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The joys of trashy romance novels

Dzifa Benson
No longer the chaste, gender-stereotyped pulp of yesteryear, Mills & Boon are surprisingly popular with intelligent, educated women

The heroes in Mills & Boon stories used to fall into one of three categories: sardonic Greek tycoon, enigmatic Arab sheikh or arrogant Italian playboy. These days you can get every permutation of fantasy lover imaginable. Perhaps you’d like a prince who happens to be moonlighting as a doctor on a cruise ship? Or a lover who helps you defeat a vengeful, baby-stealing demon (you’re a witch, incidentally)? I’ve even read that the next kinky fantasy to feature in Mills & Boon’s erotic imprint is centaur porn. I’ll leave you to speculate on which half will be man and which half will be horse.

Mills & Boon is now 105 years old. Judging by sales figures, one could argue that it is Britain’s most famous publishing house and one of the most successful in history. It has also had a boost from devices such as the Kindle: digital sales are outnumbering print editions two-to-one on account of a growing number of 30-somethings who can now indulge their guilty pleasure in relative privacy.

According to the publisher, while digital readers tend to prefer the raunchier reads of the ‘Spice’ category – thank you, Fifty Shades of Grey – it’s the far-fetched, glamorous billionaires and princes of the ‘Modern’ series that are the most appealing in print. Even so, given the formulaic boy-meets-girl-loses-girl-realises-error-of-his-ways-gets-girl-back plots, what is their enduring appeal among educated women?

I have written for Philosophy Now magazine and my poetry has appeared in such august publications as Poetry Review. Yet I also have a penchant for Mills & Boon’s ‘Blaze’ category, in spite of the ridiculous titles – see Purchased by the Billionaire  and  The Greek Tycoon’s Unwilling Wife. Yeah, I’m woman and I’m complex like that.

From chaste courtship to kids out of wedlock

When I first encountered their fiction, I was a 14-year-old schoolgirl studying Shakespeare and Swift in a mountain-top boarding school in semi-rural Ghana. At least a third of my classmates – about 40 girls – were hooked. We treated the books like currency, bartering them for titles we hadn’t read, favours and food. That was when Mills & Boon were the purveyors of chaste stories featuring questionably young, limpid English roses with the care of horses or grandparents, facing off to brooding, socially inept alpha men.

Such as Dagan, autocratic hero of the questionably-titled Rash Intruder, whose “bland, enquiring face” takes a fancy to his timid secretary Tamar: “I’ve been wanting to kiss you from the moment you came out of my bathroom looking like a virgin about to be sacrificed to the Dragon!” Seduction 101, from a member of the ‘Greek tycoon’ category.

Or Saul Diamond, the mechanic whose hard throbbing bike wins over high flyer Kara. As for sex, well: a tender kiss before the couple walked off into the sunset was about as racy as it got – if you wanted real action, you needed Jackie Collins. I’ll never forget my stepfather telling me that it ought to be called Bills & Moon, on account of the fact that lots of men, probably called William, were smouldering at heroines in the moonlight.

The heroine has changed a lot since then. There is now less emphasis on marriage and domestic life. She isn’t virginal. She could even – gasp! – have a child out of wedlock. She’s more likely to be tied up in a career, and needs persuading of the advantages of romance by the hero. I like that many of the heroines are ordinary, go-getting women like me – you know, teachers, chefs, businesswomen, florists. The heroes are roguish; essentially good men with all the attendant flaws of being human. The sex is so hot and fresh that sometimes I’ve wondered if I’m old enough for it all.

An equal perspective

Back in the eighties, all the stories were told from the heroine’s viewpoint. Cue plenty of opportunity for deciphering and worrying about the man’s feelings. Now, you get both perspectives, making for more rounded male characters which reflect women’s changing roles and expectations. The stereotype of the timid, inferior secretary crushed in the arms of the boorish boss is well and truly dead – thank goodness.

In her memoir In Other Worlds, Margaret Atwood presents the case for reading widely and without pretension. It is precisely the dependability of the plots and their easy pace that makes these books so pleasurable – particularly in today’s climate, where stress levels run high. They are not meant to be great literature. They do, however, have much to tell us about the internal life of women. I know lawyers, teachers and well-educated writers who read them. Shoma Narayanan, for example, is one of the first Indian Mills & Boon authors whose novels have been given a global release. She’s also a Senior Vice President at HSBC.

To the critics, who accuse them of reinforcing ideals of the dominant male, or placing unrealistic expectations of men upon women, I would say that the sheer range of contemporary titles – ranging from sweetly chaste to sexually deviant – go a long way in reflecting the complex structures of modern families and relationships. Mills & Boon obviously hits the sweet spot for a lot of women, not all of them passive. A case in point about escapism: I stopped reading Mills & Boon novels at 18 years old but unconsciously picked them up again when my last relationship soured. Once I’d extricated myself, the urge to read them dissipated. Jilly Cooper understands. “After all’, she says, “life’s bloody tough. Mills & Boon is much better than binge drinking.”

Dzifa Benson is a poet and playwright. 

Shoma Narayanan is one of the first Indian Mills & Boon authors whose novels have been given a global release. She's also a Senior Vice President at HSBC

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