Towards an Accurate History
Or, Why I’m Always Carrying on about Janet Dailey.
If you follow me on twitter,
- I’m sorry.
- You’ve likely heard me banging on about inaccuracy and Janet Dailey’s first book, No Quarter Asked.
So what’s that all about, anyways? Well, it’s a story about misinformation, half-truths, and what’s missing from the study of the genre. Intrigued? You are? Strange birds.
Alright, sit down, this may take a second. According to lore, Janet Dailey began her writing career somewhere around 1974 when her boss and husband, Bill dared her to write a book like the Harlequins she enjoyed reading. Dailey took the challenge, banged out No Quarter Asked, sent it off to Mills & Boon in London for reasons I’ve never heard adequately explained, and had her manuscript accepted with, according to her, no changes. A publishing miracle if I’ve ever heard one.
But this is where the story gets hazy in some tellings. According to Paul Grescoe’s book The Merchants of Venus: Inside Harlequin and the Empire of Romance (1997), it was 1976 when the Boon brothers, who were based in London and held a stranglehold on the content of Harlequin and Mills & Boon despite being fully part of Harlequin Enterprises by this point, decided to break with tradition and publish an American author, putting out No Quarter Asked as Harlequin Presents 124. Dailey’s official publisher bio uses this date, as did the New York Times obituary published upon her death in 2013. Coincidentally, Kensington is still publishing new books by Dailey, and her family runs a Facebook page in her name that’s written as though she hasn’t been dead for almost a decade. It’s a trip. But I digress.
You see, the problem is that Paul Grescoe is wrong. And so was Janet Dailey when she repeatedly told reporters that her first book came out in 1976.
Huh? How’s that possible?
Good question! You see, the agreed part of the story is that Dailey did in fact send her first manuscript to Mills & Boon in 1974. We don’t know if they did request any changes (Mills & Boon’s editorial practices were notoriously lax), but Mills & Boon turned around and published No Quarter Asked in 1974.
In fact, Dailey would go on to publish 7 more books for Mills & Boon before her work was shipped to Harlequin as part of the Presents line in 1976. Dailey was in fact the first American woman (who we know of at least) to write for Mills & Boon since the company’s founding in 1908. A not insignificant moment for American romance authors!
What Janet Dailey was not, despite her claims to the contrary, was Harlequin’s first American author. Prior to 1964, when Harlequin began exclusively reprinting Mills & Boon books, the company regularly published American authors of romance and other genres. The very first Harlequin title in 1949 was in fact a reprint of The Manatee, by American author Nancy Bruff. And earlier on this blog, we talked about Auburn, New York’s Lucy Agnes Hancock who in 1955 was responsible for fully 1/3 of the titles Harlequin published that year.
This raises two questions- how did all this become so twisted, and why does it matter? Let’s take each in turn.
From the very start, Janet and Bill Dailey styled Janet as the All-American Girl. They framed her early books as an attempt to write a book about every state in the US, and often posed with the Airstream trailer that they used to travel the country to soak in the atmosphere of the place Janet was writing about. Bill put Janet in front of reporters at every opportunity, making her American romance’s first superstar author. If most Americans had never even heard of Mills & Boon, where was the benefit in mentioning the weirdly named British company? In the mid-70s, every romance reader in the US and Canada knew what a Harlequin was to the point of near-ubiquity. I can see them making the calculus that it was easier to go with what people knew when talking about her origin story. And given that it’d been a decade since the Canadian publisher had put out work by an American, where was the harm in claiming the mantle of the first American. It’s all-around good marketing.
If it was the Daileys driving this misinformation, why does any of it matter? In 1976, it didn’t matter. Romance was an ephemeral genre unworthy of more than the occasional mention in the media or academia. But academic study of the romance genre has grown exponentially since then, which brings us back to Grescoe.
Paul Grescoe’s book is a corporate history written by a journalist. It isn’t an academic text, nor does it claim to be authoritative. However, it still stands as the most recent monograph-length writing about the company. Romance researchers, most of whom are performing textual analysis of romance texts on shoestring budgets during time borrowed from other academic tasks, don’t have much time to do original historical research and so will turn to the most authoritative text they can find.
When it comes to the history of Harlequin, Grescoe is that source. Quotes about the company from his book are found in Pamela Regis’ A Natural History of the Romance Novel, John Markert’s Publishing Romance, Maya Rodale’s Dangerous Books for Girls, and many more. The Regis book is particularly influential in the academic space, with its long view of the history of the genre and groundbreaking identification of elements that compose the structure of a romance novel. Unfortunately, Regis directly quotes Grescoe’s incorrect 1976 date when discussing Dailey. Given the reach of this book into the classroom, that means this erroneous information can make it into papers and dissertations without being questioned. A game of academic telephone down the lane begins until the error becomes, however unintentionally, canon.
The story of No Quarter Asked is not, in the big picture of romance fiction, that important. But it should serve as a cautionary tale for researchers of the genre, and for those reading that research. Misinformation always starts small and innocuous, until it is repeated frequently enough that it is either accepted as fact or causes significant confusion for those seeking the truth.
The academic community around romance fiction has long been almost exclusively focused on the text and the work the text is performing, so much so that it has left historiography to journalists and random archivists on twitter (ahem). This is, I think, a grave error. As a commercially focused genre, romance fiction is never just the text on the page. It is the author, the editor, the cover designer, the publicity staff, and above all the publisher. Romance fiction must be placed also in its historical context. For example, can we really discuss the phenomenon of The Flame and the Flower in 1972 without also discussing the changing laws and mores around censorship at that moment? (that’s a blog post for another moment)
I urge the romance scholarship community to engage with and support projects that relate to the history of the genre. We’ve got to be able to relay an accurate history before we get into debates about historical accuracy.
(note: this post was edited on May 3, 2021 to remove images taken from the Browne Popular Culture Library twitter account, at their request.)