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Sex Sells: Harlequin’s transition from sweet to sultry

By Sarah Houck (2017)


Contemporary romance has often been described and denounced as the peddling of soft porn. But a look into the historical archive shows that Harlequin Enterprises, considered by many the definition of genre romance, categorically refused scripts that contained sex until the 1970s. In contrast, Harlequin’s regular partner Mills and Boon was publishing plots that contained explicit sex as early as the 1950s in England and Europe. Mary Bonnycastle, the editor and wife of the president of Harlequin, was able to almost single handedly impose a decency code upon the romance industry in North America for 20 years. It was not until the early 1970s when Mary Bonnycastle’s husband died and her son took over the publishing company that Harlequin was able to catch up to other publishers and the mood of the era to start working in sexual romance to their books.

The change was largely a commercial decision based on profit instead of any particular moral code. Ultimately, these sexier and bolder writers were speedily outselling Harlequin’s more chaste and sweet novels. These books were attracting readers that devoured the scenes with explicit sex and soon clean and wholesome heroines were replaced by the soft and sensual women of the contemporary romance (McAleer, 256). The new leadership in the company was focused on selling Harlequins like you would sell any other commodity. Then president Larry Heisey had no previous experience in publishing but had risen to the top by marketing a variety of products from soap to hosiery. It was his intention to sell these little paperbacks based not on an author or title, but on the publisher’s brand. As a result, market data and pure popularity won out over the rules Mary Bonnycastle had been enforcing for over a decade, resulting in some of the book lines that define Harlequin today.

This study will show how the ascendency of Rich Bonnycastle to the helm of Harlequin and his subsequent takeover of Mills and Boon led to the abolition of a decades old ban on sex in Harlequin romances. To emphasize the degree of this change, the first section will outline the early Harlequin relationship with the British company Mills and Boon and some of the ways Mills and Boon had to market their books to be accepted by the more critical Harlequin editors. The second section will detail how Rich Bonnycastle rose to run the company and the change in company culture that came with his ascension. Finally, the last section will explore how the Harlequin brand ultimately succumbed and began to loosen their plot restrictions based on the expressed preferences of the market. Harlequin held on to its respectable and buttoned-up reputation longer than some other publishers. But, once it became clear that books containing sex on the page were outselling their sweeter counterparts, there was no turning back.

A Code of “Decency”

From its founding in 1949, Harlequin reprinted books from a wide range of genres including romance, mysteries, westerns, thrillers, and non-fiction (Jensen, 32). Within the first few years of operation, the founder of the company, Dick Bonnycastle, asked his wife to read and edit incoming manuscripts and choose some for publication. In 1953, Harlequin reprinted its first medical romance and, as time went on, Mary Bonnycastle came to choose more and more romances, what she considered fiction of good taste (Jensen, 32). These medical romances that depicted doctors and nurses around the world became so popular with readers that through the 1950s, sales of those alone carried the publishing company (Grescoe, 37). Mary Bonnycastle came to particularly enjoy the works being published by the British company Mills and Boon and had her husbands assistant write to its owners proposing to repackage some of their medical selections for the North American market (McAleer, 12).

The relationship between Harlequin and Mills and Boon grew closer as time went on. When they had first made their agreement, Mills and Boon had been struggling with how to adjust to the decline of commercial libraries and the rise of the paperback (Vivanco, 18). They did not have the financial resources to invest in paperback publishing but their sales to libraries were bleeding money. So when a small Canadian publisher offered to print their authors in paperback and distribute them not only in North America, but export them back to England, it was fortuitous timing (Grescoe, 52). But as the relationship developed, a few inconsistencies between the way the two companies were run emerged.

It quickly became clear that Mills and Boons books went through little, if any, editing after the author submitted a manuscript and Mills and Boons editorial formula was much laxer than at Harlequin. Some authors even complained that if their secretaries did not catch mistakes and inconsistencies in the text, they would often show up in the final printed versions (Grescoe, 98). When Mary Bonnycastle received these manuscripts they received one of three shorthand remarks: “Okay.” “Will do.” “No.” These verdicts were often delivered back with a variety of comments ranging from the quality of writing to the treatment of homely nurses (Grescoe, 54). The constant editing and rejection of manuscripts sent across the pond irked the editors at Mills and Boon to no end and distressed many of their authors. The North American market was lucrative and could mean a huge payday for a Mills and Boon author if they could get a book past the duo of Mary Bonnycastle and her daughter (McAleer, 123).

To get more books past the gatekeepers at Harlequin, the Mills and Boon executives began to give out a set of standard advice to its authors on how to get their books published in North America. In letters to authors Alan Boon encouraged them as to the content they should avoid for a Canadian audience:

They require a fairly straightforward love story with heroine and hero dominating the story (and without an excess of back-chat between subsidiary characters) which, above all, can be read by young Canadian girls in their teens without any words or incidents occurring which might be considered to strike a jarring note. Please do not think that we are suggesting that young girls in their teens cannot read the N.S. books but I am sure, for example, the very mention of the word ‘abortion’ would worry our Canadian associates from the point of view of what they feel their teenage girls should read….There should be no situations of girls in love with married men, no seduction, no violence, no mystery. (McAleer, 266)

Boon insinuated that by following these guidelines their authors would have the best chance at getting published abroad and doubling or tripling their book sales.

As the industry moved into the late 60s, Mary Bonnycastle’s code began to chafe Harlequin’s British friends and while they wanted to move from the more prim sweet romances to something a little sexier, Mary refused to accept anything that would, “bring a blush to the cheek,” (Grescoe, 56). This ban included intercourse but also more intense scenes of kissing and love-making as well as plots that contained divorce, seduction, and violence (McAleer, 124). In 1967, Mills and Boon turned out their first book where the hero and heroine consummated their relationship in full view of the audience, The Garden of Persephone by Nan Asquith. But it would take a major shake up in the company for Harlequin to begin publishing similar titles. This restructuring came about when Dick Bonnycastle passed away and his son came to the helm of Harlequin (Jensen, 36).

A New Harlequin

Dick Bonnycastle hit the ground running after the death of his father and put into motion several changes within the first five years of running the company. The first was to take the company public. Bonnycastle, Jr. had his eyes set on expanding further into the American market and take advantage of its untapped potential. He had also been concerned for years that the source of all Harlequin novels was a largely informal relationship with Mills and Boon(Jensen, 38). By going public he was able to rope the Boons into a five year contract and begin to make moves towards buying the whole company (Regis, 157). After nearly two decades of partnering across the Atlantic, Harlequin acquired Mills and Boon (always described as a merger and not a takeover in interviews with the Boons) in 1971, effectively turning Harlequin/Mills and Boon into an international brand (Vivanco, 18).

Shortly afterwards, Bonnycastle brought on Larry Heisey to be the new president of Harlequin. Heisey had cut his teeth at Proctor and Gamble marketing a variety of commodity goods. He approached the Harlequin paperbacks with a similar approach and was known to refer to books by their serial numbers and not by titles to reinforce their place as a popular good. Heisey’s team employed market research into the romance novel reader and by the mid-70s Harlequin officials were expected to know the demographics of their readers as well as their readers preferences for characters, settings, and plot (Jenson, 37). With this information, Heisey could tailor the books they put out and their marketing to the needs and desires of the readers (39).

Back in Britain, Mills and Boon authors were beginning to explore more explicit ways of writing that were still categorically unacceptable to the Canadian editors at Harlequin. By the early 1970s, three of Mills and Boon’s top writers in England were still barred from publishing in North America due to Mary Bonnycastle’s ban on sexual intimacy (Regis, 158). In a masterful stroke, the John and Alan Boon invited Rich Bonnycastle to meet one of these authors in London. To prepare for the meeting, Bonnycastle read his first romance from his mother’s pile of rejects. The meeting, and Rich’s full enjoyment of the narrative containing explicit sex scenes, convinced him to allow two of the author’s books to be sold next to two of their less sexually explicit books in a market test (Grescoe, 95). Heisey published 400 copies of each of the four new stories and sent them to a random selection of North American readers to be scored. The readers scores came back strongly in favor of the new style with more sexual relations between the hero and heroine (Grescoe, 95). With the market data against them, Mary and Judy Bonnycastle were forced to give up their ban on sex and allow a new kind of romance to be published at Harlequin.

Once the floodgates were open, several young new editors pushed for bolder storylines and over the decades, Harlequin was able to swiftly adjust its editing practices to publish what sold best. Grescoe quotes an editor who describes the transition well, “It used to be that there was a big kiss at the end of the book. But now we have heroes and heroines participating in sex, and sometimes quite early in the book.” (83) Some authors took the sudden change better than others. While certain authors adjusted and flourished with the newly relaxed rules, many of the original authors from the more chaste period were horrified. These grande dames of romance either stopped writing for the company all together or simply continued to write in their style, ignoring the move towards more and more sexually explicit content (Dixon,  153).


Today the Harlequin brand encompasses a variety of lines of romance novels from Christian inspirational books with little to no sexual contact to erotica with wild and explicit sex throughout. But when they first began printing romance, they only had one line: Harlequin Romance. With the introduction of more sensual scenes, the break with the traditional ban on sex was the advent of the Harlequin Presents line in 1973. This new line featured popular Mills and Boon authors that had previously been barred from the American market. With the immense growth of American readership, Harlequin would go on to create an American-based line in 1980 with settings in the 50 states. Now, they print eighteen different lines with differing levels of sexual content and plot lines that range from the historical to the supernatural. (Harlequin Enterprises) But the original idea of different lines of books came from the original split between sweet and explicit.

This move towards depicting sex on the page between the hero and the heroine, even after marriage, was a slow one for the Harlequin brand. Harlequin continued to reject books with explicit sex even when other publishers had wild success selling and marketing books with sexier content than the prim and sweet books of the 1950s. As long as Mary Bonnycastle was in charge of choosing the manuscripts put into circulation in the Americas, topics like sex, divorce, and abortion were banned from the Harlequin line. When her husband first asked her to edit books for Harlequin, she established that she would, “have nothing to do with those sex books.” (Grescoe, 38) But with the death of her husband, and the new priorities of the company to function based primarily on marketing strategy and sales, it seemed inevitable that after shaping the company for decades, Mary Bonnycastle’s “decency code” would be pushed aside. Her standards had fallen behind what was popular among readers and by pushing to catch up, Harlequin was able to become the dominant and defining force it is today in the romance industry.

Sources Cited

Dixon, Jay. The romance fiction of Mills & Boon, 1909-1990s. Philadelphia: UCL Press, 1999.

Eriksson, Helena. Husbands, lovers, and dreamlovers: masculinity and female desire in women’s novels of the 1970s. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International, 1997.

Gleason, William A. Romance fiction and American culture: love as the practice of freedom?. Edited by Eric Murphy Selinger. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2016.

Grescoe, Paul. The merchants of Venus: inside Harlequin and the empire of romance. Vancouver: Raincoat Books, 1996.

Harlequin Enterprises. “Harlequin’s History.” Accessed May 1, 2017.

Jensen, Margaret Ann Jensen. Love’s $weet return: the Harlequin story. Bowling Green: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1984.

McAleer, Joseph. Passion’s Fortune: The Story of Mills & Boon. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Regis, Pamela Regis. A Natural History of the Romance Novel. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, April 2007.

Thurston, Carol. The romance revolution: erotic novels for women and the quest for a new sexual identity. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987.

Vivanco, Laura. For love and money: the literary art of the Harlequin Mills & Boon romance. Penrith: Humanities Ebook, 2011.

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