The vast majority of category romance writers in the 1980s and 1990s did not create beloved characters or become household names. From their relative anonymity, they turned out book after book, year after year, of happy endings that brought readers happiness. When they pass away or stop writing for some other reason, they often end up forgotten by the reading public. In many cases, those authors were fascinating people in their own right, whose personal stories deserve to be remembered.
There is no more shining example of that than Eva Rutland.
Eva Rutland was born in 1917 in Atlanta, the daughter of a pharmacist and a school teacher. Her grandfather, Isaac Westmoreland, was a former slave who worked as a shoemaker to ensure that each of his children attended college. Eva attended Atlanta’s segregated public schools, and graduated from Booker T. Washington High School, where she appeared on stage with classmate Lean Horne, and went on to Spelman College, where she graduated in 1937. After marrying Bill Rutland, a civilian Air Force employee, the couple moved to Tuskegee, Alabama and Columbus, Ohio before settling in Sacramento, California. While stationed in Tuskegee, Eva underwent an operation that ended up severing her vocal cords, which led to her needing a tracheotomy tube in order to speak.
Rutland was a lifelong writer, with her first story appearing in an Atlanta newspaper when she was 12. While raising her children in Columbus, Ohio in 1952 she wrote the first of a number of pieces for women’s magazines about the experience of raising Black children under segregation. Those magazine pieces formed the basis for her first book, The Trouble With Being a Mama: A Negro Mother on the Anxieties and Joys of Bringing Up a Family, published in 1964.
After her first book, Rutland turned to fiction and began writing stories. She had begun to lose her sight due to retinitis pigmentosa, but did not let that stop her. In a 2011 interview with AARP, Rutland described her early process- she would dictate a story into a tape recorder and then slowly transcribing using a regular typewriter.
In 1988, after years of trying, Rutland’s first book was published by Harlequin. To Love Them All debuted in the Harlequin Romance line in March of 1988, just two months after Eva turned 71. It was followed in November 1988 by another contemporary, At First Sight.
A year later, the author whose favorite book was Pride and Prejudice would become the lead author for Harlequin’s new line of Regency category romances. Matched Pair (1989) is a classic “sweet” fake relationship Regency with, not to give it away, a surprising deus ex machine twist at the end. For several years, Rutland would go back and forth between contemporaries for Harlequin Romance and Regencies for Harlequin Regency Romance, until the latter line’s demise in 1993- after that she only wrote contemporary stories. Among her Regency romances is 1991’s The Willful Lady, which I mention mostly because it has one of the most delightful covers in romance history, featuring a man falling down while trying to hold on to a Macaw.
Of the 18 titles Eva Rutland wrote for Harlequin only the last, 2005’s Heart and Soul, published when she was 88, features a Black main character. In a 2000 profile for the Orlando Sentinel, she says that she had once considered writing an earlier book with a Black character, but had been dissuaded by a friend. During the time Eva was writing for Harlequin, the publisher put out only a handful of stories with Black main characters, so one can imagine a writer who wanted to keep working with the publisher not wanting to mess with success. Even authors like Sandra Kitt and Chassie West, who had in the early 1980s written groundbreaking books with Black characters for the publisher, were mainly writing white protagonists for Harlequin.
It is worth taking a moment here to point out that while we know that Eva Rutland was one of the few Black authors writing for Harlequin in the 1980s and 1990s, we cannot definitely say how many others there might have been. Many authors published under pseudonyms, and would’ve been either implicitly or explicitly told to stick to writing white characters for their books, which may have led them to write very little or later disavow what they did write. We just can’t be certain. Rutland’s status as the first Black author to write a Regency romance for Harlequin is undeniable, however.
Eventually, Eva would team up with Sandra Kitt and Anita Richmond Bunkley to write novellas with Black characters, this time for Signet- 1996’s Sisters and 1999’s Girlfriends. Rutland’s stories in these books- Guess What’s Cooking in Sisters and Choices in Girlfriends– would end up being her only romances to feature Black couples.
In her later career, Eva published the semi-autobiographical women’s fiction story No Crystal Stair for Harlequin’s Mira imprint in 2000, and updated her 1964 book, giving it the new title When We Were Colored: A Mother’s Story in 2007. Eva’s daughter Ginger has adapted When We Were Colored for the stage as well. Eva and Ginger appeared on NPR in 2007 to discuss the book and Eva’s career. Eva also recorded an oral history interview with the Center for Sacramento History in 2009, the transcript of which is available through the Internet Archive.
Eva Rutland passed away on March 12, 2012, at the age of 95. She lived a remarkable life despite the challenges she faced, and is well worth celebrating as part of the history of the romance genre.