Tuesday, October 07, 2008

The New Zealand Herald - Spicing up the romance

Sunday Oct 05, 2008
Tom Peck

Masterful men are still a feature of Mills and Boon’s foray into erotica fiction.

It's official: romance is dead. After 100 years of swooning feminine ladies kissing manly men on faraway islands, Mills and Boon is launching its first line of explicit erotica.

The British publisher's new imprint, Spice, marks a sharp departure from Mills and Boon tradition: even up to the 1970s, unmarried couples were not permitted to have sex between the covers of its books. A raunchier series launched in 2001 featured whipped cream and handcuffs, but only "in the context of an enduring emotional relationship".

No more. The Spice paperbacks will be "more about sex for enjoyment," says Claire Somerville, Mills and Boon marketing director. "It doesn't have to be linked to an emotional connection between the heroes and heroines."

Good news, no doubt, for Breezy Malone, the heroine of Spies, Lies and Naked Thighs, who will swap her archaeologist's trowel for the leather corset of a covert FBI sex agent and set out to seduce the terrorist behind her incarceration in a Middle East prison.

Since Gerald Mills and Charles Boon founded the company in 1908, the temperature between the pages of their 35 million titles has grown progressively hotter. "We started off as a general publisher, big on sport and craft books," says Somerville. "It was in the 1920s and 30s that they realised people wanted to escape the hardship of the times, and that what women wanted was light fiction.

"Much later, in the 50s and 60s, some of the writers wanted to break out and depict society in a more realistic way. One writer [Jan Tempest] was told to edit out an illegitimate character. Divorce and illegitimacy were unacceptable for the Irish market, which was very big for us."

But that didn't last long. Phillip Larkin wrote: "Sexual intercourse began in 1963 (which was rather late for me)." Was he referring to Mills and Boon? It was then that sex scenes between married couples were included for the first time. By the 70s, this had been extended to unmarried couples.

The market for erotica has grown hugely in recent years. Partly in response to Virgin Books' Black Lace series, first published in 1993, Mills and Boon launched its Blaze imprint seven years ago.

"Pretty much anything goes," says Somerville, "but all in the context of the enduring emotional relationship."

Mills and Boon's books are "a social barometer for the 20th century", adds Somerville. "That's what's so interesting about them. You can chart the development of social and sexual mores, the history of women and the evolution of women's role socially and sexually, all through Mills and Boon."

In celebration of its 100th anniversary, the publishing house is also launching itself on the television-viewing public. Consuming Passion: 100 Years of Mills & Boon promises to be "very raunchy", according to the producers. "The 90-minute drama will interweave the stories of three very different women, and shed light on the impact and influence the books had on women's lives over the last century," says Ben Stephenson, head of drama commissioning at the BBC.

The drama is based on the lives of the people behind the scenes at the publishing house. The first is set in 1908 and concerns Mary, wife of Charles Boon. While Charles struggled to establish his business in London, he and his wife were fighting another battle - in the bedroom. Its outcome would determine the future of Mills & Boon.

Today the company's books are a publishing phenomenon. A Mills and Boon paperback is sold in a UK bookshop, on average, once every five seconds and is translated into 25 languages.

Over the years Mills & Boon has counted some big names among its published authors including P.G. Wodehouse and Jack London. Helen Fielding, author of the hugely successful Bridget Jones novels, was rejected for not being good enough.
Despite the success and the famous names, the very mention of Mills and Boon is enough to cause sniggers of derision among most of the literati.

"I think it's partly because the books are cheap," says Joanna Bowring of Mills and Boon. "They're considered disposable literature." And though the heroines have evolved since the early days to reflect changes in women's lives, the heroes remain much as they were a century ago.

"There's always been a subtle undercurrent of force throughout the books, and that's never changed from the earliest ones," says Bowring. "Even later, when other aspects are influenced by feminism and by the shifting attitudes outside the novel, the men remain masterful and stern."

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