Essie Summers’s fellow Mills and Boon authoresses were known to comment on how the rules were different for her than for everybody else. But they didn’t resent it, for two reasons. The first was that they had all been most unselfishly befriended and mentored by Summers, who was a minister’s wife and Christian first and an authoress rather distantly behind those two callings. And the second, I think, was that they fundamentally realized that Summers wasn’t writing the same kinds of novels that they were writing.
On the surface, of course, every Summers novel fits the Mills and Boon (that is, Harlequin) pattern for light romance: there is a girl in her early twenties, there is a man whom we all know upon first meeting will wind up being the man for her, there are misunderstandings and obstacles the overcoming of which will keep the book from being over after Chapter One. But while every Summers novel has the obligatory male and female leads, and she certainly (as a blissfully-happily-married woman herself) believed in romantic love, the fact is that her interest was wider and she established very early on what it was that she intended to write about. Her novels are very much about love; but they are about families more than they are about couples. Life and love were, as Summers knew very well, far too rich a subject to be exhausted by romantic love alone; and besides, romantic love detached from the rest of life is not even truly itself. So, generally speaking, she simply refused to be confined to romantic love on its own, and practically always presented it within the wider and richer context of family love in general. And, being Christian, she thought of all human love as arising within the context of the love of God, though as she was writing for a mass market (as opposed to the sort of modern Christian novelist whose books can only be found in explicitly Christian book stores) she keeps explicit mention of religion, most of the time, to a minimum — in effect, to children’s bedtime prayers, and to the characters’ attendance at church, and to her oft-repeated assertion that the church is a place for sinners as well as for saints, and to her tendency to have characters periodically announce how strongly they felt about Christian ecumenicalism. In other words, her books are “Christian” in just about the same sense, and to the same degree, as is Pride and Prejudice. (At the time, of course, Christianity was still simply the common culture in New Zealand, as it had been in Austen’s England; Summers’ career as the Queen of Romance as ultimately to end as an indirect of cultural change when she got tired of the increasing pressure from her publisher to include explicitly sexual episodes in her novels.) To the non-Christian reader, I would think it would come across very much the same way — as a background of assumed decency and the duty to think of love as being concern for the welfare of the beloved, rather than as an evangelistic tract.
At any rate, because for Summers the relationship between two people who are falling in love takes place within the context of the others who love each of them (or in some cases who fail to love them as duty would required), you get scenes such as this one from No Orchids By Request, in which the hero and heroine, very early in their courtship, go have dinner at the home of mutual friends:
Life swung back into ordinariness as they went into the Harawiras’ home. Before they shed their coats Mere said, “Maraea can’t make up her mind who she’d rather have hear her prayers and tell her a story…Elizabeth or Jeremy.”
“We’ll both go,” said Jeremy.
“We won’t,” said Elizabeth. “We’ll take it in turns. Children just love having a grown-up to themselves, they are much more natural.”
Jeremy came out from Maraea’s bedroom and said to them, “It should count for another star in my crown that I didn’t laugh in Maraea’s face. Really, your daughter, Johnny! In the middle of her prayers she said suddenly, ‘…and thank you, God, for giving us tongues.’ Unfortunately I exclaimed, ‘Whatever for?’ She opened her eyes, said reproachfully, ‘Will you please wait till I’ve finished talking to God!’ and carried on. Then she said, as soon as she’d finished, ‘Else how would we lick postage stamps!'”
Summers’s own personal favorite novel was 1965’s Sweet Are the Ways, in which a young female novelist just achieving success and security in her career, falls in love with the Presbyterian minister next door (who comes with an orphaned nephew and niece, it being very close to a Summers requirement that either the leading man or the leading lady must come equipped with small children from page 1, without having engaged in immoral conduct in the acquisition thereof). Of course Summers was herself, by 1965, a well-established author married to a Presbyterian minister (which is not to say that Elspeth and Dougal are self-portaits of Essie and Bill). By allowing Elspeth to live next door and thus take over the housekeeping and become part of the household without violating morals or propriety, she is able to portray Elspeth functioning as a minister’s wife even though she is not yet married. So Sweet Are the Ways is, in many ways, a love letter to Summers’s own parish, with many more characters than the typical Summers novel. And it includes passages such as this one, passages which are hardly what you think of when somebody says “Harlequin Romance,” written by woman who was a minister’s wife first and a novelist second.
The phone rang. Dougal put his Star Sports down to answer it.
Dr. Mark. “I’m afraid Margaret Murray’s summons has come, Dougal. I don’t think she’ll last the night. She said she’d like Elspeth to come over, too. Can you both make it?”
“We can,” said Dougal, so sure of Elspeth’s reaction that he didn’t need to ask her. The children’s lights were off long since.
Uncle Tim said, “I’ll leave my door open to listen if the children should want anything. But they rarely do.”
Elspeth slipped on a big coat with deep pockets and tied a green georgette scarf over her head. They breasted the hill, dipped down, and took the lane to Murrays’ farm. Margaret Murray had known for some time, but it had never been a strain to visit her. She had taken it as she had taken life, as it came. Much better than having to pretend all was well. She had made her arrangements, had put her house in order, literally and spiritually.
She’d bought a television set a month ago, for Chris, her husband, to fill in the evening with after she’d gone. “We never felt the need of it. Liked sitting reading aloud to each other. But it’s grand company for folks on their lone. Hester’s nearby, of course, with her husband running the farm now, but Chris isn’t moving in with them. He thinks young folk ought to be on their own as long as possible. But Hester’s a good lass and will look after him if he needs her, later.”
Elspeth had always like the way Margaret Murray said her husband’s name. Chris. It always sounded young, though they had been married forty-three years. You could always tell by the way people said each other’s name if they loved each other.
Chris Murray was sitting by the bed, his wife’s hand in his horny one. Hester was over at her house, having the sleep she needed so badly.
Margaret’s mind was clear, untroubled. She had a twinkle in her eye. “Elspeth, I wanted you to finish that last chapter of the book you were reading to me. Poor Hester’s got to the stage where she breaks down if she reads it aloud.” She chuckled. “I just don’t feel like sloughing off this mortal coil till I know what’s happened to that girl. It’s bound to come out right, but I’d like to hear it. I’ve always liked to finish things.”
Dougal wondered if Elspeth could take it. Sometimes calm courage like this got you by the throat, and she hadn’t sat by as many death beds as he had.
He need not have worried. Elspeth read as she had always done. He guessed that she must have sent up a little prayer that her voice would not falter. She read unhurriedly, even sounding amused in the right places. She finished it and put it down.
“Thank you, Elspeth,” said Margaret Murray. She turned to her minister and said, “You’ll have your little Bible with you? There’s only one psalm for an occasion like this, isn’t there?”
Elspeth felt her throat tighten. An occasion. As it was. A glad, triumphant occasion. For Margaret Murray had walked with her Lord all her days and was now going into His actual presence. Her soul was required of her.
Dougal read the twenty-third psalm, the faint burr in his voice that had survived three generations making it seem right and fitting.
Then he said, “What other reading do you want, Mrs. Murray?” He guessed it would be the fourteenth of John. It was.
She added, “But would you read it from my copy of the Revised Standard Version?”
Elspeth felt she would remember all her life the sound of Dougal’s voice. “In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?…”
Margaret Murray smiled when he had finished, said, “That’s the translation I like. Not the one, ‘In my Father’s house are many mansions.’ I’ve never cared much for mansions. They aren’t what I’ve been used to.”
Then she added, a gleam of pure mischief in her eyes, “Thank you, Dougal lad. There! I’ve said it. I’ve always wanted to call you Dougal, but I would never be doing it in case I would forget and be calling you that in front of other people…which wouldna be right for a minister.”
She took her hand out of her husband’s for a moment and grasped Dougal’s. Elspeth was on the other side of the bed. Margaret Murray took her hand, too.
“God brought her to Fair-acre Valley, didn’t he, Mr. MacNab? The parish has been a better place for her being here.”
Elspeth’s color came up, bright, betraying. Dougal was completely unembarrassed. “Why, yes, Mrs. Murray, I think so.”
Margaret Murray released their hands, patted them. It was like a blessing. The blessing she knew she would not be there to give them. Elspeth realized all her own defenses were going down.
Margaret Murray’s hands went back into Chris’s. She fell instantly asleep. They wondered if it might be that sleep from which there is no earthly waking and prayed it might be so, though she had been free from pain today.
Half an hour later, during which time none of them spoke, Christopher Murray said to Elspeth, “I think her breathing has altered. It’s shallower. Would you go over for Hester now?”
Hester came, but it was a long time before Margaret Murray stirred. She looked a little puzzled when she woke. Then she said, “Oh, I had such a lovely dream. Wee Jeannie was there, playing in a field.” She looked at Dougal. “I remember at Ewen Sinclair’s funeral you said in a prayer, ‘where all friendships are knitted up.’ How true. I grieved terribly when wee Jeannie died. I used to pray that some day God would take that ache from my heart. It was almost a physical pain. It’s a terrible loss when you lose a child…flesh of your flesh, bone of your bone…but that ache’s gone now. I’ll be seeing her soon. I’ll be able to catch up on the lovely lost years of her childhood. But you won’t be long, will you, Christ?”
He somehow found words, words that did not shake. “I’ll not be long, lass.”
She smiled at him in a way that isolated them in a world of two.
“And never remember any word you ever said to me in anger, Chris. I said many more to you. I had a hasty tongue when we were first married. But the words of love far outnumbered the others. And we had some grand makings-up.”
“Aye, that we did, Margaret.” He was entirely unembarrassed.
She fell asleep, smiling.
For a long time there was no sound in the room save their breathing and the settling of embers in the fireplace.
Suddenly a wind sprang up in the aspen poplars close to the house. Margaret Murray opened her eyes, looked at the window and said in a glad, strong voice, “Oh, it’s morning…a lovely morning!”
They all looked at the window and saw only darkness there. But Margaret Murray’s soul, renewed and vigorous, had found morning, and dewy meadows…and they all of them felt that beside the One who had come to meet her with outstretched hands walked a little child.
I trust you see what I mean — and why I, who had read War and Peace and Anna Karenina and The Brothers Karamazov by the time I was in seventh grade and had collected personal copies of everything Solzhenitsyn had published by the time I finished the eighth, and whose favorite two books are Pride and Prejudice and La Divina Commedia, and who has read the Aeneid in the original Latin and Plato and Xenephon in the original Greek…why it is that I think the fifty-seven out-of-print light novels of a Harlequin Romance writer from New Zealand are worth my time.
NOTE: Two passages I enjoyed from Summers’s autobiography can be found here and here, while I look here at how Mills and Boon went about destroying the entire essence of a Summers novel in the process of a process of “translation” into French that was really more of an act of criminal slashing and burning.