Literature

remembering mills and boon

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.”

 

all original visuals courtesy uploaders and original copyright holders.

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16 Comments

  • Reply
    ladkikijhy
    June 16, 2016 at 3:51 am

    These were a rite of passage, a part of growing up for so many of us. Have to confess I did continue to read them often and on from the time I started. Will continue to do so till the end is my thought ๐Ÿ™‚
    Loved it Indi di

    • Reply
      indrani robbins
      June 16, 2016 at 9:33 am

      thanks, lady k,

      so wish i could read one again. strange throwing of switch in me. but i did love the feeling of reading one.

  • Reply
    rhea sinha
    June 16, 2016 at 1:56 pm

    read this on the bus and spent some happy moments blithely dreaming of these rasping men. I think I told you that am new to this Mills and Boons world. Nicholas Sparks and quite a few other romance novelists feel too mushy. So, I don’t read them, but when I started on some harlequinn romance (they arent called mills and boons anymore..) last year, I had so much fun. My favourites are the historical romance where there are masquarades and balls and wallflowers and rakes. Will start paying attention to the name of the writers now. Really sweet read Indi di.

    • Reply
      indrani robbins
      June 16, 2016 at 10:17 pm

      rake, rakeโ€ฆ yes every girl needs one in her life. to watch him fall hard and get a bit boring but then again every once in a while heehee. you liked? thank you. try the books from the 1970s and a bit earlier, totally marshmallow fun.

    • Reply
      ladkikijhy
      June 16, 2016 at 11:35 pm

      Yeah they are known as harlequinn here. Or I think harlequinn took over mills & boon. You find old ones on sale in public libraries, I have picked up a few like that! ๐Ÿ™‚ I remember when we first moved here, putting mills & boon in the search box of the public library opac and it brought up a few old harlequinns! Have to say I’m impressed with the cataloging! ๐Ÿ™‚

      • Reply
        indrani robbins
        June 17, 2016 at 7:40 pm

        you know i never knew of any harlequin other than the one in diamondish checks. and when harlequin suddenly came into the picture, it just felt like a sell out, like someone had just gone and ruined everything. mills and boon, that was the only name i associated with the books; also that rose logo. and my idea of romance may have added other notes to it but the m&b factor is very much part of the mix. you need a bit of that what.

        • Reply
          rhea sinha
          June 18, 2016 at 9:53 am

          okay I have to read old ones now that both you and kizh are talking about them.

  • Reply
    DurgaS
    June 17, 2016 at 8:00 pm

    Interesting one and informative too, Indi. I have never read a m&b book, nor was I ever curious to read one. Though, I knew some of my friends in school were deep into it. But there’s something I realised while reading the above. So, they have been writing them since that many decades? And there are numerous authors penning the stories down? Wow. I thought these were written by just one author. So that means there are hundreds and hundreds of books available out there! That is stupendous.

    • Reply
      indrani robbins
      June 18, 2016 at 1:45 am

      hi durga,

      yes, many authors and a huge number of paperbacks every month. i knew there were always new ones out, but i just read somewhere, it’s now practically one hundred books a month. actually, now they have gotten really smart and let women from all over the world write… some indian girls are writing. and they are always on the lookout for writers. it’s a mini factory now. their website speaks of the different genres, their guidelines, etc., you can apply and start writing for them of they accept you. but yeah, there’s a formula and you must adhere. i find all this slightly suffocating. too much information… ๐Ÿ™‚ back then, there was no net, one knew very little about the formula, of course you could sense it totally, but you never saw it anywhere in black and white. something feels a bit cold hearted and not so cool anymore. but m&bs are still hugely popular.

      • Reply
        DurgaS
        June 18, 2016 at 1:49 pm

        Oh that’s a massive production of m&bs. Yes, just factory like. Clearly creativity is dwarfed. But it works for them nevertheless. I guess fans of the original ones will look for the older editions, which anyway aren’t in a small number.

  • Reply
    Archana poplie
    June 18, 2016 at 4:37 am

    It like going down memory lane ,mills and boons were a rite of passage for most teenage girls ,I was one of them but I loved to read a lot of different genres ,but some of the authors who started out as m&ab writers today one of them is Nora Roberts ,Catherine coulter who writes suspense ,today when I go back to India I find that the local small library are no longer there ,it’s sad because all book lovers used to meet there and share the love of a good read ,

    • Reply
      indrani robbins
      June 18, 2016 at 7:56 pm

      hi archana,
      those local small libraries were too cute and such an easy way to get books. you’re right, many of the m&b writers went on to write their own non m&b stuff. also in different genres. yeah, along with these books one read plenty other things. i loved bestsellers by ludlum, arthur hailey, irving wallace, then there was agatha christie and georgette heyer, sometimes a sidney sheldon. i remember flipping it after reading the godfather and imagining i am don corleone… those were the mad happy days, these days are not any less mad i must say.

  • Reply
    Sam
    August 21, 2016 at 1:55 am

    Oh yes… What a blast from the past! Yes to every feeling you mentioned. The mystery, the attraction, the anticipated(yet somehow never boring) first altercation… The muttered ‘I hate him’ which obviously meant this was the ‘forever’ kind of love… His ‘sardonic’ responses… I laughed going through your list of vernacular… You missed the sardonic. And couldn’t help comparing it to the jargon without which an IPK story is incomplete… Orbs (there absolutely have to be orbs) caramel or hazel… Calloused fingers (i mean who cares that the guy is a fashion mogul)… Chiseled features and/or abs… Oh let’s not forget the smirk(apparently ASR can smile no other way… Laughing)… Plump lips… Frail and/or delicate and/or ethereal (I mean she has to be gorgeous, right?)…
    But I digress, back to Mills&Boon. I grew up in an environment where such romance reading was considered detrimental to healthy growth… Loss of innocence and unreasonable expectations from life were commonly used arguments. Laughing. I should elaborate the ‘loss of innocence’ bit. Apparently knowledge is reflected on one’s face… And innocence as you might or might not know is a highly desirable quality signifying virtue… Laughing. So there was a lot of covert activity involved in obtaining and reading the said books. I think I might have exhausted my quota of romance with the books themselves..

    I had favorite writers too. Actually Georgette Heyer is still my favorite author. Her romances, her wit, her originality, her expression is evergreen for me. Others I have revisited and remembered the original excitement/ contentment.

    The thing which is most noticeable to me now is the change in the acceptable and the taboo in such books. What was acceptable then shocks us now and what was frowned upon is completely mundane. I remember reading somewhere that Violet Winspear (I think I have the name right), one of the Oldies Goldies Of M&B said that a real man is capable of rape. ??? Talk about a cultural shift! At the same time indiscriminate sex is completely unremarkable now.

    As usual I rambled on and on after reading your article. Laughing. Loved it Indi. Keep sharing your thoughts coz I really enjoy reading them.
    Love and regards,
    Sam
    P.S. Don’t make me ask the question!

    • Reply
      indrani robbins
      August 21, 2016 at 2:29 am

      sam…. it’s you… haan, you indeed? uff, the lure of m&B. ๐Ÿ™‚ what!!!! i forgot sardonic? how could i? so utterly unforgivable. yes, sardonic is truly mills and boon. i even used to imagine the expression.

      georgette heyer was my mother’s favourite… the grand sophie was said with a certain happy twinkle in the eyes. i loved her too. tried to tempt my girl with devil’s cub, she all of fifteen, looked at me with a most now how do i manage this mother look in the eyes.

      of course, m&b and other romances were considered to be very low reading… i think that is all i could or would ever manage. thankfully, since the mother was addicted, i had a happy supply and not too many lectures when found curled up with one.

      yes, ipk too has its jargon. i guess language is a powerful tool in creating a universe. asr got to smirk teehee, oh yes, calloused are the fingers of rich fashion man, orbs… do you know, i have never ever used that word for it just so never worked for me… also ahem, smirk, me tried to stay away from it, apart from once or twice… oh the searching for words that indicate that irresitible gradient hahha.

      “Apparently knowledge is reflected on oneโ€™s faceโ€ฆ And innocence as you might or might not know is a highly desirable quality signifying virtue” while i am giggling, i am also pondering how squarely and totally we are mere objects in our world. no one would tell sons and boys what we get told… the premium on looks and expressions… everything always about how attractive we are to that saviour who will appear one fine day and be enamoured of our innocence. with which he may do as he pleases while we continue to prove in ways many and more how virtuous we are. my poor husband… how badly duped by his right to seven steps behind wife.

      very interesting what you say about changing times ad expectations. to me, m&b scenarios were a bit like hindi films. i understood the fantasy aspect of it, never expected it in real life, though yeah, once in a way i’d demand an arms akimbo encounter. and very clearly men were pitched a spot or two higher than women, patriarchy runs too deep for a mass oriented product to defy it. but, i sort of shrugged it off and thrilled to all the hating and loving. ha. i was reading somewhere today that the very young monarch… elizabeth, crowned in 1953, had an influence on how m&b heroines of the time were portrayed. i was always happy to see they worked and ranted and didn’t tiptoe around men and want to cook and clean only. also they ran off to far off places at the drop of a hat or aunt.

      yes, violet winspear got people in a tizzy around some rape thingie. some day, we women should really ask ourselves why we have such chaotic emotions around this subject… if it’s a fantasy at all, then why so. rationally examined, no part of this can be anywhere near a fantasy. i believe gul khan actually considered asr forcing khushi to have sex with him… years ago, when rajiv khandelwal left his very popular show, seems ekta kapoor had asked him to get into a track involving rape too. after i have raved and ranted… i must ask myself why these things come up and why women bring them up.

      glad you read and rambled. missed you. no need to ask the question… an answer in a couple of days.

      • Reply
        Sam
        August 21, 2016 at 3:56 am

        A couple of days, you say? It seems I have heard that before. Nah, it was probably someone else. Laughing. (Still holding you to it though!)

        Kids these days… No respect for our most knowledgable and sage recommendations or appreciation for fine, understated literature. Devil’s Cub is one of my favorites… Topped only by These Old Shades… Story of the Devil himself. Now that was a character to fall in love with.

        I do notice your habit of refraining from popular IPK syntax… tch, tch! I don’t know how you are able to cultivate the proper impression without the use of proper terminology. Laughing. But you ace it somehow…

        Ah so the credit goes to Elizabeth for the change in heroines of M&B. Now it all makes absolute sense. What does not is what you revealed about Gul Khan… Or that other show. Really? I think the whole idea is to probably create controversy. The more controversial a show, the higher the ratings. I, for one, am supremely grateful for whoever vetoed that brainwave.
        Now I do need to go and watch some of the episodes. Just so the time will pass faster in the next couple of days, you understand.
        Love and regards,
        Sam

        • Reply
          indrani robbins
          August 21, 2016 at 4:08 pm

          hehheheh, so you don’t trust me with day counting. yes, these old shades was too good, mother and me both smitten. from heyer came another set of words, and a place called gretna green. i really need to read a few pages soon and recall those regency words. ah! bah! now who said that.

          thanks for noticing my nahiiin to certain words, not because they are over-used… just that it’s fun to find new expressions and yet try and stay true. your interpretation of why women producers even go near rape is possibly true… sensational material with enough blood and gore and ripping shredding emotions i guess means trp. but even then… just because you were a woman, i thought you’d stay away i feel like yelling… hindi movies made under extreme censorship laws on all matters sexual have long used the sick titillation of rape. but the producers/directors were mostly men, who anyway look at women from a distance, not really identifying at all. thanks to these lurid scenes, ever since i was a child i’ve been mortally scared of the thing… till i decided to talk to myself about it. how can it be even considered as an option by women. unless it is essential to story and explores it with meaning. to ask your hero to be a rapist…. huh! tell ya.
          a man can drag a girl he loves to a temple and set up some sort of weird marriage in a fit of mad passion and anger… and i will see both the tv type twist in it as well as the unpredictability and madness of the human being when emotions are messed up, but rape? anyway.

          see ya, hopefully jaldi.

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