Romantic fiction, a genre that counts Jane Austen and the Brontes among its role models, has been unfairly tarnished, argues Anna Maxted
Time was when romantic novels were crammed with breathtakingly beautiful young women named Cecilia boasting almond-shaped aquamarine eyes and trembling bosoms, and masterful men called Jake possessed of rugged features and throbbing manhoods.

The very idea that a hero might lose his virginity to another man or that a heroine could be flat-chested was unspeakable, let alone printable. However, in Consider The Lily, by Elizabeth Buchan - which won novel of the year at the 1994 Romantic Novelists' Association Awards - the hero, Christopher Dysart, is deflowered by a young Arab boy, and the heroine, Matilda Verral, has the figure of a test tube.

Consider The Lily is a gorgeously well-written tale: funny, sad, sophisticated, and a million miles away from the clichs of Mills & Boon. Ms Buchan is adamant that romantic heroines do not have to be shapely or beautiful. She says: "The whole point about Jane Eyre is that she's precisely the opposite. It is to do with beauty of the spirit, not the body. My heroine in Consider The Lily is very small and undersized. The journey she makes is to do with the growth of the spirit and I hope that is what comes across."

But although some readers want a slice of life and workaday heroines, M&B hits the jackpot because others like to immerse themselves in fictional tales of the perfectly proportioned. One needn't be ravishing to aspire to it, and so to enjoy reading about it.

To be fair, M&B are toning down the Barbie doll fantasy and getting with it - their guidelines warn the 4,000 hopefuls who submit manuscripts each year that the heroine must be "established in an interesting career".

The genre that counts Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy and the Brontes among its role models has been unfairly tarnished. Writer and RNA committee member Jean Chapman says: "When the RNA was founded 35 years ago the image was of pink fluffy bimbos. Now, the view of life through rose-coloured spectacles has gone out of the window. A realistic background and certainly a more realistic relationship between a man and a woman are the important things."

But because there is still an eager market for Barbara Cartland-style fantasies - "a comfortable society with no pain where it's all going to come right in the end," says Ms Chapman - this perpetuates a false impression of the genre as a whole. Because it's silly escapism, I prompt. She won't be drawn into criticism and retorts: "All books are escapism. They are life with the boring bits cut out."

Even so, the reputation of romance could yet be improved and the £5,000 RNA Award for best novel is advertised as aiming "to raise the prestige of romantic authorship". Ms Chapman points out that, despite its unworthy image, romance is the best-selling genre in fiction, hogging an estimated 70 per cent of sales.

Further indication of the snotty attitude towards romantic writing is the fact that most people reckon they could scribble down a fairytale during the commercial breaks in Brookside.

But author Charlotte Bingham, who won this year's RNA award with her novel Change of Heart, has bad news for cynics with literary aspirations. "You can't write any form of fiction unless you enjoy reading it," she says. "You must be sincere in your approach. It's no good despising the form. So many people think they could earn some money from writing something for which they have no affection. It won't work. The first thing you have to have is belief."

Initially, Change of Heart prompts memories of aquamarine Cecilia and rugged Jake. It is the saga of a man who falls in love at first sight with "the most beautiful girl he'd ever seen". He sees her feeding white deer at dawn. She is wearing an old-fashioned dark velvet cloak and hurries away when he tries to talk. He calls after her: "Look! This is crazy but it's all to do with what the Greeks believe. They thought the Gods created people in two halves, right? And so people could only find happiness when and if they found the other half ... I think this is what's happened to us!" My immediate thought was: "This woman should buy a sensible coat and this man should be locked up." But this ungracious reaction did not stop me from reading all 486 sides of Change of Heart in one hugely enjoyable sitting.

The fact is, Tess of the D'Urbervilles also stretches one's power of belief but if a book is superbly written, laced with delightful detail and concerned with intriguing characters, to quibble over the remarkable succession of unfortunate coincidences is surely bad form. I am forced to admit that if the hero and heroine in Change of Heart had met by the gardening section in East Finchley library I would have thought how dull, and shut the book. And if I had ploughed on only to discover that they split up - well, it would have ruined my day. As Ms Buchan - who becomes chairperson of the RNA next year - points out: "People like a positive note because it satisfies that really basic hunger in us to have the world put in order, and why not?"

According to a recent interview Ms Bingham's own marriage is something of a fairytale - she and her husband Terence Brady do everything together and she becomes edgy if he is away from her side for a moment. This bodes ill for would-be romantic writers who can get through the day without a glimpse of their partner and suffer no ill-effects. Does one have to be deliriously happy to write romance? Ms Bingham laughs. "Some people are very unfulfilled. In consequence they write passionately good romance because they believe that they could still find happiness. Emily Bronte was not a fulfilled woman but the passion she felt went into Wuthering Heights."

So, romantic bliss in one's own life is a bonus. Ms Chapman reckons that the most promising indication is: "an idea that won't leave you alone. But you'd have to find a good background and good characters to carry along the storyline. Characters who come to life. Plots are not the first thing that you remember from a book, it's the person that the action is happening to that is important. We remember Heathcliff, for example." Despite his rotten temper, Heathcliff is often cited by women as the sexiest man in fiction. This brings to mind a tip from the Mills & Boon editorial office on the ideal hero: "A man with whom any woman could imagine herself falling in love."

These helpful hints should not belie the enormity of the task. Ms Buchan's most recent romantic novel, The Red Pavilion, is set against the Communist insurgence into Malaya in 1948. It took her a year to research and write. A trifle sternly, she says: "We do not take our writing lightly."