Sunday, July 23, 2006


There was an item on US public radio recently about romance which I heard about thanks to a member of the listserv. It started well enough, mentioning current bestsellers:
"Angels Fall," by Nora Roberts. It's billed as a novel of romantic suspense. Number two is "12 Sharp," by Janet Evanovich. About a sassy female bounty hunter. Chick lit rules the lists, you could say. But bookstore worker and commentator Moira Manion is a bit worried about what women are reading these days.
So why is Moira worried? Because she’s been reading the titles of books in the Harlequin Presents series:
I noticed a theme in the "Harlequin Presents" series. Titles like "Mistress Bought and Paid For," "Bought By a Billionaire," "Bought By Her Husband," and "Traded to the Sheik."

When and why did women start fantasizing about being bought and sold? Women have fought against being property. Some sacrificed their lives. I can't believe women would pay to read a story of a woman so desperate for money that she sells herself to a Greek billionaire or a Zanzibar sheik.

But it makes sense. We live in a time when everything is for sale. Why work yourself to death for little pay when you can become the property of a rich man?
First of all, lets have a look at the guidelines for the Harlequin Presents series:
these fast-paced stories are essentially escapist romantic fantasies that take the reader on an emotional roller-coaster ride. Written in the third person, they can be from the male or female point of view, or seen through the eyes of both protagonists. All are set in sophisticated, glamorous, international locations.
With its focus on strong, wealthy, breathtakingly charismatic alpha-heroes who are tamed by spirited, independent heroines, the central relationship in a Presents novel is a provocatively passionate, highly charged affair, driven by conflict, emotional intensity and overwhelming physical attraction
So yes, the hero is likely to be a ‘rich man’, and that’s part of the ‘escapist’ element. And he’s going to be ‘strong’. But the other side of the equation in this line are the ‘spirited, independent heroines’. These are not books about women who find a wealthy man and immediately latch onto him in order to get his money. They are, however, often about women who are mistaken for ‘gold-diggers’, but, and this is a point that Moira seems to have missed, because she doesn't appear to have read further than the titles, they are not mercenary or materialistic women. For example, one Harlequin Presents novel that I read recently is Kathryn Ross’s Mistress to a Rich Man. The title is exactly the sort that Marion’s talking about. And the hero early on decides that the heroine is ‘a cold-blooded gold-digger and a damn good actress’ (2005:23). Is the heroine a gold-digger? No, of course she’s not, she just wants to meet the father she hasn’t seen for twenty years, and he happens to be a rich and famous movie-star. She doesn’t even become the hero’s mistress, though they do start a sexual relationship before they declare their love for each other.

The misunderstandings about the heroine’s motivation, and/or the nature of the circumstances in which the heroine is forced into close proximity to a hero that she often initially dislikes (but is attracted to) are not, I think, written so that women can indulge in ‘fantasizing about being bought and sold’. It seems to me to have a lot more to do with ensuring that each story is ‘a provocatively passionate, highly charged affair, driven by conflict’. And clearly the readers enjoy both the conflict, which serves to raise the sexual tension, and what is often a Cinderella-like fantasy of a poor, virtuous woman becoming the wife of a rich, handsome hero.

Some of the stories I’ve read do involve the hero and heroine entering into an arranged marriage, perhaps because the heroine is being ‘sold’ by her father or other relative, or perhaps because she needs to marry in order to save her family, or pay for medical treatment for a sick child. But the heroine generally struggles against her fate and she certainly doesn’t marry a rich man just because she wants an easy life of luxury. Furthermore, the heroine is never a ‘mistress’ according to the dictionary definition of ‘a woman (other than a wife) having a sexual relationship with a married man’, though she may occasionally be a ‘kept’ woman if she’s living in accommodation he provides. Very often, as in Mistress to a Rich Man, the word ‘mistress’ just seems to mean that the heroine is the hero’s lover.

The moral of this particular story, it seems to me, is that it’s not wise to judge a book by its title, and it’s even less sensible to judge an entire series (or genre) on the basis of their titles.

Personally I prefer less ‘glamorous’ settings and non-alpha heroes, so maybe I’m misjudging the appeal of this line to other romance readers. But if there are any of you out there who love the Harlequin Presents/Mills & Boon Modern Romance line, what is it about these books that appeals to you? Is Marion right that you’re just ‘fantasizing about being bought and sold’?

Ross, Kathryn, 2005. Mistress to a Rich Man (Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon).


  1. It seems odd to me that Moira is just bringing this up now. The Harlequin line of romances has ALWAYS been like this. When I started reading them around 1977 at the ripe age of 11, they were exactly as she describes. The hero was 36 or so, and the ingenue heroine was 18. The were very tame. I think I liked them mostly for the travelogue aspects: settings like the Australian outback, the Grecian isles, Scotland, a French chateau, Nova Scotia. They were a lot like the movie "Sabrina," either version.

    Of course the girl is not a gold-digger; of course she is different than ANY girl he has EVER met. She is never after the guy's money, but, on the other hand, she never ends up marrying the gardener, either. And if the heroine goes to Arabia or India, the hero's mother is always Anglo. So, the heroine has a very safe, very romantic adventure.

    I don't think we can fool ourselves that romances are particularly liberated. Women just do not dream of marrying janitors. They may end up marrying janitors in real life, but a guy who has to snake tampons out of toilets for a living is not going to be the stuff of your wild adventure. The man must not only take your breath away, but also all your worldly cares. The heroine will sleep soundly on satin sheets knowing he will pay the Visa bills.

    Romances can be feminist, however, if you consider that, in the end, the heroine gets what she wants. She is some man's happy wife, or perhaps she's a valued partner in his parfumerie empire. She earns his respect somehow. She gives him what he's been searching for. He rescues her, she rescues him, blah, blah, blah, the end. In fact, the bought-and-sold aspect of some of the stories is there to hit us over the head with the fact that this heroine will NOT be any man's property. He may have bought her body, but not her soul, blah, blah, blah. What he will want in the end is her love, not her nubile body. Moira obviously has not read enough romances to know this, but even at 12 I could have told her that.

    I don't read Harlequins anymore, of course. They make me laugh, and not in a good way. I'm not sure I understand the appeal of them, except they are very sentimental and high on drama. I especially love when the heroine is in some terrible accident and it is only then that the hero realizes he can't live without her. Big emotional scene at the end when she comes out of her coma. Good stuff. : )

    I think this story might have aired as companion piece to Harlequin's recent tie-in with NASCAR. That would be the only explanation I can think of for giving Melinda Gates' life story a public examination.

  2. Women just do not dream of marrying janitors. [...] The man must not only take your breath away, but also all your worldly cares.

    That's certainly true for the Harlequin Presents/Mills & Boon Modern Romance line, but it isn't true of all the other lines. There are heroes who are farmers/cowboys who are struggling financially and I've read at least one about a hero who's a teacher, another a locksmith and I'm sure there are other examples which have slipped my mind. And there are plenty of GPs (i.e. family doctors) who while well-off are not super-rich. All of these were in Harlequin/Mills & Boon lines other than the Presents/Modern line. I'd agree that readers don't want to read about the heroine marrying into poverty and living on the breadline, because money troubles are likely to spoil a happy ending (money worries are well-known to put huge strain on marriages), but I don't think all readers require the hero to be super-rich. It maybe depends on whether one is a Marianne or an Elinor:

    "What have wealth or grandeur to do with happiness?"

    "Grandeur has but little," said Elinor, "but wealth has much to do with it."

    "Elinor, for shame!" said Marianne; "money can only give happiness where there is nothing else to give it. Beyond a competence, it can afford no real satisfaction, as far as mere self is concerned."

    "Perhaps," said Elinor, smiling, "we may come to the same point. Your competence and my wealth are very much alike, I dare say

    Sense and Sensibility

    You also say that I don't read Harlequins anymore, of course. They make me laugh, and not in a good way. I'm not sure I understand the appeal of them, except they are very sentimental and high on drama.

    Again, this is possibly true of some lines, but not all of the lines are either 'very sentimental' or 'high on drama'. Harlequin/Mills & Boon have so many different lines that it's likely that one of them might contain stories of a type you do like. I tend to read a lot of the historicals, for example, but also quite like the medicals and the 'tender' romances (and I'm a bit limited by being in the UK, because not all the lines are sold here).

    When talking about Harlequin/Mills & Boon, I always remember authors who got their start with Harlequin, such as Nora Roberts, Jennifer Crusie, Jayne Ann Krentz and many others. I'm sure many of the big names of the future will also have begun that way. And there there are the writers who stick with M&B/Harlequin and who are also very good. They may not get the publicity that the big names do, but they still write some good, well-written stories. There's a lot of variety within Harlequin/Mills & Boon, and sometimes that gets forgotten.

  3. I'm sure you are right about that. I was only attempting to answer the criticisms that the NPR commentator raised. I believe Roberta Gellis recently released her latest in the Roselynde series as a Harlequin historical. It was not the best of the lot, but still good.

    I suppose I have just come not to expect much from them, and so do not give them a chance. But I'm sure many of the lines have progressed past the stuff of the 70s.

  4. Sorry, I didn't mean to sound critical of you. You were obviously talking about your experience of reading a lot of the books, and you'd read them all the way through, unlike Moira Manion.

    I've not read any Harlequins from the 70s, but I have heard that they've changed quite a lot since then.

  5. You've read them all the way through, unlike Moira Manion

    I did read them through.

    I stand by my opinion.

    M. Manion

  6. In that case I apologise for saying you didn't read them all the way through, but I still have to disagree with your interpretation of the books. It seems to me that what the readers enjoy experiencing vicariously is not the experience of being bought and sold, but reading about a luxurious lifestyle which they don't have to feel guilty about, because the heroine has not had to be mercenary to achieve it.

    Peter Darbyshire wrote a very interesting article about the appeal of riches/capitalist society to people living in formerly Communist states, and China:

    Rather than simply being the result of America’s entertainment industry forcing itself on a new market, Harlequin’s success in the Eurasian sphere is actually a result of the romances’ success infulfilling an ideological fantasy for their readers, one that has more to do with the benefits of successful capitalism than it does with America itself. [...] Harlequin romances allow their readers to experience the ideal rewards of capitalism, insofar as the novels are usually fantasies of financial empowerment as much as they are romantic fantasies. The standard Harlequin narrative, for instance, usually involves a middle-class woman’s relationship with a rich, single male—usually a businessman, wealthy rancher, or male engaged in some similar occupation. The inevitable marriage at the end thus also involves a marriage into wealth, or at least improved financial security. It is this depiction of American life steeped in material success that is really responsible for Harlequin’s popularity in these new markets [...] To these readers, the very socioeconomic order that is being depicted is an object of desire, with the readers consuming fantasies as much about their own empowerment as about tall, dark men.

    I would imagine that it's the Harlequin Presents line which contains the most heroes who are mega-rich, and thus most distant from the American readers' own economic situation. For most American readers, then, their situation as they read a Presents romance is similar to that of a person in a poorer country reading about only-relatively-affluent-by-Western-standards heroes and heroines. They're reading about a level of wealth so far beyond their own that they've extremely unlikely ever to experience except through the pages of a book.

    But while I'd agree that reading about affluence and luxury is what attracts many readers, I still don't think they want to 'sell themselves'. Rather, they'd be very happy if they, like Cinderella, could magically attend the ball and find the rich handsome prince, but the novels never, ever suggest that Cinderella should actively sell herself to the prince if she doesn't love him.

    One could draw a parallel here with the rape fantasies portrayed in some of the earlier romances. Women didn't read them because they wanted to be raped, they read them because they wanted to vicariously experience sexual pleasure without guilt (because the heroine is given sexual pleasure against her will). I think the Presents romances allow the reader a similar experience of financial luxury without guilt. It's forced onto the heroine, so neither she, nor the reader, needs to feel guilty. And the reason the reader needs this excuse to enjoy luxury is precisely because both she, and the novels, have a moral standard which is against women 'selling themselves'.

    Darbyshire, Peter, 2000. ‘Romancing the World: Harlequin Romances, the Capitalist Dream, and the Conquest of Europe and Asia’, Studies in Popular Culture 23.1. It's available online here