Essie Summers, New Zealand’s most celebrated writer of romantic fiction, was born Ethel Snelson Summers in Christchurch on 24 July 1912. She was the daughter of Ethel Snelson and her husband, Edwin Summers, a butcher. Her parents had emigrated to New Zealand from Newcastle-on-Tyne, England. Essie called both her parents ‘magnificent storytellers’, and she and her two brothers heard many old Border Minstrel stories.
Essie left Christchurch Technical College before turning 15 because her father’s butchery was failing. She worked in drapery stores for the next 12 years, always enjoying the work and seeing the world as ‘twopence coloured’. She also worked as a costing clerk. She married William Nugent Flett, a Baptist clergyman, at Christchurch on 18 May 1940. A family friend, he astonished her when he asked permission to court her by correspondence – 14 pages at a time; his eloquence proved irresistible. The couple were to have a son and a daughter. In 1946 William studied at the Theological Hall at Knox College, Dunedin, and the couple changed their religious affiliation from Baptist to Presbyterian.
After a damp Dunedin manse gave Essie acute fibrositis, the family moved to a parish in Weston, near Oamaru, in 1948. This was a turning point in her health and in her writing. For years she had contributed poems, short stories and articles to local newspapers and overseas magazines. Inspired partly by the setting, Essie began a regular column with the Timaru Herald under the pen-name ‘Tamsin’. Writing the humorous diary of a minister’s wife was part of her routine for the next six years.
Encouraged by her husband, who shared her great love of reading, she completed her first romantic novel in 1956; New Zealand inheritance was published in 1957 by Mills and Boon, then a small English publishing company. Over the next 30 years they published another 51 novels by Essie Summers.
As one of the first romantic novelists with Mills and Boon she adopted an almost motherly role. Her encouragement and support for her peers was legendary; she even intervened with Alan Boon to boost other writers’ careers. She became the firm’s most prolific author, and her books are estimated to have sold at least 17 million copies in 17 languages. There was a break in the flow of titles between 1988 and 1994 while Summers researched and wrote the old stories she had heard as a child. This project was a gift for her family. Then she produced four new novels, the last, Design for life , in 1997.
Summers retained the loyalty of her fans by repeatedly using the tried and true formula of love overcoming difficulties and misunderstandings, and by stressing the value of family. Sexual tension features only mildly and there is a sense of fun and good humour in both hero and heroine: ‘I’ve always felt romances shouldn’t be too treacly. They should have a bit of humour’. A typical Essie Summers heroine, often torn from her own environment, discovers much more than a loving husband. She gains a warm extended family, a happy home in a beautiful setting, and a sense of history.
Most of Essie Summers’s romances are also a hymn of praise to New Zealand’s scenery. The high country of Canterbury particularly inspired her. Always her settings were meticulously researched, and her readers engage closely with her books, even visiting the locations. ‘A byproduct of my work which has gratified me more than anything is the number of tourists who’ve come to New Zealand because of my books’.
Essie Summers’s engaging personality bursts out of the pages of her novels and of her 1974 autobiography, The Essie Summers story. She was warm, brisk, frank, busy, articulate, irrepressible, sensible and – by her own account – sometimes hot-tempered. She had a strong faith and a sturdy sense of humour, and always she was kind. William died in 1984. Essie died at Taradale, Hawke’s Bay, on 27 August 1998, survived by her children.