Like many of the best revelations, it began with an awkward question. Aged 14, Val Derbyshire was a little confused about the facts of life and innocently turned to her older sister for advice.
“She thrust a copy of a Mills and Boon story written by Penny Jordan into my hand and said, ‘Read this, it should tell you all you need to know’. It didn’t, but I was instantly hooked.”
Easy to read and cheap to buy, when Val got to the end of Escape From Desire she began devouring other Mills and Boon’s books with titles like Law of Attraction and Falcon’s Prey. By the time she reached her 20s she had not only read more than 100 of them, but also found herself regularly defending this peculiar brand of romantic fiction to those less convinced of its literary merits.
“At first it was a guilty pleasure and I knew that most people thought of them as a bit trashy, but I couldn’t help feeling that was a bit unfair. They really didn’t deserve to be the black sheep of publishing.”
Today Derbyshire, is a doctoral researcher at Sheffield University’s school of English. For the most part she studies the works of the 18th-century Romantic poet and novelist, Charlotte Turner Smith, but she has continued to champion Mills and Boon. It might not be quite the literature of protest penned by Turner Smith, but every book says Derbyshire, who will be hosting two Mills and Boon themed events at next week’s Festival of the Mind in Sheffield, is a reflection of the age in which it was written.
“When Jordan was asked about her daily writing routine, she said she spent at least an hour a day reading popular contemporary women’s magazines and used the stories within for inspiration. In other words, she kept her finger on the pulse of what was current and topical in society.
“She wrote for the now and honestly, each one is like a little, compact slice of social history. If you go back to her titles from the early 1980s you really do get a glimpse of what life was like and I don’t just mean the references to pastel lemon flying suits.
“Britain was on the brink of recession and Jordan gives a snapshot of how ordinary women reacted to the financial global crisis. Also, if you ever want to know about the development of the British car industry in the 1970s you could do worse than pick up a copy of Roberta Leigh’s Man Without a Heart. I’m serious.”
Derbyshire isn’t alone. Back in 1982, a Mills & Boon book was added to a time capsule in the grounds of Castle Howard. The event was to mark the 60th anniversary of the BBC and the capsule had been designed to contain ‘vital clues of what was life in 1982 for generations to come’.
Claims of historical importance aside, ever since the company was set up by Gerald Mills and Charles Boon back in 1908 the books with titles like Not A Marrying Man and Reawakened by the Surgeon’s Touch have also provided much needed escapism.
Alan Boon, one of the masterminds behind the stylised romances, once declared that such was their restorative quality, they “could take the place of Valium” and come an economic crash sales tend to boom. It was true during both the First and Second World Wars when they were initially sold through weekly, two-penny libraries and given what was happening at home it’s hard not to understand the pull of a tale about an Arab sheik looking all windswept in some exotic location.
However, Derbyshire, who goes so far as to suggest that Mills and Boon could be classed as feminist literature, says it’s a complete misconception to suggest the stories focus on weak damsels in distress being rescued by good looking heroes. Well, almost.
“Ok, I’ll admit, the guys do tend to be good looking, but the women in Mills and Boon are not just eye candy. More often than not they are ordinary, independent women, who are self-supporting, and who have relationships which are on their own terms.
“These are works which put women in the foreground and quite often it’s the men who have to change before they can get what they want. I know some people would laugh at the idea that these are feminist texts, but they are largely written by women for women and I doubt they would have been so popular had they portrayed their central female characters as doormats.”
While publishing is often seen as an elite industry, Mills and Boon was also much more inclusive. Billing themselves as the ‘Promised Land’ for new authors, aspiring writers started putting pen to paper. In 1912, no less than 1,000 new manuscripts landed on the doormat of the Mills & Boon office, 75 per cent from women and 95 per cent from unknown authors
As the brand grew, it provided work to hundreds of writers, some penning as many as 12 books a year, and in the early days it was one of the rare opportunities women got to earn a considerable amount of money.
Betty Beatty was one of them. Beginning writing for the company in the 1950s , she soon became on of Mills and Boon’s most popular authors and her success, particularly overseas, came as a surprise. “I didn’t realise how well I was selling abroad,” she once recalled. “Until I got a cheque for over £9,000 for a single North American edition.”
With a pool of experienced writers, Mills and Boon began to diversify and today there are 16 different strands with the steamier Blaze series sitting alongside the more traditional medical and historical romances.
“There’s even one called Nocturne, focusing on paranormal romances,” says Derbyshire. “It’s basically Mills and Boon’s answer to Twilight.
While it might all seem a little silly, the Mills and Boon business model is altogether more serious. Each month, the company publishes 120 new titles, from 200 authors living in the UK and a further 1,300 worldwide. Each sells for around £3 and they know they have a 50m loyal customers who buy the books in the same way they do a pint of milk or a loaf of bread.
“It would be silly to deny that they don’t work to a formula, of course they do,” says Derbyshire. “There’s a strict word count of 70,000, but if someone like Jordan had been churning out the same old story time and again, readers would have simply gone elsewhere. By the end of her career, she had 187 titles to her name and wrote 10 books in one year alone. With that amount of books of course you are going to get the odd duff one, but it’s a bit like the Penny Dreadfuls of Victorian England.
“They were published to appeal to the masses and if you didn’t like one you knew there would be another one out the following week.”
It’s this same mass, working class appeal which has resulted in Mills and Boon being derided and dismissed as catering for the lowest common denominator.
“It’s that belief that anything which is popular must be low on literary value,” says Derbyshire. “I went on Radio 4 recently opposite quite a pompous man who looked down his nose at Mills and Boon. When I asked him what the last one he’d read was, he admitted that he had never picked one up. Its biggest critics tend to people who have never read a single one.”
So given Derbyshire knows more than most about Mills and Boon, has she never been tempted to write her own?
“A few years ago I thought I’d have a go at writing my own historical romance and called it rather loftily the Raisons of Radistock. I sent of the first three chapters, but while they said they liked my writing style they said there was a little too much action. It just goes to show, writing a Mills and Boon is not sas easy as you might think.”
Why Read Mills and Boon?, Festival of the Mind, Sheffield, September 17 and 22. For full details go to festivalofthemind.group.shef.ac.uk