Back in the days of power suits and shoulder-pads, bookshop dump-bins groaned under the weight of a particular type of fiction. Romantic novelists with big hair and bigger advances were cornering the market in blockbusters so huge, they could knock a man senseless. Whether they were taking Manhattan, finding prime time or getting lewd in lace, their S&F fantasies sold millions.
Into that arena glided a writer whose debut novel famously eclipsed all the raunch that went before. Black stockings and killer heels were so early Eighties. In Destiny, a starlet got seriously sexy in diamonds - clipped to her labia majora. Not only that, but the author Sally Beauman won herself a glittering advance of $1m, the largest ever for a first novel.
While those other bestsellers soon seemed as flat as yesterday's champagne, with Destiny, The New York Times wondered whether the romantic novel had reached its ultimate destination. For Sally was no Shirley or Joan. She tweaked the genre to create the kind of romantic fiction you might expect from a Cambridge bluestocking - sophisticated, packed with cultural and historical references, and a rattling read.
Dark Angel followed. Completely compelling and often shocking, it was superior to and less sprawling than Destiny. A confection of historical family saga, murder mystery and country house novel, its pages seemed to turn themselves. Now both Destiny and Dark Angel have been reissued. Instead of the original and - according to Beauman - "unspeakably vulgar" black and silver covers, tastefully neutral designs are pitching to a new generation of readers.
Beauman still has the pearls and glamorous mane of hair but, over the years, there has been a perceptible shift in her writing. "I think my books have got better," she says. "Destiny does fit within a genre, though it fits uncomfortably. Dark Angel stepped away from it. The more I've written, the freer I've felt."
Rebecca's Tale, her sensitive and intelligent sequel to Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca, sold more than 50,000 copies in hardback and won enthusiastic reviews. Beauman's latest offering, The Landscape of Love (Little, Brown, £14.99), shares many themes with her earlier works - sexual thralldom, child abuse, unrequited love, being an outsider - but it's more ambitious. "I wanted to look at how we damage other people, particularly those we love, and the damage we do to our environment," Beauman explains. The action is set in Suffolk in 1967 and in London, 23 years later. The Mortland sisters live with their mother and grandfather in a decaying ancestral home, a medieval abbey. Their lives are about to change irrevocably.
Love in its many forms is explored. So too is memory and its deceptions. The abbey has a medieval Squint. With the restricted vision but opportunities for voyeurism it affords, this oblique architectural opening acts as a metaphor for the way we see things. There is a mystery, never explained, and the revelation of secrets. "I dislike answers," says Beauman teasingly, "But I like questions."
Beauman began writing fiction almost by chance. As a bet, she had a go at a Mills & Boon romance. She doesn't really like talking about it because, she says: "The minute you have that badge attached to you, you never get rid of it."
Initially treating the whole exercise as a joke, Beauman gained from the experience. "For the first three chapters the story went along quite well. Then it fell down this huge narrative pit." She laughs throatily: "I had absolutely no idea at all what was going to happen." She learnt about characterisation and "placing a story". Using a pseudonym gave her the confidence to experiment. But the love affair didn't last. "After a bit, I really disliked the constrictions. I couldn't bear that it always had to be from the female point of view and I don't like happy endings."
Leaving behind the passive passions of that particular genre, Beauman went for the kind of heroines who took life and their men by the balls. The novelist Linda Grant once commented that no one wrote sex better than Sally Beauman. Even so, "I got hit over the head very hard for Destiny," remarks the author crisply. "The assumption was the sex had been written as a kind of extra in order to sell it, which was far from the case. It's absolutely central to the novel." Sex equals power. It's so key to the tale that there are only 16 pages before the first fellatio gets going. Beauman says that: "I've never understood the idea that you should siphon off this one subject and not write about it in exactly the same way as you would anything else."
The extent of the hoo-hah, however, took her by surprise. It was only when she got half-way through Destiny that she had shown the 400 pages to her agent. While on holiday she forgot about them. "The next thing I knew this really extraordinary auction took place.
"What I like about writing is the anonymity of it but the whole process became intensely public. I had just wanted to see if I could write something popular. Suddenly the phone rings about 45 times a day with people banging on about dollars. I really, really hated it." It can't be easy to complete a manuscript knowing what sort of sales figures are expected for such an advance.
"I don't know how I ever managed to finish it. Now I never sell a book until I've written it. I don't do a deal and I don't do an advance." Financial freedom bought Beauman creative freedom. Rebecca's Tale was the result of an enduring fascination with Du Maurier, whom she regards as "a far greater and darker novelist than she has been given credit for." Rebecca's pull for many readers is its retrospection.
There's something of this too in The Landscape of Love. What happens to the Mortlands can be regarded as part of a much longer story. Beauman's ancient abbey in the imagined village of Wykenfield has survived the Reformation, industrial revolution and war. "The history of a country is embodied in this place."
Beauman is interested in how that landscape has altered over the past 50 years: "There is a kind of poisoning that is going on." She set the novel in Constable country, being curious about the idea of Englishness and intrigued that The Hay Wain was once voted the nation's favourite painting.
It's sometimes hard to see behind such idealised images. While she regrets crops being drenched in pesticides and the uprooting of hedgerows, she has no patience with nostalgia. Looking at Constable's canvas, Beauman can't help thinking of the working conditions of the men who loaded the hay or the children once paid a pittance to stand all day as human scarecrows in the fields beyond. "You cannot put the clock back. Thank God!"
The Landscape of Love boasts as many patterns as tilled farmland seen from the air. There are three siblings, three men fascinated by them, three narrative voices. Beauman has also used tarot cards as a structuring device. Is she a believer? She laughs and shakes her head but doesn't dismiss it entirely. What attracts her is that the cards have no fixed interpretation. Their ambiguity offers an example of how when we try to pin down the truth it shifts and evades us.
Language, too, has that slippery quality, yet words shape the way we think. The first narrative belongs to 13-year-old Maisie. Deformed, possibly autistic, obsessed with lists, she speaks to the dead as casually as she talks to her family. The middle section is an extended riff by Daniel. Romany-born, he graduates from Cambridge and ends up in advertising, industry of the quick fix. If Maisie is an outsider because of her strangeness, Daniel is set apart by class and education. He's self-deceiving, self-destructive and as toxic as the nitrates leaching into the fields of his childhood. The third viewpoint is that of the oldest sister, Julia, a lifestyle guru who promotes food that is more about fashion than sustenance.
If Beauman has refined her craft, there is one thing that hasn't changed. She knows the importance of plot. "It's the fuel. It's what draws the reader on." Beauman reads three hours a day, every day, without fail. "I have the time. Most people are lucky if they have three hours a week." Her novels are now half the length they once were; you don't need an extra handbag to carry one around. The block is busted. Less is definitely more.
The Independent, 14.1.05