Jezebel Does Old Skool Harlequin

Several readers forwarded me this snort-funny entry on old skool Harlequins from Jezebel, and I found myself nodding through much of it. Oh yes, oh yes, when they are old skool and bad, they are wonderful. Spanking? Punishing kisses? Pretend engagements? Eyebrow-raising, jaw-dropping, ‘Oh, honey’-saying comedy gold in them thar hills.

But it occurred to me – surely there are worse, right? And how sad is it that I am challenging my brain to remember some, because surely, with six thousand sheikhs and not one of them Muslim, there’s a Harlequin from back in the day that can raise eyebrows higher than that one.


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  1. 1
    lilywhite says:

    Love the piece itself, but what’s up with this comment?:

    ronaldpagan at 02:22 PM
    Connectedness Index: 0

    All romance novels have disturbing rape-lite scenes, but this is one of the worst I’ve ever seen.

  2. 2
    KimberlyD says:

    The comments are as funny as the article!

    “I do the tap and then sniff method to determine whether a melon is worth it.

    Usually I sniff dudes BEFORE I tap them. Big difference.”

    I’m literally rolling in my chair right now!

  3. 3
    willaful says:

    I have read plenty of worse. Captive of Fate by Margaret Pargeter comes to mind. Practically a how-to manual on how to keep a wife abused and enslaved. (She is always being punished, everything that happens is her fault, she’s not allowed to have any money or talk to any other men.) I generally enjoy the over-the-topness of many of these books, but that one just turned my stomach, though at least the author does have the wife leave at the end.

    Heh – wrong38 is right!

  4. 4
    voodoo chile says:

    OMG! That is a great post. I remember reading Harlequin back in the day and the woman was always a virgin and the guy was Alpha Male to the 100th power.  It was totally misogynistic and no means yes.  Alot of Diana palmer books from that time were all virgin meets caveman.

  5. 5
    amy lane says:

    What’s REALLY funny is that the Harlequin heroines of the 90’s were usually in their late 20’s/early 30’s and recovering from their abusive relationships to manipulative older men, which is why they fell for the guy next door!  I used to tell my husband that the books in the 90’s were usually the same women, only now they weren’t virgins and they knew how to groom!

    history59—is that the women’s studies course?

  6. 6

    Oh Mylanta! Harlequin has come a long way. I didn’t start reading HQ until the early ‘90s so apparently, I missed out on this kind of craziness. Thankfully, you don’t see such caveman between the pages.

  7. 7
    Stef says:

    Wow, that book was terrible, albeit in an “omg I kinda want to read it now” way.  My Grandma has read Harlequins faithfully for over 25 years I think (it was she who got me into romances in the first place), and I wonder what she thought of these type of 80’s stories.  However, that would be the most awkward conversation ever, so I guess I’ll never know. 

    Spamfilterthingie: Never 77.  Oh dear, that doesn’t bode well for me.  :)

  8. 8
    QoT says:

    I hate to say it, but I have The Sicilian’s Ruthless Marriage Revenge published 2007 right here on the table in front of me, and the cavemen are far from gone.

  9. 9
    briony says:

    I was confused at first because I swear I remember an older HQ that was titled “Jezebel”. Chock full o’ lip mashes and with not just a secret baby, but a secret WELFARE baby!

    makes 65: hmm, maybe if I was a contortionist ;)

  10. 10
    starborn says:

    Anything by Violet Winspear (but she did them “better”)

    My deepest, guilty pleasure, she just kept raising the ceiling to another surreal level.

    Check out some of the titles: The Strange Waif, No Man of Her Own, Devil in A Silver Room, Love Is the Honey etc

  11. 11
    Aliciel says:

    I read a lot of these 80’s and late 70’s romances in my early teens I’m ashamed to say. And yes, I have read many that were far worse.
    But the article was spot-on, and “a granite-like profile with ‘etched lines betraying a worldly cynicism’ and seems to have no expressions other than “mocking smiles”, “taunting looks,” “faintly derisive” eyes, “cynical amusement,” and, just to shake it up, the occasional “unsmiling gaze” was basically the hero-mold of those books.

  12. 12

    I tried to read a few of these early on and was so put off by the TSTL heroines and the a$$hat heros they loved,  I gave up on them. My great-grandmother had baskets full of them when I was growing up – can’t imagine what her take on them was!

  13. 13
    ev says:

    gag. choke. ewww….

    I remember these. They are why I quit reading romance for a while for the most part. I never wanted to throw a book across the room as much as I did when I would pick up one and that was the basic description of the entire story- names and locations subject to change. Sometimes.

    I swear they had an outline and played fill in the blanks.

    Spamword- book91. That’s probably all I have been able to read this year.

  14. 14
    JaneDrew says:

    Ah, yes, nothing like Old School Harlequin (which prompts my brain to pipe up with a very Lewis-Carroll, “I didn’t say there was nothing better! I said there was nothing like it!”). 

    Hands down, my candidate for eyebrow-raising horror is Sara Craven’s “Dark Summer.” This is a book that makes me want to beat my head (or the heroine’s) against the wall every time I think about it.

    The heroine, a Highly Successful Model, is heading home for her stepsister’s wedding, in spite of her misgivings about going back after what happened two years ago between her and her older stepbrother. Said stepbrother is indeed steely-eyed and granite-jawed and generally cynical, as well as consistently insulting towards the heroine (in the classic “everything you do, including breathing, clearly indicates you are having sex with anything male in the immediate vicinity” style). Ok, fine. Stepsister is an airheaded little flirt who is clearly having an affair with a married man while being engaged to somebody else. Ok, fine. Then you get flashbacks about What Happened Two Years Ago… and learn that the heroine, madly in love with her stepbrother,  had been trying to cover up Idiot Stepsister’s wild partying when her stepbrother caught her, told her that sluts don’t get a choice, dragged her up to his room, raped her, and told her to get out of the house.  Of course, he later tells her, he _would_ have gone and looked for her afterwards (since she was, maybe, 18 at that point), but he had been putting off a tour of the family factories for too long at that point, and so he absolutely had to go wander around Europe for two years. And then he saw her in a bikini advertisement, so he immediately knew that he’d been right all along, and she was clearly a slut. Err.

    Naturally, after the Idiot Stepsister has confessed all, and the granite-brained hero has shown up and made _his_ confession, the heroine bats her eyelashes at him and declares that she has always, always been in love with him.

    For some reason, it’s that last bit that infuriates me more than all the rest of the stupidity put together.

    Word: Show88… I can show 88 reasons why most of that cast needs to have their perspectives adjusted with a cricket bat.


  15. 15
    Kimberly Anne says:

    I have a Sara Craven sitting in front of me right now, called Witching Hour.  I swear it’s calling my name like the Evil Book in the Care Bears movie.  And from the excerpt on the first page, where she demands to be let go, and he gives the standard “no means yes” speech, reading it would be just as disastrous

  16. 16
    Lila says:

    because surely, with six thousand sheikhs and not one of them Muslim,

    Ha!  Well said!

  17. 17
    starborn says:

    Ha! Sara Craven!

    There was a really wacky one called Prince of Sword (I think?, must have tried to suppress it as the details are sketchy)

    The hero must have been a Greek godzillionaire because he never spoke without slipping in a few italicized endearments adn he might have owned this island. Anyway, the heroine was this rich chick and for some reason I seem to remember she wasn’t that bad but the hero had her down as this mega spoilt bitch so he was always sneering at her and looking at her with blazing contempt etc I think he wound her up so much, she called him something like a peasant or something, oops! He promptly tricks /blackmails her into marrying him and leaves her stranded on this primitive island (no servants, in fact no one at all) where she has to live in this little hut and there is no one else and he makes her cook, do housework etc and she only has this litttle shift dress to wear. All this is to punish her for being a spoilt bitch!!!! Part of her punishment is that he’s not going to have sex with her but obviously he does. The WTF moment was when at the end he’d sort of let her go but she comes back to the island to look at all the places where she worked liked a slave and all the sexin took place and she finds him there and he’s clutching this rag and she realises he’s kept that crappy (only) tunic he made her wear. They luurve each other, THE END. It was pretty hilarious.

  18. 18
    Cat Marsters says:

    You know, I didn’t buy the Taming Feisty Woman Via Terrible Abuse thing when Shakespeare did it, and I still don’t buy it now.

    Still, it’s marvellous to see that HMB’s and literary classics have so much in common.  Don’t believe me?  Read Tess of the d’Urbervilles for truly amazing amounts of assholery and TSTL heroinism!

  19. 19
    DS says:

    Hah, there was an early Elizabeth Lowell Silhouette Desire (the red ones)  from 1983 that reminded me of Dark Summer—at least it is pretty equally horrid.  It was called Summer Thunder:

    Brief synopsis: Heroine is a world famous model who has returned to her childhood home for the first time since her parents were killed in a car accident on her 16th birthday. Her reason for return involves a romantic infatuation she had with the son of a neighboring rancher. He was about 8 years older than she was. They had shared a kiss but no date and no adult conversation. She was 16 years old and he was 24. 

    However, when she encounters hin again he does not recognize her and is pretty nasty for no reason at all. She does not tell him who she is and then gets in a jealous cat fight with his female companion.

    Here’s some dialogue:

    Photographer to Model Heroine Holly

    “Lift your arms. Higher. Good. Now arch your back and shake out your hair. No, no, no. C’mon, sweetie, give it a little sex. Think of your lover. Oh yeah,” he added in a nasty tone, “I forgot. You’re not Into lovers. So put your hands on those lovely, useless hips and pretend; damn you!”

    This is from the hero: “I don’t like jet-set parasites and their prostitutes. I won’t have them on my ranch.” Then a couple of pages later referring to the heroine again: “You’ve spoiled her,” said Linc to Roger. “Mongrels need a firm hand if you want to show them In the Companion Class.”

    Then when the other woman arrives—Holly is the heroine, by the way: “You bought only dresses?” murmured Holly, glancing at Cyn’s hips with a knowing smile. “Roger could design a pair of pants for you. I’m sure we have some cloth around here somewhere, don’t we, Roger?” Then, before he could answer, “Oh, I forgot. The
    material is only forty-four inches wide. That won’t quite do, will It?” asked Holly with wide, innocent eyes.

    I picked this one up because a friend who read romances praised Elizabeth Lowell.  It sort of put me off romances for years.

  20. 20
    Mary Frances says:

    Actually, the “literary classic” that most of these plot-lines remind me of—especially the “slave on an island” one, almost painfully so—is Samuel Richardson’s Pamela. Since that hit the bookshelves in 1741, I think we can agree that it goes back a long way. Of course, Pamela was written by a man . . .

    And—the word of the day is “enough61”! I agree.

  21. 21
    DS says:

    And of course Joseph Fielding (probably) immediately wrote Shamela about how the scheming maid servant entrapped the innocent Squire Booby.

  22. 22
    Mary Frances says:

    And then Joseph Andrews, about the innocent footman sexually menaced by his Noble Lady Employer . . . Fielding really must have loathed Pamela, so at least the book was good for something!

  23. 23
    Mary Frances says:

    Well, aside from being the first Popular English Novel, According to Literary Historians, that is . . .

  24. 24
    ev says:

    Keep going with the snarky descriptions. Everytime I get hungry I just go read one and want to vomit, so I don’t eat. It may work as a new weight lost method!

  25. 25
    Esri Rose says:

    Bleargh. I can’t read that kind of thing.

  26. 26
    Rose says:

    That was entertaining, and so are some oft he examples in the comment. Thanks for the link!

    Unlike Kimberly, I wasn’t as crazy about the comments on Jezebel – lots of standard “bodice rippers are crap” stuff, including the classic “it’s all about rape!” (not just in reference to old skool romances) and the equally popular “it’s all smut, lets read the sex bits out loud heh heh”. Honestly, I was tempted to post there myself to point out that romances are about people and relationships, and that stunning as it may seem, people do have sex, certainly if they’re in a relationship. Do you think I should have done that?

  27. 27
    Sara says:

    Me too, Rose. Sure, that’s a terrible example of the genre, but some of the posters are using an awfully big brush to paint all romance novels. But I feel a little uncomfortable parachuting into a site I’ve never visited before and schooling the posters there. Even if they are wrong.

  28. 28
    Leslie says:

    Don’t forget about those wonders of TS/TI (too innocent) TL heroines and steely-eyed Alphas, the Cartland romances!
    Oh, the sighs, the passionate (yet kissless) embraces, the filmy gowns, the evil villains, the ellipses…and more ellipses…
    No nasty rape scenes that I remember, just fading to blowing curtains and dimming candles at the very end.
    Nothing stirred my 12 year old heart like a good Cartland followed by vintage Joanna Lindsey—ellipses, alphas, virgins, and naughty sex.

  29. 29
    Malin says:

    Oooooh! Barbara Cartland! Where the good-innocent-young-virgins, troubled by villain, eventually claim the masterful hero, no premarital sex ever happens – BC claimed this is what made her books so popular – and in the end, after marriage, there is a reference to married bliss, a reward for protecting her virginity until marriage!

    I read a few when I was barely ten or so and they made me squeamish. I remember one in particular. The story though, not the name.

    The heroine was a diplomat’s daughter, Tatika or something, half Russian, whose evil stepmother wanted to get rid of her – too pretty to have around – and gain some social position/power by betrothing her to a repulsive lecher with a title. This is in London. Our heroine, of course, gets no help from her father, runs away to be a companion to a dowager duchess(?) in Scotland. The duke(?) is a widower whose wife fell/jumped/was pushed out of a high castle (tower?) window after loud argument with the hero, who was known to be the last person to see her. Dark cloud hanging over him. Will never remarry with said dark cloud hanging over him. Attracted to mother’s companion. Mutual attraction, not acted upon by either. Heroine decides to solve mystery of death of late wife. Duke throws hunting party. Lecher from London attends. Recognizes Tatika, reveals her real identity, claims her as fiancée. Heroine runs away again. Hero goes after her. Rain. Flood. Stuck in a fishing/hunting cabin overnight, feast on fish (salmon?) prepared by hero, hidden there by poacher. Have conversation explaining all. Heroine adamant about not marrying villain. In morning, flood recedes, go back to castle. Villain still claims heroine. Duke announces villain can’t have her, she’s married to hero. Heroine asked if married. Says yes. Villain demands proof. Other guest (judge?) says no proof necessary, by Scottish law after announcement are legally married. Everybody happy but villain. Hero all heroish, says will not bed wife until cloud not hanging over him. Leaves heroine in same room late wife fell/jumped/was pushed from. Other villain, hero’s cousin & next in line, comes in through secret passage doorway to strangle heroine so hero will be hanged and he can inherit. Like he killed late wife also – without the strangling. Hero comes in at last moment, saves day, (cousin goes through window?), almost lost love of his life (late wife not loved, btw, slut who married hero pregnant with stableboy’s child), yadda, yadda, yadda, now dark cloud no longer hovering but will wait for heroine to recover before marriage bed. Heroine croaks that no need to wait. Marital bliss, fade out.

    Was it good for you?

  30. 30
    karmelrio says:

    Given teh strangling and um virginity, probably no oral tonight?

    Unless he… nah.

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