THE ROMANTIC STORY OF MILLS & BOON.
At a time when the main focus of advertising is to promote brand recognition and loyalty, it is interesting to note that in the world of twentieth century publishing there are really just two instantly recognisable 'brands' - Penguin and Mills & Boon. But while it is unlikely that any reader would go out solely to buy 'a Penguin', many thousands of women regularly purchase and read more than one 'Mills & Boon' every month. In fact, the estimated number of such readers in Britain alone is four out of every ten women, with a book being bought every two seconds. The company's name was added to the OED in 1997 as a term meaning 'romantic storybook.'
There is a persistent fascination with the continuing success of this company, along with innumerable myths about its authors and editorial style, the much vaunted 'formula' and the rumours of the supposed 'guidelines' which dictate everything from the height, colouring, ages and financial status of the hero and heroine to the parts of the body which may be mentioned, or touched, during any love scene. It seems that almost everyone has a strong opinion on the Mills & Boon output, most often without any real knowledge of the genre or the company itself.
Passion's Fortune is likely to go a long way towards correcting this lack of information. In spite of its florid title, it is a factual and analytical history of a very specialised form of publishing. Joseph McAleer details the development of the firm of Mills & Boon from the time when it was founded in 1908 by Gerald Mills and Charles Boon. In those days, the firm published general fiction, including writers such as P. G. Wodehouse, Jack London, Georgette Heyer and E. F. Benson amongst its authors, together with a line of textbooks. It was only later, in the 1930s, with both Gerald Mills and Jack London dead and other star writers poached by larger publishers, that Charles Boon decided to turn his company into a 'library house', supplying the commercial circulating libraries that existed in such outlets as Boots or WH Smiths. To this end, he focused on a genre that was rapidly growing in popularity amongst the patrons of such libraries, that of escapist romance.
What followed was a concentrated campaign of advertising catalogues, window displays and sample chapters sent out as 'teasers', developing in the process the firm's greatest achievement and the source of its dramatic financial success, the imprint, a recognisable brand name that gave Mills & Boon a powerful advantage in sales. 'At your library you can always ask for a Mills & Boon novel in the confidence that you will get an enjoyable story,' the firm assured readers in the 1950s. A stable of successful women novelists was built up, all of whom were encouraged to maintain a maximum output of around three or more titles a year and many of these authors were listed in the Bookseller's list of library best-sellers.
The novels were not as sickly sweet and strictly censored as many may believe. For example, Denise Robins, a wildly successful Mills & Boon star of the 1930s, wrote of rape, abduction, bigamy, suicide, illegitimacy and divorce. Barbara Hedworth's How Strong is Your Love (1939) was cited on the Irish Government's list of prohibited books on the grounds that it 'advocate(d) the unnatural prevention of conception' and has a heroine whose doctor-father performs 'an illegal operation', as an abortion was then known.
The story of Mills & Boon is also the story of the people who made up the company and, as Joseph MeAleer was given access to a long-lost archive of over 50,000 letters, he is able to detail the relationship between the editors, notably Charles, the son of the original Mr Boon and his 'harem' of female writers as described by Violet Winspear in 1971.
This is the point at which the book finishes, leaving the story of the company incomplete, making nothing but the briefest mention of the 27 years since Mills & Boon merged with Harlequin Enterprises of Canada. This is where Passion's Fortune falls down. The title seems to indicate that this is the full history of the company, but by not tackling the changes of the past quarter of a century, one in which everything has changed so fast, particularly in the area of women's lives, Mr. McAleer has left an impression that editorial policy, the writing in the books, the topics they cover and their approaches to sexuality, emotional problems, women's issues etc. came to a complete halt in 1972 and have stagnated since then. As a result, he has produced an interesting social and economic history, as far as it goes, but by not illustrating how the romances have adjusted to the latter part of the twentieth century, he is in danger of perpetuating all the prejudices and preconceptions about them, and doing little to en courage a reasoned and balanced judgement of the genre as it is today.