Give Me Some of that Old-Time Romance

So my romance-writing loops are all buzzing with the news that Harlequin Presents, the best-selling category romance line, will soon be going to twelve books a month.

The next question everyone has is, “What is a Harlequin Presents?”

Harlequin Presents (sometimes called Mills & Boon Modern Romance, depending which side of the pond you are on) is your grandmother’s romance novel. At least, it’s my grandmother’s. She’s been reading those white-covered books with the circle peephole for as long as I can remember. Presents are the most traditional of all the category romance novels. They usually contain super alpha billionaires (often Greek or Italian, occasionally Sheiks, if we’re going for an Orientalist twist to the exoticism) and innocent maidens.

One of my college roommates (the one who turned me on to category romances) couldn’t get enough of them. One summer, we went island hopping in Greece, and those were the only books we could find in English. (We also read a lot of British holiday magazines, which introduced us to the strange concepts of “Ibiza” and “thrush.” (Neither of us could figure out what thrush meant for the longest time, and, not to get too explicit on the blog or anything, but we have a word for it in America, too, and it happens when you’re wearing a wet bathing suit around too much.) So, since we didn’t want to read about that anymore, we turned to Presents (and occasionally, to Danielle Steel).

Presents novels are hard core. They have titles with keywords like “Greek” “Italian” “Billionaire” “Mistress” “Blackmail” “Virgin” “Pregnant”… and, most of all, “Revenge.” Virgins are almost as popular as Greek Billionaires. The summer I was in the islands, I read at least two whose plot sounded something like this:

Innocent English maiden (middle-class) has holiday affair with devastatingly handsome Mediterranean type (way, way upper class) and promptly gets pregnant/amnesia. Some time later, he tracks her/and her baby down and blackmails her (I can’t remember how he managed to blackmail the amnesiac, but he did), threatening to ruin her/steal her baby and somehow this convinces her to become his mistress/prisoner in his gorgeous Italian/Greek/Monacan villa, where she is systematically tamed (in a Shakespearean shrew manner), a process that includes a lot of sex, some glamorous outings (often to a casino, resort, or other place where the hero is feted and shown to have a softer side by being nice to staff, small children, etc.), verbal, emotional, and sometimes even physical abuse on the part of the hero (seriously, I remember one heroine who was regularly punished for her disobedience through spankings, but then again, I think Petruchio and Kate did that as well), and eventually, the hero realizes what a jerk he’s been and they get married and live happily ever after.

This is the back cover copy description of the book pictured above, The Greek Billionaire’s Baby Revenge:

His mistress…

Working for Nikos Stavrakis was exhilarating—until one night, when he made love to Anna…

His baby…

Anna believes Nikos is unfaithful, and flees. Nine months later, she is left nursing a tiny baby…

His wife?

Nikos is furious when he discovers Anna’s taken his son. He vows to seek retribution! He will make Anna his bride, and teach her who’s boss!

As you can see, I wasn’t kidding!

Not for everyone to be sure. They are not feminist, nor are they politically correct. They revel in exoticism, submission, sensationalism, and revenge revenge revenge. These heroes have determined that they’ve been wronged in some way (by the heroine or perhaps her family) and they’ll pretty much steamroll over every other character in the book to make who ever is responsible pay.

And they are part of a long tradition. These type of books go back to the gothic melodramas of the 18th and 19th century. Though now we think of gothics as based on the Bronte template of misty moors and haunted castles, many of Radcliffe’s stories pushed Mediterranean exoticism, such as The Italian or A Sicillian Romance. It’s amazing how long-living the archetype of the Latin Lover is. Shakespeare was a fan, Radcliffe, and now, the authors of Harlequin Presents.

It’s been a while since I’ve read one. My taste in category romances always tended towards the more modern, less traditional end of the spectrum. But I read a metric ton while baking on the shores of Mykonos and Santorini. They will always remind me of that time and place, and how much fun it all was.

Even reading up on them while writing this blog post has made me curious to pick one up. It might be this one, over here, by the venerable Penny Jordan (67 million copies in print, 200 novels, 30 years as a working author):

Marco Fierezza is used to being obeyed…especially by the women he beds! Emily Woodford loves Marco, but she has no idea he’s a royal prince! When she discovers the truth she’s devastated—Marco only sees her as his mistress—not his royal wife. But what will this king-in-waiting do when he discovers his mistress is pregnant?

Now all I need is the glass of wine and the bubble bath.

Posted in bookaholic

17 Responses to Give Me Some of that Old-Time Romance

  1. Jess says:

    Would it be awful if I admitted I remember reading those around, oh, age eleven? Ick.

    And what is with the exclamation points in the cover copy?

    Escapism at its best. I’m thinking of picking up a couple for my mother this Christmas. 😀

  2. mote says:

    My favourite aunt has a bookshelf full of these and I have to say it’s hilarious just to read through the cover copy…

    Sometimes it’s hard to believe that Presents is still around and still thriving. I mean, don’t you think the writers must feel like they are producing parody when they write this stuff now?

  3. Diana Peterfreund says:

    Hey, mote!

    No, actually, I don’t think that at all. I think the people who read them are by and large, huge fans, and I think the people who write them are most definitely huge fans.

    And many many people do love them. It’s the more modern lines of romance that are going under (Next, and Bombshell, and countless “romantic comedy” lines) while Presents soldiers on, becoming more and more popular all the time. Is it because the readership that would be drawn to the “new” kind of romances are not drawn to Harlequins? Is it because there is a HUGE desire for that kind of fantasy (cf. the rising popularity of paranormal romances, which often have the same super-alpha-male-carries-woman-away storyline that is only “legitimized” by the fact that he’s not a man, but a werewolf/vampire/demon/what-have-you…)

  4. Amanda Ashby says:

    Nice to see you giving Penny Jordan a shout out. She was one of the first writing friends I made when I moved to the UK and she is one of the nicest people you could ever hope to meet (plus she loves eating pudding, which is why we get on so well!!)

  5. Diana Peterfreund says:

    Amanda, do you mean crazy English puddings? 😉

    I’ve never met Penny, but I’ve seen her around online and read her blog and she seems a real sweetheart!

  6. Anonymous says:

    Boy, this goes to show you how wide-ranging people’s reading tastes are. I would *never* pick up a book like this. Not in a million years.

    I assume these are popular with people who also like to watch soap operas. Seems very similar in plot and tone.

  7. Diana Peterfreund says:

    Possibly, Anonymous. Though, if you think about it, is there any material difference between the plots of these novels, and of novels that students are currently reading in their English classes? Between the plot of these novels and certain novels currently gracing the bestseller lists?

  8. Walt says:

    (regarding the availability of this sub-genre books in foreign countries)

    I’m reminded of the scene in Romancing The Stone with Juan, who reads Joan Wilder’s books to his workers every week… and wonder if that could actually happen to a romance writer.

  9. mote says:

    As soon as I posted that comment I realized it couldn’t be the way things really are for people who write this stuff. I know that if I were to sit down and write one of these there would be no way I would be doing it without my tongue just a little bit in cheek, but that’s just me, I don’t think that would be typical of people working in this category.

    but i definitely agree, the fans and the writers are completely serious in their love of this category.

    Although I am curious – do you think parody can’t be produced by fans? for instance, imitators of cheesy low-budget b-movies poke fun at their source material, but I think they’re still fans of that source material…

    And I read quite a bit of paranormal romance (and love it! Michelle Rowen is one of my favourites) and I agree that that the alpha-male script is pretty typical of a lot of it, but I also think that in that genre you are more likely to encounter subversions of that script than you would in Harlequin Presents, where they sort of set the alpha-male type up just to knock him down a peg or two 🙂 – I wish I could think of a good example right now…

  10. Diana Peterfreund says:

    Yes, I think there’s more parody in PRs than in HPs, mostly because I think in HPs, there aren’t many *humorous* examples. They’re supposed to be very emotional and cathartic (which was why my roommate was so drawn to them — they were diametric to any relationship she would pursue in the real world).

    And yes, I think there is love in a lot of parody (sometimes just contempt, but often, love). Someone who reads more HPs than I do will have to answer the question, however, as to whether there is parody in any HPs. I’m guessing not, though. There is already so much contempt for these kind of novels that my guess is that the people who produce them and read them are ultra-sensitive to anything that has a whiff of the contempt.

  11. Diana Peterfreund says:

    I love that scene, Walt! And the one where her editor says, “your books do very well in these macho countries!”

    I think it does have a certain romanticism to it that is more readily accepted in different countries. Like how the over-the-top telenovellas in latin America are watched by men AND women, whereas American soap operas are for female audiences almost exclusively. I think there’s a different sensibility. Here, reading something about romance might not be viewed as masculine, but elsewhere, reading about these ultra-macho males taking charge of their women might be viewed differently.

    Interesting possibilities…

  12. Maureen McGowan says:

    You know… That line is about as far away from my reading tastes as you can get… Still, as you do, I have friends I respect who gobble them up.

  13. Amanda Ashby says:

    Hehe – Diana, I love many things about the UK, but those crazy puddings aren’t one of them! Actually my husband (English) and I were talking about it last night. He loves anything made out of sago, rice or semolina served up with a blob of jam and lumpy custard!! Thankfully, when Penny and our other friends met for pudding, it was more along the lines of chocolate and cream!!!!

  14. Anonymous says:

    I’m confused by your comment, Diana. How would an over-the-top romance be similar in any way to literature read in English class? To me, it seems like a written version of “One Life to Live.”

    I don’t see how the plot of these books are similar to books on the bestseller lists. Just because they involve romances? Greek tycoons and secret babies don’t show up in many bestsellers I have read.

    Plus, there is a big difference to me in HOW something is written rather than subject. Basic plots are not unique, but how the book is written to expand upon the basic plot is unique.

    Nothing wrong with that. If people enjoy reading it, go for it.

    Just not for me.

  15. Diana Peterfreund says:

    Okay, a few examples for anonymous:

    Jane Eyre.
    Twilight.

  16. Anonymous says:

    I totally disagree, Diana.

    So “Twilight” has some sort of secret baby plot? Or it is just the angst of romance? Which is found in any number of books. And if that is how vague you are going, I don’t think your argument is a sound one.

    And “Jane Eyre”????

    Greek Tycoon = Rochester

    Is that it?

    I still would not want to read “Jane Eyre” over and over again every month with various plot changes like ‘Greek’ vs. ‘Italian’ or ‘shipping magnate’ vs. ‘prince.’ It’s not the plot that makes me think “Jane Eyre” is a good read, so much as HOW she wrote it.

  17. Diana Peterfreund says:

    No it’s not as simple as that. We’re talking about ultra-alpha males, older nad more experienced than the meek and innocent heroines, who have an absurd amount of control over said heroines, and sweep them away both romantically and physically, overpower them, etc. etc…