Today I broke down 50+ years of Black Romance history through ten books from my collection. It’s not comprehensive or anything- think of it as a research amuse bouche to whet your appetite!
I want you for a moment to imagine yourself in 1983 (easier for some of us than others, I know!). You’ve just finished Jayne Castle’s Candlelight Ecstasy title from the previous year, Spellbound. You need more of Castle’s distinct writing style, but you haven’t seen her name on the new release shelf at the book store in a while. At the checkout counter, you ask about your favorite author, hoping the clerk has heard something.
Today, it would take a few clicks to find the information you need. Not so in 1983! But you’re in luck! The clerk tells you to hold on for a moment, and they turn around to grab a thick trade paperback off the shelf behind them. This may help, they tell you. It’s a brilliant new resource that lists all of the authors you can think of along with their books. The Romantic Spirit, it’s called. In a few seconds you learn that Jayne Castle (real name Jayne Ann Castle Krentz) has also written for Silhouette as Stephanie James, and McFadden as Jayne Bentley. A whole new world of books opens up in front of you as you can now follow your favorite authors as they change name from publisher to publisher.
First published in January 1983, The Romantic Spirit was the self-published debut for an author named Mary June Kay. Appropriately for a book about pseudonyms, Mary June Kay was the pseudonym for three San Antonio women- Mary Hotchkiss (1921-2004), June Manning (1923-2008), and Kay Garteiser. Hotchkiss and Manning were sisters who had retired from federal service and operated a romance-focused used bookstore called The Second Edition in San Antonio. They knew their stock, but didn’t have any printed reference resource for themselves or readers to use in finding, or more particularly, cross-referencing more romances. Garteiser worked with word processors at an accounting firm, presumably bringing the technical know-how to the project.
Lovers of genre fiction have long relied on bibliographies- collectors of science fiction and mystery novels used them to not only show off their own collections of pulp magazine and novels, but also to be able to cross-reference authors, publishers and titles. As romance exploded in the 1970s and 1980s, no one had yet made an effort to gather information about the genre in one place. Mary, June, and Kay were the first to take on this mammoth task.
The book itself is utilitarian and no-frills. After a brief three page introduction by Romantic Times publisher Kathryn Falk, the books sets straight to business. Authors are listed in alphabetical order, along with their known pen names [in brackets] and real name if known (in parens). Their books are then listed, with the publisher identified and book number if applicable. In some cases, sub-genre information is provided- for example, <RS> for romantic suspense. In the back, numbered lines are listed together, with titles and authors. The information appears to largely be drawn from the published books themselves, though in some cases authors are listed without books; presumably those names were taken from resources such as Romantic Times, which was still in its infancy at the time.
The book was enough of a success that Mary, June, and Kay kept at it for several years. They published updates for 1983-1984, 1985-1986, and 1987-1988 focused only on the books from those individual years, alongside corrected errors or omissions from earlier editions. The original volume earned an award from Romantic Times, presented by Barbara Cartland herself at the 1983 Booklovers’ Convention.
In 1990, Kay Garteiser announced in the pages of Romantic Times that she was retiring from working on The Romantic Spirit due to her health. She passed the torch on to occasional RT reviewer Lisa Miller, also a San Antonio resident, who put out a revised full edition of the book in 1990. The revised volume used the same format as the original, adding books and new entries where appropriate, though it lacks the line indexes of the original.
At the same time as Mary, June and Kay were working on The Romantic Spirit, reviewer Melinda Helfer was writing a column for Romantic Times identifying authors and their pseudonyms, calling herself “The Pseudonym Sleuth”. Helfer began writing the column in 1981, taking an alphabetical approach. By 1989, she had only reached the letter “P”, which tells you the scope of the task. In 1989, Helfer’s work was combined with that of Kathryn Falk and Kathe Robin in The Romance Reader’s Handbook, published by Romantic Times. This spiral-bound volume took a less comprehensive approach than The Romantic Spirit, listing only the pen names and known real name of authors but not their books. Also included was a guide to RT’s “Bookstores that Care” network, a nationwide group of independent bookstores that welcomed romance readers (and generally sold RT as well). The Second Edition in San Antonio isn’t listed- near as I can figure it was gone by then. There’s also contact information for authors and publishers, and a delightful collection of author ads in the back.
The five editions of The Romantic Spirit, alongside The Romance Reader’s Handbook, are not essential resources for collectors in this day and age. The vast majority of the information about authors found here can be found elsewhere. But- not everything can be found on the internet! There are author listings here that can connect you to authors you may never have thought of as romance authors, such as mystery author Jane Haddam, who wrote romance as Nicola Andrews and Ann Paris. And the bookstore section of The Romance Reader’s Handbook is an exploration waiting to happen all on its own! Or maybe you’re just like me, and a random name pops into your head at 9:30 at night and you don’t feel like looking at a screen. It can be tricky to find all of these volumes, but to me, the joy of a nicely done bibliography is well worth it!
It’s been quiet here, but I promise I’ve been busy. I created a new Instagram account called the Romance Historian, where I’ve been sharing shorter content about some of the random romances and reference books in my collection. Some of it will mirror content you’ve read here, but I’ll try to make sure there’s lots of new bits and bobs to enjoy.
I also recently wrote an article for Fine Books & Collections Magazine, which is in their Summer 2022 issue! I was able to speak with some of my favorite people in the romance collecting community- Funmi Brown, Jennifer Wielt, Rebecca Romney, and Rebecca Baumann- about their approaches to collecting, and how they’d like to see collecting in the genre grow. It was great fun talking with these awesome people, and I’m really pleased with how the article came out. You can order print editions of the magazine directly from their website, or you can find it at select bookstores.
I hope you’re having a great start to your summer, and look for more content soon!
The vast majority of category romance writers in the 1980s and 1990s did not create beloved characters or become household names. From their relative anonymity, they turned out book after book, year after year, of happy endings that brought readers happiness. When they pass away or stop writing for some other reason, they often end up forgotten by the reading public. In many cases, those authors were fascinating people in their own right, whose personal stories deserve to be remembered.
There is no more shining example of that than Eva Rutland.
Eva Rutland was born in 1917 in Atlanta, the daughter of a pharmacist and a school teacher. Her grandfather, Isaac Westmoreland, was a former slave who worked as a shoemaker to ensure that each of his children attended college. Eva attended Atlanta’s segregated public schools, and graduated from Booker T. Washington High School, where she appeared on stage with classmate Lean Horne, and went on to Spelman College, where she graduated in 1937. After marrying Bill Rutland, a civilian Air Force employee, the couple moved to Tuskegee, Alabama and Columbus, Ohio before settling in Sacramento, California. While stationed in Tuskegee, Eva underwent an operation that ended up severing her vocal cords, which led to her needing a tracheotomy tube in order to speak.
Rutland was a lifelong writer, with her first story appearing in an Atlanta newspaper when she was 12. While raising her children in Columbus, Ohio in 1952 she wrote the first of a number of pieces for women’s magazines about the experience of raising Black children under segregation. Those magazine pieces formed the basis for her first book, The Trouble With Being a Mama: A Negro Mother on the Anxieties and Joys of Bringing Up a Family, published in 1964.
After her first book, Rutland turned to fiction and began writing stories. She had begun to lose her sight due to retinitis pigmentosa, but did not let that stop her. In a 2011 interview with AARP, Rutland described her early process- she would dictate a story into a tape recorder and then slowly transcribing using a regular typewriter.
In 1988, after years of trying, Rutland’s first book was published by Harlequin. To Love Them All debuted in the Harlequin Romance line in March of 1988, just two months after Eva turned 71. It was followed in November 1988 by another contemporary, At First Sight.
A year later, the author whose favorite book was Pride and Prejudice would become the lead author for Harlequin’s new line of Regency category romances. Matched Pair (1989) is a classic “sweet” fake relationship Regency with, not to give it away, a surprising deus ex machine twist at the end. For several years, Rutland would go back and forth between contemporaries for Harlequin Romance and Regencies for Harlequin Regency Romance, until the latter line’s demise in 1993- after that she only wrote contemporary stories. Among her Regency romances is 1991’s The Willful Lady, which I mention mostly because it has one of the most delightful covers in romance history, featuring a man falling down while trying to hold on to a Macaw.
Of the 18 titles Eva Rutland wrote for Harlequin only the last, 2005’s Heart and Soul, published when she was 88, features a Black main character. In a 2000 profile for the Orlando Sentinel, she says that she had once considered writing an earlier book with a Black character, but had been dissuaded by a friend. During the time Eva was writing for Harlequin, the publisher put out only a handful of stories with Black main characters, so one can imagine a writer who wanted to keep working with the publisher not wanting to mess with success. Even authors like Sandra Kitt and Chassie West, who had in the early 1980s written groundbreaking books with Black characters for the publisher, were mainly writing white protagonists for Harlequin.
It is worth taking a moment here to point out that while we know that Eva Rutland was one of the few Black authors writing for Harlequin in the 1980s and 1990s, we cannot definitely say how many others there might have been. Many authors published under pseudonyms, and would’ve been either implicitly or explicitly told to stick to writing white characters for their books, which may have led them to write very little or later disavow what they did write. We just can’t be certain. Rutland’s status as the first Black author to write a Regency romance for Harlequin is undeniable, however.
Eventually, Eva would team up with Sandra Kitt and Anita Richmond Bunkley to write novellas with Black characters, this time for Signet- 1996’s Sisters and 1999’s Girlfriends. Rutland’s stories in these books- Guess What’s Cooking in Sisters and Choices in Girlfriends– would end up being her only romances to feature Black couples.
In her later career, Eva published the semi-autobiographical women’s fiction story No Crystal Stair for Harlequin’s Mira imprint in 2000, and updated her 1964 book, giving it the new title When We Were Colored: A Mother’s Story in 2007. Eva’s daughter Ginger has adapted When We Were Colored for the stage as well. Eva and Ginger appeared on NPR in 2007 to discuss the book and Eva’s career. Eva also recorded an oral history interview with the Center for Sacramento History in 2009, the transcript of which is available through the Internet Archive.
Eva Rutland passed away on March 12, 2012, at the age of 95. She lived a remarkable life despite the challenges she faced, and is well worth celebrating as part of the history of the romance genre.
As American romance publishing boomed in the early 1980s, editors frequently played an outsized role in shaping the direction of the genre. Avon’s Nancy Coffey famously retrieved Kathleen Woodiwiss’s The Flame and the Flower off of a slush pile in the early 1970s for a weekend read, liked what she read, and changed the historical romance game forever. Vivian Stephens took over Dell’s moribund Candlelight Romance line in 1979 and injected it with relatable characters and locales, upped the heat level, and made it the first line to seriously challenge Harlequin’s dominance of the category romance market. Today I want to add a new name to that list- one that we don’t often mention, but who had just as important an impact.
Around the same time Vivian Stephens was joining Dell, a new face appeared in the offices of Berkley-Jove in New York. Carolyn Nichols came to publishing from journalism, having been one of the earliest writers for WETA television in her hometown of Washington, D.C.. Like Stephens, she felt something was missing from Harlequin’s tried and true romance formula that could be exploited. According to John Markert’s Publishing Romance, Nichols submitted a memo to Berkley-Jove management in 1978 outlining an idea for a contemporary romance line with increased sensuality that could compete with Harlequin Presents. Management didn’t like the idea, but after the arrival of Stephens’ Candlelight Ecstasy line in 1980, Nichols was finally given the green light and went about creating the line that would become Second Chance at Love (Markert, 94).
Carolyn Nichols may have been new to publishing, but she wasn’t new to romance. Born Carolyn Iona McKnight in Lafayette, Louisiana in 1939, she grew up in Washington, D.C., attending Wilson High School and then George Washington University before working at WETA, one of the first public television stations in the country. In the mid 1970s, she partnered with WETA colleague Stanlee Miller Coy for a series of gothic romances- definitely five, possibly six- under the pseudonym Iona Charles. In 1978 and 1979, not long after she had joined Berkley-Jove, Carolyn published two books under the pen name Carolyn McKnight, including Gravetide for Vivian Stephen’s Candlelight Romance! Nichols understood the romance market as both a consumer and author, a viewpoint she’d use to her advantage over the next few years.
More than a copy of Harlequin Presents, the identifying feature of Second Chance at Love- as the name suggests- was that both main characters had experience with love. They may have been married- to each other or someone else- and divorced, or widowed, or otherwise driven apart. This naturally meant that characters were older and typically were no longer virgins, a marked departure from the older formulas, and more in line with the direction Candlelight Ecstasy was taking. The line launched in June of 1981 with Susanna Collins’ Flamenco Nights, and found success in a contemporary romance market that was not yet oversaturated- although it was getting there.
Nichols’ success did not go unnoticed. A year after the premiere of Second Chance at Love, she was hired by Bantam in 1982, ostensibly to save their newly launched line, Circle of Love. A Harlequin Romance clone, Circle of Love turned down the heat at a time when its competitors were turning up the heat, and it was struggling to stay afloat. Luckily for Bantam, Carolyn Nichols had a better idea.
The many lines launched between 1980 and 1982 were starting to create a glut in the romance market. Highly specific tip sheets, like the one Nichols herself created for Second Chance at Love, had created too formulaic of a product. Worse still, publishers with little experience in romance and no interest in hiring talent who did were throwing sub-par books onto the market, hoping readers would snap them up anyways. The quality of a new line had to be something special.
At the same time, a nascent fan culture was emerging in romance. The reader-oriented Romantic Times had launched in 1981, and held its first Booklover’s Convention in 1982. As they had done with historical romance, readers were starting to identify authors they liked and not just the lines they wrote for, and wanted to know more about the people behind their favorite books. Nichols saw all of this and developed a plan that would make her new line stand out in what was now a very crowded field.
With Loveswept, Carolyn Nichols threw away several parts of the old category romance formula. Gone were the tip sheets and guidelines for authors. Also gone were the pseudonyms and relative anonymity of the author. Each book would be under the author’s real name, and the inside of the front and back cover would include a picture of the author and a note from them about their lives. By giving authors the chance to write the stories they really wanted to write, and readers the chance to get to know their favorite authors better, Nichols was betting Loveswept would work.
The other new thing about Loveswept was how it launched- with a free sampler. About the size of a category novel, somewhere around 200,000 of these were printed featuring a chapter from each of the first six books in the series, along with a biography of each author. Importantly, Nichols’ editor note at the front of the book identified each author as well as the pseudonyms they’d already published under as well as their prior publishing houses. The six authors in the book- Sandra Brown, Helen Mittermeyer, Noelle Berry McCue, Fayrene Preston, Carla Neggers, and Dorothy Garlock- had to that point used some combination of sixteen pen names, but here they were standing on their own.
The line was a hit. Nichols’ instincts payed off, and both authors and readers came to love Loveswept over its sixteen year existence before it was shuttered in 1999 (it was resurrected as an ebook-only line in 2011). As she had predicted, authors preferred writing without limits, and readers loved seeing their favorite authors at their best. Nichols continued to innovate- 1986 saw the launch of The Delaneys, one of the earliest attempts at a category romance cross-author series, featuring superstars Kay Hooper, Fayrene Preston and Iris Johansen all writing in the same world. Within each of the books was an ad for Clairol hair dye, including colors that matched that of each of the female main characters.
Nichols would go on to a long career as an editor and publishing executive at Ballantine and New American Library before retiring from NAL as Vice President and Executive Director, Editorial in 2001.
Carolyn Nichols died on October 21, 2017 at her home in Portland, Oregon. Former employee and writer Elizabeth Barrett wrote a lovely remembrance of Nichols after her passing. While we don’t talk about her much now, there can be no doubt that Nichols played a crucial role in the development of American romance. Her innovations as an editor centered readers and authors in ways that shaped the genre to this day and she belongs in any conversation about the most important romance publishing figures of the 20th century.
Back in January, I was starting to think about collecting some romance novels (everyone needs a hobby, right?) and what I’d want my collection to look like. Anyone who knows me won’t be surprised to learn that what I really wanted was to collect oddballs. Books that might not mean much to most readers, but mark an important point in the history of the genre. This both keeps me from driving myself up a wall trying to find sequential Harlequin Historicals (though that’s an idea!) and it makes me feel better knowing that someone, somewhere is holding onto these books with the knowledge of what they mean.
So where to start? There are so many ways to go that your head would spin for weeks. But I knew where to begin. With Harlequin’s Dark Horse manga.
What? Harlequin manga? You heard me. Let me explain.
As described in this excellent article from Duke’s Unsuitable blog, Harlequin entered the Japanese market in the early 1980s and found success within a decade, becoming a dominant provider of fiction translated from English in the country. As they did in other countries, Harlequin became a hit by hiring local translators who not only adapted the text, but adjusted plots and dialogue to fit different cultural norms. But they saw the potential for more by getting into the Japanese ladies comics market. In 1998, they began partnering with Ozora Publishing House to translate their books into comic form.
As the new century dawned, manga began to become more popular in America and Harlequin saw yet another opportunity for growth. In 2005 the company licensed Dark Horse Comics to translate and distribute their manga titles back to English.
Only six titles were published by Dark Horse before Harlequin took over distribution in 2006, and continues to do so to this day. Inevitably, the manga shifted to the digital space, and they’re available in the US through Harlequin Comics.
As I said though, my interest is really in those Dark Horse titles. They represent a fascinating translation project from start to finish. A book like Debbie Macomber’s The Bachelor Prince (published as a Silhouette Romance in 1994) first had its text translated from English to Japanese, including cultural changes, for a regular text edition. Then the text was translated into graphic form by Misao Hoshiai and published in Japan. Then the text from that graphic form was translated back into English Ikoi Hiroe for the American market. It’s a little bit like a romance version of Telephone Down the Lane, right?
Another interesting element of these six editions is that while the original texts all had different authors, and the manga translation was done by five different artists, they were all translated back to English by the same person. It raises fascinating questions of whose voice is really represented in the books.
Another unique aspect of these books is the way there were presented. Two separate lines were created. The first, Harlequin Pink, was intended for all ages. Typically, these were from the Harlequin or Silhouette Romance lines, so they tended to be pretty chaste. The books in the Harlequin Violet line were Harlequin Presents books, which tended to have a higher heat level, but were still closed-door. The Violet books were marketed as being for readers age 16 and over.
The color of the line the books as assigned to also indicated what color ink would be used in the printing. This was a gimmick that definitely had mixed results.
The pink volumes are, quite frankly, headache-inducing after a while. While it’s really more of a dark pink ink, it still ends up being very difficult to read.
The violet/purple ink for the other volumes is really only marginally better. Not so many headaches, but I have found it hard to concentrate on it for any length of time.
Ultimately, Harlequin eliminated the Violet line for US audiences, and stuck with Pink. Thankfully, the Harlequin Comics volumes you read today are in good old black and white.
These six volumes won’t ever make me rich, and they have no lasting significance to romance history beyond the fact that they were Harlequin’s first experiment into graphic storytelling. But they were easy to acquire, with all six costing me around $35 including shipping despite the fact that I bought them from multiple sellers, and they’re interesting conversation starters that I’m happy to have.
What was your starting point for romance collecting? Or are there books you secretly lust after?
A short time back, friend of the blog Katrina Jackson raised a question that comes up every once in a while- what’s the history of cishet men writing cishet romance?
It’s a good question, with no simple answer. Most of the cis men whose names I’ve come across use(d) female pseudonyms for their romance books, and historically, only a few have owned up to doing that work. Some have obfuscated this past work by crediting books to their female partners, and some have denied any attribution to them. And in many cases, we’ll never know because the records were sparse to begin with. The rise of self-pub and indie publishing has made this a less common practice today- you pretty easily find men writing historical and inspirational romance using either their own names or male pseudonyms. That definitely wasn’t always the case.
One of the reasons is that the world of paperback originals during the mid-20th century was a mercenary game. Big names aside, working authors- male or female- would write anything for anyone if they thought it would make them a buck, and acquired and shed pseudonyms the way some of us change socks. Sometimes this name-hopping was due to publisher contracts, and sometimes it was a way for the author to keep their distance from work that they may not have wanted to be linked to them. In the case of a publisher-enforced pseudonym, that pseudonym may have then been used by multiple authors over decades (Nancy Drew author “Carolyn Keene” being the most well-known example). All of this means that it can sometimes be nearly impossible to identify or verify who wrote what, so be sure to take everything in these posts with a grain of salt.
Quick side-note: In the world of romance, Harlequin was particularly notorious for its enforcement of pseudonyms. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that Harlequin authors were allowed to take their pseudonyms with them to work with other publishers.
To start this exploration (which I now realize is going to take multiple posts!), I want to start in the 70s, with one of the best-known male writers of romance, Tom Huff (1938-1990). Huff began his writing career in the late 1960s, adopting the pen names Edwina Marlow, Beatrice Parker, and Katherine St. Clair to write gothics for multiple publishers. He even put out two under the androgynous moniker T.E. Huff. But in 1976, as the historical romance boom begun by Kathleen Woodiwiss and Rosemary Rogers was well underway, Huff jumped from gothics to historicals hoping for success. And he found it. Adopting the name Jennifer Wilde, Huff published Love’s Tender Fury in 1976 for Warner Books and it sold like gangbusters. Reports were that it went through more than 40 printings in its first five years, and if the cover of this edition is to be believed, more than 2 1/2 million copies.
A second Jennifer Wilde book, Dare to Love, arrived in 1978, and spent 11 weeks on the NYT paperback bestsellers list. Jennifer Wilde was on a roll, but few knew her true identity.
And then in 1981, something rather rare happened. Huff had become friends with Romantic Times publisher Kathryn Falk, and in the second issue of her brand new periodical, he revealed himself to be Jennifer Wilde. While he told Rosemary Guiley in Love Lines that this had always been something of an open secret, this revelation could have been career suicide- what if women decided to stop reading his books because he could be seen as “inauthentic”? What if he were to now get pigeonholed as a romance writer, unable to get work writing anything else?
Instead of running from his association with romance fiction, Huff leaned into it. He made public appearances, and even took part in a 1981 article in Life Magazine about romance authors, with photographs by Mary Ellen Mark that truly have to be seen to be believed. He’d go on to publish six more books as Jennifer Wilde before his death in 1990, all of which sold well. For a time, he even wrote the “men’s column” for Romantic Times, and earned a Lifetime Achievement Award from the magazine in 1988.
Tom Huff had just turned 52 when he died of a heart attack on January 16, 1990. His works have been republished numerous times since his death, including a series of very confusingly attributed Open Road Media editions. This one for Marabelle, the only book he wrote under his full name, is listed as “Jennifer Wilde writing as Tom E. Huff”.
Huff’s revelation as a male author inspired several other to do the same. Next time, we’ll turn again to Rosemary Guiley’s 1983 book Love Lines to learn more. Stay tuned!
This post by Forth Worth history blogger Mike Nichols is a goldmine of biographical information about Tom, including pictures from his high school yearbook! Definitely take a look.
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.)
For me, a research rabbit hole can come from anywhere or anything. It can start with a line in a newspaper article, the off-hand mention of a name in a YouTube video, or even a book in the free bin. The free bin is where I came across one of my favorite serendipitous research subjects, Roberta Leigh. It was a 1969 U.S. printing of her 1968 book Pretence, and boy howdy does it stand out in a crowd.
The vibrant color! The level of detail! The strange inclusion of the hero’s behind! There’s no way I couldn’t snap this up and try to learn more. This was an era when Harlequin was only republishing Mills & Boon authors, so I knew Roberta Leigh had to be British, but that was all I knew. It turned out there was more to her than I could’ve ever imagined.
Roberta Leigh was the assumed name of Rita Shulman Lewin (1926-2014). Born in London to Russian Jewish immigrants, Rita knew from an early age that she wanted to be a writer, and published her first novel, In Name Only, at the age of 24 in 1950, having adopted the pen name Roberta Leigh. She continued to write for Mills & Boon over the next decade but in 1957 expanded her work to include children’s television, writing and producing the marionette-based shows The Adventures of Twizzle and Torchy the Battery Boy for ITV. Most of the episodes of these two shows are lost to history, but this video provides an entertaining look at their production.
In 1963, Leigh had a huge hit with the show Space Patrol, a futuristic science fiction show that again used marionettes, predating Thunderbirds by two years. In addition to writing and producing the show, Leigh wrote the show’s electronic theme music. By this point, Leigh had stopped writing for Mills & Boon and was producing television full-time. She was one of the Directors of National Interest Pictures, making her the first woman in England to control her own production studio. All in all, Leigh produced something like 275 TV shows and short films before the market for marionette-based TV began to dry up and she returned to writing romance in 1972.
Roberta Leigh was incredibly prolific as a romance author, writing more than 100 titles under the Leigh name as well as Rachel Lindsay, Janey Scott, and Rozella Lake. According to her obituary in the Telegraph, in 1977 Leigh wrote 24 books in total, at times dictating 2,500 words an hour to two secretaries (Barbara Cartland used a similar method). Her last book was published in 1994, but it was reported she was still working on manuscripts around the time of her death in 2014.
One last fun fact about Roberta Leigh- in 1963, she lent her voice to the audio version of the sex education book The Wonderful Story of How You Were Born!
Today we’re used to knowing every last biographical detail about our favorite romance authors- who is/was a lawyer and who is/was a librarian, etc. So it’s easy to forget that not so long ago, authors were a mystery, no matter how amazing they were in their other identity. And you just never know what you’re going to find out, or when.
The nurse romance- the story of a woman committed to caring for others finally finding love for herself- has long been a popular sub-genre, going back to the early part of the 20th century. Today, Harlequin publishes these stories though its Medical Romance line, but for many years they were simply integrated into the Harlequin Romance line. The company’s love affair with nurses can be traced back to 1953 and the publication of General Duty Nurse (Harlequin #235) by Lucy Agnes Hancock, one of two nurse stories by the author Harlequin published that year. Just 2 years later in 1955, Harlequin published 8 books by Hancock, fully 1/3 of their output for the year. But who was this budding romance superstar?
Lucy Agnes Hancock was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1877 (I haven’t been able to find an exact date). At some point in her early life, the Hancock family moved to Auburn, New York, where Lucy would live until her death at the age of 84 or 85 in 1962. Hancock appears to have worked for International Harvester for at least 25 years, though again, exact dates are elusive. Her first novel, Gay Pretending, was published in 1936, when Hancock was 60 years old.
From that point on, Hancock published around 1 novel each year, all in hardcover, and mostly with nursing-related themes. The dust jacket cover art for these editions is pretty great, and makes the subject nurses look like go-getters who are also quietly glamorous, such as this Triangle edition of Pat Whitney, R.N.
From its founding in 1949, Harlequin had primarily been a re-printer, as many paperback houses were at the time. Given this and Lucy Agnes Hancock’s popularity and prolific back catalog, it’s not surprising that in 1953 they reissued 1945’s General Duty Nurse as Harlequin #235, with a cover highlights the love triangle held within:
Between 1953 and 1957, Harlequin published or republished 17 books by Lucy Agnes Hancock. In 1958, Harlequin and Mills & Boon reached an agreement that made Harlequin the exclusive North American distributor for M&B titles and their exclusively Commonwealth author list, effectively shutting out American authors. Hancock appears to have published three books for another publisher in 1958 that appeared only in the UK, but I haven’t been able to confirm that they were new works and not just retitled earlier works.
Lucy Agnes Hancock passed away on April 29, 1952. Harlequin revived several of her works in 1980 as part of their Harlequin Classic Library, and several have been republished more recently under the Medical Romance line (though they are not currently available).
Though not the first or most popular or most prolific writer of nurse romance, Lucy Agnes Hancock holds a special place in romance history as the one who made the sub-genre popular at Harlequin.
The biographical info I’ve been able to find on Lucy is from the Vintage Nurse Romance Novels blog. You can learn more about the popularity of the nurse romance as well as its impact at the excellent Angels and Handmaidens: Beyond Nurse Stereotypes digital exhibit from University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee.
(note: this post was edited on May 3, 2021 to remove images taken from the Browne Popular Culture Library twitter account, at their request.)
UPDATE 11/19/2022: According to Find a Grave, Hancock actually died in January 1952. This would mean that all of her Harlequin titles were published after her death, which I’m a bit confused by. I’m going to do more research on this later, but for now I’m changing the death dates listed in this post at least.