Between the covers with Aotearoa’s Queen of Romance.
IN THE BEGINNING WAS ESSIE. ESSIE SUMMERS. THE MOST FAMOUS NEW ZEALAND NOVELIST YOU’VE MAYBE NEVER HEARD OF. TO VERIFY THIS CLAIM, IN A HIGHLY SCIENTIFIC SURVEY, FOR A PERIOD OF A WEEK, I ASKED EVERYONE I KNEW OR MET WHAT THEY THOUGHT OF ESSIE SUMMERS AND EVERYONE EXCEPT FOR TWO PEOPLE SAID WHO?
Essie Summers. Born in Christchurch in 1912. Had her first poem published as a teen. Penned a lifestyle/opinion column for six years for the Timaru Herald as ‘Tamsin’. Wrote more than 50 books, sold 19 million copies. After a post-earthquake rebuild, residents in Beckenham voted by majority to rename their facility the Essie Summers Retirement Village and her portrait, surrounded by six of her book covers, graces the entranceway.
Essie’s moniker, from people who did know who she was, was New Zealand’s ‘Queen of Romance.’ Not only for her prolific output, but for her paving of the way for, and generous support of, other Mills & Boon authors from Aotearoa. She was allowed 70,000 words where others were only allowed 55,000, so enticing were her landscape descriptions. And still, it could have been easy for me to miss Essie.
“she’s mindful not to use our slang
in sex scenes so it doesn’t take international readers out of the moment”
You can browse her books in-house from the heritage shelves in the Dunedin City Library or, if you want to take them away, you can retrieve them from ‘the stack’. (Which makes me think of a chimney, but is maybe in the basement.) I take away New Zealand Inheritance, her first novel, published in 1957. It’s based in Kuriheka, and I read about love forged in an Ōamaru stone house over mint sauce with added vinegar. I take away one of her last, High Country Governess, set at the head of Lake Wānaka. I race through A Place Called Paradise, in which I enjoy a journey over the Crown Range and a stay near Glenorchy with a surprisingly not-drippy heroine. I’m surprised at how not-drippy all her heroines are. And how articulate and peaceable the men.
I can only get a large-print version of Moon Over the Alps, which Essie wrote inspired by a stay with friends Alan and Betty Dick in their shearing quarters at Lilybank, Tekapo. This large-print section jumps at me.
“the only wine you could pair pineapple lumps with is surely a Moscato”
The peaks were still rose and amethyst from the first flush of the dawn, the river flats were a sheet of gilded tussocks, the river showed as an emerald streak in the shingle, south-east the lake was turquoise and rose, against the sky a skein of geese were flying, looking like a study of Peter Scott’s.
Penny forgot her animosity, her wounded spirit; she said, “Isn’t it beyond words … breathtaking?”
Charles hesitated. Then he said harshly, “Easy to be in raptures now …wait till winter settles in. Wet, dripping clothes everywhere, windows steamed up or frosted over … oh you’ll sing a different tune then, Miss Smith.”
Penny said nothing.
Charles added, “We’ll have to teach you to ski. You’d not be mobile at all otherwise.”
There was a shout of delighted laughter from the children.
Spoiler alert, but it turns out the laughter is because the children know that Penny is in fact the recent winner of a South Island Ski Championship, so the joke is on Uncle Charles. And though Penny is mistrustful of moonlight, and of Charles, and her own feelings, on the last large-print page she accepts his proposal, and his grandmother is not one bit surprised at all because it was obvious to her from the first that it would be love.
Sweet Are the Ways is my final pick, set in a fictionalised Outram. It was apparently Essie’s own favourite, dedicated, “To my husband, the Reverend Bill Flett, and to the readers all over the world who have asked for a story about a minister.” Fun fact: Essie had readers in more than 100 countries. Hence “all over the world”. Fun fact #2: This book is beautiful. If there is someone who can describe a bottle of fresh milk on a counter with more reverence than Essie Summers, then I want to know about it. How have I spent my entire life not paying attention to this rich genre? Snobbery, I suspect. I let myself go on a romance binge. I lose many hours of many days reading towards the happy ever after.
“if it’s not a happy ending, then you’re only writing fiction, not romance”
Some other notable New Zealand representatives in the Mills & Boon canon were Robyn Donald, Susan Napier and Daphne Clair. I don’t read them because I tell myself I’m still doing this for a magazine assignment, and they are not based in the landscapes of the South Island. But hello, some of their titles! Robyn wrote The Temptress of Tarika Bay and Claimed by her Billionaire Protector. Susan’s include The Sister Swap and In Bed with the Boss. And Daphne penned The Timber Baron’s Virgin Bride.
It’s worth noting that none of these titles have Fabio on the cover, even though Fabio has nothing to do with this assignment. It’s worth noting this because of the Words-to-Fabio count. This I learned about from listening to Waipawa- born, USA Today best-selling author Steff Green (pen name Steffanie Holmes) at the 2021 Dunedin Writers & Readers Festival.
Steff has written more than forty novels and also has things to say about feminism, Heavy Metal and Fabio. I did another highly scientific survey and found out that only slightly more people know about Fabio than Essie. Google him. You won’t regret knowing that his chest is 48 inches, and he only had to wait fifteen minutes without an interview at the modelling agency in New York before he got signed, and also there is a stallion that the Internet named after him. The point being this. Fabio graced the covers of a lot of romance novels in the last fifth of the last century, and it was said that having his face on the cover of a book made it 40% more likely to sell. So he’s kind of an obvious go-to, and the Words-to-Fabio count is the number of words it takes before a writer mentions Fabio in an article about romance writing. Mine is 812.
One contemporary New Zealand romance writer who makes use of the south as a backdrop is Jay Hogan. She writes “MM” romance and romantic suspense. “MM”
is shorthand for male/male, and I stayed up way past my bedtime reading the first in her Southern Lights Series, Powder & Pavlova, set in Queenstown and featuring Ethan-who-is-gay and Tanner-who- is-gay, as they jokingly call each other. Ethan owns a café. Tanner used to be a world-class snowboarder and yes, they live happily ever after. (If it’s not a happy ending, then you’re only writing fiction, not romance.)
The other books in the series are Tamarillo Tart, Flat Whites & Chocolate Fish and Pinot & Pineapple Lumps and my hairdresser Michael (who had not heard of Essie Summers, but knows who Fabio is) suggests that the only wine you could pair pineapple lumps with is surely a moscato. While he chops away at my grey, we talk about romance reader stereotypes. He imagines straight women lying in bed next to their snoring husbands. We imagine the snoring husbands to be Dan Brown readers. And then we go back to talking about how short I want my fringe.
I call Jay to ask about the tropes and the wine match, and we go on to talk about the cringe. The cringe, she reckons, “comes from it being a thing that historically women have written and read. We think it’s OK at times, like Christmas, but not on an everyday basis. It’s like, if you want some romance in your life, then your life isn’t full enough. But there’s no writing that isn’t tropey. We just think that romance as a major trope is less worthy. Why are we so against things that make people happy?” And yet, Jay tells me, “romance is the bestselling genre in the world – $1.44 billion in sales a year – which is almost more income than next two bestselling genres put together.”
Jay decided to set all her books in New Zealand after reader feedback that said, “amp up the Kiwi” (though she’s mindful not to use our slang in sex scenes so it doesn’t take international readers out of the moment). Plus, our geography often allows her to have an external stressor on a relationship, rather than those internal misunderstandings that characterise a lot of traditional romance fiction. Example: Tanner has to go from Queenstown back to his Auckland office so the tension in Powder & Pavlova is partly about long distance love. She cites a gay couple who live in Valencia who keep regularly in touch, and I’m struck again by how much of a community, an intimate web, this romance world is. She tells me about her readers in New York who made it their mission to track down some pineapple lumps. I hope they weren’t too disappointed.
One of the reasons for getting my hair cut was an attempt to look respectable for a meeting with Liz Jack, former Otago cricketer and (as if that wasn’t star-striking enough) Essie Summers’ daughter. Over a coffee, and then another, after I’ve promised the wait staff in Nova we definitely won’t take up their best window-side table all morning, we take up their best window-side table all morning while Liz regales me with tales that range from the dishy Polish stand-in bus driver they had as teenagers to what it was like standing behind her mother’s typewriter, wanting more, more, more of the latest novel.
She tells me that Sweet are the Ways is also her own favourite, and how New Zealand Inheritance nearly didn’t get accepted because it was too much mystery written in with the romance, but how a Christmas card from Alan Boon and encouraging feedback from Essie’s husband Bill led to a rewrite and publication. We talk about how Essie would have been simply thrilled by her Dunedin Writers’ Walk plaque at the top of the Octagon, though she was humble. She turned down an MBE for services to tourism (move over, Lord of the Rings) because it wasn’t her kind of thing. Liz tells me of the Invercargill-based Essie Summers Fan Club, who banded together to lobby for Essie to get that award. And about Ken Pierce.
Ken and I Zoom. It is yesterday in Texas. He tells me of his grandmother Ola, born in 1906, who only had romance books on her shelves at home in East Texas. She left school at the age of thirteen, and, though she was super smart, he says she thought that was the only kind of reading she deserved to engage with. An avid reader, Ken soon realised all romance books are not created equal and once he found Essie Summers, he was hooked.
Essie, too, left school early, in 1926, aged fourteen, and went to work in a draper’s. Ken’s now responsible for digitising her work (Ken’s son Kegan draws the covers, Essie’s grandson Andrew does the layout, no Fabio to see here) and on his recommendation, I download No Roses in June to my kindle. Ken, who not only graduated, but was one of the two of the 222 people at his high school who went out of state for college (he studied Classics at Princeton) came to New Zealand in 2019 to travel everywhere Essie Summers. He got in touch with her family and, long story short, got invited to Christmas dinner.
As well as the landscapes, he believes it is Essie’s characters that draw people in. They are, he says, “unusually wonderful people, because New Zealanders usually are. That it’s not uncharacteristic to be invited to Christmas dinner as an outsider says a lot.” He also thinks it’s because she wrote what she knew, and meticulously researched the rest. Ken tells a story that Essie’s son Bill told him. “Essie was talking to an elderly man, a lifelong shepherd. ‘You read my books? Why?!?’ ‘Because you get the details of the crutching exactly right.’”