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:
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.
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.
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.”