The power of love: 100 years of romantic fiction

It was a perfect match: two publishers with a taste for romance and an eye for a market. A century on, millions of readers are still besotted with Mills & Boon. But what is their secret?

Has a sheikh ever read a Mills & Boon romance? Sheikhs feature a lot in these million-selling novels, but are seldom found reading books in them (too much wooing and stamping and looking cruel); but were they to read Desert Rapture or The Moonlit Oasis or The Falcon's Mistress, would they be surprised to discover how often they fall in love with rather ordinary-looking British women, with coltish virgins and plain-but-plucky athletes? Would they be interested to learn how invariably they're described as possessing strong jawlines, high cheekbones and jet-black eyes?

A whole 80 years after Rudolph Valentino made female audiences swoon with his desert-based wooing, fictional sheikhs can still, mirabile dictu, be found ordering women around in Mills & Boon plots. So can other alpha-male stereotypes, especially cowboy ranchers, business moguls, billionaires (mere millionaires need not apply any more) and swarthy plutocrats of indeterminate employment, known only as "the Spaniard," "the Italian" and inevitably "the Greek".

They're all at the heart of a publishing phenomenon which celebrates its centenary on Thursday, and can boast some extraordinary statistics. Their books are translated into 25 languages and sell in 100 international markets. They have a stable of 1,300 authors around the world, many of whom make millions but most of whom prefer to lurk behind noms de plume. A jaw-dropping 35 million titles are sold every year worldwide, seven million in the UK. Flying in the face of public condescension (and mainstream publishing trends), they publish 70 new titles each month and pulp any unsold copies after three months. For an organisation concerned with melting hearts and stumbling moonlight confessions, they're ruthless as a sheikh.

Many stories attest to their efficiency. When the Berlin Wall was breached in 1989, and the people of East Berlin emerged blinking into the light of freedom, one of the odder gifts they received was a Mills & Boon novel. Harlequin, owners of the imprint, had watched the collapse of Communism with interest and calculated that, if there was one thing the newly-unshackled female population had missed over 25 years, it was romance. They directed their West Berlin office to thrust 750,000 free copies of Penny Jordan's A Reason for Being into the chilly hands of East Berlin's lovelorn hausfrauen. It was a characteristic Mills & Boon move, combining shrewd commercialism with the chance to spread the narcotic fluid of boy-meets-girl through a lot of new veins. They've always known romance sells and they've sold it better – and with more focus and sophistication – than anyone else.

The company was launched in 1908 by Gerald Mills and Charles Boon, young entrepreneurs with £1,000 to spend. They meant to publish books on several subjects, including travel and crafts, but their first production was Arrows from the Dark by Sophie Cole – a romance. It sold modestly (1,300 copies in six years) but history, of a kind, was made. The house published early work by PG Wodehouse and Hugh Walpole, and made a name for itself as the "Promised Land" for new writers, where the efforts of fledglings would, unusually be welcomed. By 1913, Charles Boon had spotted where their natural market lay. "I am certain that the bulk of novels published are devoured by women before they can reach men," he told the Daily Citizen.

The company discerned a growing appetite among women readers for escapist reading and decided to concentrate on hardback romantic fiction. They had two unique selling propositions: their brightly-coloured, eye-catching jackets, picturing lantern-jawed heroes and fleeing beauties swept on to galloping horses by desert bandits; and the fact that their target audience was middle- and upper-class women, who would never have sullied their eyes with the "mill-girls' romances" of the late 19th century.

Depression and the Second World War did wonders for the escapism market. Romances flew off the nation's shelves with the speed of Hurricanes. On the back of every new M&B title, an advertisement pictured a well-to-do woman declaring, in Celia Johnson tones, "I always look for a Mills & Boon when I want a pleasant book. Your troubles are at an end when you chose a Mills & Boon novel. No more doubts! No more disappointments!" In other words, you always knew you were going to get a happy ending. With the decline of the circulating libraries, through which their early books were mainly sold, the company arranged for their books to be sold in newsagents all over the country. They also sold titles by direct-mail catalogue, and made a lucrative serialisation deal with Women's Weekly.

While their fortunes sky-rocketed, however, their reputation declined in the new age of television, rock '*' roll and Sixties radicalism. Mills & Boon as a generic concept seemed hopelessly outmoded, its romantic plots empty slush, its characters plaster mannequins, its whole ethos bland, vanilla-flavoured, elderly. Bookshops that stocked their titles consigned them to a ghetto shelf, as if embarrassed by them. Indeed, they often seemed interchangeable commodities to their readers. When I worked for a summer in a London library in 1976, I found a line of pencil marks inside the back cover of Moonlight Over Cordoba and told the boss someone was defacing books. "That's the Mills & Boon readers, poor old dears," she replied, "They put their initials in the back to tell themselves they've already read that one."

Despite the image problem, the pastel tide of romance has become oceanic. Today, Mills & Boon sell more than ever, in more countries than ever. From next week, they'll print books in India for the first time (beginning with the irresistible Virgin Slave, Barbarian King) looking to take a chunk of 300 million English-reading consumers. They've established a romantic presence in the lucrative Japanese Manga market. And they've just announced that they'll be launching, through W H Smith, a dozen titles in translation (such as Ksiaze Pustyni, Tejemniczy Ukochany or Mysterious Lover, Desert Prince) to cater for Polish émigrés.

I went to meet the top brass at their HQ in the appropriately named Paradise Road in Guildford, Surrey. In a building of breathtaking ugliness, the editorial director of Harlequin Mills & Boon Ltd – the grand panjandrum of worldwide romance – turned out to be Karin Stoecker, a tiny Canadian dame in her 50s with a briskly logical manner and no trace of stars in her eyes. "It's hard to talk about the Mills & Boon demographic because we have people from all ages and income brackets reading us," she said. "Forty years ago, authors and readers were from a higher socio-economic class, and now it's more widespread, but that has a lot to do with the way education has changed in the last 50 years. People read by life-stage and mood than for any other reason." Meaning? "When they have time on their hands. When you find yourself at home with young children, and you can't get out of the house and you'll read anything with adult words in it." She is under no delusion that Mills & Boon deal in literary masterpieces. "They're books you don't get too involved in. One woman said to me years ago, 'I love your books, I can put them down any time.' She meant she could also pick them up again and go right on where she left off, without thinking, 'Oh God, what have I forgotten?'"

The sea-change in the company's post-war fortunes was its decision to split its titles into genres, and to package and market them accordingly. "Before that," said Karin, "we just trusted the readers to know which kind of books they liked. Now, the mass market for romance is fragmented, and it's a matter of managing multiple niches." They rely on readers' advice, but rather more on the instincts of their authors, who invariably began life as M&B readers. Of the 12 niche imprints, "Modern" always features jet-set luxury, "Romance" deals in the now-traditional sheikhs, ranchers, billionaires and tanned Europeans (their titles are hilariously interchangeable: The Spaniard's Captive Bride, The Italian Billionaire's Pregnant Bride, Wedded at the Italian's Convenience and my favourite, The Sheikh's Convenient Virgin). "Historical" is love accessorised by ruffs, doublets and mob caps. "Medical" is basically Holby City with more heaving bosoms. The "Blaze" imprint promises readers fairly explicit smut, even going so far as oral sex (with ice cubes) and hot lesbian action. "I was on the team that worked on that," said Lesley Stone, a senior editor. "It was a spinoff from the Temptation series in 1995, which was light and flirty and fresh, and everyone liked the extra sex, so Blaze became a series by itself. Just like a TV spinoff." Did the readers actually say, "We'd like some soft porn, please?" Lesley looked aghast. "It's not soft porn. They just wanted it to be more realistic. People do go on holiday and they do have flings. They'll have sex, but it would still end up as a committed relationship, and it's still character-driven so it's still a romance."

Uniquely among publishers, the staff undertake to read every manuscript and treatment sent in by aspirant writers. Karin Soecker and a team of 20 editors take a day off each week to read them. "The most common mistake people make," said Jenny Hutton, a young editor who occasionally sounds just like a Mills & Boon heroine, "is when they've worked at the plot rather than really got to know the characters. You need a strongly constructed heroine to take you through the story and hero who the reader's in love with the minute he appears." But aren't romance heroes, from Mr Darcy onwards, complete bastards when they first appear? "But that's the talent of the author," said Ms Hutton, "You may have a hero whose life has gone wrong in the past, but the author can make you like him. You can have a flawed character but you can show his good qualities and how he's affected by the heroine, and how he changes through the story."

I suggested that Mills & Boon heroes hadn't changed much in 50 years, that they were invariably cruel and bossy. "Oh I don't know," breathed Jenny. "There may be a touch of ruthlessness about them, but really they're just taking the reins of the situation, they're in control of what's going on, and the heroine is the only one who gets in through the chink in their armour." Shouldn't they be more charming, along the lines of Jude Law or Hugh Grant? "Nah," said Karin dismissively. "You couldn't trust them to be faithful. There was a time in the early 1990s, when what we might call the beta male dominated. He was much more the guy next door, like Tom Hanks. He probably worked for somebody and had all the stresses and neuroses of someone like that. But you deal with the kind of person in real life." "When you're married to Joe, or Dave, or Jeff," said Jenny. "You really want..." "Niarchos" said Karin with finality.

What was going on with modern Mills & Boon heroines? Most of their titles involved women being captured, or ravished, stolen or "taken" – generally imprisoned rather than courted.

"I think there's a secret desire, particularly among busy successful women," said Karin with determination, "that for one day, for two hours, they can abdicate responsibility from doing it all. That somebody else will make the decisions. The point of the hero is more about his having the power to make it happen, than his being ruthless and cruel. Really, it's all about the total abdication of responsibility."

But all this endless repetition of being captured and taken... Can that really be women's secret desire in 2008? "The heroine is much more in charge in the books now," said Lesley. "She's appalled by the sheikh's behaviour and says, 'But he can't do such a thing in this day and age.' And the sheikh says, 'Yes I can, because I rule this kingdom.' But of course it'll work out fine, because they'll fall for each other..."

Look, I said, Where is the fantasy about female empowerment? Why isn't there a title like The Virgin's Convenient Sheikh, when the tables are turned? "The thing is," said Jenny, "readers often know that the sheikh is, in fact, at the virgin's mercy because of her strength of character. He wants her and is thrilled by her and that's what people know they'll get out of the story."

But, I persisted, wouldn't it be a brilliant sub-genre if the girl were the proactive character who imprisons the irate Spaniard? "But that would mean," said Karin, "once again, the woman's gotta do all the work. This is not a fantasy for women any more. Lose that idea right now."

"Yes, ma'am," I said. Anything you say.

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