Laura's Blog

The first category romance to feature Black protagonists appeared in

1980, [when] journalist Elsie B. Washington, writing under the pseudonym of Rosalind Welles, published Entwined Destinies. Believed to be the first-known romance featuring African-American characters written by an African-American author, Entwined Destinies was published under the Dell Candlelight imprint with editor Vivian Stephens. (Gwendolyn Osborne, qtd in Vivanco)

All the same, I was quite intrigued to learn of a category romance with Black protagonists published the following year. In romance author Anne Weale's review of Juliet Flesch's book about Australian romance novels Weale writes that

In Chapter One, the author refers to an anecdote told in The Romance Fiction of Mills & Boon. The then head of copy-editing at Mills & Boon was surprised when the editorial director, Alan Boon, said a certain book was the first M & B to have a black hero and heroine. Because their skin colour was not mentioned, she had not realised they were black.

Juliet Flesch writes : 'Sadly, the title of the book is not cited and we do not know whether it was published. It is significant, however, that the racial aspect was evidently not seen by Alan Boon as a bar to publication'.

I can solve this small mystery. Taking its title Blue Days at Sea from Robert Louis Stevenson's poem, the book was first published in 1981. I remember because I wrote it. But the couple on the jacket were a cop-out, neither black nor white. A number of readers twigged that the hero and heroine were black and wrote to me about this innovation, none of them disapprovingly.

Here's the UK cover:

It may have been a "cop-out," but it was better than the cover Harlequin gave it:

Blue Days 2

It would be interesting to know if Harlequin realised that the hero and heroine were supposed to be Black. It certainly wasn't apparent from the text of the book itself because according to jay Dixon,

Pat Cowley, head of copyediting at Mills & Boon until the early 1980s [...] went back to the text for confirmation. She discovered that, although both protagonists came from Barbados, skin colour as such was never mentioned. (53)

Harlequin were certainly aware of the skin colour of the hero and heroine of Sandra Kitt's Adam and Eva, which they published in 1984. It was their first romance featuring Black protagonists and written by an African-American author:

Adam and Eva

[Kitt's first published romance, mentioned in this "Time Line of Milestones in African-American Romance" seems to have had White protagonists, though I'm happy to be corrected if I'm wrong about that.]


Dixon, jay. The Romance Fiction of Mills & Boon 1909-1990s. London: UCL P, 1999.

Vivanco, Laura. "African-American Romances: A Short History." Teach Me Tonight. 1 Nov. 2006.

Weale, Anne. "Review: From Australia with Love: A History of Modern Australian Popular Romance Novels by Juliet Flesch." Network Review of Books (Perth, Australian Public Intellectual Network). October 2004.

On Tuesday Janet/Robin asked what makes certain books "classics" and alluded to the debate about a romance "canon." She concludes that

classic status is more an academic question than an emotional one. I like the idea of putting books in a certain order, identifying influences, looking at how the genre develops and evolves through certain books, and seeing a variety of tropes reinterpreted within different historical contexts, both inside and outside the books themselves.

It seems to me that when a lot of people think about when the modern romance genre began, they point to either Kathleen Woodiwiss's The Flame and the Flower (1972) or E. M. Hull's The Sheik (1919). When The Sheik is mentioned, it seems to ride in glorious erotic splendour far from the novels of Georgette Heyer (whose first romance was published in 1921) and there is then something of a gap in the chronology of classic/canonical authorial firsts until 1954, which saw the publication of Mary Stewart's Madam, Will You Talk? Barbara Cartland, meanwhile, floats in a timeless pink cloud over the twentieth century but it's rare for any specific book of hers to be mentioned.

This omits from the record a number of extremely successful romance authors writing at the turn of the 20th century: Ruby M. Ayres, Ethel M. Dell, Jeffery Farnol, Charles Garvice and Berta Ruck. Ayres's

first novel Richard Chatterton V.C. was published in 1916, after which she produced almost 150 titles. Although Ayres was known primarily for her romantic novels, she also wrote serials for the Daily Chronicle and Daily Mirror, as well as motion pictures in the United States and England. Her play Silver Wedding, was produced in 1932.

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography called Ruby M. Ayres ""one of the most popular and prolific romantic novelists of the twentieth century"". (Bloomsbury)

Charles Garvice

was one of the most popular authors of his era—that era being roughly 1900-1920, when he was the Dan Brown of his day, producing novels of no great literary value that went down a storm with the reading public. Most of them were romances, Garvice churning out dozens upon dozens of books, which had sold some six million copies worldwide by 1911. (Holland)

As for Berta Ruck,

From 1905 she began to contribute short stories and serials to magazines such as Home Chat. One such serial was published as a full-length novel, His Official Fiancée (London, 1914), and its success marked the beginning of Ruck's career as a popular romantic novelist. She produced up to three books annually, as well as short stories and articles; her last novel, Shopping for a Husband (London, 1967), appeared when she was nearly ninety. (National)

All three were, clearly, very successful and prolific romance authors. I'd like to focus, however, on Dell and Farnol because Janet mentioned "influences" as an important aspect of being a classic, and Dell and Farnol certainly influenced other, now better-known, romance authors.

Farnol, whose first novel was published in 1907, is neither completely forgotten nor unloved by contemporary readers since there is a Jeffery Farnol Appreciation Society. He has been described in Twentieth Century Romance and Gothic Writers as

a link between the major writers of the 19th-century and the popular romances of the present. While no one could call him a serious writer like Scott or Dickens, one can easily note traces of both these writers in his works. (261)

He's an author who was well aware of the conventions of the genre(s) in which he was writing:

The Broad Highway (1910) begins with a prologue in which the author, tramping English lanes, meets a tinker with decided views on what should go into a romance. The ingredients he mentions - 'dooks or earls, or barro-nites', 'a little blood', and 'some love' are important features of the genre and are incorporated into the story. (Hughes 84)

He, like Ruck, did some interesting things with gender roles on occasion: his "women are slow only to realize that they are falling in love; other than that, they are independent, intelligent, and only too likely to try to take control from the heroes when those gentlemen are moving too slowly" (Romance 261). He was also an author read by Georgette Heyer in her youth (Kloester 15) and in her "The Black Moth [...] the characters and plot owe more to Baroness Orczy and Jeffery Farnol than to Jane Austen" (Kloester 61).

However, when Heyer revisited some of the characters from The Black Moth and reworked them in These Old Shades (1926), the major influence was Ethel M. Dell's Charles Rex

which Georgette had originally read in serial form in The Red Magazine in 1922. Like thousands of other young women she was a fan of Dell's hugely popular angst-ridden novels wih their breathless heroines and cruel heroes. In Charles Rex the heroine spends the first part of the book masquerading as a boy, in which disguise she is rescued by the hero [...]. She becomes his servant [...]. There are at least half-a-dozen points of close similarity between Dell's book and Georgette's before the plots diverge. (Kloester 83)

Heyer has maintained her popularity rather better than Dell, and I can't help wondering if this is partly because Dell's contemporary settings make the racism and class prejudice of her books rather more apparent than they are in Heyer's historical romances (though, as I've noted elsewhere, "Heyer’s personal views certainly affected her depiction of class and racial differences.")

Another possible reason for Dell's lack of appeal to current readers is that she takes a very spiritual view of love. This was, however, an aspect of her writing which had a great impact on Barbara Cartland, who insisted that she owed a debt to Dell and had learned from her that 'human passions are transformed by love into the spiritual and become part of the divine' (Cloud qtd in Vivanco, "Dame Barbara").

Spiritual the love may be, but that's precisely why she sometimes contrasted it with the violence of lust and as a result I can also see a couple of similarities between Dell's The Bars of Iron (1916) and Hull's The Sheik: both feature a hero who is not wholly British and his violence is ascribed, at least in part, to his foreign blood. A recent reader of The Bars of Iron was suprised to find it "so violent! And this violence is so relentlessly sexualised!" (Brown) and there's also a scene in which the violence is actually sexual: the hero, while married to the heroine, rapes her.

One final point about Dell is that she's also an important figure in the history of criticism of the popular romance. Rebecca West wrote of Charles Rex that "in every line that is written about him one hears the thudding, thundering hooves of a certain steed at full gallop; of the true Tosh-horse" (qtd in Beauman 174) and

Complaining about the lazily eulogistic reviewer who corruptly praises everything he reads, George Orwell described him

sinking his standards to a depth at which, say, Ethel M. Dell's Way of an Eagle is a fairly good book. (Beauman 178)

Q. D. Leavis, though, acknowledged that there was more to "the great names of popular fiction" (amongst which she included Dell) than "sympathetic characters, a stirring tale, and absence of the disquieting" (I'm inclined to quibble with that list since there are plenty of elements in Dell's work which I'm sure she intended to be "disquieting"):

Even the most critical reader who brings only an ironical appreciation to their work cannot avoid noticing a certain power, the secret of their success with the majority. Bad writing, false sentiment, sheer silliness, and a preposterous narrative are all carried along by the magnificent vitality of the author, as they are in Jane Eyre. Charlotte Brontë, one cannot help but feel after comparing her early work with modern bestsellers, was only unlike them in being fortunate in her circumstances, which gave her a cultured background, and in the age in which she lived, which did not get between her and her sponteneities. (62-63)

It was certainly a power I felt when I read Dell and, regardless of whether Leavis thought Dell's view of love was "false sentiment, sheer silliness," I admit to being moved by passages such as this:

"Death is such a baffling kind of thing."

"Yes, I know. You can't grasp it or fathom it. You can only project your love into it and be quite sure that it finds a hold on the other side. Why, my dear girl, that's what love is for. It's the connecting link that God Himself is bound to recognize because it is of His own forging. Don't you see--don't you know it is Divine? That is why our love can hold so strongly--even through Death. Just because it is part of His plan--a link in the everlasting Chain that draws the whole world up to Paradise at last. (The Keeper)


Beauman, Nicola. A Very Great Profession: The Woman's Novel 1914-39. 1983. London: Virago, 1989.

Bloomsbury. "Ruby M. Ayres."

Brown, Erica. "Violent sex and sexualised violence in ‘The Bars of Iron’ by Ethel M. Dell (1916)." Reading 1900-1950. 25 March 2013.

Dell, Ethel M. The Keeper of the Door. Project Gutenberg.

Holland, Steve. "Charles Garvice." Bear Alley. 20 Feb. 2010.

Hughes, Helen. The Historical Romance. London: Routledge, 1993.

Janet. "What Makes a Romance Novel Endure?" Dear Author. 17 June 2014.

Kloester, Jennifer. Georgette Heyer: Biography of a Bestseller. London: William Heinemann, 2011.

Leavis, Q. D. Fiction and the Reading Public. London: Chatto & Windus, 1932.

National Library of Wales. "Berta Ruck Archive."

Twentieth Century Romance and Gothic Writers. Ed. James Vinson. Detroit: Gale, 1982.

Vivanco, Laura. "Dame Barbara." Laura's Blog. 27 October 2013.

Vivanco, Laura. "Georgette Heyer: The Nonesuch of Regency Romance." Journal of Popular Romance Studies 3.2 (2014).

Perfect Royal Mistress The King's Favorite

Julia Novak's "Nell Gwyn in Contemporary Romance Novels: Biography and the Dictates of 'Genre Literature'"

examines the generic properties of Diane Haeger’s The Perfect Royal Mistress (2007), Susan Holloway Scott’s The King’s Favorite (2008), and Gillian Bagwell’s The Darling Strumpet (2011).

In view of the remarkable rise of fictionalized biography in the past two decades, it comes as no surprise that several novelists have found Gwyn’s life an attractive subject and thus reaffirmed her status as a cultural icon. The fictionalized biography as such is a fascinating hybrid genre, incorporating biographical fact but presenting it in a fictional mode. The novels under consideration are all the more interesting for their participation in a specific segment of contemporary “women’s fiction”: the historical romance novel. While the facts of Gwyn’s life complicate the novels’ generic plotlines as romance narratives, the romantic elements in turn put pressure on the representation of the biographee’s life, which must make concessions to the demands of the genre. (1)

Novak finds that the novels' affiliation with romance is "signaled by the three book covers, showing images of attractive young women in lavish period dress" and by having "the novels’ titles rendered in ornamental gold lettering" (2). I don't really know enough about covers to be able to assess this assertion, but they don't exactly scream "romance" to me. I tend to expect two people on the cover of a romance, or one person in a state of partial undress.

However, Novak also argues that the texts themselves shape history to fit (at least some of) the expectations of romance:

All three novels capitalize on the features of Gwyn’s life that translate easily into a romance narrative, and they all foreshadow the central love plot early on. In Diane Haeger’s Perfect Royal Mistress (2007), which opens with sixteen-year-old Nell selling oranges in front of the Theatre Royal, the heroine first encounters the king as early as on page 4, noticing that “her knees were suddenly weak” in his presence (Haeger 7). The beginning of Susan Holloway Scott’s The King’s Favorite (2008) features an eleven-year-old Nell with a strong sense of self, who spies the king for the first time on page 6, immediately making him the center of her plans for the future. (4)

In their portayals of Nell herself

Haeger, Holloway Scott, and Bagwell have harnessed Gwyn’s relative popularity for their respective Cinderella stories and shaped their novels’ character constellations accordingly: a likeable heroine with whom readers will easily be able to identify, flanked by two disagreeable aristocratic women. Haeger’s Nell is perhaps the most extreme of the three Nells, willingly taking on responsibility for her drunkard mother and sickly sister, and adopting a black slave girl on top (charitable, caring, and not racist!). These efforts to turn Gwyn into a romantic heroine that readers can “cheer for” may well be the reason for the conspicuous absence from all three novels of the more problematic facts about the historical Nell Gwyn. As with the other two mistresses, her subsistence, and indeed, luxury, was founded on the king’s generosity, and thus, on public money. (6)

Novak also highlights several episodes which have been omitted from all of these novels which might have cast Nell in a much less sympathetic light, including her giving a laxative to a rival and the slitting of Sir John Coventry's nose.

As far as Nell's sexual history is concerned, although "the novels are true to Gwyn’s biography in keeping (most of) her relationships in the story," Novak feels they make "concessions to the romance genre by depicting Nell’s emotional development as directed toward her one true love" (9), Charles II. He, however, is not really romance-hero material: he is a married man and Nell is only one among many sexual partners. All the same,

Haeger’s novel ends on the words: “She may not have been the queen, nor even his only mistress – far from that – but she knew with every fiber of her being, and so did their son, that she had been his only love.” (13)


Novak, Julia. "Nell Gwyn in Contemporary Romance Novels: Biography and the Dictates of 'Genre Literature'." Contemporary Women's Writing.


Sunita made me aware of a 1978 article by John G Cawelti, author of Adventure, Mystery and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture (1976). In it, Cawelti states that "the romance tradition originated in the 18th century with writers like Samuel Richardson" (104) and thus

Contemporary portrayers of the tender passions can trace their craft back in an unbroken line to at least the middle of the 18th century. By contrast, the Western did not begin until James Fenimore Cooper's first "Leatherstocking" novel in 1823, while there was nothing that could really be called a detective story until Edgar Allen Poe's Dupin tales of the 1840s. Science-fiction enthusiasts claim an ancestry going back to ancient times, but the earliest fantasy with most of the characteristics of modern SF was Mary Shelley's Frankenstein of 1818. The spy thriller is of even more recent origin, emerging around World War I. (103)

He adds that "Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice [...] (1813) is one of the archetypal models for romance fiction" (106) and to illustrate his point (literally) there's this:

Even in the original the pictures are fairly small and not very clear but they do enable a reader to see how, in the 1970s, the cover art for at least one edition of Pride and Prejudice could, as Cawelti says, be taken as an indication that it and the Harlequin romance "spring from a common romance tradition."

[Edited to add: I haven't been able to work out when that edition of Pride and Prejudice was published. Has anyone seen it before? ]

[Edited to add some more: Since Cartland's been mentioned in the comments, here's the cover chosen for her "Library of Love" reprint (I think from 1977) of E. M. Hull's The Sheik (originally published in 1919).





Cawelti, John. "Romance: The Once and Future Queen." The Wilson Quarterly 2.3 (1978): 102-109.

The online romance-reading community is global, of course, but the vast majority of authors and readers online seem to be Americans. For me, as a non-American, this has at times resulted in a somewhat muted case of culture shock. I didn't watch many Disney movies as a child, so I was very surprised to learn that my parents should have taught me "Thumper's law":

The character Thumper first appears in the film Bambi, watching as Bambi is first presented as the young prince to the creatures of the forest. He remarks that Bambi is "kinda wobbly" but is reproved by his mother who makes him repeat what his father had impressed upon him that morning, "If you can't say something nice, don't say nothing at all." This moral is now known by such names as the "Thumperian principle", "Thumper's rule" or "Thumper's law". (Wikipedia)

What my mother taught me was that if you're asked for an opinion, try to make it at least two out of the following three: true, kind, necessary. Kindness is important, but it doesn't override truth and necessity. Having joined the romance community, though, I've often seen Thumper's law invoked; John A Hall and Charles Lindholm's Is America Breaking Apart? is making me wonder if it's a manifestation of

The characteristic American smiley-faced "niceness," so often commented on with various degrees of amusement or condescension by foreign visitors [...]. Of course, it is no secret that generalized niceness can mask real differences of opinion and interest. But such masking is recognized to be a necessary precaution in a universe of independent and often rivalrous coequals. As the mayor of an American town observed:

We are a deeply fragmented community. We're nice to each other so much of the time we get the idea that's all there is. But since the problems and misunderstandings remain pretty consistent year after year, I have to assume we don't actually like each other as much as we claim to. Maybe nice is what you have to be or you'd be swinging at each other all the time. (98-99)

I wonder to what extent that might be true of the online romance community.

Obviously, there are American romance readers and authors who disagree with the idea that one should always aim to "be nice." Olivia Waite, for example, recently stated that she doesn't

believe negative reactions automatically have negative effects. Because I believe the culture of positivity is often suffocating and silencing, and I have been silent longer than I’d like. If we allow ourselves only nice things to say, we shortchange ourselves, our readers, and our genre. If we don’t talk about what books let us down, we’re going to find it harder to talk about what books lift us up. Criticism is a muscle and it needs balanced exercise.

I think Waite's an American but, according to Hall and Lindholm, her approach may not be all that popular in the US where

Practical hands-on "common-sense," it is believed, is capable of overcoming almost any obstacle, while "thinking too much" leads to nothing but confusion. It is no surprise that the predominant American philosophy is pragmatism, which decisively eschews theory under the assumption that coherent and consistent premises do not really matter much for achieving serviceable results. (85)

The concept of "thinking too much" is another one I suspect I've encountered more since joining the romance community, though I do remember my mother warning me against "worrying too much" and there's the comment in Julius Caesar about men

that are fat;
Sleek-headed men and such as sleep o' nights:
Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;
He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.

And then there's the broad consensus among romance writers that "Romance and women’s fiction generally is all about the character arc. The reader is looking for emotional growth in the heroine from the first page to the last" (Cohen). Again, this can't be a uniquely American preference since characters do change in lots of non-American novels. However,  Hall and Lindholm find it

striking that for Americans even the self is considered to be a kind of modular entity, capable of being reconfigured to fit into preferred life styles. [...] American faith in the power of individuals to change themselves is quite understandable as a product of the immigrant experience in combination with the Protestant ethos. Protestant sects believe that individuals can be spiritually transformed through disciplined, virtuous action in this world. (86-88)

I'm working on a book about US romances and the extent to which they reflect American beliefs, but I'm not planning to look at whether the novels demonstrate a faith in the individual's ability to change, or advocate being nice and not thinking too much. All the same, I can't help wondering if these are features of the genre and its community which reflect American values.


Cohen, Julie. "Character Arc 1: What is it?" 17 Jan. 2010.

Hall, John A. and Charles Lindholm. Is America Breaking Apart? Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1999.

Waite, Olivia. "If You Can't Say Anything Nice, Come Sit By Me." 8 Nov. 2013.

Academic publishing tends to be slow. In part that's unavoidable: research is time-consuming and so is peer review. But it can have unfortunate consequences when the piece is about a fast-moving topic.

Olivia Tapper's "Romance and Innovation in Twenty-First Century Publishing" was published this month in Publishing Research Quarterly and as Tapper's title suggests, discusses the innovative nature of romance publishing; unfortunately, there have been some significant "innovations" in romance publishing since the article was submitted. This is not to say that the article is now irrelevant: it's not. Tapper's

paper makes the argument that contrary to the stereotype of romantic fiction as conventional and change resistant, contemporary romance publishers have proven themselves to be consistently forward thinking and progressive, utilising industry innovations in content, technology, branding and business practice to cement their genre’s status as an exemplary model for twenty-first century book publishing.

With regards to their content, Tapper highlights the proliferation of romance novels "which combine romance with another genre or genres" and

In addition to embracing new genres and genre hybrids, the romance sector has also striven to meet the needs of an increasingly global readership that encompasses an ever-growing multiplicity of cultures and contexts. Although publishers generally remain averse to explicit political content within the novels themselves, romance publishers are nonetheless making progressive political statements when it comes to the kinds of books they choose to commission.

She gives as examples an increasing number of novels "designed to appeal to 20- and 30-somethings," to "emergent Afro-Caribbean readers" and to "the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community." In addition, "Through strategies such as diversification of content, cultivation of reader feedback, early adoption of ebook technology and consistently strong branding, publishers of romantic fiction have shown a marked willingness to work within, not against, the changing times."

The problem is that from early on Tapper chooses to focus on Harlequin Mills & Boon and its CEO, Donna Hayes, because "HMB under Hayes has carved out a niche within the digital sphere that has been critical to its continuing success."

It was bad luck that Tapper's article was published on the 9th of May and, on 2 May 2014, "News Corp announced [...] that it has agreed to acquire Harlequin Enterprises from Torstar Corporation. Harlequin will become a division of HarperCollins Publishers, a News Corp subsidiary." As Jane at Dear Author observed, this acquisition raises a number of questions because

Harlequin has very reader friendly policies and HC not so much. [...] Harlequin has made a concerted effort to provide diverse content, offering Asian and African American protagonists. [...]

Harlequin is also in a unique position in that it is one publisher that has sold direct to consumer successfully and because of that has a better understanding of readers. They were one of the first to digitize its backlist (2011) and make the frontlist available digitally (2007).  They believe in putting their content where the readers are including at nearly every retailer including small ones like All Romance and in libraries. While it is still a publisher, it’s a fairly reader connected one.

We don’t know how this acquisition will change for readers. It may not have any effect.  [...] But I admit to being worried and I hope that my worries are irrational and that this acquisition will mean continued pro reader policies.

Many of these "pro reader policies" were established during the tenure of Donna Hayes, whom Tapper identifies as an important source of Harlequin's "aggressive and forward-thinking business practice." However,

Harlequin announced Wednesday [4 December 2013] that Craig Swinwood, its chief operating officer, will be the new president and CEO as Donna Hayes, the first woman to lead the company, moves into retirement. (Scrivener)

This announcement was made about five months before the publication of Tapper's article and I can't read her analysis of the state of romance publishing without wondering whether she would change it in any way in the light of recent developments.

With the benefit of hindsight, it's interesting to see that Tapper observed the way in which

the romance sector’s movement across markets has created a global audience for their publications, so that authors writing in and for one particular region can expand their audience by marketing their works across national boundaries; using this strategy, Australian and New Zealand authors such as Sarah Mayberry and Karina Bliss have achieved considerable sales success in North America. Following Harlequin’s example, other major publishers like Kensington, Random House and HarperCollins have also capitalised on the potential for expansion via international marketing, and the romance sector as a whole has shown a laudable willingness to enter into nascent but as yet untested market regions.

When News Corp commented on their acquisition of Harlequin, they too focused on the benefits of "marketing [...] works across national boundaries":

“Harlequin is a perfect fit for the new News Corp, vastly expanding our digital platform, extending our reach across borders and languages, and is expected to provide an immediate lift to earnings,” said Robert Thomson, Chief Executive of News Corp. “Harlequin has a devoted audience around the globe and an empathetic insight into contemporary cultures, which is itself a remarkable resource. This acquisition will broaden the boundaries of both HarperCollins and Harlequin, and is a significant step in our strategy to establish a network of digital properties in the growth regions of the world.”

Brian Murray, President and CEO of HarperCollins, struck a similar note: "Harlequin’s business has grown internationally, and will give HarperCollins an immediate foothold in 11 new countries from which we can expand into dozens of foreign languages for authors who choose to work with us globally."

It'll be interesting to see if and how romance publishing changes as a result of the acquisition. And it's probably also worth noting that Tapper's article, already a bit behind the times when it was published on the 9th of May 2014, was in fact released "Online First"; it may have to wait a few months longer before it's given a slot in the print edition.


Jane. "HarperCollins Acquisition of Harlequin and what it means for readers." Dear Author. 4 May 2014.

News Corp. "News Corp to Acquire Harlequin." 2 May 2014.

Scrivener, Leslie. "Harlequin CEO Donna Hayes retires, Craig Swinwood takes over." The Star. 4 Dec. 2013.

Tapper, Olivia. "Romance and Innovation in Twenty-First Century Publishing." Publishing Research Quarterly. 9 May 2014. [Abstract]


The image of "Richard March Hoe's printing press—six cylinder design" came from N. Orr's History of the Processes of Manufacture (1864) via Wikimedia Commons.

Susan Ostrov Weisser suggests that

the value we now put on sexual pleasure requires that we validate passion as the starter yeast for the long-term relationship, with the "meant to be" narrative guiding the tricky transition from mysterious passion to rational choice. If it doesn't go well ... you guessed it; it wasn't meant to be [....]. That is, "first comes the passion," then a more "mature" version of romance, which will develop out of the first stage, and which will be permanent if the object is the One. In other words, the magic comes first, and that enables the rational relationship. Few of my students seem aware that historically this is a rather novel idea. [...] The initial stage is supposed to have features very much like passionate sexual desire: intense, spontaneous, inexplicable, beyond control. The "mature" second act is more akin to friendship, stressing liking, mutuality, compatibility, and loyalty. (8-9)

This may have become "the chief ideology of Anglo-American romance" (51) but

the nineteenth-century press shows deep conflict, apparently fascinating to the Victorian public, about the essential nature of love itself: Is it instinctual or voluntary? Is it under our control, or is it what one writer called a "master passion" that cannot be constrained by choice? [...] The most dominant anxiety in the nineteenth-century press is that love is a desire for gratification, a strong and universal instinct that overrides judgment - analogous to, if not rooted in, sexual desire and other egotistic longings. In this view romance is said to lead to no good except pleasure. (53-54)

In other words, there were concerns that an uncontrollable sexual passion was more likely to be a recipe for disaster than the "starter yeast" for a long and happy marriage.

That there are still differences of opinion about the relative importance of friendship, similar outlooks and beliefs versus that of passion, is evident in popular romance fiction. For instance, in a short story Joanne Rock wrote for the eHarlequin website, her heroine has just been dumped by her fiancé, Ben, who seemed a sensible, rational choice of partner, and promptly gets back together with Myles, a man with whom she had a one-night stand two years before:

He was pure fantasy. The kind of man that had no business in Kasey’s life since, even though she’d always been a bit of a romantic, she knew that lasting relationships should be based on more practical grounds like fundamental compatibility, common interests and values.

That’s what made her so successful as a casting director. She knew how to put believable characters together on–screen. She put together people like her and Ben — both successful, career–oriented people with common goals and dreams.

Her feet paused on the planks of the wooden boat dock, the soft swish of rhythmic waves and the swirl of Saturday morning marina activity fading into the background as she wondered how she and Ben could look so great on paper and still fail so miserably in real life. What if she’d been basing her relationships on all the wrong things? (9)

Just a couple of days, a few sex scenes and only a very limited amount of conversation later, Myles has gained the

knowledge they were meant to be together. [...] For him, nothing was more important than keeping Kasey in his life — now and always. (18)

My impression is that, over the years, popular romance has attempted to identify the necessary ingredients and the order in which they should be mixed, to create a believably happy ending for the protagonists. While one may be able to identify an overall trend in the baked items they produce, the flavourings, cooking times etc can vary considerably from one author to another:

beginning in the 1960s, when sexual attraction began to be depicted as the initial magnetism drawing the protagonists together, there are authors, such as Mary Burchell, who do not follow the trend. This is still the case, with some authors downplaying its importance, and concentrating on other aspects of love. Examples include Jane Donnelly, who sees love as the recognition of one's other half; Betty Neels, who emphasizes the growth of love over time and Leigh Michaels, who stresses the friendship aspect of love. (Dixon 172)

What I conclude from all this is, firstly, that whether a reader finds a romance's happy ending believable may depend on (a) the reader's beliefs about the most important ingredients in a long-term relationship and (b) the author's receipe for love. If one believes, for example, that passion is a pre-requisite for intimacy, and that the first will inevitably lead to the second if the passion is strong and special enough, then a series of sex scenes followed by a declaration of ever-lasting love will provide a convincing HEA. If, however, the reader believes that shared political, religious and moral beliefs are very important to a lasting relationship, or that a shared sense of humour is vital in a marriage, the same HEA is likely to leave the reader unconvinced.

Secondly, I wonder if changing beliefs about the importance of sex in creating and sustaining long-term romantic relationships might help explain the increase in explicit sexual content in the genre from the 1970s onwards. Some readers undoubtedly do read romance primarily for their erotic content, however this is not necessarily the sole or even the main reason for its inclusion: the increasing number of sex scenes can be understood as a consequence of the assumption that passion is the "starter yeast" for long-term relationships and the stronger the starter yeast, the stronger the relationship.


Dixon, jay. The Romance Fiction of Mills & Boon 1909-1990s. London: UCL Press, 1999.

Ostrov Weisser, Susan. The Glass Slipper: Women and Love Stories. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2013.

Rock, Joanne. "Girl Gone Solo." eHarlequin, 2004.

In many ways popular romance novels are extremely emotional: they're about love, which is a very strong emotion. And yet, during a recent conversation on Twitter, Meoskop suggested that "there is a strong pressure in the genre to suppress personal emotions for socially prescribed reasons." As evidence, she pointed to the number of times one protagonist will attempt to convince the other to "see what’s good for you" and the plot endorses that emotional coersion.

Pressure to "suppress personal emotions for socially prescribed reasons" may also be applied via the depiction of the protagonists. Take a look, for example, at some of the "magical ingredients" in Adrienne deWolfe's recipe for creating romance heroines who appeal to readers:

She demonstrates a healthy self-respect.  A heroic woman would not let the volatile emotions of bullies or toxic personalities hold her “hostage” for long. She has the courage of her convictions, and she will walk away from personal or professional relationships that sabotage her greater good. 

During times of hardship, she draws upon deep internal reserves (faith, self-love, self-esteem, etc.) to maintain a positive outlook and to maintain her determination to achieve her goals. [...]

She is resourceful and resilient. She puts on her "big girl panties" when she is blindsided by crisis or thrown into situations that are completely alien to her. A heroic woman would never dissolve into a whiny, weepy, neurotic mess under stress!

Elly, the heroine of LaVyrle Spencer's Morning Glory is an example of this type of heroine. Although she does have low self-esteem to some extent due to a childhood full of neglect and bullying, she has walked away from those who hurt her, drawn on her internal reserves to bring up her two children alone and she has stayed strong despite becoming a widow while pregnant with her third child. When Will Parker remarks

"You never complain about anything, do you?"

It was subtle praise, but no poetry could have pleased her more. (138)

I'm sure this kind of heroine is inspiring to many readers but I can't relate very well to her. For one thing, I do complain, frequently, and I know I wouldn't be able to cope well in her situation. I also wonder how healthy it is to remain uncomplaining and maintain the appearance of strength. In Morning Glory itself, Will has trouble coming to terms with the horrors of war until he finally breaks down, cries, and tells Elly about it; this may not be labelled "complaining" but all the same it's stated that "He needed to voice his rage, work it out like pus from a festering wound" (314).

Staying "strong" can take its toll on people. For example,

Traditional notions of masculinity mean that men are supposed to be tough and self-reliant; that they manage pain and take charge of situations. It’s a sign of weakness to need help or depend on someone else, even for a short time or in a time of crisis.

This traditional view of how men should be – always tough and self-reliant – is also held by some women. Some men worry that if they talk about their feelings of depression, their partner may reject them. This can make it hard for men to acknowledge they have a health problem, especially a mental health problem. (Ogrodniczuk and Oliffe)

Men are not the only ones damaged by pressure to remain "strong" and to avoid turning "into a whiny, weepy, neurotic mess under stress":

Black women’s indomitable, unyielding strength in the face of unreasonable privation is one of our most dearly held cultural and national myths. Our ability to make a way out of no way seems like magic. We invoke this façade of strength as though it could actually materially replace the lack of care, the lack of outrage, the lack of social policy that could actually help black women and girls not to repeatedly succumb to severe poverty, mental illness, plain old racism and sexism, and disability. [...] Sometimes that badge of resilience that we hold up with so much pride impedes our ability to get the help we need. (Cooper)

Suffering stoically, then, can come at a serious personal and social price:

When survival is touted as an aspiration, sacrifice becomes a virtue. But a hero is not a person who suffers. A suffering person is a person who suffers.

If you suffer in the proper way - silently, or with proclaimed fealty to institutions - then you are a hard worker "paying your dues". If you suffer in a way that shows your pain, that breaks your silence, then you are a complainer - and you are said to deserve your fate. [...]

People can always make choices. But the choices of today’s workers are increasingly limited. Survival is not only a matter of money, it is a matter of mentality - of not mistaking bad luck for bad character, of not mistaking lost opportunities for opportunities that were never really there.

I'd add that it's "mistaking bad luck for bad character" to assume it's only the unworthy and the non-heroic who find themselves in situations from which they can't "walk away," whose "deep internal reserves" run dry, and who find themselves unable to cope with stress. In addition, as Kendzior suggests, an individual's success or failure cannot be seen independently of the broader social and economic context in which they find themselves.

Spencer's novel is set in an America

just emerging from the jaws of depression, [...] still overrun with tramps, worthless vagrants who'd deserted their families and rode the flatcars aimlessly, begging for handouts at random doorsteps. (29)

Pauline Kael, a film critic who lived through the period, took a rather different view:

When I attended Berkeley in 1936, so many of the kids had actually lost their fathers. They had wandered off in disgrace because they couldn't support their families. Other fathers had killed themselves so the family could have the insurance. Families had totally broken down. Each father took it as his personal failure. These middle class men apparently had no social sense of what was going on, so they killed themselves.

I often feel as though society, and consequently romance novels, take a very individualised view of personal success and failure which discourages social and economic critique. So I won't be putting on "big girl panties" any time soon: I'll be over here, interspersing my praise of the romance genre with complaints.


Cooper, Brittney. "A Black Girl's Constant Fear: Why I Thought I'd Never Live to See 33." Salon. 15 April 2014.

deWolfe, Adrienne. "Writing Heroines Romance Readers Admire." Juanita Kees' Blog, 14 January.

Kael, Pauline, "Campus Life" as excerpted from Stud Terkels' Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression by the Social Studies Help Center.

Kendzior, Sarah. "Surviving the Post-employment Economy." 3 Nov. 2013. Al-Jazeera.

Ogrodniczuk, John and John Oliffe. "The Strong, Silent Type: Is Masculinity Bad for Men's Mental Health?" CrossCurrents 13.4 (2010).

Spencer, LaVyrle. Morning Glory. 1989. New York: Jove, 1990.

It seems to me that the heyday of the Native American historical romance is past. I may well be wrong, though, given that I'm in the UK and am therefore dependent on US review sites and the vagaries of's categorisation system for my information about this. In the 1990s, however, this area of romance was flourishing and attracting academic attention.

According to Peter van Lent, the

image of the Native American male as sexy has grown out of earlier archetypes [...]. In past centuries, the vision of violent sexuality was pretty standard treatment of Native men in popular genres such as the Indian captivity narratives. Today, however, Native American men are most often portrayed as sexual in "good" ways. Two familiar labels come to mind: those of "Noble Savage" and "Fearless Warrior."(211)

He noted that

In current popular culture popular culture the exoticism of the Native male is always carefully controlled. For example, most of the heroes of the Indian romance novels are of mixed blood - "half breeds" [...]. This convention provides a safety net against several sexual pitfalls. First, it checks the exotic image from being too alien and keeps it well within the bounds of "tall, dark and handsome." Second, it also avoids any squeamishness about miscegenation on the part of the reader. Since the hero is half-white, the romantic-sexual bond is not truly interracial and, once again, the "half breed's" appearance can be quite comfortably Caucasian. (216-17)

If "half-breed" heroes were indeed much more common (and I don't know about this first-hand because, as mentioned, I'm in the UK and this isn't a sub-genre that's been particularly common here), it would suggest that authors and readers had reasons for preferring them to heroes who were wholly Native American. I'm not sure I'd agree with van Lent that the bond between a half-White hero and a wholly-White heroine is "not truly interracial" but I suppose such a pairing would narrow the supposed cultural and racial difference between the protagonists. Certainly it would seem to allow authors to pick and mix the elements they find most attractive in both cultures/races: in Colleen Faulkner's Forever His (1993) "Harrison DeNay [...] is part Shawnee" (Wardrop 68) and

Faulkner makes it clear that Harrison does not represent the typical Shawnee. [...] Instead, Harrison represents the best of two worlds as evidenced in the scene in which he casts off his buckskins to impersonate a British officer: "In his coat and breeches with his hair pulled back in a queue he appeared nothing of the savage she had found in that Indian village. The question was which did she prefer?" (144). The answer is that she gets both: a sophisticated man of taste and intellect in the European tradition who is, unlike the European man, unconcerned about property and able to cry over the welfare of his son, more "introspective and expressive in his feeling" (144). (Wardrop 69)

S. Elizabeth Bird states that even when the hero of one of these romances

is full-blood, he is often seen as more rational and realistic than other men of his tribe, who have a tendency to raid, pillage, and fight among themselves when not listening to his wise advice. He is frequently seen as the voice of progress who realizes change is coming. In other words, the American Indian hero is a wonderful fantasy figure for the White reader. He is just wild enough to be exciting, but still civilized enough to be acceptable. (70)

A major advantage of Native American cultures, as depicted in these novels, is that they offer White heroines "increased freedom and choice and an equal partnership with her husband" (Wardrop 71). That the association with freedom is a key element of the appeal of the Native American hero is suggested in an essay by Cassie Edwards in which she stated that

I try not to write about the Indians during the times they were confined on reservations. This gives me less freedom of plot because while the Indians lived the sedentary reservation life, they had generally lost their pride because they were no longer able to fight for their rights. If I write about an Indian hero who is not confined to the reservation, he is allowed to perform courageously - he is free. (457)

By being selective in various ways, romance authors could therefore craft romances featuring Native American (or half Native American heroes) in which

the Native American male [...] offers as symbolic capital a utopian society in which women are valued for their social contributions; where they are sexually assertive members of a group distinctive for cooperation and solidarity; where women and men are helpmates within a (fictionalized) fairly androgynous division of labor. (McCafferty 51)

In addition,

In the choice of Native American (rather than African-American, Chicano, Puerto Rican, Filipino, or Japanese American) lover, a tension concerning romantic love’s vulnerability to economic instability is avoided. The myth runs that the Native American man lived comfortably off the land, never enslaved by master or lunchbucket. The bounty of the earth, plus his hunting prowess, enabled him and his dependents to live a satisfactory if rough pastoral for thousands of years. In short, the Native lover is a good provider. (McCafferty 51)


Bird, S. Elizabeth. “Gendered Construction of the American Indian in Popular Media.” Journal of Communication 49.3 (1999): 61-83.

Edwards, Cassie. "Indian Romance." How to Write a Romance and Get It Published. Ed. Kathryn Falk. New York: Signet, 1990. 455-58.

McCafferty, Kate. "Palimpsest of Desire: The Re-Emergence of the American Captivity Narrative as Pulp Romance." Journal of Popular Culture 27.4 (1994): 43-56.

van Lent, Peter. “‘Her Beautiful Savage’: The Current Sexual Image of the Native American Male." Dressing in Feathers: The Construction of the Indian in American Popular Culture. Ed. S. Elizabeth Bird. Boulder, Colorado: Westview, 1996. 211-227.

Wardrop, Stephanie. 'Last of the Red Hot Mohicans: Miscegenation in the Popular American Romance', MELUS 22. 2 (1997): 61-74.


Maybe I'm simplifying things but it seems to me that there are three stages in the depiction of a minority group in fiction:

  • In the first stage, the group is marginalised, villanised, or even both. I'm thinking in particular of the use of racial minorities as villains, the evil sexualised "other woman," and the gay villain (with extra points if he's a sadist or a masochist).
  • In the second stage, there are somewhat sympathetic portrayals of main characters from a minority group but these are nonetheless still stereotypes and/or use the difference as a way to ramp up the angst in the story. With regards to disability, for example, Martha Stoddard Holmes has observed that "The connection between emotion and impairment has become a kind of cultural shorthand: to indicate or produce emotional excess, add disability" (3).
  • In the third stage, portrayals are nuanced, people from minority groups are treated as individuals, and their differences are not used to generate shock, pity, angst or a sense of the exotic.

Here are some of the rules from 1960, when Anne Britton and Marion Collin wrote their guide to writing romantic fiction. With regards to disability, race and sexuality, things seemed to be mostly stuck in stage 1, with a few examples of stage 2 allowed only if the author was particularly talented:


divorce [...] offends a large number of readers and means that the magazine runs the risk of being banned in Eire, [...] it is only one or two of the top circulation magazines which occasionally run powerful stories about the children of divorced parents and the effect a broken marriage has on them.

Illegitimate children are out of the question. There are probably only two or three publications in England which will touch this subject, and their policy is usually one of shock tactics at any price. (16-17)


Deformity is [...] unpopular. Many of the smaller publications ban it completely [...]. Of course, there have been some very moving stories about blind girls, and girls with a slight limp who fear that love is not for them, but this kind of plot is not easy to put over sincerely. It can so easily become mawkish. If it has to be written, at least leave the reader with the hope that the girl may eventually recover, and remember that only one or two markets will even consider the story. But never a heroine with one leg. No one will buy that story. (16)


There is [...] a colour bar in women's magazines. To make a mixed marriage the central situation in a story is to invite a definite rejection at the present time. (17)

Things have moved on quite a lot since then, of course. In romance novels divorced protagonists  are fairly common and secret illegitimate babies seem to be a positive draw for some readers. Nonetheless, there are still plenty of books stuck on steps one or two.


Britton, Anne and Marion Collin. The New Writers' Guide: Romantic Fiction. London: Boardman, 1960.

Stoddard Holmes, Martha. Fictions of Affliction: Physical Disability in Victorian Culture. Ann
Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2004.


The image of a three-step style on a level crossing (complete with a warning of danger and an admonition to Stop, Look and Listen) was taken by David Anstiss, who made it available under a Creative Commons licence. I've cropped it slightly; the original is available here.

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