“How can a man fall in love with a girl in a painting?” A romance novel asked that provocative question on its back cover. The teaser worked; it was a book I just had to have. The Girl in The Blue Dress was originally published by Harlequin in 1947 and cost the grand sum of seventy-five cents. At some later point it was resold for a paltry forty cents but I was lucky to find this gem online for well, a bit more than that. But it was the author I was interested in.
Cover shot of The Girl in the Blue Dress by Mary Burchell
Mary Burchell was the pseudonym of author Ida Cook. A civil service employee in London during WWII, she wrote romance novels in her spare time. Between 1936 and 1985, she wrote 112 novels and was a particular favorite of her publisher, Mills & Boon. Many of her later novels, like the one I found, were republished by Harlequin. Her books were so successful because she understood human nature – the need to have a story with good-hearted characters who could find each other, who often struggled and sometimes failed, then ultimately enjoyed a happy ending.
Included in that incredible number of 112 is a thirteen-book series called The Warrender Saga, a group of romance books about the lives and loves of characters behind the scenes in the opera and concert hall world. These books were a gift Mary Burchell gave to herself – giving her time to return and using her imagination to live inside the world she loved so much – that of opera – the stage, the stories, the singers, the orchestra, the performances, and above all the heady atmosphere of the magnificent opera hall itself as the lights flickered and rustling quieted, and the curtain raised to the gasps of an appreciative audience. She loved it all.
Ida and Louise Cook in their finery on the way to the opera
In 1950, Ida/Mary Burchell was one of the founding members, (and the second president) of the English Romantic Novelist’s Association (RNA). In the RNA newsletter, she wrote, “I concede that a bad romantic novel is embarrassing and indefensible. So is a bad so-called realistic novel. (And it is usually pretentious into the bargain which is insufferable.) But a good romantic novel is a heart-warming thing which strikes a responsive chord in those who are happy and offers a certain lifting of the spirits to those who are not.”
Escapist literature and, of course, romance are important in difficult and uncertain times, like the World War II era. As the RNA website notes, even today a romance novel is sold in Great Britain once every two seconds. The power of romance continues to reach millions each year, in every country where books are sold.
In her autobiography, Safe Passage, Ida tells the story about how many people would come up to her and baldly state, “Well of course I don’t read your sort of stuff.” Ida admitted that those types of statements used to hurt her feelings when she was younger. “But now I don’t mind a bit,” she recalled. “I just look them in the eye and say, ‘No? And you can’t write it either, can you?’ And they just fade away.”
As President of the RNA, Ida often said that she was just as interested in opera and refugees as she was in writing. This was the absolute truth. For Mary Burchell though, or more accurately for Ida Cook, her books served another purpose. During the 1930s, the increase in income provided by book sales funded Ida’s (and her sister Louise) travel to far-flung opera events. Occasionally the royalty checks might even permit new additions to their wardrobes.
But as the threat of war increased, they knew there was more they could do than just appreciate opera performances. And should. That was when it began – that they started to help – in ways they understood they could and within their means. They became helpers – escorts and companions to those escaping Hitler’s relentless grasp. The sisters helped as many people as they could escape the Nazis, accompanying them – and their worldly goods and fortunes from Germany back to Britain and safety. Their work ended with the Third Reich’s declaration of war on Great Britain in 1940. By then, the sisters could no longer safely travel. But the two had had a remarkable impact. They had ‘done our bit,’ as many said at the time.
Ida and Louise believed they had a moral obligation to help when they could. Many times following the war people would ask them why they became involved when it was so dangerous. Ida would just shrug. “After all, what you are is what you do, isn’t it?”
The back pages of The Girl in the Blue Dress offer a bit of information about Ida’s alter ego, Mary Burchell, noting that ‘she is one of the world’s most famous and adored authors of romantic fiction.’
Her first Harlequin Romance, Hospital Corridors, was published in the U.S. in 1958. Harlequin went on to publish sixty of her other romance novels. The back pages continue to note that her autobiography would be released in 1976 and in honor of the occasion, Harlequin planned to re-issue a limited series of her works.
Many are still in print and available on Amazon and other sites that sell books, new and used. A “writer to touch your heart,” the publisher stated, but Ida Cook, did much more than that. Named Righteous Among Nations by the state of Israel, the sisters were also cited as British Heroes of the Holocaust. Ida Cook, using the money earned from her writing was able to save the lives of twenty-six Jewish families during the War. Those survivors and their children were able to go on because these sisters found a way to live their truth. In 2017, the city of Sunderland erected a plaque at their childhood home.
Romance made it all possible.
Memorial plaque outside the childhood home of Ida “Mary Burchell” Cook and Louise Cook in Sunderland City, UK
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