A fine romance
IN 2008, publishers Mills & Boon celebrate 100 years of business. It's a century since two dashing young entrepreneurs, Gerald Mills and Charles Boon – who wouldn't have been at all out of place in a Mills & Boon novel themselves – launched the company in London with only £1,000.
Now the books are a global phenomenon; they still occupy their very own section in Eason's on O'Connell Street and, according to one member of staff, are still as popular as ever.
In the UK, WH Smith is about to stock Polish versions of the books, and although Eason's do not do the same yet, surely it's only a matter of time.
When we think of the iconic romance novels, we tend to think of quivering bosoms, unlikely scenarios and cheesy heroes, but all that is a thing of the past, says Irish Mills & Boon author Trish Wylie.
Originally from Co Antrim, she lives in Fermanagh and has 16 titles to her name, in both the Harlequin Romance genre – the more traditional romance novel – and Modern Heat, a racier version.
Trish, who's in her 30s and is contracted to write six Mills & Boon titles this year (she says that the fastest production of one of her books is three weeks), thinks that the brand's adaptability has ensured its longevity.
“The reason Mills & Boon has lasted is that it's changed with each generation,” she says. “What annoys me about how Mills & Boon is portrayed in the press, is that people will quote things from the 60s and 70s, but that's not how things are now.
“Women are just too savvy to pick up a book and go, ‘why does she stay with him?’; things have changed with the times. But no matter how much of a feminist a woman is told she should be, women still indulge in fantasy.”
Writing about sex was, she says, difficult at first. “My editor said to me: ‘Don't be afraid not to be such a good Irish girl,' and I think she used the word ‘repressed’, even though she now says she doesn't remember saying that!
“So for a while I had to leave notes on my computer saying: ‘Do not repress.' Then eventually she said to me: ‘Okay, you can calm it down now.'“
So it's become easier to write about sex? “It's more that you know that people you know will read it. I have a 17-year-old niece and she reads the Romance books, but I won't let her read my Modern Heat ones,” she says.
Trish's latest book, which is out for Valentine's Day – Her One and Only Valentine – received the ultimate modern woman's nod of approval when it was recently featured in Grazia magazine, in a feature about romantic make-up. And as with most of Trish's novels, it's set in Ireland.
“The hero's business is in Dublin, but the girl inherits a country estate from a friend and the hero owns land adjoining it,” she explains. “They're tied together because they have a daughter together; they met at Trinity years earlier. This is going to sound terribly bigheaded, but it's my version of Pride and Prejudice.
They have to get over their pride and their prejudices towards one another before they can get to know each other better.” And what's this about them having a daughter together?
“I was wary of doing the ‘secret baby' thing, because it's hard to believe that a modern woman wouldn't just hunt him down, so I struggled with it,” Trish laughs. One thing she doesn't have to struggle with any more is cliched representations of Ireland in Mills & Boon.
“Ireland's in all my books, which are very popular in the States. What annoyed me about Mills & Boon set in Ireland, before, was that they were all written by American authors and even though some are great, they imagine that we Riverdance our way down to the post office every day.
“It's a modern country and I didn't see why it shouldn't be portrayed in the same way as somewhere like New York.” Trish says her love for Mills & Boon was nurtured in her teens.
“My mother used to subscribe to the reader's service and she got Mills & Boon through them – it was a race to see which one of us would get to them first! I used to joke that my mother got sex education through pamphlets from the doctor and Mills & Boon,” Trish laughs.
“Then, in my late teens, I started reading the more sensual ones. I used to settle down in my pyjamas with a tub of Haagan Daz and a Mills & Boon on a Friday night – it was a great excuse not to have to get dressed up and go out.
“I decided when I was 18 that I wanted to be a Mills & Boon writer and I was determined to do it, but then I kind of talked myself out of it. I think I was a bit young anyway – I went out and did different jobs, travelled, and got my heart broken a few times and then I was ready.
“The first one I sold was one I wrote when I was 18 though. I sat on it and then sold it a decade later.”
There are plenty of misconceptions about Mills & Boon writers, says Trish. “Although I'm in my 30s people assume that Mills & Boon writers are in their 50s and 60s and wear pink kaftans,” she cracks.
But surely, with all those dashing heroes, some of Trish's inspiration must come from real life?
“When people ask me if it's from real life, I say: I wish! It's generally the end of a film I didn't like, or a line in a song. But the happy ending is part of the appeal because readers know that that's what they're going to get.”