Best of the Bodice Rippers

The best-yet bodice ripper it surely is, yet Destiny will not at once be everyone's literary Dom Perignon. Popular romantic fiction has traditionally aroused more prejudice than ever it has panting bosoms. Eyebrows may accordingly be raised this April over the fact that Sally Beauman - Cambridge graduate in Eng Lit, award-winning journalist and historian of the Royal Shakespeare Company - should turn her talent to a steamy yarn wherein a certain sleeping partner wears diamonds in her labia majora. Eyebrows will be raised just as jokes have been cracked in the trade to the effect that every fat copy of destiny should come with its own wheelbarrow for easy transportation.

Such jokes, however, have been made if not with reverence, then with uncustomary respect. For the last laugh lies with the creatively versatile Ms Beauman who, as is well known, received a mighty million-dollar advance when this, her first love story of sweeping scale, was only half written. And who, when the gold dust has settled over Destiny, may yet be found not only to have eaten Conran and Krantz for a sales breakfast, but to have pierced the long-received myth that a sensational blockbuster can never be a Brontë classic.

On the face of it, Beauman's plot does sound extravagant: dirt-poor waif raised in Alabama trailer park becomes helene Hart, most beautiful, wealthy, bright, brave and (in her own singular way) true woman in the world. Via three lovers, two husbands, Hollywood stardom and a cornucopia of children, sables, shares and exquisite houses. Will thousands take this woman to be heroine of the publishing year? Can a bodice ripper ever really be literary couture? They will and it can, for Beauman is a writer as well as a storyteller. She brings a brilliant compulsion to her narrative and impeccably researched detail to 35 years of social and political history (from 1940). 'I won't compromise one set of standards just because I want to write a popular novel,' she said when starting the book. And the facts sit lightly on the pages, whether she's sketching in a setting to the Franco-Algerian war, to US civil rights, the movie business or the jewellery trade.

Destiny is also unusually bold and skilful in its abundant sexual description. Coy buyer beware: Sally Beauman never retreats behind a veil of imagery or purple prose. Years ago, when she was features editor on the Radio Times, I recall her laughing her infectiously rude laugh over an amorous phrase in a rather good example of the romantic genre. 'What's this?' she shrieked across the open-plan office. 'His ardour bulged!' When she embarked on her first Mills & Boon romance, Beauman would entertain colleagues with gems from the previous day's imagination, sending up her own uncertainty as to whether she might get away with the genitalic euphemism 'the core of his being'. Could, she wondered, the core of his being be allowed to throb? In Destiny, however, she throws away the romance rule book.

In fiction, grand romantic plots depend upon the writer's art and inner conviction to carry them along. A cunning sleight of pen is what makes readers turn the page and identify; as Jacqui Bianchi (Sally Beauman's editor at Mills & Boon) observes, even Shakespeare's plots retold in cold blood would sound implausible. Yet come to the story behind Destiny and the reverse is true. Unless the facts of this extraordinary tale are told with measured understatement, there is a real danger of life defying credulity. Indeed, the phrase 'frenzy of desire' was borrowed to describe the American publishers' response to Beauman's half-finished manuscript in autumn 1985 and the royal battle that ensued.

Meanwhile, back in Britain, Pat Kavanagh - literary agent to Beauman and widely accredited the toughest, most awesome cookie in this hard-baked business - succumbed to such unprecedented excitement at the final auction bid that she drove all the way from a dinner party in Richmond to Beauman's Highgate home to break the news after midnight. The story goes that Alan Howard, the celebrated Shakespearean actor who is Beauman's life-partner, took his lady's fancy turn of fortune coolly: 'Happens every day,' he shrugged and went back to bed.

Every day it does not, especially to one whom the American press deemed 'relatively unknown.' Unknown in the league of Jacqueline Susann and Sidney Sheldon, perhaps, yet no one at all familiar with Beauman over the years is any more surprised than Alan Howard that it should be she, of all their acquaintances, who spun words into a million dollars.

I could not say that, on first encountering the then Miss S.V. Kinsey-Miles at Cambridge in the mid-sixties, one knew at once that she was bound to be a very rich and famous romantic writer. But she was obviously going to be very wonderful at something, if only life - an exotic, original, extraordinary mixture of the cerebral and the worldly. In her second year she was already a varsity luminary, gliding down King's Parade with her tumble of dark hair knotted Edwardian-style on top of her head, but always escaping in tendrils down her back, and dressed in her own theatrical style. There were fringed shawls, I recall, and ankle-length skirts; much silk and velvet, all crumpled but visibly good.

She was also rather famous for her acting. 'Very sexy and very beautiful,' recalls film director Tony Palmer with whom she starred in The Winter's Tale. 'She was frightfully powerful about being possessed in The Devils,' adds a fellow actor and Trinity graduate. So embroiled in her performing was she that she accepted, apparently without regret, that her good 2:1 in part one of her degree dwindled to a fair 2:2 in part two. By this time, anyway, she was settled into a very romantic engagement to Christopher Beauman, now a merchant banker and then a history faculty luminary. 'They were,' says a friend, 'Mr and Mrs Beautiful-to-be.'

Duly married, the couple went off for their statutory spell in Washington where, it is recalled, 'by dint of her personality and very good English accent, Sally acquired a job as social secretary at the Iranian embassy - the ne plus ultra of riches and glamour. There she had the most delicious time ordering caviar and champagne and arranging placements for people like the Kennedy clan.' And, no doubt, trained her eye on the deluxe details of the dinner parties that liberally spice the life in Destiny.

Back home in England she was, at 25, the youngest woman ever to have been made editor of a national magazine (the late, lamented Queen), only to have her lofty appointment overturned the following day in a proprietor's coup (with a rumoured £15,000 compensation - real money in those days). In 1970 she was the first winner of the Catherine Pakenham Memorial Award for young journalists, given for Diary Of A Liberated Woman for Queen. Never really a movement feminist, Beauman was nonetheless intrigued by the contradictory psychology of being at once a winner and a woman. 'Even the famous can be prejudiced,' she observed, shredding the august playwright of Look Back In Anger. 'Having written an article that refers slightingly to one of his plays, I receive a postcard from John Osborne. It begins, "What a dim c--- you are, even for a woman journalist." The second part of the sentence worries me more than the first.'

Men who tangled with Sally Beauman did so at peril of their self-importance. She always knew her own professional worth and was not about to be coerced by any organisation's political bullshit. A colleague remembers 'much choice language that she had no qualms about using against heads of TV departments who irked her.' And the story is told that she once arrived flushed and very late at an editorial meeting chaired by an editor famed for his purple furies. 'And where have you been?' he boomed. To which Beauman came back, loud and crisp and even, 'With my lover, of course.'

Not long before, Beauman had gone off to interview the new RSC Hamlet and had been more than professionally impressed. She and famed Shakespearean actor Alan Howard have been together ever since, and it seems a fair match of champions. All manner of comment has been passed on our heroine, not least of which centres upon her attire. 'It's funny about her clothes,' says a friend. 'There was, yes, the dressing-up box phase, then a time when she was damn near baglady in her indifference to the way she looked. Apparently she used to type all day in Alan's ancient sweaters, and I've seen her come into the office and drop yesterday's mascara on the first cigarette of the day. Then, quite suddenly, when she began to be paid top dollars for her Mills & Boon books, she changed again. One weekend she arrived to stay wearing breathtaking, highly expensive new clothes. A complete new wardrobe down to wonderful designer shoes. Whatever happened to her old ballet slippers? The hair was cropped short, a blunt and curly cut reeking of a double-cream crimper. It was the most astonishing and dramatic metamorphosis. But, of course, being Sally, she did it all so well.'

Fellow journalists Neil and Deirdre Lyndon used to play a particularly intellectual parlour game with Beauman, developed out of the Cambridge tutorial exercise requiring a student to identify date and provenance of a tiny gobbet of poetry or prose. 'You really had to know your onions,' says Lyndon. 'Our game version was to read a passage from any book picked off the shelf, which the other then had to identify by author. Sally - a voracious reader with a memory to match - was quite brilliant at it. From a couple of sentences she would pick up a really obscure author .... like Anais Nin.'

Possibly it was this peculiar parlour skill that set Beauman thinking seriously about romance writing and its underrated status. After she'd attended an ICA seminar at which serious consideration was given to every form of literature except romantic fiction, Beauman wrote a scholarly piece for The Guardian demonstrating that even the most discerning reader would have difficulty distinguishing good romantic fiction from love passages by the greats. And, setting Mills & Boon's best alongside extracts from Tolstoy, Dickens and Brontë, she incontrovertibly proved her point.

When a son (James) was born to Alan and Sally in 1974, freelance journalism seemed the obvious path, but Beauman found it 'not a career for anyone without a private income'. She turned to books. Her history of the RSC, though well received, simply did not pay enough; she needed another string to her bow. And so it happened that Jacqui Bianchi, who'd become a friend through the theatre and a shared passion for Shakespeare, got talking with Beauman about the difficulty of the genre and of finding new Mills & Boon authors. 'Bet I could do it - in a fortnight,' Sally Beauman dared. 'Bet you couldn't,' said Bianchi.

The bet was lost, but ultimately won: it was obvious from the first rushed draft that Sally Beauman could create characters and had a very vivid style of writing, as well as an unerring eye for detail. But she had everything to learn about dialogue and about respecting the form that she had so underestimated. She was determined to succeed. 'I think we published her first book on the fourth rewrite - a most unusual success for Mills & Boon,' says Bianchi. As Vanessa James (a pseudonym of romantic ring that combined her own second name with her child's first), Beauman soon acquired her own devoted following for stories such as The Dark One and The Object of the Game, which broke new ground since its Cambridge don hero was actually an antihero, vague and bespectacled (in the text only - Beauman's words didn't stop M&B putting a dark, handsome hunk on the cover).

Inside the 50,000-word formula for Mills & Boon, however, was always a Big Book bursting to get out. Beauman, says Bianchi, invariably overwrote by half as much again. 'I'd cut, then send the text back, asking her to scream if it hurt.' Scream? When Beauman was no longer in need of a friendly bank manager and had bought herself the time to try another highbrow book, this time a biography of actress Ellen Terry.

A full years research went into this project before Beauman discovered, to her horror, that another writer, Paul Bailey, was working on the same theme. Someone had to back down - and Bailey had, apparently, exclusive access to private papers previously unseen. A lesser woman might have crumbled under adversity. Beauman certainly was briefly low, until Pat Kavanagh weighed in with her battle cry: 'Come on, now - this is all to the good. Now you've time to write your Big Book.' Did Kavanagh never for a moment think her client ought not to go popular? 'No, never. She needed the money.' The rest is publishing history.

The postscript is that Destiny dropped into my lap with shameless, if tasteful, publisher's hype. Nothing could be further from the tatty proof copies generally forwarded for review. Destiny comes boxed in black and silver, with a tiny label to remind me that it is 'the most talked-about novel for years' ..... and a black velvet jewellery roll. For my diamonds, of course.

On the back cover is a photo of the author - her fingers are bare but she looks a million dollars, designer-coated, as if she hails from creaking old money and has never had to make a bean from ardour, bulging or otherwise. This book, too, has bought her time to consider her next move. 'I'm sure,' says Bianchi, 'that it is a prelude to even greater things.' That's destiny for you. It makes a rollicking good story.

Madeleine Kingsley

Company Magazine, April 1987.


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