tv and film adaptations, they listened to the single by Kate Bush. They were as much a part of the era as peacock chairs, Bryan Ferry, Biba, Disco, David Cassidy, rubix cubes and the New Romantics.
There would always be a few Mills and Boon’ in their collections, with titles like ‘My Dearest Demon’, ‘Dark Master’ and ‘Savage Surrender’. The most obviously thrilling books were written by Charlotte Lamb, the pseudonym of Sheila Holland, a former BBC researcher who wrote her first book in three days while looking after her husband and five children. There would probably be a copy of ‘Dragonwyck’ by Anya Seaton, or ‘Forever Amber’ (Amber being Amber St. Clare!) by Kathleen Winsor, two racy 1940s American novels, both of which were turned into steamy 1940s films. There would also likely be ‘Rebecca’ and ‘My Cousin Rachel’ by Daphne du Maurier, full of the desperate sinister menace she perfected.
Then there was Cornwall-based writer Winston Graham who created a realistic historical sprawling saga gothic in his ‘Poldark’ series of novels charting the tangled love life of his scarred and tormented mine-owning retired soldier Captain Ross Poldark, who marries the daughter of a miner, loves the wife of his cousin and fights over her with his jumped-up new money business rival George Warleggan. There were murders, rapes and family curses. The BBC adapted the books and the tv series was transmitted between 1975 and 1977.
His novel, ‘Marnie’, was turned in to a twisted, psychological gothic romance Alfred Hitchcock movie starring Tippi Hedren and Sean Connery, a film that would periodically play late at night on the BBC throughout most of my childhood.
Stanley Kubrick’s film of ‘Barry Lyndon’ was a chilly satire of a gothic romance, our hero marrying for money and ending with nothing. The sets, the costumes, the poster, Ryan O’Neal, Marisa Berenson, everything was puzzlingly like those great swashbuckers Richard Chamberlain was making in the 1970s – ‘The Slipper and the Rose’, ‘The Count of Monte Christo’ , ‘The Man In the Iron Mask’ – but the tone was disturbingly wrong. It was intellectually dark and distant – nothing like the 1983 BBC version of ‘Jane Eyre’ or the 1970 film version of ‘Wuthering Heights’ both starring Timothy Dalton, who seemed to be the deepest, most haunted, most aching actor in the world… but still… I could never quite get the theme tune ‘Women of Ireland’ out of my soul.
Much more suitable was the timeslip drama ‘The Two Worlds of Jennie Logan’ starring Lindsey Wagner. Made for American tv in 1979 it was about a wife trying to salvage her failing marriage who finds a dress that transports her back to Victorian times and the loving arms of a more solid and reliable man. Like a lot of 1970s romance it was about trying to be liberated and a modern woman, but also wanting the passion and safety of an old-fashioned relationship. What I remembered was the Laura Ashley style dress that was her passport to the past. Dressing-up and dreaming might lead to meeting a sensational boyfriend like David Bowie in Labyrinth – and not some spotty kid who sits behind you in double maths.
As I got older the heavy gothics briefly gave way to perky sexcom romances – the infamous bonkbusters – like ‘The World Is Full of Married Men’ by Jackie Collins – made into a an amazingly disco showbiz SEX MONEY SCANDAL, career v. love, peacock chair-fest film in 1979. Or ‘Riders’ and ‘Polo’ by Jilly Cooper – HORSES! POSH TOTTY! And ‘Lace’ by Shirley Conran made into a Dynasty-Dallas joy of mini-series in 1984 containing the world’s greatest line ‘Which one of you bitches is my mother’.
Then I got old and phobic about girly romances. Frankly I was too much of a sickly, hopeless geek and romances were promising me things I wasn’t sure I was entitled to even dream about. I moved on to H.G. Wells and Philip K. Dick and forgot all about Gothic till I noticed the rows and rows of sexy vampire stories filling the shelves of every bookshop everywhere.
And it triggered a memory. DOROTHY EDEN!
I searched for Dorothy on the internet and didn’t get much. She was born in New Zealand. She moved to Britain in 1954, she died in 1982. She wrote 43 novels, many of them marketed as Gothic romances or Romantic suspense. To me she is the modern Queen of the genre. I’m not sure why. The heroes are terrible – a hairy Norwegian University lecturer, an uptight bored solicitor, a smirking artist. Even the glamourous settings somehow manage to come across like a wet afternoon in Bognor… in January. But there’s always a tightly plotted little mystery that packs a real punch. The solutions are ingenious and the fates of many characters are starkly tragic. They’re addictive. I wish someone would turn them into ITV style crime dramas or grimly glossy Brit flicks.
Because of Dorothy I will be seeking out more in the Romantic suspense genre, rediscovering some of the lost worlds of my childhood, and dreaming of my potential future.