Retro Reads: The First (and Worst?) Harlequin Romance

Retro Reads is a series of posts highlighting the best, most interesting, and most hilarious trends of the fiction of yesteryear.

"Strange loves of a seaman". The jokes really write themselves.
“Strange loves of a seaman”. The jokes really write themselves.

(Spoiler alert: This post contains spoilers, but does not give away major plot points. Also trigger warning: This book review contains discussion of sexual assault, racism, and strong language.)

Before Harlequin became the romance powerhouse it is today, the company was a small publisher dedicated to reprinting paperbacks in a variety of genres. Books cost $0.25 each (those were the days!) and the catalogue included a strong backlist of mystery from big names like Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The first book Harlequin ever published was a romance titled The Manatee—although trust me, this book bears little to no resemblance to the romance novel as we currently know it!

I can’t claim to have read every Harlequin every published, but I am willing to nominate The Manatee for the title of Worst Harlequin Ever. Intrigued by the back cover copy I found online, I tracked down a copy of the book on Amazon, expecting to find some next-level crazy between the covers.

And friends, this book has it all.

For your reading pleasure, I give you a brief synopsis of The Manatee, in the publisher’s own words.

“This robust, powerful novel is the story of Jabez Folger, savage, romantic man of the sea, with a sinister secret in his past. Against the colourful background of Nantucket in its great whaling days, Nancy Bruff has set this bold, sweeping drama of vibrant love and corrosive hatred. On Jabez Folger’s first whaling voyage he had a dark and evil experience that changed and embittered his whole life. In a rather softened mood, he courted and married piety, a gentle Quaker girl-then deliberately, viciously, murdered her love. Born of this strange union, conceived in love and hate, their children turned to Flowery Shrine, their half-caste south sea island servant, for the love and understanding they craved. Folger’s vindictive cruelty brought about his ruin, but in so doing freed him from the evil demon that possessed his soul. The manatee is a vivid, exciting and compelling tale, written in lusty, vigorous prose, yet with exceptional power and beauty, played out against a setting of sea, sky and fabulous island.”

If I were to re-write the synopsis to accurately reflect the plot of this novel, it would look something like this: This insane novel is the story of obviously unstable Jabez Folger, savage, racist man of the sea with a sinister secret in his past. (The secret will turn out to be far less sinister than you hope). Against the repressed background of Nantucket in its great whaling days, Nancy Bruff has set this bold, sweeping drama of emotional abuse and corrosive hatred.

I don’t think it’s fair to judge this book against modern standards, but even for 1949 tastes, it’s hard to believe this book was so popular it required seven printings between September and December 1945. (Maybe they were small print runs?).

If you ever want to play Trigger Warning Bingo, this novel is an excellent choice. The objectionable material in this book truly has to be read to be believed:

Emotional/verbal abuse – Our “hero”, Jabez, frequently berates and frightens his family, but the elderly Amos Lamb, retired seaman and village lecher, gives him a run for his money. Sample dialogue from Amos: “The Selectmen can give each other what the cock gave the hen and that’s something old women with titties like envelope flaps have to do without”.

Conclusion: Amos Lamb is truly vile. I spent the whole book wishing he would die.

Murder – When Jabez’s crew turn on him in mutiny, he strands them at sea in a lifeboat with no food or water, enjoying the thought of their suffering as he views their fate as “a mathematical perfection”.

Conclusion: I have no idea what mathematics has to do with anything. Executing mutineers was standard practice at one point, but leaving them to suffer a slow, painful death is pretty harsh.

Xenophobia/racism – There is a Frenchwoman living in the village who is written as a walking stereotype—she has a “wildness waiting to spring out of her”, speaks in an exaggerated accent, and is driven to suicidal despair by the repressive Nantucket society. But the author’s depiction of a Black servant in the Folger household is so racist, it’s hard to read. Flowery Shrine is described as a “young and lovely mulatto girl” named after her mother, who had been “named and loved” by a sailor who brought her from a South Sea Island to Nantucket. Despite having grown up in New England, she speaks English poorly with what I can only assume is meant to be a “slave accent”.

Conclusion: Yikes. Literally every mention of Flowery Shrine made me uncomfortable.

Sexual abuse/assault – Almost every central female character is sexually abused or assaulted at some point in this novel. Jabez assaults his wife, Amos harasses every woman who walks past his house, and Jabez’s daughter is date raped and abandoned by a young lieutenant. (He promises to bring her a kitten, as if that is somehow valid payment for her virginity). Yet again, however, the worst abuse is aimed at Flowery Shrine. She has no sexual agency of her own and does not understand “Christian values”, so clearly it is her fault as much as his when Jabez takes her to his bed. She is fifteen years old.

Conclusion: Barf. Everyone is awful.

If you are looking for a book that actually contains a romance, this book is not for you. If you are looking for an epic, generational family drama, are interested in the history of romance publishing, and can stomach all the awful-ness, you’re getting warmer. And if you’re looking for an example of literally everything an author should not do when writing a book, you have hit the jackpot with The Manatee.

Published by nicolarwhite

Author of romantic urban fantasy, science fiction, and mystery.

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