Sex sells: Mills & Boon marks centenary with move to hardcore erotica

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

The British publisher's new imprint, Spice – already launched in North America – will come to the UK next year. It marks a sharp departure from Mills & Boon traditions: even in 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 & Boon's 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 the Spice line's 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 with £1,000 in 1908, the temperature between the pages of their 35 million titles has grown progressively hotter. Spice, though, marks a departure from the house rule that emotional, rather than physical, contortions should form the heart of the story.

"We started off as a general publisher, big on sport and craft books," says Ms 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 Fifties and Sixties, 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 that, "Sexual intercourse began in nineteen sixty-three (which was rather late for me)." Was he referring to Mills & Boon? It was in that year that sex scenes between married couples were included for the first time. By the Seventies, this had been extended to unmarried couples.

Masturbation, that "solitary, inadequate substitute" for love, makes its first appearance in 1973, at the hands of the lonely heroine Suzy Walker. A watershed moment came in 1982 with the publisher's first oral sex scene: "There are other places to kiss," the hero darkly informs the heroine of Antigua Kiss, who promptly surrenders to "waves of ecstasy".

The market for erotica has grown hugely in recent years. Partly in response to Virgin Books' Black Lace series, first published in 1993, Mills & Boon launched its Blaze imprint seven years ago. "Pretty much anything goes," said Ms Somerville, "but all in the context of the enduring emotional relationship. There has to be a connection between the hero and the heroine. They've got to like each other, otherwise it doesn't work."

The publisher's books were "a social barometer for Britain in the 20th century," said Ms 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 & Boon."

Spice may have arrived at an auspicious time. The titles, published in North America by Harlequin, which bought Mills & Boon in 1971, feature ménage-à-trois lakeside holidays, stolen trysts between a Texas Ranger and a temptress with a price on her head, and blackjack bondage in a Vegas hotel. The Twelve Dancing Princesses has a powerful wizardess teaching a dozen fortunate sisters "creative – and naughty – ways to satisfy their passionate cravings and desperate needs." Quite how that will register on the Mills & Boon social barometer is anyone's guess. At least readers can still count on a happy ending, though perhaps now with a Bangkok twist.

M&B: a history

*1908 London publishers Gerald Rusgrove Mills and Charles Boon found the company with £1,000, mainly publishing sports and craft books.

*1920s Focus shifts to escapist fiction for womenas the post-war economic depression takes hold.

*1960s Sex scenes appear for first time, between married couples.

*1982 "Waves of ecstasy" accompany first occurrence of oral sex.

*2001 Blaze imprint launched, featuring whipped cream, handcuffs and inter-racial lesbianism.

*2009 Spice label comes to the UK. "It's about sex for enjoyment."

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