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:
Working for Nikos Stavrakis was exhilarating—until one night, when he made love to Anna…
Anna believes Nikos is unfaithful, and flees. Nine months later, she is left nursing a tiny baby…
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!
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.