Busting the Mills & Boon Myth

16th Oct 2013

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?


  • Charlotte Ledger says:

    Fantastic article – and (I know I’m biased because I used to work there) I completely agree! So many talented authors and so many fantastic stories are overlooked because of these myths and stereotypes. Great blog post!

  • alexi says:

    i’m a man who reads this i imagine my self as the hero ( however out of cahrcter their behaviour is for me ) . i think its a shame the heroine is never a queen in her own right or a sovereign princess or a duchess /countess in her own right

    • Ali Williams says:

      I think it’s really interesting that these books appeal to guys as well as women – what is it about them that you particularly like?

      And I think that’s changing more and more – there are a number of books that are have the heroine as princess (Jessica Hart’s ‘The Secret Princess’ comes to mind), and though duchesses in their own right are less popular, I’d try Nicola Cornick’s Confessions of a Duchess.

      • alexi says:

        my life has little cahnce for romance . as i’m 25 got booted out of school the only job i’ve had has been chores fopr pocket money i rarely interact with anyone but my parants . i’ve read lots with princess but they are not queen or ruling princess

  • Spill says:

    A librarian I know assures me there’s a ritual readers of these books have, which is to make a mark in the back of the book to denote whether they’ve read it. this, presumably, is because the covers are very similar. However, the UK jacket fronts of ALL Jodi Picoults books suffered the same overwhelming uniformity in theme (with the exception of one set in an Amish community – ‘Ah, she’s wearing a hat!’). I’ve never read an M&B book, but I’d be tempted to give it a whirl just to check it out now, Ali.

    • Ali Williams says:

      I did not know about this ritual – I think this is a genius idea! It gets increasingly difficult to tell which you’ve read if they’re vintage as many of the covers look rather similar. These days I keep a book log anyway, which helps! 😛

      And go for it!! It’s all about trying new stuff. I’d be tempted to pimp out the #ModernTempted imprint, merely cos it’s my favourite and have my favourite tropes. 🙂


  • ash says:

    I have liked mills and boon since I was a teenager. now in my late twenties I still read them but many times I am put down by the subjugation the hero eventually gains over the heroine. many start reading at an impressionable age and more ever mills and boon are actually soft porn which stimulate the female senses. women will continue to seek them. its not fair for mills and boon to say that this is what the readers want. i hope mills and boon publishes books where love is an equalizer .

    • Ali Williams says:

      I appreciate what you’re saying Ash, and I would like to thank you for your contribution.

      I’d also like to recommend Joss Wood’s ‘The Last Guy She Should Call’, where the ending – for me – truly represents equality in love.

      As varied as M&B books are – with over 150 being published each month, I think that there is variety amongst the imprints, so that differing tastes can be accounted for. Some of the imprints (specifically the LoveInspired line) have no reference to sex at all, and only stretch to the occasional chaste kiss.

      Of course, they are not to everybody’s taste, and that’s absolutely fine. But I would argue that, as a highly educated woman, this is actually what I want to read sometimes. I enjoy reading Happy Ever Afters and I know any number of other readers who do too. I’m not saying that your response isn’t valid, and I’m not saying that I enjoy all Mills & Boon books – in fact, I very definitely have my favourite authors and imprints – but there’s much more to Mills & Boon romances than subjugation. And I’d be more than happy to recommend more authors and books that reflect this.