The author behind the pen name Emma Darcy died a couple of weeks ago, and this brilliant obituary of her was published in one of Australia’s major papers today.
The transcript is below.
WENDY BRENNAN: 1940–2020
The English writer Angela Carter said that no one wrote Mills & Boon novels without putting their hearts and souls into it. Such books, she said, were only written by women of formidable intelligence. These words could be used to describe the author Wendy Brennan who has died aged 80. Writing under her pseudonym Emma Darcy she was Australia’s bestselling romantic novelist. Both prolific and successful, she wrote 106 romance novels for Mills & Boon, firstly in partnership with her beloved husband Frank, and then, after his death in 1995, on her own.
Her books sold over 71 million copies worldwide, regularly appearing in the bestseller lists in both the UK and US. Her readers – who were always at the heart of everything she wrote – devoured her books, enjoying the passionate and adventurous escapism of novels such as The Sheikh’s Seduction, Hidden Mistress, Public Wife and The Upstairs Lover.
Artistic, well-read and with a keen sense of fun, Brennan once surprised a Herald interviewer with a pithy critique of Ulysses . She held no truck with literary snobbery either. When she published her how-to guide The Secrets of Successful Romance Writing in 1995, she advised aspiring authors to borrow from the literary techniques of Dostoevsky and Hemingway before reminding them: “To write great category romance at its best takes a commitment, minus the recognition and applause.”
Wendy Brennan was born in Dorrigo, NSW on November 28, 1940. The daughter of a schoolteacher and dressmaker, she was one of four children. After school at St Joseph’s College, Gosford, she took an honours degree in Latin at the University of Sydney, before attending Sydney Teachers’ College. She initially taught English and French in high schools before switching to computer programming. This career choice made her a woman ahead of her time – she was reputedly the first female computer programmer in the southern hemisphere.
In 1964, Brennan married Frank, a pharmacist and businessman. The couple had three sons and Brennan gave up work to concentrate on their upbringing, as well as designing the family home on the Central Coast. An elegant, glamorous woman, she loved books, oil painting and pottery, and, at one time, thought about becoming an actor.
However, by the early 1980s, she was bored. After reading a library novel which she thought was appallingly written, she decided she could do a much better job. Although she had never met a writer before, she was determined to see what it was like so she sat down and wrote a political thriller entitled Secrets Are Never Safe. It was promptly rejected by Michael Joseph in London. Frank – who was, like his wife, an avid reader – said later, wryly: “I told her it was hopeless. I asked her why she was wasting the money on the airmail to London!”
Undeterred, Brennan did not give up. “I asked myself: ‘What was the simplest, easiest story to tell? Maybe I can get one of those published.’ I picked on a Mills & Boon romance. It was a misconception. But as an outsider, looking at things; it seemed like the bottom rung on the writing ladder. I thought I would start at the bottom and work my way up.“
At a second hand book exchange, Brennan bought a hundred Mills & Boon novels and went through each one carefully, noting the structure, narrative and phrasing and making detailed lists of the literary techniques used.
Taking these lessons to heart, she and Frank then co-wrote three books as Emma Darcy which they sent to the legendary Mills & Boon editor, Jacqui Bianchi. Spotting their potential, as well as all the preliminary research that Brennan had done, Bianchi signed them up but asked for a rewrite of the first book before accepting it.
Emma Darcy’s first book, Tangle of Torment, was published in 1983. It featured Maggie, a beautiful and ambitious advertising executive, who was torn between her handsome fiancé, Dan and an intriguing colleague, Ian. It was only Ian who truly understood Maggie’s desire to succeed and so eventually captured her heart.
All of Emma Darcy’s subsequent 105 books followed this winning formula for romantic novels. A sparky heroine meets a dashing, frequently conflicted hero. The heroine encounters an obstacle and endures a dark night of the soul, before being rewarded with a happy ending and heading off into the sunset, the hero firmly in her grasp.
The Brennans took their craft seriously; producing an average of six books a year. They were fascinated by the writing and editing process and especially loved working with Bianchi. “What was most fascinating for us was she didn’t cut 30, 40, or 50 pages. She cut a paragraph here, phrase there, a sentence here…she showed us how to tighten up the writing and move forward more quickly. We learned so much from her,” Brennan recalled in 1990.
While many married couples would struggle to work so closely with their partner, it suited the Brennans perfectly. After spending about six weeks discussing an idea with Frank, often over a bottle of wine, Brennan would write the first draft, working continuously through the day and often late into the night. She would then print the draft for Frank to refine and edit. The whole process took, again, around six weeks.
Brennan considered their strong relationship essential to the success of Emma Darcy.
“You have, I think, to genuinely believe in your subject matter in order to write a successful romance,” she told the Herald in 1995. “I was fortunate enough to be deeply in love with my husband Frank. We shared a deep and complementary relationship before he died. When we wrote together, the love and respect we felt for each other was indirectly apparent in our work.”
Germaine Greer once accused Mills & Boon readers of “cherishing the shackles of their bondage”. By contrast, Brennan had a great respect for her readers, often working with reading groups to get feedback on her books. “I ask: ‘How will this story best satisfy the reader?’…To keep your readers, they have to finish that book saying: ‘Wow, that was terrific’…They have to turn the pages compulsively.“
In 1993, to mark the 10-year anniversary of the publication of their first book, the Brennans created the Emma Darcy Award Contest, which ran until 2004, in association with the Romance Writers of Australia. Aiming to support unpublished authors who needed to finish their manuscripts, the competition offered a generous cash prize and a guaranteed read by a Mills & Boon editor for the winner.
When Frank died in 1995, Brennan continued writing, first supported by Marilyn Callaghan who acted as a project manager and sounding board, before continuing to write under the Emma Darcy name both alone and with her sister, fellow romance novelist, Miranda Lee.
In later years she turned her hand to crime fiction, albeit with a romantic edge. In 2002, her first crime novel Who Killed Angelique? won the Ned Kelly Award for best first novel. Her second, Who Killed Bianca?, was a finalist for the Ned Kelly Award for best novel in 2003.
A much-loved figure within the industry, she was unstinting in her support of new writers and appeared regularly at book festivals to talk about her work. Her last title, His Most Exquisite Conquest, was published in July 2013. In 2014, Brennan was inducted into the Romance Writers of Australia Hall of Fame.
Wendy Brennan is survived by her three sons, five grandchildren and her sister.
Renee Dahlia is the current Secretary of RWAus.
The Emma Darcy Award has evolved into the Emerald Award, and you can find the details here. https://romanceaustralia.com/contests-overview/the-emerald-award/