You may not have noticed it, but this has been an important month in the shaping of our more low-grade literary values. Or so it says in the brochure in front of me: ‘Do you want to know what’s out in June? All the old ideas about readers of women’s novels. That’s what’s out, baby!’ The brochure, some twelve glossy pages of it, with a big girl in keep-fit (or is it ballet?) gear as centrefold, has been issued by Pan Books, and it inaugurates a new series of paperback novels, novels on which Pan are about to lavish ‘their biggest ever advertising campaign’. The ‘target – market’ is ABC1 women between the ages of 15 and 35, women too worldly-wise to wallow in the old formula romances, but too busy to tackle anything too heavy: ‘Each Pavanne novel is a sophisticated diversion for the bright, modern woman who likes her romance bitter-sweet, and expects a novel to reflect today’s world.’
The spiel goes on to give chirpy, ungrammatical descriptions of Pavanne’s first four titles (‘Set in Massachusetts, Raymond Kennedy reflects a period of lost American innocence’) and to provide case-histories of four ‘target’ readers – each of them very, very ABC. Angela Welch, for example, is seen bustling through the Inns of Court, briefs under her left arm: ‘living proof ... that barristers have to think on their feet. She’s got a professional schedule and a social calendar that would leave an Olympic sprinter gasping for breath. However, Angela has been known to sit down and relax with one of Pavanne’s new novels.’ As for Sue Davie, she’s a fashion executive who spends a lot of her fascinating life in aeroplanes (we see her dozing in a window seat, with a presumably old-style romantic novel open on her finely-tailored lap) and has ‘very definite views on in-flight entertainment’. She, too, will find herself ‘occasionally’ reaching for a Pavanne. And the same goes for Carol Dunn, housewife and borough councillor (‘there are nights, though, when Carol will settle down with one of Pavanne’s new novels’), and Jane Forsyth, partner in ‘a rapidly expanding firm of estate agents’ – ‘one of her occasional pleasures is reading a Pavanne novel.’
It is a wily pitch, to invest Pavannes both with prestige and with lack of weight. They are offered as ‘a diversion for women who don’t need one’ and the suggestion is that you can be proud to be caught reading them. In this, Pavannes separate themselves from the products of, say, Mills and Boon. To be seen reading The Savage Touch or A Taste of Paradise (two of M and B’s ten new titles for July) is to stand revealed as over rather than under-burdened with blank leisure hours. Where Pavanne is all to do with jet travel, tight schedules and rocketing careers, Mills and Boon suggests stagnant typing-pools, bedsitters and suburban bus-stops. Pavanne is to do with ‘unwinding’: M and B with killing time.
This, at any rate, is the image Pan are aiming for with their ‘maximum visibility’ campaign. The problem is, though, that they don’t seem to have the books to accompany the hype. The first four titles bear little or no relation to the genre-descriptions in Pavanne’s publicity material. Two of them, far from ‘reflecting today’s world’, are set in period locations and these same two also fall short on the kind of ‘bittersweet’ romantic preoccupations which one might expect to divert tough, fast-moving types like Sue Davie and Jane Forsyth: An Easter Egg Hunt by Gillian Freeman is set in a boarding-school during the First World War and has a heroine whose shame is that she has to have an abortion, and Columbine by Raymond Kennedy stars a ‘13-year-old girl wise and foolish beyond her years’. The year is circa 1945. It takes a lot of spare moments to grapple with the torments of these adolescents: I can’t see Sue and Jane lasting the pace. Nor are they likely to be spellbound by the third novel in Pavanne’s opening quartet. Again, there is an age-gap problem – ‘Pas de Deux by Oliver Beer is a story of two young French School Leavers desperately in love with each other’ – and there is also a translation problem: Mr Beer’s small masterpiece is rendered in prose of a quite dopey stiltedness and my guess is that Angela Welch for one, what with her lawyer’s mind and everything, is unlikely to stumble far beyond page three.
Indeed, only one of the first four Pavannes comes near to shaping up to the new-era boasts of my brochure. Light of Evening by Pamela Street is billed as ‘a deeply feminine blueprint of Woman’s eternal dilemma: the impossible dream versus the hum-drum of security, the man you can’t live with versus the man who is boring’. Which does, you must admit, sound much more like it. The heroine is called Sophie and her choice is between tedious, job-obsessed estate-agent husband and middle-aged, vulpine portrait-painter lover. The key lies between the sheets: hubby can’t do it, or can’t do it very often or very well, whereas the painter can do it brilliantly more or less all the time. Sophie’s awakened (by the painter) limbs speed her from humiliation to humiliation; her old safe world is destroyed; the abyss yawns ahead of her: but such is her helpless lust etc, etc. Yes, one can just about imagine a smart working girl getting something out of this, although even here there is a prissiness in the telling which the truly smart will almost certainly find unfulfilling. The dirtiest bit, for instance, goes as follows: ‘He leaned forward and took her empty mug away. Afterwards, she was never quite sure exactly how it came about that his arms were around her, his hands moving over her body to places where Hugh’s had never begun to trespass.’
To be certain that I was not being unfair to Pavanne in finding their merchandise short on all the merits that are claimed for it, I showed my Light of Evening to a hardened (if that’s the right word) addict of the Mills and Boon article. She acknowledged that never in a Mills and Boon book would you find a line like ‘When, at the beginning of their marriage, she did not achieve an orgasm ...’, nor, indeed, have a heroine who would live in sin with a 60-year-old painter: a Mills and Boon girl, it seems, only falls for foreign-blooded gentlemen in their thirties and forties, gentlemen, moreover, whose ‘skin gives off a heat which can be felt from a yard away’. But in spite of Light of Evening’s few nervous flourishes of up-to-dateness, she finally reckoned Mills and Boon to be several necks ahead in the arousal stakes. From Castles of Sand by Anne Mather she offered the following as its most ‘juicy’ item and challenged me to set it alongside Pavanne’s meagre offering (above). I asked her not to watch me as I read:
Ashley’s involuntary plea was accompanied by her hand on his arm, gripping the taut muscle she could feel through the expensive cloth of his sleeve ... she was appealing to him now, raising herself on her toes to bring her face nearer to his, unconsciously by her actions drawing his attention to the agitated swell of her breasts, outlined against the thin material of her smock.
‘Ashley!’ he grated, and when he spoke, his voice was deepened by some savage emotion he was trying hard to contain. ‘In the name of all the saints, Ashley, get away from me, before I am compelled to deliver the punishment I should have administered years ago!’
‘What punishment?’ Ashley’s lips parted, but she did not move away from him.
Personally, I don’t see much to choose between them – but that’s just another reason, I suppose, for suggesting that Pavanne should begin rewriting their publicity. Mills and Boon can still sleep soundly in their single beds.
And I can get back to the World Cup – i.e. to Mills and Sansom. Or, rather more breath – takingly, to Costly and Gilberto, Socrates and Junior. But more of this next time. Could a soccer star ever be a Mills and Boon hero – his tautly muscled thighs, the expensive leather of his boots? No chance, according to my friend. ‘Unless, of course, he owned the club.’ Ah, well ...