Saturday, August 16, 2008

Mills & Boon: the art of love

From Stella Magazine - The

Last Updated: 12:01am BST 17/08/2008

As Mills & Boon celebrates its 100th birthday, a new collection of cover illustrations reveals how all those blushing virgins and square-jawed heroes have evolved over the decades. Louisa McKay is gripped
Mills & Boon, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, is the biggest publisher of romance novels in the world. Derided, ridiculed, the easiest form of fiction to knock, they're still obstinately popular. One is sold every three seconds in Britain, 200 million a year worldwide. Up to 70 new titles are released each month. For all the brutal criticism the books receive, Mills & Boon has tapped into a perfect formula of easy-read, no-nasty-bits romance, which is loved by millions of women.

The publishing house was founded in 1908 by Gerald Mills and Charles Boon (whose son later confided that his father had 'no intellectual interest in books, which was perhaps an asset - he stuck to entertainment'). Mills & Boon originally published well-known authors such as PG Wodehouse and Jack London, but in the 1920s began to corner the market in light fiction, aimed at a growing number of female readers hungry for escapism.
The formula that made early books such as The Virgin's Treasure: a Romance of the Tropics ('This was not England but the tropics, where blood runs hotter, and where incredible things happen with amazing swiftness') so popular is still going strong today: woman and man meet and love, there's conflict, conflict ends (so does book). But while the stories inside have stayed the same, the covers have not. Now a new book, The Art of Romance, brings together some of the best (and worst) Mills & Boon cover illustrations, from the buttoned-up modesty and square jaws of the pre-First World War years, to the tender new men who feature on the covers of the 1990s. The images are often a brilliant representation of popular fashions, such as the demure duchess on the front of The Duchess in Pursuit (1917), or the poor woman having her ear eaten by a man in a Fred Perry shirt on the cover of A Reason for Being (1989). The fabulously coiffed, beautifully tweezed and perfectly lipsticked lady on Westward to My Love (1944) is straight out of a wartime classic film like Casablanca.

Social trends are there, too. During the Second World War the cover heroes were often dashing RAF pilots and the heroines courageous young Wrens. Mystery at Butlin's, from 1960, was published during the boom in holiday parks after the war and the end of rationing. Theatre Sister, from the same year, was one of many books featuring romances between nurses and doctors, when soap-opera hunks like Dr Kildare were popular: 'Even with her blonde hair tucked well out of sight under her theatre cap she was still beautiful.' Its author, Hilda Pressley, was in fact a former nurse who had become a full-time writer. Later that decade many of the men began to resemble Sean Connery's Bond. By the 1970s, with everyone holidaying abroad, pilots and air hostesses became the hot-blooded protagonists.
Come 1998, around the same time Katie Price was forging a career as Jordan, the heroine of Mission to Seduce is lusty, oiled and rather orange. Her partner bears a striking resemblance to Tim Henman, who that year reached the Wimbledon semi-finals for the first time, though one can't explain why he's wearing those particular pyjamas (or any, frankly, considering what's almost certainly about to happen).

But for all the slushy sentiment and predictable plots, Mills & Boon has carved out its place in history. By 1981 it was the world's largest publisher of romance with 80 per cent of the world market, translations in 18 languages and sales of over 100 million in 98 countries. When the Berlin Wall came down, staff from the company's West German office handed out 750,000 free copies to women from East Germany.
With its continual search for new talent, Mills & Boon has also provided the chance for many women to become successful novelists. One of the company's early bestselling authors, Irene Swatridge, also ran a sheep farm in Devon. Ida Cook, a civil-service typist, joined Mills & Boon in 1936 and used her publisher's pay cheque to fund an adventurous double life. She travelled to prewar Germany with her sister under the pretence of attending the opera, while helping Jews escape to England.

Today, Mills & Boon has lots of genres to choose from. They include: modern romance (virgins, Greek millionaires, yachts, sheikhs, royalty); historical (kissing in costume); medical (A&E kissing); intrigue (spooks kissing); special edition (Jodi Picoult with kissing); 'blaze' (kissing and then some); 'desire two-in-one' (two stories for the price of one). Nocturne - kissing and ghosts - is new for 2008. Each genre is colour-coded, so you pick your happy ending by style not substance. Readers are encouraged to buy an entire month's offerings from each genre in one click on the company's website. As long as it's the right colour for your style of romance, who cares what the clinch on the cover looks like?
Actually, I did. When I read a couple of recent offerings by way of research I felt compelled to fashion my own dust jacket for The Sheikh's Virgin Bride so people on the Tube wouldn't judge me. If the covers really do reflect their times, what on earth are we in for next?

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