He Smolders, She Smolders

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By: Print Magazine | February 5, 2009

A visual history of a publishing genre treats bodice-rippers with reverence.

THE ART OF ROMANCE: MILLS & BOON AND HARLEQUIN COVER DESIGNS By Joanna Bowring and Margaret O’Brien Prestel, New York 256 pp.; 235 color illus.; $25 (paperback)

When I was in high school in the late 1970s, I consumed dozens of historical romances—the lusty ones set in the antebellum South or colonial Williamsburg, featuring a luscious, financially imperiled virgin and the rich, brutal man-prey she forces into submission with hot sex and eternal love. I knew this stuff was trash, but I read it anyway. Lots of it.

The Art of Romance, a new picture book from Prestel, escorts us through the history of the popular romance novel by way of two legendary publishers: the British firm Mills & Boon, founded in 1908, and the Canadian company Harlequin, which merged with Mills & Boon in 1971 after distributing its titles in North America for more than a decade. Arranged chronologically are 235 full-color reproductions of romance covers, each occupying its own page. The book, edited by two British librarians, Joanna Bowring and Margaret O’Brien, offers an engaging history of the romance business.

In the U.K., the phrase “Mills & Boon” is synonymous with romantic fiction; women ask for these books by brand rather than author. From content to cover, they are commercial goods, and the brand promises consistency over originality. Writers produce their texts according to formula, giving consumers exactly what they expect: First, girl meets man; second, the couple engages in a stormy erotic battle; finally, they resolve their conflicts with monogamy-ever-after. To change the script in any way is to deliver defective merchandise. (Today, the Harlequin group and other romance publishers post author instructions online for each of their brands and sub-brands, detailing such matters as permissible levels of sexual detail.)

The brief text in The Art of Romance focuses on the content and iconography of the covers, saying little about their visual construction and even less about the artists who made them. People interested in design and illustration can conjure their own story by looking at the plates. For most of its history, the medium was dominated by hand-rendered depictions of a simple formula: wide-eyed female + rugged alpha-male + glamorous setting. Chaste girls in crisp blouses in the 1930s give way to film noir harlots in the ’50s and mod career women in the ’60s, but the heroes remain remarkably the same: dark, brooding, and devoid of facial hair. (While men in real life may experiment avidly with their stubble and ’staches, the clean-shaven jaw rules the fantasy world of women’s romance.) On a typical cover, the heroine occupies the foreground, while the hero stands behind her or looks away, suggesting the emotional distance the story must overcome. Although rendering styles loosen up from one decade to the next, the illustrations are always descriptive and literal, reinforcing the brand through reliable archetypes and legible details.

What about graphic design? Romance covers were generally hand-lettered until the mid-1950s, when designs using full-bleed imagery were countered by a corporate packaging style featuring a large color band across the top. These zones held the book’s typeset title, along with commercial devices such as the publisher’s name and logo, a series number, and a price tag. In many covers from the 1970s, Mills & Boons’s trademark rose symbol is far bigger than the heroine’s pretty, upturned face.

The modern romance has provided countless female writers with lucrative work since the early 20th century. Today, Romance Writers of America is a professional organization for “career-focused romance writers” with over 10,000 members. Bowring and O’Brien report that every single second, four Harlequin romances are purchased around the world, while in the U.K. alone, one Mills & Boon book is sold every three seconds. This successful literary form is likely to survive the challenges facing the publishing industry, including the rise of the eBook. Popular romances are fundamentally disposable, and women are willing to consume them on cell phones, computer screens, and electronic readers as well in print. Harlequin makes all its titles (120 new novels per month) available in a variety of digital forms and is beginning to publish some series exclusively for download. The final pages of The Art of Romance, showing printed covers from the ’90s to the present, tell a story of declining investment in original artwork in favor of stock photography and digital montage. Today’s electronic romances are marketed online with mostly photographic cover art; it remains to be seen whether such graphics will remain tied to this genre in the lower-priced digital future.

Leafing through the pages of The Art of Romance, I expected to be merely amused by its kitschy, clichéd depictions of true love conquering all. Instead, they made me want to rip the buttons off my blouse and jump into bed with my own successfully acquired mate (who does sport some neatly groomed facial hair and has always been more Ashley Wilkes than Rhett Butler). There’s nothing like a good book to get you in the mood.

Ellen Lupton is a writer, designer, and curator. In 2008, she published the independent romance novel Sexy Librarian, written by Julia Weist (Slush Editions).