Prisoners of romance: Mills & Boon

It was the affair of the century. She was a bored housewife looking for love. He was a small-time publisher with an eye for the main chance. Together they would make history (not to mention selling 200 million books a year)
Click to follow

Passion's Fortune by Joseph McAleer (Oxford University Press)

Passion's Fortune by Joseph McAleer (Oxford University Press)

"The question everyone asks about Mills & Boon is, simply: How did they do it? How did Mills & Boon, from the humblest of beginnings in 1908 as a general publishing house, build a worldwide empire that in 1998 sold in excess of 200 million paperback novels in 100 overseas markets, translated into 24 languages?"

You! You! Everyone! Are you asking this question? I rather doubt it. Mills & Boons are like babies. If they're a big part of your life, then they're everywhere you look. If they're not, then you're absolutely blind to them, dimly aware that such things exist, but quite unable to say when you last laid eyes on one. They're clearly, for reasons I am not privy to, a large part of Joseph McAleer's life, for he has just published a hefty and scrupulously footnoted historical volume detailing the every move of the publishing company during a century of its existence.

I'll wager that it is the first time the Oxford University Press has published a book called Passion's Fortune, and all you can say is that if this is the shape of titles to come, then no wonder the imprint recently felt it necessary to sack all those too-clever-by-half poet-types whose passions were such that a £5,000 stipend was the closest they'd get to a fortune.

Or am I just being a literary snob, one of the people who cast a dark shadow over the story of Mills & Boon, holding the company back, shunning it and squeezing it out to the extent that today it can claim just 11 million loyal, defiant readers, representing a mere four out of 10 women, who buy a novel as infrequently as every two seconds?

Not that McAleer is without literary snobbery. He places great emphasis on Mills & Boon's beginnings as a conventional publishing house, with an educational and technical list as well as general fiction. Much is made of the fact that PG Wodehouse published a novel with Mills & Boon, and of Hugh Walpole's success with the company. There was also the highly significant moment when Jack London, who was in the early years of the century far and away the company's top earner, died suddenly at the age of 40, leaving the company unstable and setting it on its gradual but unwave-ring course towards the romantic fiction market.

Joseph McAleer is keen to set the record straight, not only about the low esteem in which the creators of Mills & Boons are held, but also the contempt that the literary establishment has for the readers. The books, and their eager consumers, says McAleer, are an easy target.

In his introduction he trips briefly through the main criticisms of such novels - Orwell's assertion that popular fiction, in his case with particular reference to boys' weeklies, was simply a way in which the ruling classes controlled the aspirations of the masses; the claims by feminists that the depiction of marriage and children as the only possible happy ending was "regressive"; the argument that Mills & Boon books were written to too strict a formula to be considered "creative"; and the view that the success of Mills & Boon has little to do with writing and everything to do with marketing.

McAleer says that in the book he will "examine, and largely refute" these claims. But a reader who settles down with Passion's Fortune with such an expectation will find them confounded in exactly the way that a Mills & Boon novel never, ever does. Not that the reader's view is much represented in Passion's Fortune.

While McAleer's book is based on Mills & Boon's intact and extensive archive, comprising more than 50,000 letters, along with interviews with the publishers, in particular the "genius of romantic fiction" Alan Boon, and interviews and correspondence with many Mills & Boon writers, the really interesting person in this story, the reader, is not widely discussed or represented. When she does have a voice, it is to say that she reads the book as an escape, because she is tired but worried, desperate to relax but unable to do so, and keen to escape from the small disappointments and the large injustices of life.

While this is a simple and obvious point, the mildly distasteful thing that emerges as the Mills & Boon story unfolds is the degree to which it was felt to be a kindness to these women to let them escape from their drudgery and their unhappiness for a short while and at a small price, while it was in fact only the publishers and the writers who were provided with an escape in any real sense. And while patronising people is far from being a crime, the calculated zeal with which Alan Boon and his acolytes sought to maintain and exploit the status quo that their readers found so unbearable, is nothing short of creepy.

This is represented in small ways by discussions around the kind of liberation embraced by the lucky and skilled women who were taken up by Mills & Boon and paid fairly generously (but only because there was intense competition to sign them among a plethora of publishing houses). It seems that when the authors - who often came from the nursing profession, just like the typical Mills & Boon heroine - first got a little money, they would usually spend it on acquiring some domestic help.

In one particularly nauseating passage, Alan Boon muses on how often, when listening to the troubles of his writers, he would find himself thinking that the best thing to do to help them would be to have some domestic staff at his disposal that he could send out to them when crises with household or children interfered with their six-book-a-year schedules. Of course, he could have put his vast wealth where his mouth was and become the progressive employer of women that he felt himself to be, but instead he didn't even sort out a pension scheme for his office staff.

But it is the origins of the strict codes of "morality" that the book so lovingly details which really stick in the craw. All of this was pretty much down to the sensibilities of the large Irish market. Any mention of anything that might upset the Catholic church and precipitate calls for the books to be censored in Ireland were to be totally avoided. Never is it acknowledged that where women are most oppressed and most unhappy, Mills & Boon flourishes most. Nowhere is it acknowledged that Mills & Boon has helped to perpetrate a vicious little circle of supply of misery and demand for a chimera of escape.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the book report submitted by the dyed-in-the-wool company woman Joan Bryant in response to a book proposal in which the heroine "travels to Algeria with her fiancé to seek out her mother's Tuareg roots". Bryant states her strong feeling that "we must discourage this novel". Among her complaints were such gems as "Colour bar. Miss Hemming's account of this race as originally Caucasian would do for English readers, but we have to think of our South African market, too. And I don't believe they'd stand for it." Or, "Algeria. This link-up is the reverse of an advantage. Our readers have shown over and over again that what they like about romance is that it takes their minds off the troubles of real life. Algeria is one of the nastiest things happening today, and fortunately it is one that we can put out of our minds with a clear conscience. This does seem to me a most excellent reason for not writing about it."

Of course, these attitudes were a product of their time, the late Fifties, but, astonishingly, McAleer uses these examples to support his argument that Mills & Boons are not static and unchallenging, but sensitive and responsive to the tenor of their various times.

Instead, what emerges is a publishing genre that is intent on confirming the fears and prejudices of the world, while maintaining a hypocritical stance as moral guardians and making as much money as possible in the process.

What shines through most of all is the company's knowledge that any hint to their loyal readers that the way of the world was not something to be escaped from, but something to be challenged, might result in their loss. Until reading McAleer's book I'd considered the Mills & Boon phenomenon to be silly but essentially harmless. Now, having read a history that is supposed to celebrate the damned company, I find myself thinking that the entire 90-year-long operation has been little else but grubby, exploitative and sad.