Thrills & Boon...
Why the legendary romantic novel publishers are turning up the steam
By John Meagher
After 100 years of romance, Mills & Boon is set to go hardcore. The venerable publisher -- whose romantic novels have sold in the millions to generations of women -- is launching its first line of explicit erotica.
The imprint, Spice -- already a hit in the US where Mills & Boon is known as Harlequin -- is dispensing with the nudge-nudge-wink- wink style of writing that became synonymous with the publisher in favour of erotically charged prose that leaves little to the imagination.
These books will be about sex for enjoyment, rather than the traditional Mills & Boon brand where it's the by-product of an emotional connection between the heroes and heroines.
One of the steamy novels, Spies, Lies & Naked Thighs, sees the protagonist Breezy Malone swapping her archaeologist's trowel for the leather corset of a covert FBI sex agent and setting out to seduce the terrorist behind her incarceration in a Middle East prison.
It's a far cry from the innocent world of escapist romantic fiction synonymous with Mills & Boon.
"I think people who haven't read our titles in a while would be surprised that many aren't part of the Barbara Cartland style of the past," says Mills & Boon marketing manager Claire Somerville. "Our Modern Romance imprint offers a very up-to-date look at relationships and sex and sensuality is very much part of that.
"Another of our lines, Blaze, is quite erotic and would not be suitable for many of our more conservative readers."
Since Gerald Mills and Charles Boon founded the company with £1,000 in 1908, the temperature between the pages has grown progressively hotter.
Claire Somerville says: "It was in the post-war years of the 1920s that they realised that women wanted to read light romantic fiction to escape the hardships of the times."
Sex didn't get a look in in those early days, with writers having to use euphemistic expressions to suggest that their characters enjoyed a little more than a kiss.
"In the 1950s, some of the writers wanted to break out and depict society in a more realistic way," she says. "One writer [Jan Tempest] was told to edit out an illegitimate character. Divorce and illegitimacy were unacceptable for the Irish market, which has always been big for us. In fact, in the 1930s a number of titles were banned in Ireland because they were considered too racy by the censor there."
But that didn't last long. British poet Philip Larkin famously wrote that "Sexual intercourse began in 1963, which was rather late for me". Was he referring to Mills & Boon? In that year sex scenes were included for the first time. By the 1970s, this was extended to unmarried couples.
Masturbation -- described in one of the books as "that solitary, inadequate substitute for love" -- makes its first appearance in 1973. Another milestone came in 1982 with the publisher's first oral sex scene. "There are other places to kiss," the hero informs the heroine in Antigua Kiss, who promptly surrenders to "waves of ecstasy".
The market for erotica grew in the 1990s and it was partly in response to Virgin Books' popular Black Lace series that Mills & Boon launched its Blaze imprint in 2001. "The books are very erotic, but it's all done within the context of an enduring emotional relationship," Somerville says. "And the plot remains important."
Although the books are much derided with few admitting to being fans, they sell in their millions every year. Between 50 and 60 new titles are published every month.
Say what you will about the books, but in the words of Claire Somerville, they have been "a social barometer for Britain and Ireland in the 20th century -- you can chart the development of social and sexual mores, the history of women and the evolution of women's role socially and sexually, all through Mills & Boon."