I was twelve years old in 1978 when 'Pagan Encounter', one of my favourite Charlotte Lamb romances, was published in the UK, just as I was settling into my new school on the Isle of Man after our move from the East London suburbs.
Other Lamb titles advertised in the first paperback edition were 'The Devil's Arms', 'The Cruel Flame', 'Duel of Desire' and, most notorious of all her novels from that era, 'The Long Surrender'.
Well-known authors in the Mills & Boon stable publishing new novels that quarter in 1978 included Janet Dailey with 'Strange Bedfellow', Violet Winspear with 'Desire Has No Mercy', Mary Wibberley with 'Love's Sweet Revenge' and Sally Wentworth with her feistily entitled 'Liberated Lady'.
Forthcoming classic reprints (February 1979) included 'Monkshood' from the glorious Anne Mather, 'Black Douglas' from Violet Winspear and 'Man of Granite' from Lilian Peake.
Golden EraThe late 70s was a golden era for Charlotte Lamb; she was working at full stretch during those years, her writing at its most confident and flamboyant, the tireless author regularly producing more than ten novels a year, some of them 100,000 + word romances and historicals for mainstream publishers.
Why was this? Perhaps because, as mentioned above, in 1978 she had moved with her family to settle in the Isle of Man, exchanging the crowds of suburban London for rolling green hills and a restless seascape. This radical move certainly seems to have inspired some of the best writing of her career, with spirited independent heroines falling in love against their will with rugged demanding heroes, often in settings of great beauty and scenic intensity. This was also the time when some of her settings became far-flung and tropical - a row of palm trees grew outside Lamb's sea-facing study in the temperate Isle of Man - while other novels still nestled cosily in rural areas of England or drew on the familiar backdrop of London's cosmopolitan bustle.
Pagan EncounterIn 'Pagan Encounter', Leigh is a cool and unflustered secretary at a solicitors' firm in Leicester, engaged to be married to Philip but secretly concerned about the lack of passion between them. Is she really frigid, as other men had suggested in the past? This bloodless marriage is poised to go ahead until she suddenly meets a man who's able to awaken a sexual response where her fiance has failed. Stuck in a lift with this predatory-looking stranger, Leigh shocks herself by responding to his taunts and kisses with unexpected desire.
But her suspicions about newspaper tycoon Matt Hume - the man in the lift - are later confirmed when she discovers him to be the casual seducer of her naive young cousin. So her motivation for later accepting a job as his personal secretary at World Gazette is clear enough within the romance genre's 'why she got involved when she dislikes him' rule book; Leigh, whose fiance has now broken off their engagement after discovering her with Matt on another occasion, intends to punish Matt Hume for his arrogance by tempting him sexually, then spurning him once it gets serious.
Seems like a reasonable plan. But this is Mills & Boon, so we know it's going to go badly wrong!
After all, Matt Hume, the hero of Pagan Encounter, is not only rich, powerful and devastatingly attractive, he is also an expert at love-making. And what woman in her right mind could resist such a combination? Sure enough, within a few chapters, Matt shows exactly how determined he is to get his cold but beautiful new secretary into bed, and Leigh's unruffled facade begins to crack.
'Storming the Citadel'I love the electric sizzle between Leigh and Matt, increased by the wry humour of this book, as both protagonists know from the very first spark where they're going to end up, in spite of Leigh's insistence that she loathes men like Matt Hume. The characters are so well and deeply drawn, they feel like good friends by the time you reach the end of the story, so you never want to close the book and say goodbye to them.
My mother consulted my father - then a Fleet Street journalist - closely about the setting of this book; drawing on his knowledge of the newspaper business, her scenes at World Gazette - in particular a serious strike by the printers' union - possess an edge of verisimilitude which heightens tension in the final chapters and makes their relationship all the more believable.
A few readers have commented that some of the Lamb novels from this era seem quite violent in terms of the sexual attraction between hero and heroine. It's true that sex in contemporary romances, whilst more explicit than in most romances of the seventies and eighties, seems to have been made politically correct by removing the more violent emotions stirred up between men and women in love. Charlotte Lamb wrote visceral romances, it can't be denied, and Pagan Encounter is one of her most passionate and uncompromising novels. However, I don't think the raw intensity of emotion between hero and heroine detracts from the sexual tension. Rather it serves to increase it. Politically incorrect, yes. But a realistic depiction of what happens between two people when intense passion is suppressed.
In Pagan Encounter, Matt Hume talks of 'storming the citadel' instead of making love, and of 'leaving an army of occupation' when he and Leigh discuss pregnancy; more the language of a military campaign than of love. Indeed, one foreign edition artfully rendered the title of Pagan Encounter as 'E le Mura Caddero' (i.e. the walls came tumbling down, or the walls fell to them, as in the walls of Jericho).
Strange territory for a romance, maybe. Yet while Matt's behaviour is sometimes cruel and his lovemaking not exactly tender, the reader is left in no doubt by his possessiveness and tenacity that his intentions are serious. Leigh herself may not realise this until the closing chapters, but no man goes to such extraordinary lengths just for a one-night-stand ...
'Why don't you leave me alone?' she asked in angry desperation.
'Because you amuse me,' he said, and his head pulled back so that he could smile into her bitter blue eyes. 'I enjoy seeing that frustrated rage in your eyes. It makes you look almost as human as you did when I stopped kissing you in the lift.' The grey eyes ran over her angry face. 'When I saw you in the dining-room you looked like the empress of ice and snow, haughtily untouchable, so I had a bet with myself about how long it would take to thaw a woman out of the block of ice you live inside.'
Breathing stiffly, her body tense with impotent rage, she asked him coldly, 'And did you win?'
The grey eyes focussed on her mouth, making her dance stiffly in his arms, deeply conscious of their gaze. 'You know I did,' he said softly.
Leigh wanted so badly to hit him that her whole body shook with the desire. He grinned lazily at her, watching her expression.
'Not in public, Leigh,' he advised in mock gravity. 'Your fiance would be shocked and it would cause a scandal.'
Supernatural Storytelling?The title 'Pagan Encounter' is also something that has always interested me. To my mind, it echoes other Lamb titles in a similar vein, titles which prompt comparisons between modern romance and the pre-Christian tradition of supernatural heroes seducing human women. That tradition perhaps represented a storyteller's attempt to reconcile differences between everyday reality and the heightened emotions and dramatic changes in behaviour that belong to sexual passion, just as modern romance does for readers today.
Latching onto that supernatural, other-worldly element of romance are many other evocative Lamb titles you might like to explore, such as The Devil's Arms, Dark Master, Circle of Fate, Spellbinding, Forbidden Fruit, Hawk in a Blue Sky, The Girl from Nowhere, Vampire Lover, Twist of Fate, A Wild Affair, Dark Dominion, and Illusion.