7 minute read

Glamour: Kate Saunders

The Glamour novel, at the time of writing, is in eclipse. The Zeitgeist is inner fulfilment rather than outer show, and this particular sub-genre of romantic fiction deals in breathtaking excess. Stakes are always high here, and emotions searing. There should be moments of pure melodrama—for instance, the central scene in Shirley Conran's Lace (1993), in which a young model asks the four heroines: ‘Which one of you bitches is my mother?’ Unwieldy tracts of history must be skimmed for the juicy bits, and recast in tabloid headlines. It is more than putting the plums at the top of the cake. The point about Glamour fiction is that it is all plums. Fame is global, fortunes are massive, passions are volcanic—and my dear, the clothes—‘At a state dinner at the White House she was the most resplendent figure there, only 22 years old, wearing pale lilac satin from Dior and emeralds that had once belonged to Empress Josephine’ (Judith Krantz, Scruples, 1978); ‘The men looked much more glamorous than the women this evening, gaudy peacocks in their different tail coats, red with grey-blue facings for the West Cotchester Hunt, red with crimson for the neighbouring Gatheram Hunt, dark blue with buff for the Beaufort’ (Jilly Cooper, Rivals, 1988).

Krantz and Cooper are, for my money, the queens of this genre. Krantz, whose ground-breaking Scruples appeared back in 1978, can be said to have invented it, or at least set the boundaries. The Glamour novel rode high in the 1980s, when ‘aspiration’ was an acceptable euphemism for old-fashioned greed. Female readers in search of escapist entertainment wanted more than the feisty kitchenmaids and mill-girls of Catherine Cookson; more than the virginal young things in the typical Mills and Boon romance, which traditionally kept the bedroom door closed.

We wanted it all—love, money, success, clothes, jewels, houses, cars. And if a writer had taken the trouble to invent an incredibly sexy hero, we wanted to see him put through his paces. Where could we sigh over fabulous descriptions of designer sex, before Judith Krantz ripped the bedroom door off its hinges, and made sexual passion a vital element of the feminine best-seller? Women had written explicitly about sex before, but Krantz arguably invented aspirational sex, where orgasms are always seismic and men are rendered helpless by desire—sex, in fact, as part of a whole, desirable lifestyle package. ‘Life-style’ was itself an 1980s concept, and the Glamour novel belongs firmly in the era of Reagan and Thatcher.

Judith Krantz followed Scruples with the equally successful Princess Daisy (1980), a glittering farrago of Russian aristos, old money, and hidden twin sisters. In Britain, the above-mentioned Lace rode high in the best-seller lists. The journalist Celia Brayfield, who claimed to have assisted with large sections of Conran's book, successfully went independent with her own piece of Glamour fiction, Pearls (1998). Sally Beauman, also a journalist, famously sold her novel Destiny (1988) for £1 million. These books, of a type popularly known as ‘Shopping and Fucking’, attracted enormous advances from glamour-hungry publishers, and this fact took the glitzy mythology a stage further. As far as an aspiring female public were concerned, writing about incredible amounts of glamour had admitted the authors themselves to the charmed circle they were writing about. There was a teasing hint, when you bought one of these gaudily packaged paperbacks, that some of the hyperbole might rub off.

No publishing phenomenon is entirely new, of course, and the Glamour novel is a direct descendant of the so-called ‘Silver Fork’ novels of the 1830s and 1840s; conventional marriage-broking dramas in which plots are drowned in luxurious detail. Then as now, they were widely regarded as ludicrous by the literary establishment. Dickens parodies the genre in Nicholas Nickleby (1839), when he has the virtuous Kate Nickleby reading a novel called The Lady Flabella to her snobbish but vulgar employer, Mrs Wititterly:

At this instant, while the Lady Flabella yet inhaled that delicious fragrance by holding the mouchoir to her exquisite, but thoughtfully-chiselled nose, the door of the boudoir (artfully concealed by rich hangings of silken damask, the hue of Italy's firmament) was thrown open … two valets-de-chambre, clad in sumptuous liveries of peach-blossom and gold … presented, on a golden salver gorgeously chased, a scented billet.

It was an easy style to send up. ‘There was not a line in it,’ comments Dickens, ‘which could, by the most remote contingency, awake the smallest excitement in any person breathing.’ As the author of The Lady Flabella might have said, plus ça change. Then as now, Glamour fiction was critically despised because it was specifically aimed at women, and usually written by women. It is still broadly true that novels catering to female fantasies have a lower intellectual status than escapist fiction for men or children.

At its best, however, the Glamour novel has an extravagance, gusto, and richness of invention that is very appealing. It is a form without pretension— the one exclusive enclosure it does not aspire to join is the canon of Western Literature. It is significant that its leading exponents, including Krantz and Cooper, began as successful journalists. The form demands a high gloss of professionalism. As novelists, they never lose sight of the fact that they are in the business of entertainment.

For Krantz, in her first and best novel Scruples, the main attractions are obscene amounts of money, and Hollywood fame discussed with gossipy intensity. For Cooper, over on the other side of the Atlantic, the headline is social class—the reader is invited to admire houses and objects that money alone cannot buy, because they have a patina of poshness several centuries deep. The stark cultural differences between these two novelists, however, are only highlighted by their similarities. The Glamour novel sticks to a time-honoured romantic template. The heroine must still end up in the arms of the right hero. No matter how much Bollinger has been licked out of her navel by Olympic-standard studs along the way, true love is still monogamous and eternal. Krantz's Bostonian beauty Billy Ikehorn ends Scruples married and pregnant—her husband's Oscar is only the cherry on the cake. Cooper's dewy Taggie O'Hara wins and tames the handsome beast of a hero, Rupert Campbell-Black.

The road to romantic fulfilment has remained basically unchanged since Jane Eyre fell into the arms of Mr Rochester, but the Glamour novel placed new landmarks along the way. A Glamour heroine ought to be a successful businesswoman in her own right, before winning the man who will free her from the burden of making her own money (fun for a while, like making your own chutney—but who wants to do it for ever?). Art is about conflict, and the heroine's progress should not be too easy. There should be a Cinderella-ish element in her meteoric rise. Krantz's Billy Ikehorn starts out not poverty-stricken, like one of Cookson's poor girls, but enormously fat. Cooper's sweet Taggie O'Hara is dyslexic, and despised by her flighty mother.

In its heyday, the Glamour novel understood and defined the new demands of the 1980s female escapist. Fantasies change as time passes, and the bestsellers of the late 1990s are far more likely to concern struggling single women, in more ordinary jobs, worrying that they will never get a husband until they are too old to have babies (see Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones's Diary, 1996, and Jane Green's Mr Maybe, 1999). This sharp move away from Glamour is neatly illustrated by the subsequent careers of Judith Krantz and Jilly Cooper. In the early 1990s, Krantz produced Scruples Two, a sequel to her masterpiece. In the first book, Billy Ikehorn seeks fulfilment by starting a Beverly Hills shop called ‘Scruples’ which sells the very best that money can buy. The sequel, rather sadly, finds her selling style to the masses via a catalogue. How are the mighty fallen—from Harrods to Next. Jilly Cooper, with her teeming plots and exuberant humour, is still riding high in the best-seller lists. But as her most recent book, Score! (1999) shows, she is retreating further into the absurd. The sheer silliness of the antics (murderers in underground tunnels, beloved dogs appearing as ghosts) masks a realization that conspicuous consumption alone will not grab the reader's interest.

When writers of Glamour fiction survive and prosper, it is because they have the intelligence to adapt the form to contemporary tastes. Rosie Thomas and Penny Vincenzi, both mega-selling writers of the 1980s, were even more popular in the late 1990s; playing down the glitz and melodrama in favour of more emotional realism. But excess is never out of fashion for long. And when it comes back, it will bring in its wake a new generation of Glamour novels, formulated to fit the times.

Additional topics

Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionAuthors on Fiction