Bertrice Small: 1937-2015

Blaze WyndhamBertrice Small, one of the original “Avon Ladies,” and the author of more than 50 romances, including many that hold the honored position of “the first romance I ever read” for many readers, died yesterday at the age of 77.

Bertrice Small was not the first romance author I read, but I think many readers have a book of Small’s that they discovered and still remember — because if you hadn’t read books like hers before, your mind was BLOWN. Many writers, especially in erotic romance, talk about pushing the envelope, redrawing the boundaries, exploring new limits – Small did all of that, and she did it over thirty years ago.

I am genuinely sad to hear that she’s died, though I know she was in poor health. She was fearless and gracious, smart and tenacious. Small was one of those authors whose books were a part of my foundation in romance. I read Catherine Coulter’s historicals first, but when I found Blaze Wyndham ( A | K | G | AB | WorldCat ), well, my mind was indeed blown. Blaze was a dramatic and sexually saturated romp through Tudor history. That book followed me from home to college, and then to Spain when I studied abroad and only brought three books in my luggage. I have probably re-read Blaze Wyndham over 100 times, easily. When I sat down to write this, I knew exactly where my copy was on my bookshelf. When I first read that book, some of the sexuality went sailing over my head. When I re-read it now, I am still surprised at some of the passages (heh heh) because they were shocking then, and, because I know how old I was when I first read them, they still are.

When I reviewed Blaze Wyndham, I wrote about the time I met Bertrice Small, at a book signing for her RWA chapter on eastern Long Island (next stop: Portugal). I was very much in awe of her, trying not to make a whibbering doofus of myself, because all I could think was, OMG, that’s Bertrice Small. That’s Bertrice Small. OMG. You should breathe now, Sarah.

Small was incredibly gracious and passionate about her books, the time periods in which she wrote them, and her career as a writer. She was very, very proud of what she’d accomplished, too, and I admire that. When she was at a Romantic Times convention years ago, she was part of a panel on historical romance, and I remember sitting in the audience, still trying to keep myself together because OMG Bertrice Small, and hearing other women, some of them multi-bestselling authors in their own right, having that same wheezeful reaction.

She was, and is, a tremendously influential writer in the romance genre. If romance were a building, like, say, a library, her books would be one of the marble archways on the first floor, holding up everything that was built afterward. Many readers have passed through Small’s books to get to the rest of the genre.

My other memory of Small herself was how welcoming she was. As passionate as she was about her books, she was equally warm in person, especially to readers, even readers like me who were trying to steady their breathing half the time. I told this story on Twitter last night, and I mentioned it in my review of Blaze Wyndham, but when I went to Long Island for the book signing – which was held in a winery, which was brilliant. Buy wine AND books in the Same Place? Perfect! – afterward she invited me back to her home, I kid you not, to see her etchings.

Her office was pink and gorgeous, with framed art from her early covers on the walls, and yes, etchings. I looked at every one – including some of the original artwork for what became the cover of my edition of Blaze. The wall of books by her desk made my heart speed up, with all the leather bound historical texts and out-of-print editions of books on Tudor history sitting next to each other. I was afraid to touch anything, even the floor, and I could barely fit everything I was looking at into my eyeballs coherently. I could have stayed there for hours just looking.

It wasn’t just the Tudor history itself I was looking at, but the combination of history and the history of the romance genre, all in one office. It could be a museum, that one room.

A reader named Athena sent me a remarkable link last week to a collection of photographs taken by Mary Ellen Mark, published in LIFE Magazine in 1981, accompanying an article written by Jennifer Allen about the first RWA conference and eight women who at the time were among the most successful romance novelists.

I’m honestly not sure what Rosemary Rogers was doing on that bed in the first picture, but if you scroll down, you’ll see Bertrice Small and her husband George, and a small paragraph about them. The end is my favorite part:

When prudes complain about the endless entwining and exploding, says Small, a former convent student, “I just tell them it’s all in the Bible.” Fans savor the details, down to beribboned underblouses and busks–“If you’re going to undress a heroine,” says Small, “you’d better damn well know what she’s got on underneath.”

Last year Bertrice Small received the Nora Roberts Lifetime Achievement Award by RWA, and she couldn’t attend the ceremony. When I met her on Long Island years ago, she’d said how much she wanted that award, and how much she wanted more people to know that she and the other Avon Ladies had been part of the establishment of what we call romance.

In the introduction from Eloisa James, and in the video shown at last year’s RITA ceremony, Small talked about the earliest parts of her career. You can see the portion of the ceremony as I live blogged it if you’d like to read the transcript beginning at about 8:37pm, but I’m reproducing that portion of the transcript here.

Skye O’Malley
A | BN | K | AB
James quoted Small in her introduction as saying, “We are the antecedents of all of today’s romance authors.” While many books featured heroines fainting in to the arms of marauding pirates, Small thought, HER pirate, Skye O’Malley, would be a girl and she’d have a fleet of ships.

Small told a story about her first book, “a historical in the style of Anya Seaton,” which she spent 2 years researching and writing. She sold The Kadin ( A | BN | K | G | AB | WorldCat ) to Putnam, but the publisher told her later that they wouldn’t be publishing it. Small found out that the president had cancelled an editor’s books after a fight with that editor. The president’s assistant was a Gibbs girl, who went to Gibbs Secretarial School – as did Bertrice. So Bertrice called her up, and received her assurance that the president would be calling her back.

Said Bertrice, “That’s called ‘networking.'”

The president said to her, “Mrs. Small, I suggest you stay home and be a good mommy to your little boy and forget all of this writing business.”

Small responded that she’d be in this business long after he was gone.

And she was. Last she heard, he was practicing law in New Jersey.

It was another three years before she sold The Kadin again. But she did, and it was published in 1978.

Small said, “I do not write weak women.” She also said that if she were at that ceremony, she’d have said her only advice is “to believe in your work. Be willing to accept criticism and act on it if it’s valid. But if it’s not, go on straight ahead.”

Then Small herself appeared in a video accepting the award, and told another origin story — this time, not hers, but the genre’s as she saw it. Back in the 70s, an editor at Avon, which was not the Avon we know today, took home a manuscript. That editor came in Monday determined it would be published. Back then, Avon published mostly reprints of hardcovers. Many people argued with that editor, but either way, and perhaps it was to shut her up, they published it: Kathleen Woodiwiss’ The Flame and the Flower.

Then a new manuscript arrived addressed, “To The Editor of The Flame and the Flower.” It was published as well: Sweet Savage Love by Rosemary Rogers.

Romance, said Small, can be anything you want it to be: adventurous, exciting, wildly romantic.

“Our genre was reborn,” she said.

There will likely be a few tributes to her, and I’ll try to find and link to them. Here is Jenny Trout’s.

ETA: And RWA has posted her Lifetime Achievement presentation on YouTube. Thank you for the heads up, Courtney!

Farewell, Bertrice Small. Thank you for believing in your work so that all of us could read it, and for your influence on the romances that were born afterwards. Farewell and many, many thanks.

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    SusanS says:

    RIP Ms. Small. “The Kadin” and “Skye O’Malley” were early favorites of mine. A kidnapped heroine who becomes a sultan’s favorite, befriends his other wives, and eventually comes back to England and takes up with a lover? Pretty eye-opening stuff in the late 1970s, especially compared to shrinking violets like Heather in Flame and the Flower.

    May her memory be a blessing for her family and friends.

  2. 2
    SusanL says:

    Ms. Small wasn’t my cup of tea, but I admired what she accomplished.

    As a bookseller in the early to mid 80s, I made sure to keep her books in stock and literally sold hundreds of her (and the rest of the Avon Ladies) books. I ran the romance section and it made happy to see these women publishing what we liked to read. It also gave me a vicious thrill that *my* romance section ran more than 800% over company plan 😉 Thank you, Ms. Small.

    FYI, Ms. Woodiwiss was my first

  3. 3
    azteclady says:

    I have never read a book by Ms Small, but even I, philistine that I am, know just how important her work is to romance writers today, and how important that groundwork laid by Ms Small and the other Avon Ladies will be in the future.

    Thank you, Ms Small, Godspeed.

  4. 4
    Abby Zidle says:

    I devoured the Skye O’Malley series when I was in college, reading them so often that the “dirty” pages were falling out of the book by the end. Years later, I had the opportunity to work with Bertrice on some of her HQN books, and was always a bit giddy that I was talking to one of the women who made me love romance. My fondness for her was cemented when we discovered that we both love reality TV, and I was able to turn her on to my favorite show, The Amazing Race. After that, our editorial emails often had to begin with a little TV talk!

    She was a great lady and a true character.

  5. 5
    Chris says:

    R.I.P. Sweet lady!! I read her books as a teenager and as an adult! In fact now that most thing for me are digital, her books are some of the ones that I kept as paper/hardback books! Most of the Books that I kept are from my favorite authors and the series that they wrote! The rest of the books I donated. She was right up there with the others that kept you enthralled for a couple of hours and made you want to read another one and another one!! Hope she is in no more pain and finally happy! Sorry to hear about her death!

  6. 6
    Julie O'Connell says:

    I started reading Ms. Small when I lived on Orcas Island in the 90’s – a friend of mine had all her books, and what else are you going to do when you’re stuck on an island in the middle of winter? I devoured her titles, one after the other, loving the over-the-top sex and kick-ass women. I was gobsmacked to meet Ms. Small in person at an LIRW Luncheon years later – just like you Sarah, I was a gibbering, stuttering mess. She was one of a kind, and I’m glad she got the accolades she deserved. Peace to her and her family.

  7. 7
    MSClark says:

    It saddens me greatly to learn of Ms Small’s passing. Bertrice Small was my introduction to the erotic/historical romance genre and once I read Skye O’Malley (and shared it with my sisters and my mom and several friends) I was hooked. I read all of the Skye O’Malley series and anything else Ms Small wrote. As a matter of fact my family were on pins and needles until the newest Skye O’Malley book would appear so we could read and share it. I still have copies of all her books and have re-read many of them – especially the Skye O’Malley series – several times.

    Thank you Ms Small for paving the way for those who have followed and for sharing your talent with us. RIP

  8. 8
    lori faires says:

    The world has lost a great author.. as I scan my bookshelf on the wall I see a dozen or more of Ms. Small’s masterpieces, the ones that have survived from being read again an again. Farewell Ms. Small, you may be gone from this earth, but you will live on in the stories you have given us so graciously. RIP

  9. 9
    DonnaMarie says:

    So, first I called the BFF because she loved Bertrice’s books and knew we’d be on the same wave length. You know the one where you’re grieving, but when you tell other people why, they don’t get it because it’s no one you actually know. Like when John Denver died, because he was such a huge part of our teen years that if felt like losing a friend. Authors like Bertrice Small were a major part of our early years. We’re part of Avon Romance’s birth, too. The readers who gobbled up everything they published and got the shakes like addicts going through withdrawl waiting the new books to hit the shelves. Every impossible wild thing you could imagine Bertrice Small put on the page, and we loved it. She will be missed.

  10. 10
    Robin says:

    I enjoyed reading this. Bertrice was one of my favorites. When I first saw the news online last night, I frantically searched for confirmation that it was all a joke. I began reading historical romances as a teenager in the late 70s – Kathleen Woodiwiss, Rosemary Rogers, Patricia Matthews, Jennifer Wilde, Bertrice… these are the authors that made me fall in love with the genre. Bertrice was a great lady, one I had the pleasure of communicating with via mail, then email. I’m glad that I’ll always be able to visit with her, so to speak, through her books.

  11. 11
    Catharina says:

    I hope that up in the sky is a big cloud carrying Bertrice and her George, both laughing about us crazy book/romance ladies. She was one of the best and I hope that their son Tom and his children will learn to cope. May the Lady keep them save in Her arms.

  12. 12
    txvoodoo says:

    The Flame and the Flower, Sweet Savage Love, & The Kadin. My 3 first major romance reads in the 70s. Of the 3 authors, Small is the one still on my paper and ebook shelves.

    She will be missed. Between this and the loss of Colleen McCullough, my reading world is sadder this year.

  13. 13
    Kate Pearce says:

    She was a big influence on me in many ways. She wrote hot historicals before they existed and her research was impeccable. R.I.P. Beatrice.

  14. 14
    Elyse says:

    I found Bertrice Small in my aunt’s giant romance library when I was around 15. I remember being deliciously scanadalized by the Kadin and The Hellion. Her sweeping historicals kept me occupied for many hours. Rest in peace, Bertrice. You will be missed.

  15. 15
    Sharon Burkett says:

    I read a few tame Harlequins in high school, but it’s the Bertrice Small I read and re-read, and which eventually ruined me for the boring stuff. My very first book with smut was Unconquered, and the Skye O’Malley series was a great follow up. Hers were also the only books I paid for in trade size — a great compliment as far as I’m concerned! Truly a special author.

  16. 16
    L. says:

    While I can’t say I’m a fan of her work, how can I not acknowledge Small’s lasting influence on the romance genre. Sorry to hear of her passing. (I’m still sad over Colleen McCullough’s death. We’re losing too many of the greats this year.)

  17. 17
    Courtney Milan says:

    RWA has posted the video of the 2014 Lifetime Achievement Award being given to Bertrice Small.

  18. 18
    Carol Watson says:

    I’m so sorry to hear of her passing, she was one of my favourite romance authors. I read her first book, “The Kadin” and I was instantly hooked and continued to read her books. I always loved how she intertwined the Leslie’s of Glenkirk (from her first 2 books) with the O’Malley saga in the Jasmine books. I believe I own almost every book she wrote. There are very few authors whom I follow, but she was the one for the “Historical Romance” category. She will be very missed, I’m sorry I never had the chance to meet her.

  19. 19
    Francesca says:

    I loved The Kadin. It was one of the first romances I ever read. I had to replace my copy several years ago because my original had fallen to pieces. We have a picture of me in labour, on my way to the hospital, clutching a copy of Beloved. Although I stopped reading her books some years back, her early work (even Adora) holds a special place in my heart.

  20. 20

    […] Small. Wow. Smart Bitches Trashy Books has a pretty perfect tribute up on their page today, and I’m sure many are doing the same. […]

  21. 21
    Thomas Small says:

    OFFICIAL SMALL FAMILY STATEMENT:

    I would like to extend my thanks for all the wonderful tweets, posts, newspaper articles, blogs, people, and more that are paying tribute to my mother and her work. To me, she was simply “Ma”, but she was many things to her loyal readers. Perhaps she was that first book you didn’t want your parents to find that you hid under your bed. She could have been someone whose tales of romance and history kept you company at night in your home, on a beach, in your favorite chair, etc. Maybe she was able through her writing to not only entertain you, but perhaps give you an escape during difficult times. It doesn’t matter which of these applies, because the bottom line is you enjoyed her work…and it meant something to you.

    I can also tell you, you meant something to her… a great deal in fact. She loved you. She was as loyal to her readers as you were to her. She told me many a time how lucky she felt to have the best, most loyal readers in the world. She meant it. She took great care in every page she ever wrote to make sure she gave you her best. She never took her readership for granted, and always enjoyed meeting and speaking with you every chance she could. She never wanted to disappoint you.

    Now, a few things about the future…then a final note on the present.

    There is something she left us all… one last book. I cannot tell you when it will be published, but it WILL be published. You can look forward to a final tale. When things settle down… my first task is to make sure that book gets out there. It will. She told me the plot… I believe and hope you will like it.

    Next, I will be sitting down with “the powers that be” to make sure her legacy and work are not only protected, but available to new and old readers alike. This could include new editions, editions with bonus material (like original outline pages), as well as making her available on new formats. There are a bunch of exciting things that can come down the pike… and I will do my best in her memory that they do.

    Finally, I want to clear one thing up. Despite what you have read on the USA today website or other sources for news, NO FAMILY MEMBER confirmed her passing… until now. Who or how the news of her passing was leaked is a mystery to me. She had not been gone 12 hours before I was getting calls, and yet I had not said a thing yet….I was still in shock. This is disappointing to me, as I feel it was our families duty and responsibility to make a statement….which we were preparing to do. My children and her grandchildren needed a touch of time to process it all. I will be looking for a vehicle… be it her twitter feed or her website to communicate with you upcoming releases or projects. This way, if it comes from me… you know it is the truth. I am not happy with whoever leaked her passing early. From now on, it comes directly from the family. Announcing her death before we could prepare something was not authorized, nor appreciated.

    Tonight, she is with my father. This gives us comfort. And I speak for her when I say to all of you, “Thank You”. She loved what she did, and she loved you. Thank you for being loyal, caring, and supportive of her work for all those years. As I said above, you made her as happy as she made you.

    Thomas Small

  22. 22
    txvoodoo says:

    Thomas – thank you for your words. Your mom was a gift. I first read her works in my teens, and now I’m over 50 and I will still reread them. She not only opened my teenage self to “risque” romance (as my mom called it) but always drew me in with her wonderfully researched history. And her descriptions!

    Lisa

  23. 23
    SB Sarah says:

    Mr. Small:

    Your mother was a truly wonderful person, and I’m so sorry for her passing. My condolences on your loss. May her memory be a blessing.

  24. 24
    Karen Randall says:

    Dear Thomas, I am do sorry for your loss. Thank you for writing to us. I also have lost my favorite writer since the first book to the last. I believe I have every book. I will miss her and will look eagerly forward to further information from you. My sincere condolences to you and your family.

  25. 25
    Cheryl Hogeland says:

    Thomas – my deepest condolences on the passing of your mother. She was a phenomenal writer. I only wish I could have met her. Love Wild and Fair was the first book of hers I read. Even now, I can remember how I wanted to know more about the characters after I finished the story. After The Kadin, I found Skye O’Malley – and I couldn’t buy them fast enough! I was always looking for the next chapter in Skye’s saga. I have most, if not all of her books, and they have all been re-read many times. They are falling apart and held together with rubber bands, and they have gone everywhere I have. May you and your family know God’s peace and comfort in the difficult days ahead.

  26. 26
    Karen W. says:

    I’m very sorry to hear of Ms. Small’s passing. I met her years ago at a big romance/signing event, and she was the sweetest woman. I was able to spend some time talking to her, and I’ve always remembered how friendly and kind she was. My sympathies to her family and friends.

  27. 27
    Deborah Taylor says:

    Lovely tribute. Ms. Smells was one of the first I read and I loved her work. She was such a pioneer in the field.

  28. 28
    Kelly Bell says:

    She was my all time favorite author. I started reading her books wellover 20 years ago. 50 shades has nothing on Bertrice. I will miss her terribly. R.I.P And Deepest Sympathies to her family.

  29. 29

    Sarah, I just wanted to say that I thought your piece about Bertrice was amazing. It’s the first thing I’ve read that really captured her as a woman and the trailblazing writer that she was. We were friends for 35 years, since our early days at Ballantine Books together. We were at that first RT convention in NYC together (with our fellow Ballantine author & friend, Tom Huff, aka Jennifer Wilde). When I was with her over the years, I felt as if I were in a play. I last visited Sunny & George in 2000 & I cherish my memories of those days together.

    We were all so lucky to share those golden years when the historical romance genre was new – and as you said so well, Bertrice was fearlessly blazing trails. She was one of a kind and can never be replaced.

    And Tom, if you read this, a card is on its way. Thinking of you and your children, the center of her life. I am so sorry for your loss, and all our loss – but grateful for the memories, the privilege of knowing your mom, and the fabulous body of work that she left behind.

    Cynthia Wright

  30. 30

    […] of RWA (and with a hat tip to the SmartBitches) the presentation of RWA’s Nora Roberts Lifetime Achievement Award, to Bertrice Small, during […]

  31. 31

    […] Since I wrote this, I have become aware of this statement by Ms Small’s son Thomas, in the comment threads over at the wonderful tribute written by […]

  32. 32
    Brandi Watson says:

    It feels like I have lost a member of my family, because Bertrice Small has been a huge part of my life since I first read All The Sweet Tomorrows in high school in the 80’s. Since then, I have had at least one of her books close at hand, and I never share them, not even with my closest friends. I am heartbroken at her loss, but I know she is with her beloved George again, and that makes me smile through my tears. Godspeed, Lady Small, and thank you for all the adventures.

  33. 33
    SB Sarah says:

    @Cynthia:

    Thank you. That is so kind of you. My condolences on the loss of your amazing friend.

  34. 34
    Amanda says:

    Beatrice Small will for me always be connected to an important learning moment in my mind. I had been trying to pick a new book to read at my local walmart and this older woman (probably mid fifties to early sixties but my silly teenage mind just saw her as an older woman) came up and said “that is a good one”. It was a Bertrice Small book and I ended up buying that book. It turned out to be the most erotic book I had ever read to that point and as Sarah said my mind was BLOWN. It also made me look at older woman differently and made me realize that the love for romance books doesn’t fade just because you are a certain age. Now at the age 40 that is obvious to me but as a teenager I had a lot to learn. Thank You Ms. Small for being one of my teachers.

  35. 35
    Kerry says:

    This is a lovely tribute, and it makes me want to stop in my tracks and read Blaze Wyndham (seriously, how have I not read that yet?).

  36. 36
    azteclady says:

    Kerry, I’m getting both The Kadin and Blaze Wyndham myself, asap

  37. 37
    chacha1 says:

    What a lovely eulogy. 🙂
    I believe Anya Seton and “Laura Black” were among the first romance authors I read seriously, but they came after a summer wallowing in my grandmother’s basement reading Harlequins. I am not sure I have ever read anything by Ms. Small, but now I think I need to.

  38. 38
    Lada says:

    Thank you Sarah for writing such a lovely tribute to an author who was undeniably a trailblazer.

    My deepest condolences to Mr. Small and his family. I hope the disappointment of being forced to grieve publicly before you were ready will be somewhat mitigated by the memories your mother’s fans are sharing.

  39. 39
    LauraL says:

    My own copy of Skye O’Malley fell apart not too long ago. Loved reading all the memories and the tribute, so I’ll share my own. I was introduced to Bertrice Small’s novels by my neighbor when I was a newlywed. Next door to us in our fourplex apartment was a wonderful couple who had been married 60 years and were young at heart. (We loved inviting them to our parties!) Belva turned me into a romance reader, lending me books by Ms. Small, Belva Plain, Anne Stuart and others. She said reading them kept the romance in her life. Reading romance has kept the romance in my life, too, 30 years later.

    Godspeed, Bertrice Small

  40. 40

    […] this lovely tribute to the late Beatrice Small over at Smart Bitches, Trashy […]

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