Be still my beating heart: Mills and Boon

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As a teenage convent school girl, I couldn’t get enough Mills and Boon, those English emperors of romance publishing.

I read everything they had, cover to cover. And then, as I grew, I forgot about the dashing heroes within the pages of these novellas, and settled for a different reading regime.

And Mills and Boon drifted inexorably off my radar until, quite by chance, I was back in the land of swarthy landowners and highly accessible farmhands.

It was at The Museum Of Rural Life, run by those nice academics at Reading University, that I wandered out of the main exhibition space, away from the lathes and scythes and manly mallets, and through the corridors of the worthy old mansion in which it is housed.

It was when I happened, unexpectedly, upon the great mahogany stair of the house, that I was lost. Lost, completely, to its masterful charms.

Nestling in the well of the staircase were cases and cases, all crammed with vintage Mills and Boon.

Reading University has only just acquired the Harlequin Mills and Boon Archive as part of its special collections. And if you wander deep into East Thorpe House, the home of the museum-mostly dedicated to farming and village life-  you can glimpse the very beginnings of what has become a scarlet literary dynasty.

They began, back in 1908, as a general publishers.  Gerard Mills and Charles Boon set up in Richmond, veterans from Methuen, and they didn’t limit themselves to bodice-rippers. In fact, both PG Wodehouse and Jack London were under their auspices.

They published all manner of books: my favourite has to be Life Without Servants: The Re-Discovery of Domestic Happiness, by A Survivor. And then there’s A Chauffer’s Companion.

Imagine my pounding heart when I stumbled upon a letter from Jack London himself to the company:

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In 1928 they came close to ruin, and decided to concentrate on the genre which would guarantee an enduring and not entirely critical readership: romance.

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They were by no means the first to propogate the romance novel. There was Samuel Richardson, and  the Brontës and Jane Austen. And like their predecessors, Mills and Boon were canny: during the 1930s they courted the libraries and became a ‘library house’, publishing directly to these bastions of the lent book. And their availability increased their circulation manifold.

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Mills and Boons are like the catnip mouse with which the cat plays: a piece of theatre in which a reader is willing to suspend disbelief. We know these novels are not subtle, but we don’t care, because we are in the mood for mind candy, and read it we shall.

This collection takes one on a journey from 1917 to 1994. It traces changes in fashion, in the woman’s place, in morés, in worldly wisdom. Housewives change, over the years, to go-getting career women; demure subjects become voracious huntresses.

Today Mills and Boon is said to publish to three million readers in the UK annually. We are affectionate towards them.

And their philosophy – spoken by the son of founder Charles Boon, John, who became MD in 1964, speaked volumes: “You see, we never despised our product,” he said. “I think this was highly important.

“A lot of people who publish romantic novels call them ‘funny little books’ that make a bit of profit. We never did that. We never said this was the greatest form of literature, but we did say that of this form of literature, we were going to publish the best. In any field, if you despise what you’re making, you’re in for trouble.”

Or, translated into the words of M&B author, Violet Winspear: “The real aim of romance is to provide escape and entertainment, not to dish up ‘real life’ and ‘real life people’ on a plate with egg on it!

“Anyway, that is my philosophy, for what it’s worth.”

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62 thoughts on “Be still my beating heart: Mills and Boon

  1. Over time I’ve lost or given up virtually every book I had as a child. It’s not that I’d read them again, but just that I’d like to have some of the books I read then. I do still have my copy of Black Beauty. Hurray!

  2. M&B don’t publish bodice rippers. I believe they’re a bit sexier than they used to be but they don’t go that far.

    I loved them as a teenager; gave them up as an adult; then had a craving for them when I was pregnant. I was 8 1/2 months when I read seven M&B in one weekend, and sobbed over every one 🙂

    I haven’t read them since…well, not much 😀

    I tried writing one once, thinking it would be a doddle. It was so NOT a doddle. And I know they have strict criteria that authors must follow, as Col said.

    Thanks for this trip down a happy memory lane.

    1. Pleasure, Tilly. As for bodice rippers: as you probably know the term came from an article in the NY Times in 1980: “Women too have their pornography: Harlequin romances, novels of ‘sweet savagery,’ – bodice-rippers.”

      We don’t need to go to the feminist camp to find fodder to support the term. Nine years before the term emerged, in 1971, M&B’s top author, Violet Winspear, told a Man Alive programme on the BBC she chose a certain type of hero: ‘…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.”

      1. I too thought they’d be an easy write. Not though. There was a documentary on a few weeks ago about a novelist attempting her first Mills and Boon. Rather amusing!

  3. I must say that i don’t believe that I have ever read a romance novel. As a young boy and teen, I was into sports books of all kinds and then moved on to hard science fiction such as Asimov. Have always been a fan of espionage thrillers and murder mysteries, particularly Ludlum and the Queen of murder, P.D. James.

  4. Mind candy indeed… reminded me of my school library which had many Mills and Boon stacked and we all sheepishly picked them one after the other to devour them/

  5. The covers of those books remind me of the covers of the Nancy Drew mysteries I so loved as a child. I wonder how my accommodations would appear if every book I’d ever read suddenly appeared to take up residence with me.

    Better, I expect, to carry them within, eh?

    Thanks, Kate!

  6. I had no idea Mills & Boon ever did anything besides bodice rippers. I also didn’t know they went back so far as a publishing house, I assumed they were like their American counterpart, Harlequin, a (relatively) recent thing.

  7. Dear Kate, way back in the 1970s when I was dealing with depression and hallucinations, I put aside my liking for what was known as the classics as being too ponderous for my befuddled and muddled mind to read. It was then that I began to read romances and I did so for about ten years. Each month I purchased from the local book store the six new titles from Harlequin–Mills and Boon’s Canadian publisher.

    Then, in 1978, I traveled to London with an older friend whom I’d introduced to romances. She “loved” them! As did I at the time because when I went to bed at night and let my mind drift it always went to dark and scary places. But if I read a romance that had little relationship to life as I knew it, I could fall asleep.

    In London, Charlotte and I bought some Mills and Boons books and I still have one I bought there by my favorite writer at the time–Betty Neels.

    I no longer read romances but I know that they helped keep me sane back in the ’70s. They helped me hold on to life and so I have a warm place in my heart for them. I didn’t read the “bodice rippers,” just the simple romances that ended with the couple planning on getting married. Simple reading for a difficult time in my life.

    Thanks for this information on the company. You always leave me with more knowledge than when I clicked on your site! Peace.

    1. Dee, as always, you add so much to our discussion through your comments. Sometimes we need the simple, engaging stories to fill up the dark corners of the mind. Peace to you too, friend.

  8. How delightful for you to stumble across such a treasure trove of memory. I have to say, though, that this genre never really appealed to me, except for the short stories that were published years ago in women’s magazines such as Redbook, Good Housekeeping and Ladies Home Journal, or The Saturday Evening Post. I think I went straight from horse stories — Black Beauty, Misty of Chincoteague, My Friend Flicka, and the like — to much more serious fare. Today, I favor political intrigue, murder mysteries, police procedurals, courtroom drama, etc. That said, I’m currently reading One Thousand White Women, a historical novel set in the mid-1800’s. Go figure! 🙂

    1. What an intriguing title, Karen! Makes me want to Google it immediately. Yes, I have wandered off to crime novels. Love PD James and I’m a dyed-in-the-wool VI Warshawski fan. Love heavy stuff like Robertson Davies and Tolstoy and suchlike to. I have a policy: one mind-candy, followed by one heavy. That way I keep balanced.

  9. A school friend of mind tried to do Mills and Boon as her Coursework for A Level. That didn’t go down well! Now, I understand it’s an acceptable genre for University study. How times change. I blame the teachers….. LOL

  10. P. G. Wodehouse and romances from the same publisher–such possibilities: I have a vision of Bertie Wooster innocently wandering into a bodice ripper, stammering an apology for accidentally ripping the bodice, and running for Jeeves, who prevents Bertie’s being sued for breach of promise. My own teen favorites were Victoria Holt, Phyllis Whitney, and the classy Mary Stewart. Wealthy, handsome, mysterious widowers and Jane Eyre-ish governesses and sad, unloved children, thrown together in castles in Cornwall. I planned to name all my future children things like Connan and Kerensa and Mellyora and Phillida. Your post has certainly brought back memories!

  11. A very interesting piece of history. Their philosophy “not to dish up ‘real life’ and ‘real life people’ on a plate with egg on it!” Is exactly what has made them so successful. I’ve never read an M&B, though – I prefer my plate with egg on it 😀

  12. My mother in law read M&B towards the end of her life. She had been a teacher, and maintained that she only read them to irritate a former headmistress who had already passed from this life. She said it was to make sure she turned in her grave! I also know someone that writes for them, but I’m sworn to secrecy. It does make a little money…. apparently

  13. I have a good number of books from my childhood and young adulthood, but none of them match the allure of these titles! We called them Harlequin Romances, which I think may be related, but I’d never heard of Mills and Boon. At one time they were even publicized on television and practically everyone I knew read them and then we traded titles. I haven’t thought of them in years! They were fun to read and certainly very tame by today’s offerings. This was a great flashback, Kate! 🙂

  14. Oh, Kate… you’ve come knocking on my literary door! I had no idea, though, that my personal philosophy and John Boon’s were so closely aligned.

    “We never said this was the greatest form of literature, but we did say that of this form of literature, we were going to publish the best. In any field, if you despise what you’re making, you’re in for trouble.”

    Oh yes, Mr. Boon. Oh, yes.

    1. Cameron, it does my heart good to read this. We are put on this earth to fulfill a destiny, and romance writing is just such a destiny. And you do it with class. I suppose you would never consider writing for these giants?

  15. I devoured M&B’s growing up and watched my daughter do the same! She still does when she doesn’t find time to read ‘real’ books. ‘Quickies’ she calls them 🙂

  16. Love those book covers, Kate. I “discovered” Nancy Drew books when my granddaughter began reading them and the changes in how she was portrayed on the covers was fascinating. Again, like the Mills and Boon books, the character changed to meet the times.

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