A selection of Harlequin romance novels from the 1950s, 1980s and today. ((Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.))

The Harlequin romance may be turning 60 this year, but its heaving bosom is still remarkably firm. Harlequin Enterprises is Canada's largest publisher, shipping over 120 titles a month, in 29 languages, to markets from Warsaw to Rio de Janeiro.

A look back at Harlequin's six decades offers a social history of love. The first pregnancy storyline arrived in the 1960s; the late '70s saw a surge of sexual content; Fabio debuted during the excessive 1980s.

Like all successful genre fiction, the Harlequin romance must walk the tricky line between familiar and fresh. Those spirited heroines and secretly wounded heroes are still getting their Happily Ever After endings — or "HEAs," as they say in the biz. But as the stories adapt to the wayward desires of 21st-century readers, the routes to that romantic finish can be surprising.

"Sometimes, the preconceived notion of a Harlequin romance is about 30 years out of date," says Kate Bridges, who has been writing western-themed Harlequins for seven years. People who don't read romances often peg them as sweet, sappy stories or hotsy-totsy erotica. Those models are valid: on the Harlequin website, you can find The Wife He's Been Waiting For (listed in the Tender Romance category) or you can snag a copy of A Long, Hard Ride, a Harlequin Blaze title that promises "superheated sex" with a half-zipped mechanic.


A Harlequin novel from the 1990s, featuring cover model Fabio. ((Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.))

According to the Toronto-based Bridges, every Harlequin romance has to deliver "entertainment and emotion," but beyond that, the books divide into an exquisitely calibrated array of sub-genres. With a little practice, a regular reader can locate her preferred ratio of fantasy to reality — from urban werewolf to small-town teacher, from Saxon lord to struggling single dad. She can also find a comfortable "level of sensuality," as the company discreetly calls it.

Harlequin was founded in 1949, when Winnipeg businessman Richard Bonnycastle, along with two partners, began issuing paperback reprints of cookbooks, westerns, detective yarns and love stories. The company's rather sensationalistic debut, The Manatee by Nancy Bruff, was "the bold, nakedly revealing story of [a sea captain's] savage mismating… of the strange children he sired… of the unspeakable act that sealed his fate."

In 1958, Bonnycastle and his trusted secretary, Ruth Palmour — now primary stockholders — partnered with the British firm Mills & Boon, which specialized in the chaste medical romances beloved by Richard's wife, Mary Bonnycastle. (Indeed, Mary's genteel tastes spelled the end of those "savage mismatings.") By 1964, Harlequin focused exclusively on romances, usually penned by Brits. To its lovelorn doctors and nurses, the company added period love stories, which took the templates set by Jane Austen and the Brontes and added pulp-fiction oomph. In these books, a plucky young woman, often in some dire predicament, strikes romantic sparks with an enigmatic, arrogant, aristocratic older man. These "historicals" have persisted in the Harlequin canon — the Regency rakes and gruff Highland lairds later joined by laconic Montana lawmen and upright Mounties.

A look back at Harlequin's six decades offers a condensed social history of love. The first pregnancy storyline arrived in the 1960s. The late '70s saw a surge of sexual content, partly in response to the 19th-century S&M-fests penned by Rosemary Rogers, a scandalously popular author at rival publisher Avon. Harlequin cover model Fabio, all oiled chest and blond mane, debuted during the excessive 1980s. (The images in which Fabio commandingly clutches an adoring, half-naked woman are iconic examples of what is known in the industry as "the clinch.") The '90s saw some retrenchment into recognizably ordinary lives — heroes and heroines were often ranchers, pediatricians and cops in contemporary small-town North America. Increasingly, romances featured blended families, with single moms reconnecting with high school crushes or widowed fathers silently yearning for nurturing nannies. On these covers, the clinch is replaced by the potent hormonal cocktail of a handsome man holding an infant.


Toronto-based Harlequin author Kate Bridges. ((Lee Isbell/Studio 16/Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.) )

The new millennium has seen a surge in specialization at Harlequin, especially when it comes to sex. The "level of sensuality" can range from "kisses only," as one website ratings guide puts it, to responsible romps within the context of a relationship, to the burning combination of romance and erotica that is sometimes called "romantica." Demand for the prim, modest romance is also on the rise. Harlequin's "inspirational" line, Steeple Hill, is billed as "wholesome Christian entertainment that will help guide women to purposeful, faith-driven lives."

Within the last decade, Harlequin has developed lines geared to African-American and Hispanic women and teens. The younger, hipper Red Dress imprint launched in 2001, a response to the success of chick-lit books like Bridget Jones's Diary. The heroines are sassy, single girls in the city, often less concerned with Mr. Right than Mr. Right Now. Other 21st-century Harlequin heroines seem to be looking for love in unlikely places, exchanging smouldering glances with their heroes during hunts for serial killers or pit-stops on the racing circuit. (That last one may seem like a stretch, but sales of NASCAR-themed Harlequins are turbocharged.) Harlequin Nocturne feeds the taste for dark supernatural thrills; evidently, paranormal investigators, time-travellers, shape-shifters and vampires need love, too.

It's not just the books that have changed. Attitudes to the books have also shifted, suggests Pauline Greenhill, a professor of women's and gender studies at the University of Winnipeg. In the 1970s, Greenhill suggests, most academics maintained that romances were "the opiate of the masses, in the most heinous anti-feminist way." This changed with Janice Radway's 1984 book Reading the Romance, in which the author interviewed 42 female fans in a Midwestern American town. The results challenged the dismissive notion that romance readers were dupes of the romance industry. Says Greenhill, "These women weren't passive consumers, they certainly didn't mistake the books for real life and they were very discriminating. They had clear ideas about what constituted a good romance, a bad romance, a mediocre one."

Over the decades, Harlequin and its readers have built up a meaningful long-term relationship. Based in Toronto since 1969, Harlequin remains the largest producer of series romance in the world. The company has had financial ups and downs — the course of true love never did run smooth — but it did well in the early-'90s recession, partly because it offers the kind of inexpensive, escapist entertainment that prospers in tough times. A Harlequin romance can sell for less than a magazine.


A Harlequin crime novel from the 1950s. ((Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.))

Like some sort of love-peddling drug dealer, the company often gives away free books, hoping to get readers hooked. One 1967 promotion bundled a novel with the wonderfully prosaic gift of Kotex sanitary napkins and Ajax cleanser — a trio of products that gives credence to Radway's belief that women use romances to escape the pressures of mundane domesticity. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Harlequin employees passed out a whopping 720,000 books at border checkpoints in order to establish a toehold in the lucrative, love-starved market of the former Eastern bloc.

The company also knows how to market old-fashioned romance in new-fashioned ways. In the 1970s, Harlequin took its books to places women went, favouring supermarkets and pharmacies over bookstores. A mail-order department established in 1970 has since been updated with leading-edge technologies like eBooks, downloadable audio and mobile phone apps.

Harlequin was an early master of brand identification, and the Harlequin romance is undeniably a commodity. At one point, some series were standardized at 192 pages per title, so they could be efficiently printed, packed, shipped and shelved. The company's website, which courts writers as well as readers, spells out punishingly exact writers' guidelines for each sub-genre. These rules specify not just manuscript length but also seemingly subjective matters like the qualities of the hero ("while he may be harsh and direct, he is never physically cruel") and the heroine ("realistic, capable and as committed to love as she is to her career"). Some even give percentage breakdowns for the novel's point of view ("60% heroine and 40% hero," suggests one).

It's a formula, but then, romantic love is formulaic. After 60 years, Harlequin knows that a kiss is still a kiss; a sigh is just a sigh. The novels have changed in their details, factoring in real-life issues like working mothers, single parents and even condom use. But they've kept the fundamental arc of relationships, from attraction to misunderstanding to the requisite happily-ever-after ending. And readers wouldn't want it any other way.

Alison Gillmor is a writer based in Winnipeg.