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.
Joseph McAleer, author of Popular Reading and Publishing in Britain, 1914-50, seems unworried by the social implications of the Mills and Boon output. His entertaining survey falls into two halves, one a history of the firm (with instructive, if unsightly, bar-charts) and the other a close analysis of the editorial formula. This method, as he admits, involves much overlapping. The book virtually ends with the takeover by Harlequin Books in 1971 and only a short afterword touches on the sensational expansion since then, ‘an epic tale worthy of its own history’. However, as a chronicle of Mills and Boon in its heyday as a family firm, Passion’s Fortune is full of piquancy. McAleer had the run of the firm’s voluminous archive of letters, which should make many a female author think twice before writing too freely to a publisher. Launched in 1909 the firm began with a general list, of which Jack London was a mainstay. Briefly on the strength were P.G. Wodehouse and Hugh Walpole. Gerald Mills was an intellectual who put up most of the money; it is his fate to become universally and perhaps immortally identified with a branch of literature which was hardly his first choice, but such is publishing. Charles Boon, a brewery worker’s son who left school at 12 (‘the original wide boy’, according to his daughter Dinah) was the go-getter who eventually concentrated on light romantic fiction. He did not lack rivals. The Northcliffe fiction factories were turning out paperback romances for mill-girls and shop-girls, a near monopoly in which they were challenged by the D.C. Thomson company in Dundee. But whereas the Northcliffe romances had often been written by men masquerading as women, Charles Boon strove hard to recruit a female workforce. His authors were required to be team players, not prima donnas. The imprint was what mattered, Boon decided, and readers would sooner or later observe brand loyalty. For easy recognition all books were bound in brown.
What of the contents? In 1915 the novelist Hall Caine contributed a poem to The Queen’s Gift Book which defined what the Almighty had in mind when he invented men and women. Two lines ran: ‘If He dowered the Man with passion which the grosser instincts move,/He reserved it to the Woman to uplift his lust to love.’ This could have been adapted as a mission statement for Mills and Boon. There may have been stories in which a righteous male tamed the lusts of an over-sexed woman, but I have not come across them. Charles Boon laid down basic rules for authors. A happy ending was essential, which meant marriage or the promise of it. Stories were to be written wholly from the woman’s viewpoint. The hero had to be an Alphaman, symbolising the strongest of the species: in other words, tall, broad-shouldered, strong-jawed, lean. He was often arrogant and brooding enough to discourage easy intimacy – a figure of ‘glamorous unapproachability’, as it came to be called. Ideally the heroine was a virgin orphan in her late teens or early twenties, sometimes lucky enough to be called Blaise or Alannah, but liable to be addressed as ‘Little One’. In every tale a climactic moment was the ‘punishing kiss’ with which the Alphaman, tired of being misunderstood or messed about, sealed his authority – a fierce kiss which roused in the heroine ‘something wild and lawless’, turning her blood to lava. But she was on no account to let Nature take its course until she was assured that in both of them lust, sometimes known as ‘desire’s ugly brother’, had been uplifted into love. She was then free to feel, or to fool herself, that she had controlled and dominated the proceedings.
Charles Boon saw his firm as essentially a ‘library house’, feeding the Boots and Smith’s chains and the ubiquitous two-penny libraries which flourished in the Thirties. He died in 1943 and after the war his son Alan set about recruiting a new team of authors, many of whom were teachers, nurses, journalists and housewives; quite a few graduated from writers’ circles in the provinces. To his star performers Alan Boon offered astonishing encouragement: gifts of flowers, Ritz lunches, country rides by Rolls-Royce, telephone calls on Christmas Eve; and if one or two of them developed ‘crushes’ on him, who could be surprised? Strangely, in the Fifties, the conventions of romantic fiction had to be tightened up and pre-marital sex, which had occasionally been allowed in the Thirties, was now firmly proscribed. This was partly because the editors of women’s magazines, with whom Boon collaborated for the sake of serial rights, had their own notoriously strict rules. Drinking, swearing, violence, divorce, abortion, homosexuality, ‘real life’ sordidness – all were out. Mixed-race marriages were unthinkable and so were one-legged heroines (anyone with a fortune to lose was welcome to publish such stories). There were to be no elopements or registry office weddings, and churches were to be of unspecified denomination. Sometimes sexual irregularities were permitted to secondary characters, who were liable to be punished by heart attacks, car crashes or stillbirths. This meant that Beauty and the Beast had to be kept apart for 200 pages by misunderstandings, misadventures and backchat.
Boon had to field objections not only from the tyrannous ‘Biddy’ Johnson of Woman’s Weekly and the stern male law-givers of Dundee, but from Mrs Mary Bonnycastle, of Harlequin Books in Winnipeg, to whom he supplied doctor-nurse novels in an endless stream and who was determined to keep Canada clean. When an author complained of silly-seeming objections to her plots she would be reminded by Alan Boon as gently as possible of the existence of Ireland, North America and South Africa. Did she want to lose these major markets, or forgo lucrative serial rights? In other words, did she want to be seriously rich? That usually settled the matter. ‘Alan, I’ll certainly watch out in the future,’ one of them wrote, ‘and you can hurl bricks at me any time you like, as I’m not easily offended when it’s for my own and the firm’s good. I never intended to write pornographic fiction.’ How’s that for biddability? Sometimes Boon sided with the author against the outside critics and the serial version differed from the published book. Among the odder objections raised was one by an editor who, rather than have her readers reminded of the nuclear threat, asked that the hero, an American officer on a warship in Scottish waters, be transferred to an oceanographical survey vessel. An author who made her blissfully wedded heroine declare her intention of having four sons and four daughters horrified a copy editor who shared the Duke of Edinburgh’s anxieties about over-population. Boon did not much care about this issue, but the author was induced to modify her heroine’s expectations. Might not the Irish market have liked the original quota?
Crisis came in the Sixties with the paperback revolution and the collapse of the big commercial libraries. The runway was now being greased for the permissive society. Competition became so savage that in 1971 Mills and Boon judged it prudent to accept a takeover by Harlequin, who by then were less concerned to keep Canada clean than to exploit world markets. At that date Alan Boon had 109 writers under contract. ‘Of these, 21 wrote one book a year; 36 two; and 32, four. Only ten authors exceeded five books a year.’ Neither a harem nor a sweatshop, this was a hard-working and well-fêted collective. In its ranks were two authors, Mary Burchell and Jean MacLeod, who would each give 50 years’ service to Mills and Boon and write 130 novels apiece. In the Thirties Burchell, with the help of her sister, had used her earnings to help smuggle 29 Jews out of Germany. Forgotten now was Lady Josephine Clarke (Errol Fitzgerald) who had retired hurt in 1951 when her 52nd novel, Unwanted Bride, was returned unwanted.
Boon retained editorial control. Under the new regime those authors who felt their talents and integrity had been impugned by restraints on ‘sexy’ writing began the game of pushing out the boundaries. Those who lacked the experience or the skill to write the ‘frisky bits’ copied or paraphrased as best they could. A whole new vocabulary had to be learned. Once upon a time the virgin orphan had worshipped the Alphaman’s ‘maleness’ or ‘manhood’; to do so now meant worshipping his erection. Not all veteran authors were happy about this new world of experienced roving fingers, marauding tongues and last-minute fumbling for condoms. Betty Neels, a stalwart of the old-fashioned doctor-nurse stories, refused to join in, describing the new type of stories as being like ‘gynaecological training manuals’. She remained a bestseller, to the bafflement of the marketing men. Boon is quoted as saying he did not think pressure was ever put on authors to be more licentious. Allen Lane, the thrusting founder of Penguin Books, once felt misgivings about a book his firm were about to publish, a collection of ‘offensive’ cartoons by Siné: unable to persuade his board to withdraw it, he conducted a secret raid on his warehouse and burned the offending edition on his farm at Reading. (Had he conducted a similar raid on the 200,000 copies of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, held up by legal proceedings, he could have delayed the permissive society by a couple of seasons, or perhaps a couple of months.) Did Boon ever contemplate a similar raid on his warehouse, worried that for once the love-making of doctor and nurse had gone too far? Probably not; he was content to go with the market, saying: ‘No one blushes any more.’
In The Romance Fiction of Mills and Boon 1909-1990s, jay Dixon (the lower-case j must be a signal of some sort) writes as an insider. For 18 years she read every Mills and Boon title she could lay her hands on; she was a depressed housewife in search of a father figure. Then, in the mid-Eighties, like a drunkard going to work in a brewery, she became a Mills and Boon copy-editor and edited four manuscripts a week. After two years she decided to set up as an analyst of the genre instead. Unlike many of her fellow feminists, she thinks the Mills and Boon romances are serving the cause of women well, showing how those Alphamen can be ‘socialised into a woman’s world’. This may well mean inflicting salutary suffering on them. Since the Sixties heroines have always worked for a living and many of them take challenging posts abroad, deflating sardonic Spanish dons and lascivious Latins as necessary. Fearless and feisty, articulating women’s defiance, they fight the hero all the way until they integrate him into the ‘female value system’. Apparently male heroes are now being persuaded to forgo jobs in faraway places that take them away from the female base. If males are being ‘stiffed’ like this, why do Dixon’s fellow feminists still sound off?
Dixon is at her best giving us her own views rather than making nods to Assiter, Modleski, Snitow and other pundits, or writing sentences which begin ‘Talbot (1985) following Radway and Miles talks about ...’ Having read a thousand novels, she is well equipped to categorise heroes down the decades: from Imperialist rovers in the early days to boy heroes, English country gentlemen, boys next door and ‘the Latin/Arab macho heroes of the Sixties’ down to ‘the dominant hero of the Seventies and Eighties, who can be cruel and sexually aggressive, but also tender and supplicating’. Readers, we are told, prefer their heroes not to be virgins and some of them have come a long way from that state. Dixon quotes from Carole Mortimer’s A Rogue and a Pirate (1987), in which the Latin hero is closely questioned by the heroine, who is trying to wean him from the notion that sex is just a meaningless recreation for males:
‘When did you last go to bed with a woman?’
‘It – I – four days ago,’ he admitted.
‘And the time before that?’
‘About a week before that ... I’m not making excuses!’
‘And why should you, any healthy male would feel proud to have bedded two different women in as many weeks. Now let’s see, there are 52 weeks in a year, and I would say you’ve been sexually active ... probably 22 years of your life –
‘Okay we’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and say 26 times 21 ... That’s a total of 546 ... That isn’t bad for an unmarried man.’
As an example of full and frank discussion between the sexes in romantic fiction this is quite a memorable exchange. We are not told whether, or how, the heroine was able to render this priapic Latin fit for inclusion in a ‘female value system’, or whether she was smart enough to judge the moment when his lust had been uplifted into the love which alone used to sanctify deflowering. The national statistics of irregular births, divorces and abortions suggest that real-life heroines, in a world of men behaving badly, have given up any attempt to assess that fabled moment, if they ever tried. And how much blame, if any, is to be laid on addictive doses of ever-stronger literary Valium?