Posted by Ryan Simmons and Aaron Zeghers, documentary makers | Monday February 11, 2013
Harlequin Romance Novels from days gone by (Ryan Simmons and Aaron Zeghers)
Harlequin received a deluge of outraged letters from readers who found in the final pages of the book a "nip slip" so to speak.
—Ryan Simmons and Aaron Zeghers, documentary makers
Put up your hand if you've ever read a Harlequin romance novel. Okay put your hand back down. From dusty paperbacks at the cottage to the glossy versions of today, Harlequin is still at it.
Ryan Simmons and Aaron Zeghers are Winnipeg filmmakers with a fascination for romance and in particular the story about Harlequin Enterprises, the book company that began in Winnipeg.
They are working on a film that is both a survey of the modern romance
writer and an investigation into the local Winnipeg roots of the romance
publishing giant, Harlequin.
SCENE asked the filmmakers to tell us more about the project:
We originally discovered that Harlequin was founded in Winnipeg by Richard H.G. Bonnycastle, a prominent Winnipegger who was president of the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce, first chairman of the Metropolitan Corporation of Greater Winnipeg, and the first person to serve as chancellor of the University of Winnipeg.
Previously he had been an Arctic adventurer with the Hudson's Bay Company in Canada's north before he moved back home, got married and started the company of Harlequin with some other local businessmen.
Richard's wife Mary was the driving force behind the editorial side of Harlequin. She was the one who believed there was a market for women's romance fiction. She convinced Richard to switch the company's focus from re-publishing a wide range of works - from cookbooks to men's pulp fiction - to focusing on women's romance novels.
The first particularly popular storyline began with Hospital Corridors, a hospital romance that proved very successful. These early novels were acquired from Mills & Boon, a British publisher that supplied romance novels to libraries in Britain.
Today, Harlequin has a bit of a reputation for publishing some rather erotic prose, but under Mary Bonnycastle's guidance - and the discerning tastes of the publisher's loyal readers - nothing explicit was allowed. Mary, and later her daughter Judith, poured over the Mills & Boon books, ruthlessly purging anything remotely scandalous.
"We get hundreds of letters from women telling us how wonderful it is to read a pleasant, well written book without being subjected to psychological and sexual problems. I had always said that women wanted that kind of book," said Mary Bonnycastle in 1969. (Source: The Merchants of Venus by Paul Grescoe.)
In one odd occasion Judith fell sick while editing, and with only a few pages left, she stopped reading and signed off on it. Soon after, Harlequin received a deluge of outraged letters from readers who found in the final pages of the book a "nip slip" so to speak: a mention of a man's lips grazing a woman's breast! The readers were outraged and believed the publisher was transitioning into a pornography label. This has certainly changed in the years since then. Just check out some of the free stories from Harlequin's Blaze series.
In 1968, Richard H.G. Bonnycastle died of a heart attack just seconds after successfully landing his Cessna pontoon plane on Lake Winnipegosis. The company of Harlequin was inherited by his son Dick Bonnycastle, who was running the company at the time and overseeing its expansion into the United States.
A year later, Dick would move the publishing company to the TD Centre in downtown Toronto. When we interviewed Dick recently in Calgary, he said he regretted moving the company out of Winnipeg but he felt at the time that it was important to the company's growth as an international publisher to be in the hub of things. With the communications of today, he said this wouldn't be necessary.
Today, Harlequin is still the most successful paperback publisher in the world, publishing over 150 books every month. It has been a fascinating experience not only exploring this world of Harlequin, but the entire romance novel industry across Canada.
In a city that is known for its extreme cold weather and isolation, I think it's a fascinating prospective that - in some way - the modern conception of love and romance was born here.
Simmons and Zeghers are still looking for anyone in Winnipeg with knowledge about Richard Bonnycastle's impact on Winnipeg or the early days of Harlequin. They are also looking for romance fiction fans or perhaps a Winnipeg book club that would speak with them. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org