Sultry heroines and irresistible heroes live on in racy romantic adventures
Relics of a more innocent era, where the stud always saved the day, or romantic yarns for today, where the heroine gives as good as she gets? Claire Coughlan delves in to the ravishing world of Mills & Boon
Is romance dead? Grittier women's fiction may be climbing high in the charts but the powerhouse that is Mills & Boon is still very much alive and kicking. The iconic publisher recently introduced 3D surround sound to its audio books, starting with the publication of veteran author Sharon Kendrick's 100th novel, A Royal Vow of Convenience, which is the story of a princess masquerading as a cook, and a billionaire who "can't resist a taste of the forbidden".
The audio effects were recorded on location and listeners are in for "a highly charged, intimate listening experience" including a "seductive midnight swim". The figures speak for themselves - Sharon Kendrick has sold more than 20 million books worldwide.
But who reads them?
Doctoral researcher Val Derbyshire from the School of English at the University of Sheffield has read hundreds of Mills & Boon category romances since she was a teenager, and now has an added academic interest in them.
"Quite frankly, I don't know why people are so snobby about Mills & Boon," she says. "They are always well-written and you can read them at many levels… as a literature of social protest or a record of history, or a well-written novel which includes many clever literary tropes and devices."
Mills & Boon was founded as a general publisher in 1908 by Gerald Rusgrove Mills and Charles Boon, and the brand has been exclusively publishing escapist women's fiction since the 1930s.
In 2014 HarperCollins's parent company News Corp completed its acquisition of Harlequin Enterprises from Torstar Corporation and there are currently 16 different series categories under the Mills & Boon umbrella, including "Medical", "Modern", "Desire" and "Blaze" - the latter promising "Sassy heroines and irresistible heroes… on sizzling sexual adventures."
Derbyshire says the books have definitely changed with the times to reflect the tastes of modern readers.
Penny Jordan published 187 titles for Mills & Boon until her death in 2011.
"Her main method of research was reading contemporary women's magazines and she focused her stories around issues which were current and relevant for her female readership - as she had to do, in order to remain popular," Derbyshire says. "One cannot write for women readers if one doesn't know the issues they are facing in their lives."
Susan Stephens, a former singer and children's TV presenter, was encouraged to become a Mills & Boon author after winning a day of mentoring with Penny Jordan as part of a charity auction. Stephens, who has just celebrated her 50th title, says that people who dismiss romance novels as 'quick' and 'easy to read' are missing the point.
"Love is global. Time is short. We all work hard. To escape for a few hours into a wonderful world where you know that whatever the characters must go through, everything will turn out well in the end, is like sitting in front of a log fire in winter, drinking a mug of hot chocolate while the wind howls outside, but you're all snuggled up in your pajamas and slippers, feeling safe and warm."
Karin Baine, who writes for the "Medical" series, says there is a misconception about the books - mostly from people who haven't read them recently.
"I would get that from older people who mightn't have read one since the 1980s," she says. "But I also get the 'bodice-ripper' comments or 'you write those dirty books' from people who don't read them and just presume there's no storyline beyond the love scenes and it's all Fifty Shades of Grey."
Northern Ireland-based Baine's books are set in hospitals, but while she says she does a lot of research into various issues, it's all intended as pure escapism.
"Speaking as a reader, I tend to pick up books that are going to make me feel better at the end. It's escapism. It's a bit of a fantasy and it's supposed to be a bit of fun at the end of the day. I tend to write stories I hope others would want to read."
Fellow Northern Irish author Lynne Graham has published more than 100 novels since 1987 and says she began in the romance genre primarily as a reader.
"One of my strongest teenage memories is being in the library on my own, clutching an armful of Mills & Boon romances, and the stuffy old librarian saying in disappointment 'you like those kinds of books' - I was mortified! Especially as for me, romance novels have always been such an escapist pleasure."
Graham says that far from being old-fashioned, or even anti-feminist, the books are empowering for women.
"Romances are about strong women getting what they want, and being able to safely explore, create and live out their various romantic fantasies, with absolutely no judgment," she says. "I find this a really empowering, contemporary attitude, and I'm proud to write for a publisher that prides itself on writing books by women, about women and for women."
Mills & Boon is looking for its next bestselling author. Visit www.millsandboon.co.uk/primawritingcomp/ for details.