Mind & Meaning: Why Mills & Boon still make the ladies swoon
When she saw me browsing over a Mills & Boon, my mother firmly warned me that I mustn't read such trash. Her stark prediction that no good would come of it has had a lasting impact on me.
I still don't know if she worried that the allure of a handsome and rich husband would entice me into an early and doomed marriage or whether she felt the gripping stories of romance and undying love would be so distracting as to thwart my ambition to become a doctor.
Since that day, several decades ago, I have seldom disobeyed her. Yet I now learn that three Mills & Boon books are sold every second in the UK and the readership is global. In 2008 a version was launched in India and is popular among middle-class women there. Worldwide there are 50 million devoted readers.
The recent arrival of electronic reading devices has led to a huge surge in the downloading of Mills & Boon books. Apparently, ashamed to be seen carrying a paper copy, the 30-somethings have taken to downloading them onto their electronic readers, so avoiding embarrassment.
Even though the Mills & Boon group almost went out of business on several occasions, they have shown enduring resilience, and according to recent statistics more than 140,000 stories were downloaded digitally while 400,000 were bought through Amazon in the past year. The digital era has undoubtedly facilitated this expansion.
Why are these formulaic books so popular? This in itself is one of the reasons -- they are predictable. Although racy storylines are now available in some series, one-night stands are not allowed, neither is smoking and same-sex relationships are a no-no. The hero is tall and handsome with a thick mop of hair; the heroine has a sylph-like attractiveness, and is never overweight.
She is often vulnerable and fragile. The hero may be a doctor, pilot or a billionaire while the heroine is a nurse, air hostess or poverty-stricken beauty. He saves lives through his psychological prowess and is always considerate and insightful. She, on the other hand, is gentle and supportive.
There are specific categories to facilitate the reader in making a suitable choice: medical romances are peopled entirely by doctor/nurse couplings but these never involve a male nurse and a female doctor, while the international drama series is set in exotic locations.
The denouement in the story comes when the hero gently tells his heroine of his love for her as he bends to kiss her tenderly but fulsomely on the lips. She reluctantly submits and a spark within her acknowledges her previously denied attraction to this tower of masculinity. Wedding bells then follow.
The origin of these books explains the reason for their success. Charles Boon was award of how difficult the war years were. Money was in short supply and men were scarce as they left for and died in the trenches.
The women at home needed to escape from their dreary lives and so turned to these cheap, stylised books for comfort in an unpredictable world and above all for happy outcomes at a time when tragedy was inescapable.
Feminists have castigated these books for stereotyping women into particular roles. They claim that although there has been some evolution in the female characters over time, the constant portrayal of women as passive and submissive is unacceptable.
Strange, then, that their appeal persists in light of the progress made by women over the last century.
One of the reasons may be that everybody needs escapism and while women now become presidents of countries and of banks, become diplomats and spies, the woman on the street identifies more with relationships and family than with professional success.
So a gentle love story, where the main players are good looking and thoughtful, holds more appeal than a literary classic exploring themes of lust, revenge and betrayal. The fact that most titles are written by women for women adds to their accessibility.
A further appeal is the pro-forma style and content. In a complex and capricious world, a storyline that predictably culminates in a happy ending provides a degree of insulation against harsh reality and reassures the reader that good things can happen.
The handsome men and exotic locations capture the imagination and give a glimpse of what life could be like, although most women also accept their escapist value. Better to tuck up in bed with a Mills & Boon than sit in a darkened room nursing a bottle of whiskey.