Book Bites: Vintage Harlequin and The Art of Forgiveness by Megan Mulry

Posted September 30th, 2012 by in Blog, Book Bites, Books, Let's Talk Books!, Musings / 6 comments

I invited a fellow HarlequinJunkie and Author ‘Megan Mulry’ to blog about one of our favorite Topics ‘Vintange Harlequin’s

Take it away Megan…

Vintage Harlequin and The Art of Forgiveness

I seem to preface everything I write lately with phrases like, “There are many people out there who know WAY more about this than I do.” So, as usual, that applies here too. I am a late-bloomer in most things and a love of vintage Harlequin Romances is no exception. When I meet people like @JanetNorCal or @FionaMarsden2 who have been reading these books for decades I am simultaneously cowed and jealous. Then I just want to carom about and nip at their ankles like a puppy: “What should I read next?! What did you think of this one?!” They tolerate me. So when Sara asked me to write a post for this blog I was a bit surprised. I know so little! But I guess I am sort of feverish about what little I know, so here goes.

Whenever I embark upon the fraught task of pretending I know anything about the romance genre, I re-watch this Jayne Ann Krentz clip ( and think fondly of Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces. The word archetype soothes me. If the word archetype rattles you or frustrates you or immediately makes you shout “Patriarchy!” “Misogyny!” “Fool!” it would probably be better for both of us if you step away from this blog and grab a gin. (Here’s some Anne Mather for your troubles.)

What Krentz says in that little clip basically boils down to this: these books satisfy something deep and meaningful in me. My palms tingle. My heart pounds. I feel alive! Ever since I started reading romance novels (about five years ago) it has been like peeling an onion. I find myself going further and further back into the archives until I finally decided to start at the beginning. Some could argue that means Georgette Heyer, but I decided to begin with what I consider contemporary…so that means Harlequin. And Harlequin means tropes.

A word about tropes.

TROPE: Latin tropus, from Greek tropos turn, way, manner, style, trope, from trepein to turn. First Known Use: 1533. (

Just as I like archetypes, I like tropes. (*passes more gin*) Shakespeare was a trope peddler; he basically wrote the same old stories. So did Ovid.  Aeschylus. You get where I’m going with this. It’s all the same old story. But how the author thinks about it, caresses it. How the telling makes me feel. How it’s rendered. That’s the thing I’m into. And Anne Mather and Violet Winspear are so good at that tale-telling.

There’s a bunch of history about Mills & Boon and Harlequin and how this all came to be (I’ll be reading this book at some miraculous time in the future when I have a spare $99 and nothing else to do: Passion’s Fortune: The Story of Mills & Boon, Meanwhile, I’m more of a primary source person anyway, so I ordered the first ten books in the Harlequin Presents line. They are:

 #1 – Gates Of Steel – Anne Hampson, May 1973
#2 – Master Of Moonrock – Anne Hampson, May 1973
#3 – Sweet Revenge – Anne Mather, May 1973
#4 – The Pleasure And The Pain – Anne Mather, May 1973
#5 – Devil In A Silver Room – Violet Winspear, May 1973
#6 – The Honey Is Bitter – Violet Winspear, May 1973
#7 – Dear Stranger – Anne Hampson, June 1973
#8 – The Sanchez Tradition – Anne Mather, June 1973
#9 – Wife Without Kisses – Violet Winspear, June 1973
#10 – Waves Of Fire – Anne Hampson, June 1973
 Number 3, Sweet Revenge by Anne Hampson, happened to arrive on my doorstep first. So Anne Mather it is! (I’ve also read and adored Violet Winspear but the books of hers that I read are later in the HP order…even though they were written in the 1960s and published by Mills & Boon…and the Mather was written in 1970. I can’t get too caught up in the intricacies of M&B versus HP, so…moving on!)
 Here are the Key Elements of Harlequin Presents according to their website:
 -A hero who will command and seduce. There’s nothing in the world his powerful authority and money can’t buy… except the love of a woman strong enough to tame him!
-A Harlequin Presents heroine isn’t afraid to stand up to the hero in her own way, whether she’s at home in his opulent world or not. She can be shy and innocent, feisty and daring or anywhere in between.
-These stories are pure romantic fantasy with glitzy, glamorous, international settings to upstage even the swankiest of red-carpet premieres!
-High sensuality and sky-rocketing sexual tension to quicken your pulse
-Captivating internal emotional conflicts that will sustain the story over 50,000 words.
-Tone should be contemporary but with a strong intensity, delivering an instant hit of powerful emotion
-Give classic themes a fresh 21st century twist – tease, surprise and delight.

Surprisingly, knowing these are the “prescribed” components of the Harlequin Presents line doesn’t take away from my enjoyment of the books that are written today. The gauzy photo inside the circle and the swirly font are like the pale blue of a Tiffany & Co. box. You know what you’re getting…but you don’t! Not really. (That was probably the biggest misconception of mine, the they’re-all-the-same dismissal of Harlequin romances; but that’s another blog for another time.)

And, even more surprisingly, those Key Elements add significantly to my enjoyment of the early Harls because there is a whole chicken-and-egg analysis that goes on in my head: Did Hampson/Mather/Winspear create those key elements or follow them? They are basic fairy tale archetypes so it’s not like they pulled something totally unforeseen out of thin air, but they totally owned the style and tenor and everything that makes those books great. The aforementioned “hit of powerful emotional” (I can’t help but think, “Pass the pipe”)…that phrase just oozes Winspear. But I digress. As usual.

 Here are some of the tropes in Sweet Revenge by Anne Mather:
-young British heroine, alone in the world (her parents are dead, of course)
-dark widowed hero
-he has a scar (yes, inside […duplicitous, cruel dead wife] and out […on his face])
-he lives in a castle and is titled
-she is innocent but everyone thinks she’s a promiscuous hussy (especially the hero)
-she has a natural “physicality” (in this case, swimming)—that makes her earthy and appealing to the reader
-she likes children but is confronted/accused by a haughty witch who hates children
-the hero makes her “feel things she never felt before”
-there’s a subplot that involves the heroine assuming a false identity
-there’s a petulant child who factors in
-hero had loveless first marriage
-lots of double-entendres about submission and power
-lush natural setting

 Here’s what I starred in this book (along with my MM notations):

Instead, he seemed to her the epitome of everything she had encountered since coming to Portugal: male arrogance, omnipotence and ignorance.

 MM: Omnipotence and ignorance! Isn’t that pure genius. *happy sigh*

He shrugged, his dark eyes narrowed, and she thought inconsequently that he was the most attractive man she had ever encountered. He was not handsome in the accepted sense of the word…

MM: Perfect ironic use of ‘inconsequently’…thank you Ms. Mather.

He concentrated on his driving, and Toni saw the sign for the rua S. Henriques with a sense of regret which she could not understand.

 MM: All heroes are spectacularly adept drivers. Betty Neels leaps to mind. And my latest hero, Devon Heyworth. Aston Martins for the win.

She stripped off her travelling clothes, and studied her reflection in the long mirror of the wardrobe. […] She knew she was attractive, and yet she could never understand that anyone could find her beautiful.

 MM: I have no problem with mirror scenes. In fact, why aren’t there more mirror scenes? I love mirror scenes.

The sea was breaking in iridescent foam on the greenish-grey rocks, while a pale sun was filtering through a faint cloud formation.

 MM: I would so much rather have this sea than Joyce’s snotgreen scrotumtightening one. Life’s too short.

Toni was self-consciously aware of her bare feet, of her close-fitting slacks, which Francesca had said her father would not approve of, of her bare arms and tangled hair, and most of all of her own insignificance.

 MM: Love the clothes. Love descriptions of clothes. Women think about how they look in different clothes. Thank you, Ms. Mather.

“Oh you will find I dare a lot of things,” he replied indolently. “Not least being the authority to call black black, and not a dirty shade of grey.”

Toni stepped forward, she had never felt so angry, or so impotent, and she longed to strike that sardonic expression from his lean face. She was on the point of raising her hand, when steel-hard fingers closed around her wrist, preventing the action before it was actually motivated. “I think not,” he murmured, looking down at her with brilliantly mocking eyes.

 MM: Oh! The dirty shades of grey!! Oh! The mocking eyes!!

All she did know was that the Conde aroused the strongest feelings inside her, primarily an impotent kind of fury, which longed for satisfaction. He was so cold and aloof, so arrogant and assured. A god on a pedestal, as far as Francesca [his daughter] was concerned. How Toni would love to rock that pedestal a little!

 MM: Impotent fury…that longs for satisfaction? Just…YES! Rock that pedestal sister!

Here there were flower gardens and herbal gardens, rose and vegetable gardens, arbours bright with bougainvillea and dripping with magnolia petals. The sky above them was hung with stars, and even Francesca’s incommunicative presence could not prevent Toni’s enjoyment of the night air. The scent of the pine trees was intoxicating, while the roar of the sea was a crescendo in their ears.

 MM: This might be a bit too purple-prosey for some but I love it. This is one of those parts that I wallow in (thanks Fiona!). I can imagine being in that place, in that scented night. It’s pleasant to let my mind go there. It’s a little 30-second bank holiday for my brain.

There was also a bikini hidden in her suitcase, but she knew they were forbidden on public beaches.

MM: Who knew bikinis were ever illegal? History Lesson 101!

She half-wished she had brought a camera to record the scene for dull days back in her bed-sitter in London.

 MM: Have written before about the sunshine-porn of sun-deprived British readers. This is it.

“Poverty can’t be dismissed so easily,” retorted Toni, ignoring Paul’s scandalized gesticulations.

“I do not dismiss it, senhorita.” The Conde’s voice was cold now. “There is no poverty on my estates. Nevertheless, in all walks of life there must be the servant and the master. Without both of these nothing would be accomplished. The gulf between the two is greater in some places than in others, but the principle works equally well.”

“A kind of dictatorship, in fact.”

“Would you rather have the kind of groping incompetence one finds when a man tries to do a job he cannot do? Or the organized expertise of the specialist?”

“I suppose it’s a case of the devil you know,” remarked Toni dryly, and was pleased when the Conde’s eyes darkened ominously.

MM: She’s feisty! He’s powerful!

Toni felt a sense of relief, and yet the Conde’s presence had given her a kind of stimulation it was difficult to understand.

MM: If I ever approach frustration with these books, this is the time. When a heroine is so divorced from an understanding of her own feelings, I become peevish. But this is not the case here, because Toni knows she’s hot for him, but she is resisting because he’s such an arrogant ass who wants her to be his mistress rather than anything honorable.

No young thing was ever all bad.

 MM: Might as well be reading Hemingway. Great line.

She didn’t know why she felt so strongly about it. She had never considered herself an hysterical, imaginative person, and yet the Conde della Maria Estrada aroused the most peculiar sensations inside her.

 MM: Again with the not-knowing why she’s feeling what she’s feeling…this is when I cry out, “Because he’s totally smokin’ hot and you want him to rip your slim-fitting pants off your body, that’s why!”

After all, she was a young healthy animal, and although she had lost quite a lot of blood, the bed-rest had almost cured her.

 MM: I had hoped the head injury might lead to temporary amnesia, but I can’t have everything. (Or can I? I wrote an amnesia subplot into one of my own books…just you wait!)

“Don’t look at me like that!”

“You don’t like me to look at you, senhorita?”

“No. Not like that!”

MM: Nice try, Toni. We’re all totally onto how badly you want him to look at you…especially like “that”!

“A woman like you would not object to a rich man’s attentions, should he find you attractive.”

 MM: So much fun to see the hero being a complete prick! Makes it all the sweeter when he comes chasing after heroine to tell her what a prick he’s been!

…his hand hurt her as it twisted her arm a little cruelly behind her, but his mouth disturbed her most of all.

 MM: I love this kind of physical anger. So totally politically incorrect. Feels so forbidden even to read it. Which makes it that much more enjoyable.

It was the kind of lovemaking Toni had never experienced. She had thought she knew almost everything about kissing, but she at once realized how mistaken she had been. There was an expertise in his touch that aroused her to the full awareness of her own body and its needs, and she felt her resistance slipping away from her. Instead of struggling, she wanted to wind her arms about his neck and let him have his way with her.

 MM: BULLSEYE! See? It arouses HER to the awareness of her OWN body and its needs! Bells are ringing! I love this moment!

It was all strange and incredible, and she sometimes wondered if she had dreamt that scene in her room when the Conde had held her in his arms and made savage, passionate love to her…

 MM: Kind of like reading a Harlequin. Sometimes I think I dreamt it.

There was too much at stake, and something inside her warned her that it was more than her self-respect.

 MM: You’re going down, sister!

The scents of the flowers were intoxicating and she felt a sense of regret that in a couple of days she might be back in London, looking out her bed-sitter window on to the stone yard of the building. There were no flowers there, no romantic castle looking grim, yet inviting in the moonlight. It would all seem like a dream, a crazy dream, and one which she must forget as soon as possible.

 MM: Again with the dreams…the heroine is dreaming. The reader is dreaming. It’s all a shared hallucination and the complicity, the sisterhood, makes me love it even more.

 I’m afraid I will transcribe the majority of the book if I keep at this. That was only the first half! My marginalia became more emphatic and frequent in the second half.

Here’s the gist: these little novels are distillations of distillations. Every sentence makes me think of an entire story’s worth of characters and conflicts. As a writer, they are such a rich mine. The sunny tropical locales were the geographical fantasy of the working-gal-stuck-in-the-city or wife-stuck-in-the-kitchen of the original M&B and Harlequin readership. For me, it is just the opposite. I live in a sunny clime and dream of bustling cities with millions of people coursing through the arteries of their streets and subways. I dream of London. But I still dream.

My main frustration with these early Harlequins rests in the absence of the hero’s point-of-view until (usually) the very last page or pages. Like the end of the game “Clue” or the end of a magic trick, the hero has a metaphorical silk handkerchief that is quickly pulled from around his character and “VOILA! All is revealed!” He has always loved the heroine! He has always known her real identity! He has always fought against—but never denied—the patent desire that each so obviously feels for the other!

The great contortions that these writers go to in order to “pull off” the last-minute “trick” can sometimes be too ridiculous even for this I’ll-believe-anything-if-you-make-my-palms-sweat reader. I also thought I would miss the sex, but I don’t. In these early Harls all of the sex tends to be behind closed doors (i.e. unwritten) and “lovemaking” is of the expert-kissing variety. I don’t miss the graphic sex of today’s books when I read the oldies, because in its stead I get face slapping and cigarette smoking and truly vicious behavior that tends to be absent in the new books.

As is probably obvious by this point: I’ll forgive almost anything for Conde Raoul a good read.


So the question is, how much are you willing to forgive for that hit of emotion? 


Megan Mulry is the author of A Royal Pain which comes out November 1.

6 Responses to “Book Bites: Vintage Harlequin and The Art of Forgiveness by Megan Mulry”

  1. Sara HJ

    Being this is fiction I will forgive just about anything as long its justified and H/h redeems him/herself along the way.
    Redemption is the key as far as I am concerned.

  2. Fiona Marsden

    In those old Harlequins I will forgive almost anything except bad writing and from Mather, Winspear and Hampson that doesn’t happen. The worse the behaviour from the hero, the harder they fall.

  3. Julia Broadbooks

    How much will I forgive? I don’t really know.

    I know I read many of these in my well-corrupted youth. Not in 1973 perhaps, but not that long after either. I am willing to forgive loads if a book is fun, but I very strongly prefer my heroines to be more self-aware than I recall many of the heroines of that era. I read a boat load of books with delicate virgins and punishing kisses in my misspent youth. Perhaps today it would seem fresh and new again since those are far less common?

  4. willaful

    Just today I was rereading favorite bits of Wild Star by Catherine Coulter, which makes it clear that the answer to your question is, “A hell of a lot.”