There is, it seems to me, a hierarchy in romances: single-titles are often considered superior to category romances and the various magazine formats (including the romance comics to which Sequential Crush
is dedicated) are often entirely forgotten. I was provided with a salutary corrective recently when I bought a copy of a 1960s guide to writing romantic fiction which states that
A good serial will always make a good novel and a good romantic novel will often make a serial. The most obvious difference is in length.
Magazines obtain their serials by two methods. Either they are specially written for the market, or, more commonly, they are adapted by the editorial staff from a full-length novel. Most publishers make a point of submitting manuscripts with a feminine appeal to magazines, in order to sell the serial rights well before book publication. Financially, selling to a magazine is by far the better proposition. Serial rights can bring in two or three times as much – sometimes even more than a publisher’s advance. (Britton and Collin 108). 1
They probably weren’t overstating the importance of the magazine market in that period; Joseph McAleer, who has studied the publishing history of Mills & Boon, writes that
While Mills & Boon had had a close relationship with the magazines since the 1920s, it was in the 1950s that contact intensified, and the magazines themselves become a kind of extension of the editorial department. By 1948, pre-publication serializations of Mills & Boon novels were fixtures in the top three women’s magazines, which together were selling over three million copies per week: Woman, Woman’s Own, and Woman’s Weekly [...]. This association with the weekly magazines served more than an editorial purpose. Mills & Boon reaped extra publicity when a serial ‘sold’ well, encouraging readers to seek out the complete novel in the libraries, or other titles by the author. Moreover, selling serial rights – for as much as £1,000 – helped Mills & Boon’s cash flow. The firm usually retained between 15 and 25 per cent of the serial fee. (97)
Magazines came in various types and Bridget Fowler has studied in detail
a representative sample of weekly family or women’s magazines, selecting those of the most economical design, with the lowest prices [...]. Where possible, the period analysed was July 1929 to July 1930 [...]. Not only was this a time of industrial restructuring and financial collapse, but it was also the last era before the birth of the modern, glossy, mass-circulation women’s magazine in 1932. Stories had a much more central place in the older type of magazine and were often the sole diet of fiction for their readers. The affectionate niche they acquired in the lives of their reading-public was attested by many of my respondents with working-class roots, who recalled their mothers snatching brief interludes from heavy domestic labour to enjoy the little luxury of Silver Star or the People’s Friend. (51)2
Billie Melman has focused in particular on “The Lancashire romance and the love story set in the Empire” (144) in British story papers of the 1920s. The “mill-girl story had emerged in the 1890s. Its heyday overlapped the decade between the end of the First World War and the Wall Street Crash; its decline and fall coincided with the Great Depression” (121). Indeed, “The Great Depression, which finally ruined the Lancashire cotton industry, also gave the Lancashire romance its coup-de-grâce” (133). This sub-genre does
include some stories of romantic rivalry between a mill-hand and a toff, fighting for the heart and hand of a mill girl. Usually it is the honest, industrious Lancastrian who wins. On the whole, the concept of marriage as a bond that benefits economically or socially one or both of the parties is alien to the spirit of the Lancashire romance. Matrimony is not an economic partnership, or a sanctioned sexual relationship, but a lifelong friendship between two adolescents, an extension of the ‘matiness’ of the mill. (128)
In sharp contrast to the mill-girl stories, yet existing alongside them, was a type of story whose “brand-mark was nationalism. Its symbol was the Empire. Its main characteristic was the blurring of social differences and the effacement of class consciousness” (134). Melman suggests that “The flowering of a genre that celebrated an imaginary society in which females were scarce and males plentiful may be seen as a response to the anxieties caused by the imbalance between the sexes” (136-37) in the aftermath of the First World War. There
are two patterns of romance. In the first, the emigrant story proper, an Englishwoman, newly arrived from the ‘Old Country’, finds a mate, a home and purposeful life in the unpopulated wilderness of a British dominion or colony. In the second pattern, the heroine, born of British parents in the ‘New Country’, is pursued and won by an Englishman. In both these patterns the main emphasis is upon the national and racial identity of the protagonists. The characters must be white and Anglo-Saxon. Their affiliation to race replaces other allegiances – to class, to the community, to occupation and even to gender. (137)
The story papers in which these stories appeared
were printed, on the newsprint pulp paper from which they derived their somewhat derogatory epithet, in a two- or four-column layout. The typical story paper was a weekly [...]. Its potential readers were unmarried manual workers, shop assistants, domestic servants and office workers. Married women in their early and mid twenties formed a distinct group for which a host of periodicals more domestic in outlook than the publications for adolescents catered.
The main component of the pulp weekly was fiction. The relation between the role of magazine fiction and the social status of the magazine-reading public has been noticed. The space given to fiction was in inverse proportion to the class of readers. The ‘higher’ this class, the smaller the story component. (113)
In addition, “The serial story was peculiar to working-class periodicals. [...] Middle-class publications, on the other hand, had a distinct preference for shorter fiction” (114).
William Gleason takes the study of magazine romances back even further in time, and across the Atlantic, in issue 2.1 of the Journal of Popular Romance Studies. He states that:
The mass marketing of modern romance fiction in North America began not with the emergence of Harlequin Books in the 1950s but during the dime novel and story paper boom of the 1860s and 1870s. Seeking to capitalize on the longstanding appeal of love stories, which had been appearing alongside other popular genres in the weekly family story papers since the mid-nineteenth century, many of the most influential “cheap” U.S. publishing houses—including Beadle and Adams, Street and Smith, George P. Munro, and Norman Munro—began to experiment with more distinctly marked romance series aimed primarily or exclusively at women readers. Several of these series were quite successful, others wildly so. Beadle and Adams’s Waverley Library, for example, which offered both classic fiction and popular romance novels, produced a total of 353 issues between 1879 and 1886 (Johannsen 304, 314). Street and Smith’s Bertha Clay Library, launched in 1900, ran (along with its successor, the New Bertha M. Clay Library) for more than thirty years (Carr 81). And from the mid-1880s through the 1930s popular publishers fought over exclusive rights to publish and republish the works of prolific American romance novelist Laura Jean Libbey, both as stand-alone volumes in various “library” series and as serialized novels in weekly story papers (Masteller 205). These late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century publishing successes laid the groundwork for the mass marketing of popular romance with which we are familiar today.
As for me, I’ve been dipping into the digitized, online editions of Australian Women’s Weekly from 1933 to 1982. Joan Elman’s A New Car and a Lady (18 Feb. 1939) features a heroine who drives cars for a living (she works for a car show-room); the first thing she says is “Oh, but this had been a day of days! Three demonstrations since ten o’clock. Careers for women? Ugh!” (5). The anti-heroine from this story is not totally dissimilar, at least initially, to the heroine of This Frail Flower (21 August 1943) who, before the war, was “lovely and loveable, spoiled, useless” (5). She, however, finds a new purpose in life, and her old love, in a factory doing war-work. In Paul Horgan’s National Honeymoon (16 Sept. 1950) the heroine manipulates her new groom into appearing with her on a national radio programme which gives prizes to newly-weds in return for them sharing their love story with the nation. Roberta May reveals that she used to work “as a secretary [...] I wanted to keep on, but Gus wouldn’t let me” because, as he says, “I can support both of us” (10). Roberta gave up her job rather than lose Gus, but much as the job would have enabled her to “help with payments on the house” (20), their appearance on the show will allow her to have a room in that house refurbished. After the show, however, Roberta is “sorry with all her heart for what they had given away that day [...] their very own love story” (22). Gus tells her that they can get back “the important part of it” by returning all the prizes; “I’ll buy what we need, and if we can’t afford it yet we’ll wait till we can” (22). Yet again, the implication seems to be (a) a man should “support” the couple on his own, without his wife’s assistance, and (b) when a wife puts herself into the public arena (as opposed to staying safely at home) she runs the risk of damaging her marriage. The contrast between these last two stories seems to reflect the changing attitudes towards women’s work:
At the end of the war, the Women’s Bureau of the Department of Labor asked women workers about their future work plans [...] most women wanted to keep their present jobs. Immediately after the war, the percentage of women who worked fell as factories converted to peacetime production and refused to rehire women. In the next few years, the service sector expanded and the number of women in the workforce—especially older married women—increased significantly, despite the dominant ideology of woman as homemaker and mother. The types of jobs available to these women, however, were once again limited to those traditionally deemed “women’s work.”(History Matters)
1The authors of this guide, Anne Britton and Marion Collin, had “both been fiction editors of women’s magazines” (dustjacket) so they clearly write from experience when they warn authors of full-length novels that:
If your manuscript is bought as a serial do not be surprised by what happens to it. You may have written about sixty-five thousand words. The fiction staff will have no qualms about cutting it to thirty thousand words if it suits them better that way. You have sold the story and unless you want to kill your market you will be wise not to complain about its new length or its new title, or even to hint that they have cut out your most brilliant passages! The staff who cut are experienced, and it is their job to know what makes a successful serial. (117-18)
I can’t help but feel that there are some parallels here with the process of translation and cutting documented by Eva Hemmungs Wirtén, which led her to ask “Is thisnot a new book? And where is the writer in all of this?” (“They Seek“).
2 The romance stories themselves are described by Fowler as featuring “plots in which women are shown to be as capable of achieving production targets and intellectual attainments as men. However, in every case the working woman is reintegrated into the domestic world after marriage” (60).
- Britton, Anne and Marion Collin. The New Writers’ Guide: Romantic Fiction. London: T. V. Boardman, 1960.
- Fowler, Bridget. The Alienated Reader: Women and Romantic Literature in the Twentieth Century. Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991.
- Gleason, William. “Belles, Beaux, and Paratexts: American Story Papers and the Project of Romance.” Journal of Popular Romance Studies 2.1 (2011).
- McAleer, Joseph. Passion’s Fortune: The Story of Mills & Boon. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999
- Melman, Billie. Women and the Popular Imagination in the Twenties: Flappers and Nymphs. London: Macmillan, 1988.
- Wirtén, Eva Hemmung. ” ‘They Seek It Here, They Seek It There, They Seek It Everywhere’: Looking for the “Global” Book” Canadian Journal of Communication 23.2 (1998).
The covers above, from The Australian Women’s Weekly, are for 25 Feb. 1939,19 June 1943 and 14 Oct. 1950. Thumbnails of all the covers can be viewed via a “visual timeline.”
Teach Me Tonight