they are really a time in my life. from when i was twelve and beginning to read them with a flutter in my heart and trying not to be caught with a book that’s meant for my mother. to when i was seventeen going on eighteen and suddenly one fine day i stopped reading them altogether. think after that day, i’ve flipped through only one or two of these books i couldn’t live without for five years of my life.
small, easy to curl up anywhere with, less than two hundred pages long, in colours like candy… blue, pink, green yellow, a mills and boon a day kept me happy and blithely dreaming up impossible scenarios of how to meet a horribly handsome man and then by some fantastical journey through the outback or up the nile or perhaps to a spanish hacienda, have him fall head over heels (this state of the head was important) for me, pull me into his arms and you know the rest. well, sometimes, he called me “mia cara,” sorry, he murmured huskily those utterly foreign sounding words that set off goosebumps at the very thought of them. mia cara… the “cuh” coming from the back of the throat, the “rrrr” beautifully rolled.
usually after that i was a happy kid, there was not a blot in my world and even homework or a spat with my best friend (who also read m&B, of course) couldn’t spoil my mood.
soon, the hide and seek stopped and i started chatting with my mother about these books that she read avidly in between all the other things she loved to read. much later i realised, my grandfather, who was once a very senior government officer, erudite, and much respected, and who usually read serious stuff but had a taste for different kinds of writing, even he took a break from all things considered highbrow and sat in his usual corner of the sofa, looking through a mills and boon at times. he masked his enjoyment with a tiny but persistent frown and read from cover to cover.
there was a little regimen to the way i approached my mills and boon. first, see the cover and check out the name of the author. anne mather? the heart did its leap and jump. anne hampson… hmm, the girl would be charming and sassy, the repartee funny. mary burchell, okay the lovemaking would be not that pull and push oriented but still the stories were nice. betty neals meant tall dutch doctors and pretty nurses and a gentle sort of love story. one of my favourites came along a little later. janet dailey. i liked her name, i liked her style. there was an energy in her writing that i still remember. a note of something adult in her work but never uncomfortable. there were some others that i liked, but right now, why can’t i remember their names?
new books would be out practically every week and again there was a stash to get lost in.
after the name checking ceremony, i’d quickly scan the first few pages to get the basic map of the story. who is the guy, where does he live. who is the girl. how do they meet. of course he is tall dark and handsome, otherwise he will be banished from m&b country, though once in a way a blonde man was allowed to stride in (as m&b heroes do, they rarely walk), but only if he was handsome; and no compromise on the tall. he is rich, there’s no other kind of hero around here. she is good looking, maybe blonde or brunette or a red head. she is spirited, usually not rich, but with a career, and she is no quiet accepting sort. they will fight… that’s the only way to fall for each other. sigh.
but now there was no time to lose, quick, turn to page fifty seven. somewhere there is the first, sigh again, kiss. oh how i loved that moment. this was usually a brutal sort of kiss, one not meant to happen, but who’s to fight the power of attraction.
then depending on my mood and level of need for such excitement, i’d rush to the end, to that final love scene where he pulls/yanks/marshals her into his arms and declares he loves her in a raspy helpless voice. then joy and wonder, again they kissed.
after this, i’d settle down to reading the book. they rarely disappointed. you could see it was a formula but you didn’t mind.
it was m&b that taught me hate is akin to love. now as corny as that may sound, it introduced me to the notion of that essential tension that seems to exist between two lovers. as if something in their selves revolts against the sheer submission that love calls for. and if i had no idea that romance can be a difficult thing, really, i would have weathered mine far worse than i ultimately did.
there was a simple thrill in these books. those days, a kiss or two and a few embraces apart, there wasn’t any sexual content. the later emphasis on physical love was not in the picture yet. the friction and engagement were verbal and the way he spoke or she started or he ran to her to save her or she blushed on seeing him suddenly (perhaps while feeding bedraggled lost cats), etc., were enough to please a happy mind dreaming romance. at twelve thirteen fourteen fifteen, that’s a fabulous thing to dream. then struggle through homework, eat a hearty high carb dinner, sleep, get up at six in the morning and go to school and see the not exactly mills and boon heroes in class.
everyone said anne mather was a man. the books had a more grown up feel to them. the heroes were harsher, their huskiness more husky, the sensuousness in writing pronounced. we had no internet back then, so no one could refute or corroborate this piece of urban legend. anne mather, i was delighted to read, is not a man. not at all.
that was the pseudonym of mildred grieveson, a romance writer who wrote under a couple of other names too. i feel a little sad, contrarily enough, at this confirmation. sometimes not knowing is just so much more fun.
ann mather and janet dailey were born after the second world war. was that why their writing had a vigour and an attitude that felt more contemporary? many of the authors were born way before the war. mary burchell was a year older than my grandfather. her name was ida cook and she and her sister mary louise campaigned for jewish refugees. they saved twenty-nine jews during the war. the yad vashem museum in jerusalem honours them as righteous gentiles.
during the post war depression, anne hampson had to leave school at fourteen and sew blouses at marks and spencers. she had always wanted to teach and be a writer. finally, she found her way to writing. she has written a hundred and twenty five m&b romances. and some other books including a crime novel.
i wonder how the authors felt about what they were writing. they were perhaps the first generation of women writers, who were churning out these mass market oriented, formulaic, out and out romance novels. some of the first whose work would travel all over the world, wherever the british had their empire and bring a brand of the language and of love/romance to readers everywhere. mainly women, but some men too.
i loved the element of freedom in these books. you could be anywhere. in london, catalonia, the alps or the outback. a lovely girl could meet a wonderful man just by chance. no frills and frump of the era just gone by. and then all sorts of things could happen and you’d end up finding love that would never die. in the mean time you got to learn some new words that would be hard to come across in that sense and with that regularity anywhere else. arms akimbo, sarcastic, impassive, implacable, chiseled, husky, guttural, fey, wan, rasped, tremulous, caress, tawny… some words are always m&b.
one thing was mystifying though. he had to be a little older, actually a lot, which may have been a hangover from another time, and that desire many girls have to be pampered and cossetted by a man much older. i don’t know, but the guy was always at least ten if not fifteen years older than the girl and that didn’t bother me. i neatly slipped in this clause into my list of the ideal man while praying to my extremely kind goddess. however, when the head over heels thing happened with a fellow only a year older, who wasn’t that tall, i didn’t resist, i quickly succumbed hoping to hear some rasping and huskily.
m&b has many memories of cousins and friends associated with it. one of my cousins, a little older than me, used to borrow the latest ones from this tiny hole of a shop in lake market in calcutta. how such romances in english could reach such a corner in the busy, messy market selling everything from fish to plastic buckets i can’t imagine. in an intensely bengali speaking area, many girl were obviously hung up on the arms akimbo man.
i can’t say all the books were fabulous. some were boring and one portrayed a particularly icky scene of virginity having to be proven by showing sheets with blood on it post wedding night. it was set in some gypsy camp in the arabian desert. troubled me for days.
but in general, it was a happy, light read, and the kissing was good.
i still have no idea why i stopped reading them, but that day did come. i just recall it surprised me. i didn’t want to know what was the new release. i didn’t feel that impatience to open a book and shut out the world.
i must agree with what mary burchell said once, “i concede that a bad romantic novel is embarrassing and indefensible. so is a bad so-called realistic novel. (and it is usually pretentious into the bargain which is insufferable.) but a good romantic novel is a heart-warming thing which strikes a responsive chord in those who are happy and offers a certain lifting of the spirits to those who are not.” i found this in wikipedia and hope it’s correct.
i often think what i’d really like to write is a solid, proper romance. maybe the desire was sparked by these early readings of mine. so get ready for some mia cara (or maybe pagal ladki) and page fifty sevens, will you.
gerald rusgrove mills and charles boon founded the british publishing house harlequin uk ltd in 1908. mills and boon is the brand name under which they published books, which were not all romances in the beginning. the company saw the potential of “escapist fiction for women” in the thirties and concentrated on the genre. in 1971, canadian company harlequin enterprises bought the uk publisher. the oxford english dictionary included mills and boon in its hallowed pages in 1997. it is both a proper noun and an adjective, describing a certain sort of book or romance. mills and boonish and mills and boony are derivatives which mean “characteristic of a mills and boon novel; romantic, storybook.”
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