Mills & Boon - a literary love affair

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Love them or loathe them, a Mills & Boon book is sold in the UK every three seconds. As over a century of publishing is celebrated in a new exhibition about the publisher, Charlotte Cripps looks back at a literary love affair

When Arrows from the Dark rolled hot off the press in 1909, a publishing phenomenon was born. Sophie Cole's novel marked the birth of Mills & Boon, and started a tradition that has seen the publishing house become a byword for mass-market romantic fiction. Now a collection of books and their evocative cover art has been brought together for the Mills & Boon Centenary Exhibition.

There are writer biographies, manuscripts, original correspondence between authors and editors, associated memorabilia - even the guidelines for writing a Mills & Boon book.

The exhibition explores the evolution in romantic fiction of Mills & Boon over 100 years, charting the changing hopes and romantic dreams of women, but always maintaining a guaranteed happy ending.

It was not until the Mills & Boon golden age of the 1930s and 40s that the demand for popular escapist romance fiction sizzled, especially during the War. The earlier chaste books such as Romance Goes Tenting, Man and Waif, Romance on Ice and Grace before Meat offered readers conventional romance, with no sex between unmarried couples, reflected in the cover art, often showing a couple, with at least a metre between them.

In the late 1960s books became far more racy, set in exotic locations, such as Violet Winspear’s sheik romance, Blue Jasmine - before becoming more sexually liberated. On the cover of the 1980s Lucifer’s Angel, the couple are going in for the killer kiss, and by 1982 oral sex is first mentioned in Anne Wheale's Antigua Kiss.

Now Mills & Boon has turned its eye on modern issues caused by two-career families; in Claire Harrison’s 1986 Diplomatic Affair, the hero resigns from his job as foreign diplomat so the heroine can stay practising as a paediatrician.

Earlier this a year Nocturne, a new Mills & Boon strand which covers dramatic paranormal romance, featuring ghosts and vampires, joined other categories in the series including Historical (Taken by a Viking), Medical (The World of Nurse Mitchell), Modern (Bedded at the Billionaire’s Convenience and Ruthless Boss, Hired Wife), Modern Heat (Hot Nights with a Playboy), and Romance: (The Italian’s Cinderella Bride).

When Mills & Boon opened as a general publisher in 1908, it was not fixed on romance, publishing early novels from PG Wodehouse and Jack London, as well as non-fiction titles including The Poultry Keeper’s Companion, before focusing on romantic fiction in the late 1930s. Writers were nurtured carefully in the 1960s and 1970s when the dapper Mr Alan Boon, son of one half of the founding duo Charles Boon, famously took all his authors to tea at the Ritz. He even became a romantic hero for many of his writers who fell head over heels in love with him.

But what is life like for a modern Mills & Boons author? The big cheese writer at Mills & Boon today is the mighty Penny Jordan, 61 (real name Penny Halstall, née Penelope Jones). Formerly a secretary in a bank, she has been churning out books for over 27 years. Since her first - 1981's Falcon’s Prey about a desert sheik and a European girl in Kuwait - she has now written over 100 romances.

Jordan now writes four books a year, but it was 10 or 11 when she first started, and knows the industry inside out. “I can’t remember my latest book. I have written so many! I don’t even choose the titles. I run out of ideas! It is set in India.” Among her most popular titles are Possessed by the Sheik and her latest The Sheik’s Blackmailed Mistress. “I do a lot of sheik books. I base them on Dubai these days. A lot of background research comes from the financial pages of newspapers.” Other highlights of Jordan’s career include Master of Pleasure about a Mediterranean millionaire and Blackmailing the Society Bride - a Sloane Ranger romance.

Jordan was always an avid reader of Regency romances, especially ones by Georgette Heyer. “I wasn’t ambitious and I never thought I’d get a book published. I entered a competition run by the Romantic Novelists Association with my atrocious book. It didn’t get anywhere - but there was an agent looking for new authors to write some Regency romances, under a fictional author he had created, called Caroline Courtney. Then I read Mills & Boon were expanding; I eventually got one book finished. To my utter astonishment they were interested.”

How has the industry changed? “The market is swamped with authors and books. The standard has risen accordingly. When I started out, an amateur could be taken on and be helped. There is no time for that now.”

Jordan herself was never swept off her feet in real life, but married her accountant husband. “I’m not a romantic person. He shows his love in down-to-earth ways and takes the rubbish out.”

What is secret of a good romantic read? “There is no secret. I still worry about each book I submit; you never know whether it has hit the spot until your editor has read it,” she admits. “The Mills & Boon books are short. The emotional intensity and sexual heat you have to generate between two characters is challenging. There is always a conflict in the romance which I try to resolve in my writing. The male character generally has to travel the longest journey in the story. First he usually has to realise that he does loves the woman. Secondly he then may have to realise that in order to be with her he may have to change. This point for me is very romantic because they both make the decision to value the relationship more than their prejudices, fears, or barriers put up to protect themselves from the pain of experiencing the past.”

And then he kissed her… 100 Years of Mills & Boon Centenary Exhibition, Manchester Central Library (0161-234 1900) opens on 6 June

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury


Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas


Arts and Entertainment


Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7


Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary


Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions