Busting the Mills & Boon Myth

The internationally bestselling series shifts romance and erotica novels by their millions every year, but preconceptions about the books and their authors abound. We take a closer look at the myths surrounding Mills & Boon...

There’s a Mills & Boon formula

Contrary to popular belief, there isn’t a set Mills & Boon formula that writers have to stick to, although there are tropes, just as within any other genre. Rather than ending with marriage, often a failed relationship or divorce has had an impact on the central characters before the main narrative begins (see The Unexpected Wedding Guest, Maid of Dishonour and Last Groom Standing).

In addition to this, Mills & Boon/Harlequin (Harlequin’s the North American contingent of the brand) also have a YA imprint which publishes gems such as Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares (by the duo who wrote Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist) and the award-winning The Iron Fey series. It’s not all heaving bosoms.

Every heroine’s a swooning virgin secretary

In fact, more than just the storylines have changed over the last 105 years. Heroines have careers ranging from civil engineers (Hitched) to running a shipyard (A Lady Dares); and there’s been an influx of paranormal novels in which the woman has magical abilities as opposed to the man (see The Witch’s Initiation).

There’s also a far greater emphasis on equality between the romantic leads – whether that’s emotionally, sexually or career-wise – and means that the resulting characters are far from two-dimensional. And yes, that means more than a couple of these heroines have thoroughly enjoyed very good sex before they meet their hero.

Clichéd portrayals of beauty

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and indeed, Mills& Boon novels embrace this. Each heroine is gorgeous in her own way: there’s embracing of voluptuous curves and slight figures, of the statuesque and the petite, of quirky dress sense and high fashionista.

But it seems important to highlight the fact that writers seem to go out of their way to make sure that their heroines are not uniform (Cassidy in His LA Cinderella describes herself as plain and slightly plump), and they don’t shy away from the problems of society’s obsession with perfection.

Andrews’ Driving Her Crazy has her heroine’s battle with an eating disorder resurface when she’s forced to revisit her past, and Yates’ The Highest Price to Pay focuses on the serious – and permanent – burns that heroine has.

It’s important that women reading romances can see themselves in the roles of the lead characters (it’s why usually there’s very little detailed description of the heroine) and so it’s good to see this reflected in the women at the centre of these narratives.

There’s a lack of WOC authors

This diversity is also reflected in Mills & Boon’s author catalogue. Though the majority of their writers are white (coming from as far afield as Australia, New Zealand and South Africa), there are any number of WOC authors whose work is just as widely-sold.

In 2005 Harlequin bought the assets of ‘BET Books, a leading publisher of African-American women’s fiction’. These titles are now released under the Kimani imprint and showcase talents such as Kimberley Kaye Terry, Farrah Rochon and Melanie Schuster.

There are also a number Indian authors currently writing for the Modern Tempted line (see Shoma Narayanan and Riya Lakhani) and Jeannie Lin writes historical romances set in Tang Dynasty China (The Sword Dancer being my favourite). This is far from an exhaustive list of M&B’s WOC authors, but hopefully it gives a taste of what’s on offer.

Sex is full of ‘members’ and ‘lady gardens’

Post-Fifty Shades it’s impossible to ignore the rise of erotica and Mills & Boon have an erotica imprint, Spice. Here sex is important, but also the ‘least interesting thing about the [characters]’, rather being integral to the plot.

Far from following the norm, two authors in particular stand out: Tiffany Reisz, whose The Original Sinners series depicts the S&M underworld in a far more believable manner than Fifty Shades; and Megan Hart, whose complex characters include the wife of a paraplegic (Broken).

Incidentally, Mills & Boon always promote safe sex (unless specifically for a plot point) – condoms all the way!

Mills & Boon gives its audience unrealistic expectations of life

To assume that women are incapable of understanding that Mills & Boon romances are not a depiction of real life is unbelievably patronising. We’re more than capable of differentiating between reality and escapist fiction, and it’s frankly rather concerning that critics sometimes seem to think otherwise.

You can’t be a feminist and read Mills & Boon

Firstly, I object to any doctrine that tells me what I can and cannot read. And when you consider the sheer number of sales (by 2008, Harry Potter had sold 400 million copies over 11 years, whereas Mills & Boon had sold 200 million copies of novels internationally over just one year), it seems elitist to dismiss them out of hand.

And fair enough, they’re never going to win the Pulitzer Prize or the Booker Prize – and I’m not saying that I think they should – but that’s not to say that they don’t have value or that they’re all pulp. Out of the 30,000 submissions they get every year, only around 30 or so will get published; that would appear to be discerning.

There are always going to be books that we dislike, but there is so much to celebrate about a company that publishes almost exclusively for women readers.

Recommended reads

Intrigued? For more, read Let Us Now Praise Scribbling Women by Jenny Crusie, For Love and Money: The Literary Art of Harlequin Mills & Boon Romance by Laura Vivanco, and A Natural History of the Romance Novel by Pamela Regis.

Where do you stand on Mills & Boon? Already obsessed or not entirely convinced – until now? Are there Mills & Boons titles that you’ve loved or loathed?