The History of Mills & Boon and Harlequin
Like all Harlequins, the Historical line has its roots in the Mills & Boon company.
Mills & Boon is the old lady on the block when it comes to romances. They are a UK-based enterprise whose history goes back to 1903. Although, they didn’t start focusing on “women’s” fiction (i.e. romance) until the 1930s.
Meanwhile across the pond in Canada, Harlequin Ltd. came into existence after World War II in 1949. Harlequin mostly printed paperbacks of previously published works. They released a lot of pulp, including mysteries, westerns, historical fiction, and other genres.
In 1957 Harlequin purchased the North American rights to reproduce Mills and Boon’s vast library of books. Most of these were medical/nurse romances. Harlequin bought out Mills and Boon in 1971, creating one company with two names.
Change in the Industry
Up until then Mills and Boon sold its books in North America under the Romance line, which were sweet romances usually with nothing more explicit than passionate kisses and “I love you”s. Sex scenes were described with euphemisms. Only married partners engaged in it.
After the revolutionary year of 1972, with the release of The Flame and the Flower, every publisher in the industry tried to reinvent themselves as “sexier.” In 1973, Harlequin introduced the Presents line. At first, these were just reprints of some older works by more established writers.
By 1977, Harlequin launched a historical series called Masquerade. Through its Worldwide Library division, it released about 90 books. The last one was in 1981.
Harlequin briefly published traditional Regency romances. They would again try their hands at the mainstream historical genre in 1986. This time the books had numbers. However, Harlequin scrapped the line after only a little more than a dozen editions in 1987.
The New Harlequin Historical Romances
The series was revamped a year later. This is the current iteration of the Harlequin Historicals. Kristin James’ (aka Candace Camp) wrote the first book under the new numbering system, Satan’s Angel. These differed from the earlier historicals as there was a greater effort in finding quality writers. The covers were more appealing. Artists like Pino, George H. Jones, Judy York, and Max Ginsburg created artwork for the line.
Nora Roberts, Heather Graham, Susan Johnson, Kathleen Eagle, Cassie Edwards, Louisa Rawlings (aka Ena/Sylvia Halliday), Nicole Jordan, Ruth Langan, Maura Seger, and Stephanie Laurens are authors who wrote Historicals in the 20th century.
Like all things, the line would change through the years. In the early 1990s, the emphasis on numbering was reduced. The cover design was altered to look less like a category line. In 1998, the Historicals were revamped again and they stopped numbering altogether in the 2010s.
In the New Millennium
Harlequin still publishes Historicals, although most readers purchase them as e-books. The stories are decidedly not bodice ripper or even old-school in nature. Characters often have modern mindsets. Perhaps due to the 300-page limit, the books do not usually range years or involve continent-hopping.
However, they are one of the most diverse mainstream lines, That is, least in regards to time periods and settings. Harlequin Historical stories can take place at any time. From the ancient ages, the Medieval era, the Renaissance, Age of Exploration, Westerns, Regencies, fin-de-siecle, and just about any other age in between, you can find a romance in that setting.