You can listen to the programme in full here, though I'm not sure how long it will remain available. Presented by "Stand-up comedian and writer Lucy Porter", this programme was a brief, but relatively balanced account of the history of Mills & Boon that also looks at the relationship between Mills & Boon readers and the novels they buy in such impressive numbers.
Porter begins by reading the blurb of Nicola Marsh's Two-Week Mistress: "Won over by a wombat [...]" and, herself won over by the wombat, she comments: "Brilliant! That actually sounds quite funny. [...] How times have changed!"
The press release describing this programme was misleading, however. Here are some of the key paragraphs from the press release:
The company has remained essentially conservative with no sex before marriage, no inter-racial relationships and, especially, no heroines with deformities allowed. One of Mills and Boon's most prolific writers in the Sixties, Violet Winspear, caused controversy in 1970 when she claimed her heroes had to be "capable of rape".The first paragraph relates to information related by Joseph McAleer, author of Passion's Fortune: The Story of Mills & Boon. In the programme McAleer relates almost verbatim something he mentions in his book:
Lucy examines why Mills and Boon still doesn't deal directly with some elements of modern society, such as same-sex and inter-racial relationships. She finds out who reads these books, and why they remain a guilty pleasure for many women.
She hears from critics who argue the novels are formulaic, badly written, sexist and for people who are unhappy.
In 1960 Anne Britton and Marion Collin published Romantic Fiction: The New Writers' Guide, which included several chapters on writing serial fiction. Britton was fiction editor of Woman's Own and My Home, and later wrote for Mills & Boon as 'Jan Anderson'. [...] Britton and Collin wrote [...] there were certain taboos to avoid:Clearly much has changed since the 1960s, and this is made clear in the programme (even if not in the press release). Mills & Boon novels may include gay secondary characters and the spokesperson for the company said that
- Drunkenness. 'Certainly the heroine is never "tipsy" and rarely does the hero spend his time propping up bars.'
- Deformity. 'Never a heroine with one leg. No one will buy that story.'
- Divorce. 'This offends so many readers and especially Eire, which could mean the loss of several thousand copies.'
- Illegitimate children. 'Never.'
- Mixed race and colour bar. 'To make a mixed marriage the central situation in a story is to invite a definite rejection at the present time'. (231)
homosexuality is okay but we would never actually do books where the two main protagonists are same sex, purely because we are the specialists in heterosexual sex. If you want gay romances there are other publishers who would do it much better than we would do it.Regarding inter-racial relationships she commented:
I wish we had more of those, actually. The issue there for us is getting the material. We don't get enough manuscripts where people actually explore those kinds of relationships. If they do, I would say to them "don't get hung up on all the political and social issues."It probably also depends on how you define "inter-racial" because there are a fair number of sheik romances. When we had only seen the press release and were therefore still speculating about what would be in the programme, Kate Walker mentioned Melissa James's novels. Melissa James's first novel,
Her Galahad is a based-on-fact book, gleaned from my Aboriginal History course in 1999. I was away camping with my family, and brought my reader. I read that weekend that the Australian Government had regularly given fake death certificates to members of the Stolen Generation (Aboriginal kids taken from their families) for their parents, so they wouldn't go home and look for their heritage, and blend into white society. Those same kids (the girls) quite often lost their children - told they were dead, and the government adopted them out to white families. And many of those boys ended up in prison, on real or fake charges. (James, in an interview)James seems to have succeeded in not getting "hung up on all the political and social issues", since the reviewer at The Romance Reader, Thea Davis, comments that 'the mixed race issue [...] is subtly in the background'.
With regards to Violet Winspear's comment about rape, it has to be borne in mind that, as McAleer notes, she made her comment in 1970 and she
aroused considerable controversy by her remarks on the BBC Man Alive programme, and in a companion interview in the Radio Times. Winspear, described as possessing 'man mania' [...] got carried away in revealing her vision of the archetypal romantic hero:One of the Mills & Boon editors responds that clearly in Winspear's time
I get my heroes so that they're lean and hard muscled and mocking and sardonic and tough and tigerish and single, of course. Oh and they've got to be rich and then I make it that they're only cynical and smooth on the surface. But underneath they're well, you know, sort of lost and lonely. In need of love but, when roused, capable of breathtaking passion and potency. Most of my heroes, well all of them really, are like that. They frighten but fascinate. They must be the sort of men who are capable of rape: men it's dangerous to be alone in the room with. (257)
attitudes about that sort of thing were a bit dodgy by our standards now. On the other hand, [...] there is a fantasy in Mills & Boon which is all about overwhelming passion . I think you have to take it sort of as a code, perhaps. It's a fantasy of sort of lying back and just being made love to by this wonderful man who wants only you and the force of his feelings is almost overwhelming. [...] It's a sort of abdication of responsibility. [...] I would say that rape is a power thing [...] we aren't really going there, all we're talking about is feelings and emotionsThe programme quickly charts the history of Mills & Boon. One can find a summary of this on the Mills & Boon website:
When Gerald Mills and Charles Boon joined forces in 1908 to create Mills & Boon Ltd, the company was not founded as a romance fiction publishing house —although its first book was, prophetically, a romance. Since those early days, Harlequin Mills & Boon Ltd has developed from a general fiction publisher to become the UK's undisputed market leader in romance fiction publishing.There are some critical voices on the programme, primarily those of Mary Evans, Professor of Women's Studies at the University of Kent, and novelist Celia Brayfield. Mary Evans, one of whose recent publications is Love: An Unromantic Discussion in which she "argues that we should abandon love in its romanticized and commercialized form", says that "I think they're very formulaic. I think they're formulaic in their endings, I think they're formulaic in their construction and I think they're formulaic in their language." Gill Sanderson responds by making a comparison with Shakespeare's sonnets and saying that there is a "set of rules that you stick to but within those rules there is an almost infinite variety of things you can do".
From the very beginning, Mills & Boon published in a form and at a price that was within the reach of a wide readership. In the 1930s the company noted the rapid rise of commercial libraries and the growing appetite for escapism during the Depression years. The favourite genre was romance and the company decided to concentrate on hardback romances, a policy which became increasingly successful. Mills & Boon books were initially sold through weekly two-penny libraries and their distinctive brown binding led them to become known as "the books in brown".
With the decline of lending libraries in the late 1950s, the company's most successful move was to realise that there would remain a strong market for romance novels, but that sales would depend on readers having easy access to reasonably priced books. As a result Mills & Boon romance became widely available from newsagents across the country. [...]
In 1957 Harlequin began buying the rights to romance novels from the English firm Mills & Boon Ltd. So successful were these Doctor Nurse romances that the Canadian Company began to concentrate on selling them and by 1964 romance fiction comprised the entire Harlequin list.
In the late 1960s Harlequin began a period of extraordinary expansion that propelled it into the international stage following the 1971 acquisition of Mills & Boon Ltd, then the largest romance publisher in the English speaking world. By the end of the decade, Harlequin's overseas acquisitions and partnerships were taking the company's brand of love stories to bookshelves around the world.
Celia Brayfield states of Mills & Boon romances that "the language is extremely tired and hackneyed. I do think they make an effort to remove clichés but you can almost see the holes where they've cut them out. I think they're very mediocre and competent in literary terms and not more than that. It's a kind of lowest common denominator of reading for people who can only just about read." It's perhaps worth noting that Brayfield has written "A how-to book for writers, about the theory and techniques of popular fiction, with illustrations from the work of over twenty best-selling novelists." Brayfield has also criticised Jane Austen:
"I think she betrays her time and I'm always gob smacked by what she ignored," says Celia Brayfield, author and lecturer at Brunel University. "She focused on such a narrow strain of human reality. Correct me if I'm wrong but wasn't the Napoleonic War going on at the time when she was writing, she doesn't mention it. There is no poverty in her novels, no corruption, ambition, wickedness or war. Yes her wit is enchanting and her human observations enduringly accurate, but the world she writes about is so tiny. I find it claustrophobic."I wonder if Brayfield is maybe either a little hard to please or has very particular views about what constitutes a good novel.
There's also this unattributed gem which, I think, really doesn't deserve a response:
What Mills & Boon do, really, is play to the lowest common denominator of the female readership and quite honestly any woman with two neurons to rub together would have serious trouble reading more than one of these books unless she had the fluand here's another:
It's bad for women to suggest that the whole of their lives will be sorted out if they simply attract the right man. That is not the reality and it stands in the way of women taking responsibility for their own lives and for the lives of their children. Mills & Boon just says "make yourself attractive darling and some lovely bloke will come along and take care of it" and that simply doesn't happen and it also encourages women to be dependent, to underachieve their potential, and to not fully realise themselves as human beings.Mary Evans then adds that she thinks of a Mills & Boon romance as
the kind of book that is read by somebody who feels that their life is lacking [...] so what they are turning to to make up that missing part is romance. So as I say, I see them as a literature of unhappiness rather than happiness. They're a classic literature for rather miserable, rather disappointed, rather jaundiced people."Such negative opinions are countered by a variety of M&B authors and readers who point out that they enjoy the books, see them as fun, and can tell the difference between reality and fiction.
- McAleer, Joseph. Passion’s Fortune: The Story of Mills & Boon. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999. [The introduction and a sample chapter are available from here as a pdf.]