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Mills & Boon - a literary love affair

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