Through the Revolving Door: The Fisher Library Blog

Romance in Precarious Times: Harlequin Medical Romances

Date posted: Mon, May. 11, 2020

The drama of the medical world has long captured the cultural imagination across various forms of media and entertainment. We see this popular genre perhaps most prominently on television, from Dr. Kildare in the 1960s and 1970s to Chicago Hope and ER in the 1990s and Scrubs and Grey’s Anatomy in the early 2000s [1]. These medical fictions draw in our attention as their settings are, by their very nature, dramatic and even mysterious; revolving around matters of life and death. More often than not, these representations of medical work environments also become entangled with stories of love and romance.

Medical themes and settings began to emerge more prominently in post-war literature, becoming especially popular in romance novels and women’s magazines during the 1960s and 1970s [1,2]. The popularity of medical romances at this time may be attributed to a variety of factors, including changes in women’s roles and careers, as well as the growth of the health care industry in England and North America during the years and decades following the Second World War [2].

Mary Burchell’s Nurse Marika, loyal in all, (Harlequin, 1963)
Mary Burchell’s Nurse Marika, loyal in all, (Harlequin, 1963)

Curious examples of the intersections between medical and romantic themes can be found among the Fisher Library’s Canadian Literature collections, by looking back to early publications by Canadian publisher Harlequin and the swoon-worthy illustrated covers for which they are known. Founded in 1949 in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Harlequin initially began as a general paperback reprinting company, but it was not long before their name came to be synonymous with ‘romance.’ The Fisher Library holds a significant collection of early Harlequin romance novels, but across the shelves, a clear trend in medical-themed romances emerges. Harlequin medical romances are ‘category romances,’ published under a common imprint or series name and released monthly in paperback or eventually, in digital formats [2].

Kathryn Blair’s Doctor Westland, (Harlequin, [1965]).
Kathryn Blair’s Doctor Westland, (Harlequin, [1965]).

The first medical romance published by Harlequin appeared in 1953. By the end of the decade, Harlequin had acquired the North American distribution rights to reprint romance novels published by British publisher Mills & Boon, and their first Mills & Boon reprint was in fact, a medical romance—The  Hospital in Buwambo by Anne Vinton. Although Mills & Boon had published a handful of novels set in hospitals in the 1930s and 1940s, by the end of the 1950s, “Doctor-Nurse” romances accounted for about a quarter of their sales [2]. Medical romance novels went from occasional titles to a subgenre in its own right. By 1977, Mills & Boon had launched a series of novels marked by the heading of ‘Doctor-Nurse Romances,’ broadened in 1989 to ‘Mills & Boon Medical Romance,’ and later ‘Harlequin Medical Romances’ in 2001, which remain popular today [1].

Mills & Boon titles became so popular among Harlequin’s readership that by 1964, Harlequin was exclusively publishing Mills & Boon titles, and in 1971, went on to purchase Mills & Boon altogether. In 1969, Harlequin relocated to Toronto, where their headquarters remain to this day, currently operating as a division of HarperCollins. Since its founding back in 1949, Harlequin has sold approximately 6.38 billion books and continues to dominate the genre of romance.

Susan Barrie’s A case of heart trouble, (Harlequin, 1979)
Susan Barrie’s A case of heart trouble, (Harlequin, 1979)

Now, in the midst of a global pandemic, we are experiencing a renewed surge in health awareness and appreciation for medical professionals, not so unlike that which preceded this apparent trend in medical romance stories. How will medical professionals come to be depicted in our cultural imagination post-pandemic? Hopefully in a more empowering and less romanticized way.

- Leora Bromberg, Toronto Academic Libraries Intern, Fisher Library

Notes

[1] Market, J. (2016). Publishing romance: The history of an industry, 1940s to the present. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers.

[2] Miller, J. (2015). Passionate virtue: Conceptions of medical professionalism in popular romance fiction. Literature and Medicine 33(1), 70-90.