The world's a little less sweeping today without Bertrice Small, one of the Avon Ladies, the pioneering historical romance novelists who're due much credit for sexing up their genre in the 1970s and 80s as well as popularizing the feisty, fiery heroine.
As Sarah Wendell writes in her remembrance over at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, Small wasn't afraid to write things that would make even the modern erotic romance writer's jaw drop. Jenny Trout corroborates. It's not just that, though—her most famous heroine, Skye O'Malley, was "a swashbuckling pirate queen who commanded her own fleet and once bested Queen Elizabeth I in a battle of wits," NPR puts it. Talk about your strong female characters.
I'm a bit late on this one, but the New York Times ran their obituary for Small this weekend, and it's got a couple of wonderful quotes. For instance, she apparently liked to describe herself as, "a nice lady who lived in the country and wrote books." But she had opinions:
She acknowledged that the literary world dismissed ribald romance novels, but she defended them, telling a blogger named Veronika: "I find it interesting that romance, written predominantly by the female of the species, gets criticized, but the other fiction genres, which are either all or half written by the male of the species, is not. Hmmm. Can you spell jealousy?"
That "Hmmm," so damning. And this:
A friend and neighbor, Andrea Aurichio, said of Ms. Small, "She wrote about sex, she didn't talk about it," adding: "She didn't have any literary pretensions, either. People would call her a pornographer, would say, 'You just write dirty books.' She would say, 'Yeah, I bet you don't watch television either.' "
May we all aspire to deliver a riposte like a romance novelist.
For an overview of Small's work (via NPR), you can watch this presentation from Eloisa James:
RT Book Reviews has a reminiscence from Kathryn Falk, as well:
I remember her charming office, lined with the first of her covers, and the planning that went into turning the Skye O'Malley series into early erotica. She never dreamed it would become a long-running successful series, that would bring not only pleasure to her large audience of readers, but that it would create the unique titillation that became her trademark.
I particularly recall her excitement about a plan to make her heroine a virgin twice. "I am going to give her amnesia," she said gleefully. That and the ivory dildo endeared her to fans.
Lord, let me live such a life.