Thursday, September 27, 2007

BBC Radio 4 - Guilty Pleasure: A Hundred Years Of Mills And Boon


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".

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.
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:
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:
  • 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)
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
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:

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)
One of the Mills & Boon editors responds that clearly in Winspear's time
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 emotions
The 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.

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.
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".

Celia Brayfield states of Mills & Boon romances that "the language is extremely tired and hackneyed. I do think they make an effort to remove clich├ęs 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 flu
and 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.]

16 comments:

  1. The company has remained essentially conservative with no sex before marriage . . .

    *LOL* Too bad nobody told the authors ...

    There is no poverty in her novels, no corruption, ambition, wickedness or war.

    It's true that the Napoleonic Wars are only indirectly mentioned and that there is no abject poverty in Austen's books in contrast to, say, Charles Dickens's novels, but what about Mrs. Smith in Persuasion? And no corruption, ambition or wickedness? Oh please! It would seem that it's Brayfield "who can only just about read".

    And her how-to book for writers probably includes a chapter on how to p.o. readers.

    it also encourages women to be dependent, to underachieve their potential, and to not fully realise themselves as human beings.

    And totally prevents female readers from rebelling against the yoke of patriarchy. Yup, we've heard and read all that before. If it weren't all so sad, these "expert opinions" would be rather funny.

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  2. Brayfield has... criticised Jane Austen: "I think she betrays her time.... 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.

    Why should fiction be constrained to treatments of current events? Fiction written in any time need not be set in that time; and just because it's "realistic" (as opposed to "fantastic") doesn't mean it's faithful in all regards to the "real" world.

    Lawrence Watt-Evans made a similar criticism in Flirting with Pride and Prejudice, including:
    "There is one truly curious item in the final chapter... when Austen describes the fate of Wickham and Lydia: 'Their manner of living, even when the restoration of peace dismissed them to a home, was unsettled in the extreme.'

    'Restoration of peace'? ... England was at war for all of Jane Austen's adult life... Was this wishful thinking on Austen's part?
    "

    This sounds to me like a confusion between fiction written during an historical period, and historical fiction set within the period. No one calls Michael Chabon a bad historian for writing a novel postulating an Alaskan-Jewish state (which doesn't exist today but was actually proposed, 60 years ago). The only difference is that he's writing now; we know it's fiction. At the time Austen was writing, it would have been obvious P&P was set in a parallel world resembling reality closely enough to provide commentary.

    On The Millions, Max Magee discusses "the 9/11 novel" in a similar vein:
    "the subtext... is twofold. First is that the serious novel's driving function is to make sense of our complicated world.... Second is this idea that every major event requires the culture to produce innumerable artifacts that are explicitly about that event.... I would argue that nearly every serious novel written since 9/11 is a "9/11 novel."... some more explicitly about 9/11 than others but all internalizing that event to one degree or another."

    Again... not all fiction must treat every reader's favorite topic. P&P was a novel of those times, whether or not Austen explicitly discussed what that meant in geopolitical terms.

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  3. If it weren't all so sad, these "expert opinions" would be rather funny.

    I can't be absolutely sure, but I got the distinct impression that while Lucy Porter was having a bit of fun with the idea of trying to write a parody of a M&B novel, she was also rather amused by "expert" comments like the one about romance readers being miserable, jaundiced people.

    RfP, it's well seen that you have more than "two neurons to rub together."

    I'd strongly advise people not to attempt to rub their neurons together, though. Could be fatal.

    At the time Austen was writing, it would have been obvious P&P was set in a parallel world resembling reality closely enough to provide commentary.

    Either that or she was hopeful when she wrote that there might be peace sometime soon and/or she didn't want the book to date too quickly. Anyway, some books have epilogues set years into the future relative to the majority of the novel, so there's no reason why Austen might not have been doing that sort of thing, trying to predict the future for her characters and, in doing so, predicting peace.

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  4. I wonder if Brayfield is maybe either a little hard to please or has very particular views about what constitutes a good novel.


    Come now, Laura. You're not wondering at all. You know it's the former. Ms. Brayfield is aptly named.
    ;-)

    Thanks for the interesting and informative post.

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  5. I'm glad you liked the post, Brenda. I thought it was worth summarising some of the main points brought up in the programme because (a) I'm not sure how long the audio file will stay available, (b) the press release was really misleading, and I wanted there to be something written online that set the record straight and (c) I thought that some people who haven't got the time or computer facility to listen to the programme might like to read a bit more about it.

    As for the other matter, I couldn't possibly comment ;-)

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  6. you have more than "two neurons to rub together."

    Oh yes. At least 15, I'm sure.

    Though apparently most brains require about 100 million neurons. Maybe romance really is bad for the brain.

    Say I've been reading romance for 15 years, at the rate of at least one book per week (let's ignore re-reads and binges), that's... close to 1,000 romance novels in my lifetime so far?

    100 million minus 15... divide by 1000...

    er...

    Every romance you read kills 99,999.985 neurons! See, it's a simple tautology. Just pick the right starting assumption (I have 15 neurons, I'm a sad and lonely person, etc), and it's easy to see.

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  7. RfP, my neurons which are about to die salute you!

    Hmm. Perhaps I should say that in Latin so as to give the impression I have more neurons than I really do? My two neurons really aren't sure what to do for the best.

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  8. Thanks for the great summary, Laura.

    And I'm rapt Two-Week Mistress put a positive spin on how M&B has changed.

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  9. The curious thing about the expert opinions is their complete lack of expertness. It's quite clear that most of them just spouted whatever stereotype they have about romance and romance readers and never actually did any research about it. It's the profile of the readership in particular that is so lacking. I routinely spout off whatever's on the top of my head when on a blog, but if the BBC comes calling, I might take five minutes to look up, say, a profile of readership on RWA or something.

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  10. I had to chuckle at the criticism of romances by Mary Evans and Celia Brayfield. If there's anything formulaic, it's their criticisms. I've read almost identical ones a zillion times from people who don't read romances, and don't know anything about Harlequin Mills & Boon. Prejudice is made from pre + judging ie pronouncing on something without any knowledge of it.

    There are, in fact, dozens of types of romances produced by Harlequing. Some types don't appeal to me, others have offered some of the most memorable books I've ever read.

    Do your research, ladies, before you criticise. And remember that readers like a variety of types of book and it's not 'wrong' to like sorts you don't. Talk about narrow-minded!

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  11. If there's anything formulaic, it's their criticisms.

    Anna, this struck me as incredibly profound. You're absolutely right and this is such an incredibly concise and insightful way of saying that these critics Just. Don't. Get it. And don't care to get it. Thank you for that.

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  12. Your summary was excellent, but I must say listening to the broadcast is a whole different experience. The scornful and uninformed remarks sound far worse than I'd pictured!

    I have a feeling some of the harsher criticisms damaged the speakers' cause more than they damaged romance. "Women's studies" is one of those areas that the public already regards with suspicion, and I'm sure the hectoring tone of that piece didn't help matters. I can just imagine the "Scornful woman-bashing feminists!" reactions it would get from some listeners. And really, it's hard to argue in that instance. The distaste for romances and romance readers was vivid and way over the top--far from a dispassionate academic assessment!

    On the other hand, I think the M&B editor did a good job of responding honestly to some of the better-founded criticisms. (The heroine is rarely the millionaire, etc.) I also appreciated her response to the Violet Winspear controversy/rapist heroes. She made an excellent point about forceful lovemaking being an out for heroines who, even these days, aren't comfortable with sex. Her nonjudgmental understanding of what makes readers tick was quite a contrast to Evans and Brayfield.

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  13. The curious thing about the expert opinions is their complete lack of expertness. It's quite clear that most of them just spouted whatever stereotype they have about romance and romance readers and never actually did any research about it. It's the profile of the readership in particular that is so lacking.

    I'm not sure that there's a recent UK equivalent of the RWA statistics, but according to Mann's survey of M&B readers, carried out in the late 1960s,

    Some 37 per cent were office or clerical workers in ‘white collar’ jobs, while only 9 per cent did ‘factory or manual work’ - shattering the stereotype that Mills & Boon romances were read by ‘unsophisticated’ women. As regards education, 44 per cent completed secondary modern or grammar school, and 17 per cent technical, art, or secretarial college – educational levels higher than average for society at the time. (McAleer 133)

    Unlike Humpty Dumpty, that shattered stereotype seems to have put itself back together again, because it's obviously still alive and well.

    I can just imagine the "Scornful woman-bashing feminists!" reactions it would get from some listeners. And really, it's hard to argue in that instance. The distaste for romances and romance readers was vivid and way over the top

    I think this ties in with what Anna said about the criticisms being formulaic. It seems to me that romance novels, and the idea of romance generally, came in for a lot of criticism from many Second Wave feminists. For example, here's Germaine Greer, writing in 1971:

    the sickening obsession which thrills the nervous frames of the heroines of great love-affairs whether in cheap ‘romance’ comic-papers or in hard-back novels of passionate wooing is just that. Women must recognize in the cheap ideology of being in love the essential persuasion to take an irrational and self-destructive step. Such obsession has nothing to do with love, for love is not swoon, possession or mania, but ‘a cognitive act, indeed the only way to grasp the innermost core of personality.’ (Greer, The Female Eunuch 170).

    I think she's right that there's a difference between lasting feelings of companionate love and temporary but intense feelings of passion but it is possible to have both. I also think that, as she says, some people can become overly attached to certain objects/behaviours which are associated with love and which are more likely to be seen in the courtship phase, but often disappear once the relationship is established, and this could lead to disappointment if a person cannot conceive of love in any other way. Such people might require

    the constant manifestation of tenderness, esteem, flattery and susceptibility by the man together with chivalry and gallantry in all situations. [...] Flowers, little gifts, love-letters, maybe poems to her eyes and hair, candlelit meals on moonlit terraces and muted strings. (173)

    In the courting phase her relationship was all glamour [...] for she met her husband only when she was being taken out, wined and dined and dated and feted (186)

    Greer then goes on to give the example of how romantic fiction could lead a woman to feel dissatisfaction after marriage:

    although that unworldly excitement is past women still insist on reliving it. It is the only story they really want to hear. I saw a young wife, of a few months at the most I should judge, on a vaporetto in Venice with her husband, intently reading a fotoromanzo while her husband tried vainly to chat with her and caress her. The fantasy was even then more engrossing than the reality (187)

    However, times have changed, attitudes to marriage have changed, and romance novels have changed, but the formulaic criticisms don't seem to take that into account.

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  14. I've finally listened to the programme, too, and oh my gosh, it was hilarious! Brayfield and Evans came across as stuck-up, snobby academics, while M&B editors and authors all sounded charming, funny, and/or absolutely no-nonsense.

    It was good to see ... er ... hear Porter interviewed Joseph McAleer, too; he is one of the people I'd expect to see on a programme about M&B. I also liked that the programme basically undermined Brayfield and Evan's claims as well as some of the prejudices about writing for M&B.

    But -- what was up with that excerpt from the Violet Winspear novel? Was it taken from an old radio play based on one of her books? Was it intended to be a parody? Whatever it was, it was awful.

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  15. Who is Mary Evans??

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  16. Is that a genuine question, Anonymous? In the body of the post I linked to a web page about Mary Evans. She's Professor of Women's Studies at the University of Kent.

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