Natasha Oakley - British Romance Author

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

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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