This time last week, I was dogging Katie Fforde’s footsteps around a table. We were compiling bundles of bookmarks and postcards for inclusion in the goody bags for the delegates due to arrive at the 2014 Romantic Novelists’ Association conference. The conference was held at Harper Adams University, a former Agricultural College, near Telford in Shropshire. I’m told the smell was all-pervading. I wasn’t sure whether or not to be grateful that I’ve no sense of smell. Having lived for so many years on a farm I would no doubt have felt right at home.
The venue was great; the food superb (the meat, raised on the farm, was mouth-wateringly tender); and the company, as ever, stimulating and joyful. As we are only an hour’s drive from Harper Adams, my friend, Morton Gray, and I planned to arrive early and help with the bags, which is how I came to be following Katie Fforde (president of the RNA, no less) around the table. It’s what is so great about the RNA, everyone pitches in.
Of course, the main reason for attending the conference is the many brilliant sessions on offer. Not the wine, the food, the chat, the laughs, meeting old and new friends. Honest! There were 34 sessions to choose from, usually 3 for every one hour slot. It was so hard to choose which to attend and inevitably there were sessions I regretted missing.
Of all the sessions I went to, the one that really stood out for me was Melanie Hilton and Jan Jones: Into the heart of the past. All about romantic fiction research, it was particularly apt for me. It was fascinating to hear how these authors carry out their research. There were wonderful slides to illustrate the talk, including some of Melanie’s vast collection of original prints. A few original artefacts were passed around the audience, and it was a privilege to handle, amongst other things, a genuine Norwich shawl: to see the size of it (huge, since you ask – full length) and to examine the workmanship up close. I learnt many fascinating facts (all of which I religiously recorded!), including that it was possible to make love in a park drag, which is a gentleman’s sporting vehicle built to look like a stage coach.
We also learned of some of the pitfalls in using language in Regency times. For instance, the word fiancé did not come into use until the 1850s. Before then they used betrothed or affianced wife. Also, in 1801, the word debutante referred to a female stage actress. It was not used for a girl coming out into society until 1817. That’s definitely one to remember!
A challenge was set for the audience at the start of the talk: to identify the purpose of what looked like a pair of wooden bellows, complete with the usual tapering nozzle and with an additional short tube-shaped inlet at right angles to the nozzle. This instrument raised a laugh at the end of the talk when it was revealed as a Tobacco Smoke Enema Device for Reviving Drowned Persons. Yes, it was inserted into some poor half-drowned soul’s rectum and smoke from a pipe was directed through the inlet and puffed up the victim’s bottom! We didn’t learn if anyone had actually been revived by this method, but it seems somewhat doubtful.
My only quarrel with Melanie and Jan’s session is that it clashed with two other talks I would have loved to attend. C’est la vie.
I’m already looking forward to next year’s conference in London. Special mention here to Jan Jones (organiser extraordinaire), Roger Sanderson and Jenny Barden for making the conference such a success.