Uplifting Lust

E.S. Turner

  • Passion’s Fortune: The Story of Mills and Boon by Joseph McAleer
    Oxford, 322 pp, £25.00, November 1999, ISBN 0 19 820455 8
  • The Romantic Fiction of Mills and Boon 1909-1995 by Jay Dixon
    UCL, 218 pp, £11.99, November 1998, ISBN 1 85728 267 1

When the Berlin Wall came down ten years ago the publishers Mills and Boon moved swiftly into the breach. In a single day, we are told, their West German office gave away 750,000 copies of romantic novels to East German women. These escapers, it was assumed, now needed all the escapism they could get. In the benighted East their appetite for fantasy-fodder might – or might not – have been fed by titles like Daughter of the Stasi, The Reluctant Informer or Betrayal in Marxstadt, but here was escapism Western style, ‘wholesome’ and ‘hot’ at the same time (Joseph McAleer’s rating). It was wholesome in the sense that these paperbacks with their innocuous strong-man-and-starlet covers contained no swearing or four-letter words or blasphemies or gratuitous squalor, but hot in the sense that a high proportion of them offered scenes in which besotted lovers – doctors and nurses, as likely as not – engaged in free-ranging carnal joys, described at luscious length. The encounters seem to have been getting ever hotter, with the participants no more committed to hallowed union than they are to the missionary position. Today’s romantic novel has become one of the major curiosities of literature. Was this the blend of sugar and spice the women of Eastern Europe had been waiting for? Apparently, yes. Eastern Europe has proved ‘a huge new market’. In 1992 Poland bought 15 million Mills and Boon titles and the firm’s banner flew on Valentine’s Day above the former Communist headquarters in Warsaw.

Two hundred years ago Hazlitt worried about the effect on the minds of seamstresses and needlewomen of the cheap romances – a long way removed from three-volume novels – which they devoured endlessly, far into the night, sending for another story as soon as the last one was finished, till tears and sighs led to a ‘defluction of the brain and a palpitation of the heart’ which rendered them incapable of resisting the first coxcomb to approach them with no thought of marriage. It is, of course, inconceivable – or is it? – that any such defluction of the brain could overcome the millions of women who have the compulsion to chase down one Mills and Boon with another (a tick-the-box questionnaire invites readers to say whether they get through ‘more than ten a month’). These stories, in the view of the sapient Alan Boon, can be compared to Valium for women. But the Mills and Boon operation is such a high-powered one that the worldwide propagation of the attitudes it fosters perhaps ought to be worrying the anti-globalisation lobby. In 1998, according to McAleer, the firm sold more than 200 million novels in 100 overseas markets, translated into 24 languages (on another page the total is put at a mere 160 million). We are asked to believe that a novel is sold every two seconds. In Britain the firm claims the allegiance of four out of ten women. Almost all the 1500 writers of these stories are women, an embarrassment for the hardcore feminists who were not slow to denounce patriarchal forces exercising social control and robbing women of their legitimate expectations and autonomy. Of which more later.

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