Love, designed

Passion – Romantic fiction

12 September 2023
From the exhibition

Seven Nights with the Sheikh, A Kiss in the Moonlight, An Heir for the King: the titles of romantic fiction in the world-famous Bouquet series have always appealed to the imagination. Guilty pleasures full of desire, temptation and happy endings are still extremely popular.

Secret pleasure
According to Harlequin Holland, which has been publishing the Bouquet series in the Netherlands since 1975, there are over a million readers in this country. Worldwide, the publisher sells one book every four seconds. The 4,500th title hit the supermarkets in July 2023. The popularity of these romantic bestsellers reflects their subject matter (love, passion!) but also the escapism they offer, an opportunity to drift away into a different reality.

Literature about romantic love with emotionally satisfying and optimistic endings has been around for a long time. Take the novels of Jane Austen or Charlotte Brontë, for example. There was a revival in escapist novels during the economic depression of the 1930s, which the British publisher Mills & Boon picked up again in the 1950s. A merger with the Canadian firm Harlequin and the arrival of paperback publications made this type of literature more accessible and cheaper.

Literary doghouse
Although millions of readers all over the world enjoy these books, romantic literature in general and the Bouquet series in particular, remain in the literary doghouse. Mainstream literature looks down on the exaggerated but wooden style and the often stereotypical characters. Some of this, however, also seems to reflect the difficulty that literary critics have with books written for and by women, and which have female passion at their heart.

Unattainable ideal
Time then to reassess the Bouquet series! Although we should also be aware of how books like this create and perpetuate traditional gender roles. These are not only harmful to women: they influence the meaning of masculinity too. What does it mean for men who do not recognize themselves in the presented ideal that millions of women dream of this fantasy?