Friday, December 08, 2006

Thursday Talk-Time with Barbara Hannay

Today lovely Harlequin Romance author Barbara Hannay brings us her views on the changing face of romance. Take it away Barbara!

One of the things I love about category romance novels is the way they keep changing as society changes to reflect the lives of real women facing real issues.

Today’s novels bring you stories about divorcees with young children, battling single motherhood and fathers’ visiting rights, while struggling to re-enter the workforce (Natasha Oakley’s Accepting the Boss’s Proposal). There are books about women coping with stepchildren and blended families (Jessica Hart’s Her Boss’s Baby Plan is a good example). And in one of my books to come out next year, I investigate an increasing problem in the post-DNA age – a father who discovers that his daughter is not his biological offspring. (In the Heart of the Outback April 07).

These are contemporary issues and while the stories always include a wonderful romantic fantasy element, they also reflect today’s world, just as category romance has since Mills & Boon novels were first published in 1909.

I recently read jay Dixon’s fascinating book The Romance Fiction of Mills & Boon 1909 -1990s and discovered that category romance novels have always been relevant and contemporary and that they did, in fact, reflect the dramatic events of the twentieth century. With apologies to jay because I’m summarizing madly and may misrepresent her original meaning, this is a very cursory sample of the interesting info her book provides:-

In the period before World War 1 when suffragettes were striving for recognition, romance novels were already dealing with the question of divorce. Should a woman leave an abusive relationship? Would a decent man’s honor be compromised if he married a divorced woman? This was powerful, controversial writing 100 years ago.

In the 1920s, the decade following WW1, the Latin lover made his first appearance, but there were also heroes who were very different from the tall, dark and strapping Alpha bosses and millionaires we find today. These guys were boyish, often younger than the women – and the heroines had a fondness for them that was at times more motherly than passionate. This surprised me. But, as jay Dixon explains, these boy heroes make sense when the context is considered. So very many young men (fianc├ęs, lovers, brothers and sons) were killed in WW1 that, in the 1920s, the ideal of youth was revered… cherished… idolized…

Later, in the post WW2 era, there were stories about problems like housing shortages and living with in-laws, as well as coping with an estranged husband who has returned home after six years away at war. Stories in the 1950s frequently showed a widowed heroine’s need for a job to support herself and her children and no doubt this reflected the fate of many women after the war.

Traveling more quickly now… In the 60’s, as everyone relaxed, enjoyed sustained peace and expanded their horizons in various ways, M&B romances were set further afield (than England) and sheikhs became popular. The books became sexier in the seventies, reflecting a more permissive attitude to sex in society at large and the 80s, not surprisingly, were more experimental. In the 90s, as marketing departments had more influence, stories with selling hooks (brides, cowboys, babies, Christmas) became the order of the day with new challenges for authors to keep their books fresh and contemporary.

OK, that’s a quick look at the fascinating world of category romance and I’m sure you would all find Jay Dixon’s book, which covers many more aspects than mere historical patterns, well worth reading.

I’m thrilled and excited to be part of the category romance tradition. The huge outreach and publishing success of these stories over almost 100 years is something we should all be proud of.

Barbara’s next book, Claiming the Cattleman’s Heart, is a story with a timeless theme, a dark and wounded hero and a nurturing, healing heroine, set very firmly in today’s world. Harlequin Romance, December 06.

Check out her website, and her absolutely lovely blog for more!


  1. Oh Barbara, how nice to hear from you!!! M&B books have changed so much just in the last 30 years: when I read books from 1976 they seem so otherworldly, yet many of them still tell a great story. I need to seek out this book. Can't wait for your new book either!!! Nice steps!!!

  2. I loved your breakdown Barbara! I haven't as yet read jay's book, but the points made by her, through you ;), make so much sense.

    I wonder how many of the writes of those times were so self-aware or if they just wrote about the world around them.

    Wonderful stuff.


  3. I haven't read jay's book, but I also think the lives of the M&B authors were somewhat fascinating.
    For example Ida Cook who wrote as Mary Burchill used the money she got from M&B to finance her excursions to rescue Jewish people from Nazi Germany.

    I think because strong women wrote these books, there are other stories as well.

    I am looking forward to the centenary celebrations in 2008...

  4. Hi Barbara - how lovely to see you here! It's way too long since we met in person.

    jay Dixon's book is well worth a read. She used to work with M&B - as a copy-editor, I think. There's another history of Harlequin - Passion's Fortune - but that's more about the business than the books. A

    I've noted down the details of your new book for my next trip into town - hopefully I can use it as a treat when I've got this Greek out of my hair. It looks just my sort of book.


  5. Jay's book is fascinating.

    Certainly gives the lie to the idea that we 'churn' out books to some mystical formula! :)

  6. Barbara, what a brilliant post! Thanks for this. I'd never even heard of Jay Dixon's book before. Now I'm going to look out for it.

    Isn't it nice to feel that you belong to a tradition that is all about women, and for women, coping with what life throws at them?

    Thanks too for the info on the new book. I love the cover, by the way.


  7. Glad you found this very brief summary interesting everyone. The jay Dixon (yes, that is how she spells her name) book is well worth the read.

    Michelle, I was fascinated by your comments about Mary Burchell. Will follow up that link you gave. When I look back on the WW2 era, I'm always impressed by how gutsy people were then. Thank you.