Saturday, February 03, 2007

Why is Harlequin Harlequin?

It struck me today that I didn't know what a Harlequin is. That little guy on the spine of Harlequin books? Merriam-Webster says, "a. a character in comedy and pantomime with a shaved head, masked face, variegated tights, and wooden sword b. Buffoon." Wiki has a bit more information. Harlequin, the anglicized version of Arlecchino, was the name of a stock character in the Commedia dell'arte, which was an improvisational form of theater popular in Italy in the 16th century. Harlequin is a jokester, described as stupid and glutinous. He carried a baton, with which he beat other characters, and that's where we get our term "slapstick." His distinctive diamond costume was a stylized representation of ragged, patchwork clothing, as he was a pauper.

So why is a romance publisher named after that? It would make sense if Harlequin was a romantic hero, but a jester? Well, Harlequin's website has no company history at all. Very disappointing. But Mills & Boon, the UK arm of Harlequin came through with a history. And I found more history here. Apparently Harlequin was founded by Richard Bonnycastle (great name!) in 1949. At first they didn't even publish romances--they did paperback reprints of mysteries and westerns. They started doing romance in the mid-1950s.

Okay, so all that is quite interesting, but I couldn't find any information on why the company was named Harlequin. I guess Mr. Bonnycastle equated Harlequin, the funniest character from a form of popular theater, with reasonably priced (cheap) paperback fiction. Sort of high-brow, but not stuffy. Popular entertainment, but classy. If there's another connection, I'm not seeing it.

I don't think Harlequin actually uses the figure as a logo anymore, do they? Just the diamond from his costume. And that's my history lesson for today. :o)


CindyS said...

Well done! I wonder why he picked that name also but I like your reasoning. All the same, my dishware which is Denby is called Harlequin and there isn't a diamond in sight. I did know that the diamond pattern was called harlequin from watching my designer shows but I didn't know about the jester. The jester makes me think more of a charlatan - from - a person who pretends to more knowledge or skill than he or she possesses; quack.

Words are a funny thing when you think about them too much ;)


Rosario said...

I was aware of the Harlequin-Commedia dell'Arte connection because Agatha Christie was obsessed with the latter and featured it in many of her short stories, but I never thought to wonder why the publishers Harlequin had chosen that name. Your guess makes as much sense as anything, lol!

nath said...

maybe because of how the word sounds? I mean, sometimes, we don't have to look to hard into it :P if logic doesn't fit, well...

Jennie said...

Cindy--Funny about your dishes! I love figuring out why we use certain words. Sorta dorky, but mostly fun. :p

Rosario--You know, I've never read an Agatha Christie. Feels so wrong! I will have to remedy that.

Nath--who knows?! I should email Harlequin and ask them. But I doubt they'd answer me. Maybe they don't even know. :)

raspberry swyrl said...

History nerd and Winnipegger sharing this info. I thought I had remembered somewhere that Harlequin had been started in Winnipeg and it was.

"Apparently Harlequin's founder, Richard Bonnycastle started out trading furs for the Hudsons Bay Company throughout western Canada, based out of Winnipeg. Ever the entrepreneur, Bonnycastle got involved in various businesses, including a printing plant. He had an idea to print paperbacks, and the story goes that one night he was talking with his wife about his plans, and she said she enjoyed those `nurse/doctor stories' from England. He suggested that if she liked them so much maybe she ought to publish them. So Mrs. Bonnycastle obtained the rights from Mills & Boon Publishers in London England, and along with her friend, Ruth Palmour, started Harlequin Romance."

I suppose if your city is famous for anything else besides being cold it should be famous for steamy romances.

raspberry swyrl said...

p.s Still not sure why they chose the name more research required.

Jennie said...

Raspberry--thanks for the info! I didn't know they started in Winnipeg. And the bit about the wife--makes sense, though!

Kate Diamond said...

This is such an interesting post. Also a little frustrating! Now, you've gotten me curious. I really want to know where the name comes from!

Thanks for the history lesson.

Yishey said...

Hi -
You just brought back a host of memories for me. I used to read Mills & Boons romance novels in high school back in India!