Natasha Oakley - British Romance Author

Writer of tug-at-the-heartstrings, feel-good romance for Harlequin Mills & Boon

Wednesday, February 27, 2008


That was interesting! At a little before 1am - and please note I was at my laptop working away in what we grandly call the 'music room' - the large keyboard to my right began to rock. This is where I get to look not too bright. So, I look over my shoulder to check I'm not about to be attacked. I have no idea why other than it was 1am and I'm of an imaginative disposition! Then I get up and try and steady the keyboard, but can't. Then I frown a bit. Everything appeared to be normal so I went to make a cup of coffee ....

In my defence, last night was the first earthquake I have ever noticed. Apart, that is, from the simulator at the Science Museum which I don't think counts. Apparently last night's tremors measured 5.2 on the Richter scale which makes it the biggest earthquake to hit England in 25 years. My children slept through the whole thing which leaves them feeling a little bit miffed. :)


Monday, February 25, 2008


Apparently 'storage' is one of the most 'looked for' things in buying a new house. By women, that is. Presumably because we are the ones who put everything away???

Post house extension I lost all my book shelves. I did make an urgent trip to IKEA to buy multiple packs of Billy bookcases but I've now overstuffed those to the extent that all shelves are bowing. I'm waiting - not too patiently - for my husband to make some new ones. Note to all: Do NOT marry a man with a degree in furniture design. Yes, he can make it BUT you will be waiting a very long time for him to do so and he will not pay anyone else to even when he's ill!

But I digress. I got sent a fabulous link today. I must have been moaning particularly loudly. :)

Okay so that's looking down from the top. What do you think?

The staircase is designed by Levitate Architects and is made in English oak. I'm in lust. Beats the average loft staircase hands down, doesn't it. Unfortunately I live in a house that has the wrong kind of roof struts for a loft extenstion so I am still looking for the perfect storage solution for my books.

All suggestions welcome!

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Saturday, February 23, 2008

Handbags at dawn

Up to now I have always taken the view that if a man doesn't come easily he really isn't mine. I have never stooped to fighting with my own sex over one. But all that is about to change. Trish Wylie is stealing my boy.

She's busy creating a new hero and would have you believe this is Luca Moretti.

Hmmmm, I don't think so.

I know my hero when I see him. That's His Highness Prince Rashid Al Baha and he's mine!

Her defence will claim the hair length makes a difference. She can have him with short hair and I can have him with long. ANYONE out there prepared to accept that???

Rashid Al Baha is fully formed. He's a smidge over 6ft 2", blue eyes, tall, dark, handsome and most at home in the wide open spaces of his desert home.

Talking of wide open spaces you might like to look in on Liz Fenwick's blog which has some great pictures of Oman on it. Lovely. Borrowing all of those for my pinboard.

He is not an Italian wafting around Ireland, whatever the hair length. At least not until I say so. :)

Oh and for those of you who want to conduct your own research on this particular hero inspiration - HE MOVES!

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Wednesday, February 20, 2008

I'm in Hebrew - and I've been a little bit naughty

'Crowned: An Ordinary Girl' is in Hebrew. That's a new one for me. I was just about to give up trying to work out what language it was in (and, in fact, what book!) when I discovered a tiny paragraph in English. Hebrew it is!

And it's a lovely, classy looking book. Heroine on the front is ABSOLUTELY nothing like my Marianne though. I really must get a scanner! She looks like a model rather than a serious academic. Think black spiky hair hanging over one eye in a way that makes any mother reach for a hairslide, glum expression and no need of a bra. Actually, that's good because this girl hasn't got one on.

All good fun.

Distracted me just that little bit from my wip - and this is where the naughty bit comes in. I've just booked a villa in the Dordogne.

Ooops. It's so easy to 'click', isn't it???

You do want me to write a book set there, don't you?

It's a bit of a trek. On a good day it's a seven hour drive from Calais so I'm now toying with the idea of stopping off en route. Can't decide whether I should do a couple of days in the Loire or a few multi stops. Oh decisions, decisions ....

Now that all sounds very glamorous, doesn't it! Back to my own version of Sophie Weston's famous 'El Sodh'. Really, really want to get this book done and out of here.

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Thursday, February 14, 2008

Romantic Novelists' Association Hero Poll

Members of the Romantic Novelists’ Association, and that would include me, have voted Johnny Depp as the Number One Perfect Romantic Hero in a poll to mark Valentine’s Day.

According to these authors, a romantic hero should be gorgeous, deliciously sexy, intensely masculine and have a commanding presence.

‘We should be qualified to judge,’ one writer commented. ‘After all, we create these heroes on paper every day.’

The top ten male celebrities voted the Perfect Romantic Hero were:

1. Johnny Depp

2. Daniel Craig

3. Sean Bean

4. Richard Armitage

5. Hugh Jackman

6. Colin Firth

7. Alan Rickman

8. Pierce Brosnan

9. George Clooney

10. David Tennant

A second poll, taken by members of the RNA bravely admitting to being ‘over a certain age’, voted for male celebrities over fifty who’ve ‘still got it’. Remarkable for his appearance on both polls, Pierce Brosnan took the crown for the over fifties by a huge margin.

The top ten Over-Fifty Perfect Romantic Heroes were:

1. Pierce Brosnan

2. Harrison Ford

3. Ranulph Fiennes

4. Bill Nighy

5. Liam Neeson

6. Sam Neill

7. Sean Connery

8. Peter O’Toole

9. Clint Eastwood

10. Omar Sharif

My own personal favourite 'hero' is Richard Armitage.

If you've yet to see him as John Thornton in the BBC production of 'North and South' get thee to amazon. It's an absolute gem and I envy you seeing it for the first time.

Johnny Depp is fine, though. In fact, over at the Pink Heart Society we checked out our biorhythm compatibility and I discovered Johnny's life will not be quite complete without me. I'd long suspected that! Not sure I'm a devotee of the biorhythm theory but it's a great way to avoid working.

See how you do.

Have a great Valentine's Day!


Wednesday, February 13, 2008

And in the Telegraph ....

And in the Telegraph, that's one of the UK's broadsheets, you'll find:

Mills & Boon: These days, girls want a wizard lover...

Nothing reflects the changing attitudes to relationships over the years more than the romantic novels of Mills & Boon. Glenda Cooper turns some pages.

A sheikh. A tropical idyll. A lace nightgown torn in passion. And the chance to pursue a career as a paediatrician. No wonder Sigmund Freud asked in frustration: "What do women want?"

But in the run-up to Valentine's Day, if any man would like to know the answer then he should head for Paradise Road in south-west London and the headquarters of an empire built on giving women exactly what they want.

I am, of course, referring to Mills & Boon, which now sells a book every three seconds in Britain.

The publishing house celebrates its centenary this year, still churning out potboilers with titles such as The Sheikh's Convenient Mistress, Taken by the Bad Boy, Falling for the Rebel Heir and The Italian Surgeon Claims His Bride - along with about 50 others this month alone.

Started by Gerald Mills and Charles Boon with £1,000, M&B published Shakespeare, socialist tracts and textbooks as well as romances. It wasn't until the post-war years that it concentrated on the latter, and it now has a £21 million turnover, selling 130 million books a year in 26 languages, courtesy of its stable of 1,300 authors.

The books have simultaneously been claimed as feminist tracts (the woman's point of view is always central, in accordance with "Lubbock's Law" - the critic Percy Lubbock maintained that the best fiction, such as Madame Bovary, worked when the author wrote from the heroine's perspective); derided as "misogynist hate", and blamed by the then Archbishop of York, John Hapgood, for the rising divorce rate in Britain. ("One might as well blame the Lassie films for the incidence of abandoned dogs," wrote one critic in response).

M&B has long been the butt of jokes but, after a century of success, the books provide a fascinating insight into how women's lives and desires have changed, as a peek into the archive - some cardboard boxes in its Richmond HQ - reveals.

The uninitiated assume that M&B storylines and the nature of the hero are set in stone - indeed, the publisher issues guidelines for authors to follow. But it wasn't always the case.

The earliest heroes tend to be imperialist adventurers who, towards the end of the Edwardian era, still represented an ideal. The heroines are equally intrepid, with Dorothy Gale, in Louise Gerard's A Tropical Tangle (1911), going off to be a nurse in darkest Africa.

In the shattering aftermath of the First World War, a different type of hero emerges. The golden youths who died in the trenches were the brothers and fiancés of M&B authors, so vulnerable boy heroes populate the 1920s romances, while it is women themselves who are presented as sexually assertive.

In Denise Robins's Women Who Seek (1928), the heroine Eve pursues an adulterous relationship with her lover. M&B had no problem with extramarital sex until the more prudish 1950s.

As the Depression years take hold, heroes are father-figure types; passion comes a poor second to hunger. The heroines tend to have jobs - even after they get married, which was not common at the time.

As the Second World War begins to dominate storylines, there is a focus on women in uniform who display a markedly pragmatic attitude. When Vanya, a nurse, finally gets together with Damon at the end of Jan Tempest's Westward to My Love (1944), she is ecstatic to find he has been posted close to where she lives: "Then I can still do part-time at St Keverne's [hospital]. You won't mind if I do?" she asks him.

"Anything that's OK by you is OK by me, my sweet," he replies.

Ironically, it was only when M&B ditched its other genres and focused on romance that female characters became less assertive. Alan Boon, son of founder Charles, who took over after the war, was an advocate of the alpha ale concept (a belief that the female of any species is attracted to the strongest male).

At the same time, as women retreated back into the home, losing some of the freedoms and financial independence of the war years, M&B turned to jet-set fantasy with heroines following their alpha males to increasingly exotic locations.

It was in the 1960s and 1970s - as the women's movement gained impetus - that M&B developed its anti-feminist reputation. This was largely due to its star author, Violet Winspear, a spinster who lived with her mother and cats, but who introduced a far racier tone into M&B novels.

In an interview in Radio Times she described her heroes as "the sort of men who are capable of rape; men it's dangerous to be alone in the room with". This quote would haunt Winspear - and M&B - for the rest of her career.

Certainly M&B books from this era are disturbing. In Anne Mather's Beware the Beast (1976) the sex scenes between heroine Charlotte and alpha male Alex Faulkner are uncomfortable to read ("Charlotte's struggles were to no avail… she sobbed against his chest when he tore the nightgown from her").

The feminist researcher jay Dixon has argued that M&B novels are, in fact, acting out the struggles of the women's movement. "Sex as a coercive weapon is condemned in the novels," she writes, "both by the direct opposition of the heroine and by the endings when sex becomes an expression of love not of power.

This type of M&B, so abhorred by feminists… shows that women are aware of misogynist violence but they do not leave it there… The novels attempt to explain why this should be so and offer a solution based on the power of love."

In the 1980s and 1990s, when many of the battles of the women's movement had been won, M&B authors ushered in more sympatico New Men as heroes, and increasing numbers of career women - lawyers, journalists, petroleum engineers - as heroines.

In Claire Harrison's 1986 book Diplomatic Affair, the hero even resigns from his job as a diplomat when he realises that accepting a promotion would mean his lover would be unable to continue her work as a paediatrician. And in Penny Jordan's The Sheikh's Virgin Bride (2003), it is Petra who insists on the reluctant hero taking her virginity.

So what do today's M&B tell us about us? Sexual violence of any kind is now taboo, according to Clare Somerville, M&B's marketing director. But are we more liberal than our predecessors? Surprisingly not.

Gay characters are never heroes or heroines (although they sometimes appear as secondary characters), and as jay Dixon points out, until recently there had never been a black heroine in M&B.

Even today, they are confined to the Desire imprint, described as "passionate, daring and provocative love stories" or the black romance series, Kimani, published by Harlequin, M&B's owners in North America.

As for the alpha male? Well, he remains a fictional fantasy. "The thing is, it's fantasy," says Somerville. "It is demeaning to women to suggest we don't know the difference between reality and fantasy. No one suggests that men who watch Top Gear think that that's what driving every car is going to be like."

Today M&B offers 12 different styles for the romance-hungry reader - from M&B Blaze, the most sexually explicit, to M&B Intrigue, which specialises in unlikely paranormal romance ("Two hundred years after the Raintree clan defeated them, the Ansara wizards are rising again…").

A reflection, perhaps, of the fact that women have more choices available to them than ever before - or is it that we still can't make up our minds about what we want? Take comfort, though. As long as there is M&B, there'll always be a sheikh available…

There we go! What will I blog about next year. May I say the word 'churning' always makes my teeth grate? If it's so easy why aren't more of the people who try writing for Mills & Boon successful???

Heaven help me, back to my shiekh!! :)

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Sunday, February 10, 2008

The centenary year continues ...

Well, I'm back home and at work in the cupboard-which-passes-for-my-study. (I've put that in for my editor who would really like this book.) The offical launch of Mills & Boon's centenary year, held at the Wallace Collection (left), was fun but I've got to say the best part was catching up with writing friends.

I'll tell you all about it another day because I honestly do have loads of words to do this week, plus a library talk tomorrow AND it's half-term holiday week so I have my children 'not bothering me but just wanting to know ....'

I love it really, but it does slow me down.

For now I have the latest article to appear in the British press.

Ready? Got yourself a coffee??

The Great Escape

From classic romances to raunchy romps, Mills & Boon novels have been satisfying readers' fantasies for 100 years. But they aren't as easy to write as you might think, reveals Kathryn Hughes.

Saturday February 9, 2008
The Guardian

In the mid-1980s, I was working on a glossy women's magazine and not enjoying it at all. Straight out of Oxford, I had thought this was going to be a training ground for being a writer, and discovered that it was something else entirely. As I recall, most people working on weeklies and monthlies at that time were victims of a similar (dis)illusion, and consequently there were an awful lot of sour-looking faces. Over at TV Times, so the rumour went, every single sub was secretly working on a literary novel during office hours, with the result that any request to cast an eye over next week's listings for the Royal Variety Performance was met with pained looks and theatrical sighs.

At my magazine, we had more modest ambitions: we wanted to write a Mills & Boon, on the principle that if anyone could do it, surely it was us. For, above all, we knew how to produce copy so transparent that you could dive into it and not notice you were engaged in the act of reading. What's more, we understood what women's lives were like. Not in the way that was increasingly debated with worried frowns in seminar rooms up and down the country (this was the decade when "women's studies" emerged in universities), but in terms that made sense to us. We weren't fussed about the patriarchy, but we did know what it felt like to ache with desire for an outfit by Wendy Dagworthy, a boyfriend who spoke French, or the knack of getting your hair to look like Kelly McGillis's in Top Gun.

This ambition to write a Mills & Boon ran round the magazine like a craze, the kind of thing that used to happen at school when everyone suddenly decided to dab their pulse points with musk oil or carry their books in a BOAC bag. And, just as at school, we all pretended that we were hardly aware that other people might have had the same idea. I'm pretty certain that there was a briefing pack we all sent off for: Mills & Boon has always been democratically alert to the ambition of its readers to become writers. After all, producing commercial fiction has for centuries been one of the few ways that women can make a professional wage while staying at home to look after others.

The would-be author pack was welcoming but realistic. Everyone thinks they can knock off a Mills & Boon, but it's harder than it looks. The really important thing, said the bumph sternly, was not to condescend to your readers. Clearly, the company had grown weary of submissions from smarty-pants who attempted to ventriloquise a mass-market fiction voice while failing to disguise that they felt it a bit beneath them, rather like Dick Van Dyke doing cockney.

Yet, I felt, that caveat could not be directed at me. I worked, after all, for a women's magazine and had already endured quite enough condescension during my baby-sized career not to wish to inflict it on anyone else. So, feeling myself naturally advantaged with both skills and insight, I set to writing a Mills & Boon. I did what you're supposed to, and stuck to what I more or less knew. So my heroine was a journalist (tick) who is sent to interview (tick) a hotshot financier (cross) in Luxembourg (double cross). I'd never been to the place, but I liked the way that it managed to be exotic and accessible at the same time. Crafty, and surely exactly the kind of subtle calibration of reality and desire that Mills & Boon was after.

In the event, I got a letter back from the company saying that, although the manuscript wasn't right, it was worth persevering. In other words, I should start again with another story and set of characters. While this wasn't great, I knew enough about rejection letters to know that it wasn't a brush-off either. So I was feeling decidedly perky, until the assistant editor of the magazine sauntered in and announced that, as a result of her submission to Mills & Boon, she'd been called in for a meeting. Obviously, they'd liked her synopsis and three sample chapters more than mine. Since I knew that I was a better writer than her - I was, I was - I gave up in a huff, with the consoling thought that perhaps, after all, you really did have to have a touch of the shop girl in you to write such trash successfully. It's amazing how snooty you become when turned down by Mills & Boon.

My escape route from journalism came another way. I got a PhD place and a full grant - those were the days - and no longer needed to come up with ways of financing what I really wanted to do, which was to think and write about the 19th century. Once ensconced in a seminar room of plastic chairs studded with fag burns, I was obliged to confront just what I had been doing when attempting to dream up that story about a pretty young journalist with a heart-shaped face who manages to tame a wealthy financier with a hard-to-place accent and a way with the ladies. Urged on by my new, serious-minded friends, I concluded that, after two and a bit decades of internalising the patriarchy, I had unwittingly become its handmaiden. In other words, in trying to write a Mills & Boon, I had not only oppressed myself, but I had become an instrument of oppression to others. Thank heavens the publisher turned me down.

Things have changed since then. That thuggish impulse to police women's fantasy lives, not to mention their reading habits, has slipped away from feminist discourse. Taking the long historic view, you can see how Mills & Boon novels emerged from a venerable tradition of serialised fiction aimed at working-class women. In the 1920s and 30s, publications such as Peg's Paper gave weary mill girls and factory workers a repeating roundelay of love affairs between raffish milords and little Cinderellas to sweeten the odd 20 minutes of what would now be called "me time". That Mills & Boon romantic fiction really took off in the Depression likewise suggests that it provided a much-needed escape from an increasingly grim economic landscape where jobs, let alone passing marquises with cruel smiles, were distinctly scarce.

But so what? Just because something has been around a long time doesn't make it good or right. Sterner souls than mine would argue that here is post-feminism doing its usual thing of trying to elevate the sugary scraps fed to women to keep them sweet into some kind of rich and self-determining culture. In any case, Mills & Boon novels have changed, or rather they are always changing, which is why they are so successful: each year, 200 million copies are sold worldwide, and 60 new titles are produced in the UK alone. When I tried my luck in 1986, there was a lot of talk about how the novels had had to evolve to take account of women's entry into the professions (that's why my heroine was a journalist, not a nurse). Acutely sensitive to readerly desire, Mills & Boon continually polls its readers for their reactions to its current crop of novels, then tweaks future texts accordingly. It's a permanent process of cultural feedback.

That's why there are now 12 distinct strands to Mills & Boon (in literary publishing, they'd be called "imprints"), ranging from the kind of classic romance I tried to write 20 years ago to ones set entirely in hospitals, or in crinolines. And then there is the Desire series. The Desire brand comes as the biggest shock to anyone who lazily thinks they already know what goes on in Mills & Boon land. In these books, the hero has an erection by chapter three and isn't afraid to use it. In fact, he "thrusts" and "explodes" so often in the course of exactly 55,000 words that it's amazing he finds time to run a finance company/a ranch/a whole desert kingdom.

The heroine in a Desire book, meanwhile, won't be a virgin because that would be weird (if no one else fancies her, then how can the thrusting, exploding hero?), but she will be a born-again celibate. Some trauma - the death of an earlier love, even a divorce - will have left her in sexual limbo for months, if not years. It's the hero's job to guide her back into a full erotic life, which ends, if not with marriage, at least with something that feels very like it. And if this still doesn't strike you as quite saucy enough, then you're probably a candidate for Mills & Boon's latest addition to the stable, the Blaze imprint, in which the hero and heroine barely have time to swap a bit of witty banter before getting down to business in a variety of locations culled from a reading of Hello! magazine.

That a Mills & Boon novel will present its reader with a fantasy of romantic fulfilment, in which the alpha-male hero voluntarily gives up his evasive ways and commits to monogamy with the heroine, is a given. What is less immediately apparent is the way that the novels also provide a fantasy of "upper-class" life. Sometimes this upper-classness is expressed in terms of money, with a shipping magnate or a sheikh as the hero. In other cases, the fantasy is rooted, no more accurately, in the English class system. For instance, in The Once-a-Mistress Wife, the hero is "an English lord" called Kane Brentwood (not a name you see very often in Burke's). Although this peer of the realm can thrust and explode with the best of them, he has the distinctly non-U habit of saying "pleased to meet you" on being introduced to new people. This perhaps explains why he is no longer tramping the ancestral grouse moor, but instead runs an investment company in Manhattan.

Since both the setting and the author of The Once-a-Mistress Wife are American, perhaps these jumbled class signifiers are inevitable. Less understandable, and therefore more interesting, is when they pop up in a British title. In English Lord, Ordinary Lady, by Fiona Harper, the punk-heroine Josie is on the run from her smart background (she's actually "Lady Josie", but never uses the title). Eventually, she is obliged to go home, which gives us the chance to see what she's been trying to escape from all this time. Her mother, presented as a model of autocratic hauteur, spends her time running a finger along the mantelpiece for dust and ticking Josie off for her "inappropriate" behaviour. In fact, she's a ringer for Hyacinth "Bouquet".

The fascination with social class that runs through Mills & Boon is fitting given that the company started life in 1908 by producing not romantic fiction, but etiquette books. The Edwardian period, flush with cash and all sorts of new kinds of mobility, was full of people trying to ease themselves into a different station from the one into which they had been born. How-to manuals were predicated on the belief that there lay, just out of reach, a finer way of life that could be accessed if only you knew the entry code - which fork to use, how to tie your scarf. That these books were always slightly "off" in their representations of how things were done in the best circles (for what peer of the realm or society lady would really need to make a living by advising the plebs how to enter a drawing room gracefully?) didn't really matter. At some level, readers knew that their Cinderella moment of transformation, in which they threw off their everyday persona of clerk or typist and passed unnoticed as a lady or gentleman, would never actually arrive. Reading about it, imagining that moment again and again, was enough.

Just as these early Mills & Boon etiquette manuals spoke to the desire for social transformation, so the company's more recent fiction provides a permanent waiting room for the emotional and material life that you always felt should be yours. That the moment of arrival never comes is what drives the seemingly unstoppable sales (the books are even being published in Polish now, for all the new immigrants). As with pornography - to which Andrea Dworkin famously likened romantic fiction - this hankering for a set of different, better circumstances is endlessly catered to. How apt, then, that when I wanted to change my life all those years ago, it was to Mills & Boon that I turned first.

That's it!

Meanwhile, over at the Mirror, they've reviewed Trish's book. Go see her blog.

And it's my choice to come up with the Pink Heart Society nomination for Male on Monday ...

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Sunday, February 03, 2008

Ooooooooh Errrr!

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?
Saturday, 2 February 2008

This one was in the Independent and is so vitriolic I'm laughing. I can't quickly see who wrote it, perhaps they're too ashamed to put their name to it, but I would love to know what agenda they have going on. Can't stop to comment on it either as I'm too busy making my millions! :)

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.

What an idiot! So glad I'm not writing that kind of nonsense for a living.

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