Mills and Boon: an Indian romance

The Guardian books blog featured an article on Mills and Boon romances recently, where a journalist picked up a discarded romance novel in a train and found, much to her surprise, that she loved it.  

For the uninitiated: Mills and Boon is a British romance novel publisher who print series romances under various brand names including Silhouette and Mira. Mills and Boon is part of Harlequin books, which in turn is owned by the Torstar corporation.  The company website includes this astounding statistic: 

Having shipped more than 3 billion books since 1949, Harlequin continues to write its own remarkable publishing story.

3 billion. And I bet a billion of them found their way to India; I personally devoured several hundred thousand in my mid-teens. I had favorite Mills and Boon authors (Betty Neelsanyone? Catherine George?) And favorite jacket colors (turquoise).  And at the local lending library, I’d read the plot summaries carefully before making my selection. 

Most embarrassing: I never remarked that the heroines were always in subordinate positions to their male counterparts– nurses to the he-doctors, secretaries to the businessmen and so on. And that interracial romance was noticeably absent; the tall dark handsome men were all Spanish or Italian.  The women were usually younger, usually virgins, and always so grateful to have been chosen for love by these rich successful men. (Disclaimer: I gave up reading these books when I left my teens; perhaps the books have changed over the past decade or two to include more than straight, white-on-white, doormat-meets-matador romance. )

Back in eighties/early nineties India, every girl I knew read (or had read) Mills and Boon romances.  They were especially sought-after during boring college lectures–the books were small enough and bendy enough to slip comfortably into Samuelson’s Macroeconomics text, or P.L.Soni’s magnum opus on Inorganic Chemistry.

I wonder why these books were so bloody popular. Perhaps the insanely competitive Indian academic scene, where doing well in the Class 12 board exams was a matter of life and death, led us to cherish the guaranteed happy ending the books offered? Perhaps it’s because there was no formal sex ed. class in our school curriculum, and we sought enlightenment wherever we could find it? The Mills and Boon books I read were pretty tame though; sex was described, if at all, in cagey and coy terms–“and then the room rocked and tilted, and she was borne aloft on a shower of golden sparks till she knew no more”–pshaw!  

I think there’s more to the phenomenon than comfort or curiosity about sex, though. Many of us Indian readers had our love-lives mapped out for us early-on by family; a comfortable arranged marriage was both inevitable and desirable in the eyes of most.  A Mills and Boon  was perhaps the closest many would get to love-at-first-sight, lust-conquerors-all territory.  The latter wasn’t something everyone necessarily wanted, but certainly something that everyone wanted to know more about. And the books were unrealistic, yes, but no more than the average Hindi film…  

And I believe the Britishness of the books contributed much to our involvement with them.  A typical Mills and Boon setting usually featured a rigid class system, where social mobility was rare and marriage across classes risky–something most Indians understand well even today. Not dissimilar to the way Mrs. Bennett’s situation in Pride and Prejudice continues to resonate and be relevant for many Indians till now… 

When I lived in Britain some years ago, I noticed lending libraries stocked Mills and Boon romances in VERY LARGE PRINT, hard-cover editions. Apparently,  most of their readership in the UK consists of elderly women. And the covers were all pink!  Whatever happened to those purple and aquamarine and topaz jackets that I used to sort through in my mis-spent youth?  

Update: Like this post? Someone else  liked it–enough to copy it and pass it off as her own work. A writer from one of India’s leading magazines, India Today, plagiarized almost the entire post for her column. Read about it here.

54 thoughts on “Mills and Boon: an Indian romance

  1. Pingback: DesiPundit » Archives » Mills and Boon Confessions

  2. Oh my god – yes! Hiding M&Bs inside textbooks at the back of the college classroom, passing them around and most importantly – they were the perfect size to zip through in the span on just one class!

  3. I remember Betty Neels too – although her Dutch Doctor heroes and the nurse heroines forever looking after a brood of her siblings, got pretty annoying after a while.

  4. Shripriya: Yes, and you could skip 30 pages to get to the end–and really not miss a single plot development…

    Amodini: Yes! the heroines were always big, blonde, placid, patient, and bloomed when looking after children. I can’t understand why I still remember this stuff after all these years 🙂

  5. Great post and oh yeah, I remember smuggling those Mills and Boons into class, they were so addictive! I especially loved the ones where Arab princes or Sultans were the heroes…the writers always made them sound so irresistable! Thank goodness that phase of mine only lasted a couple of years! 🙂

  6. hey……i really don’t know what to say….i’m still in coll. and i still read and enjoy M&Bs..true,they have that same ol’ quintessential happy ending and they can become pretty predictable after a while but hey, what the heck, M&Bs are meant to be that way, don’t you think ???

    • true.. have finished college n my sis is married n almost thirty even then we both find it amazing n yes mills n boons are synomous to happy endings..

  7. hi ,
    i started reading M&B since i was in class 8 and now i am doing my double post graduation and still read them and still find them irrestible .

  8. In the US market, Harlequin and Silhouette have lines which feature strong assertive women, and the men are often blue collar. The same corporation also has a seperate brand which publishes novels intended for a male readership, in which the lead carries firearms of a specific brand and caliber and mows down lots of bad guys with it.

  9. Tusharika: Well, I like happy endings too! I prefer mine from children’s fiction rather than M&Bs though– well, each to her own!

    Tanu: All of us need a secret weakness, I guess 🙂

    Triticale: That’s fascinating– I have to overcome my prejudices and go check these ‘male romances’ out. I’ve been reading about Harelequin’s NASCAR romances too– yet another example of branding at (flagrant) work…

  10. I started reading mills and boons when i was 7 because my mum used to subscribe though she is unable to do that because of our economy. Im 23 now but i still love those novels. Yes the end might be predictable but the way the characters fall in love is always different. Anyway it doesnt hurt to have many happy endings in this troubled world does it???

  11. Hey ..i started reading them when i was in Gr-7. I am 34 now, and still love them! There is nothing like a fairy tale to warm the heart, but alas these books are hard to come by in Maldives and a little expensive to go and buy just for a read.

  12. in nigeria, it was a thing of proving you hav come of age, and yes very convenient to be sneaked in school, btw classes.though with yrs it became too predictable and repetitive.Recently i hav realised it relaxes you cos it doesnt need much brain work as new generation novels does.

  13. Rumbie, Nashida, Gambo– Thanks for visiting! And I’m really surprised to see how far and wide the books have cast their net– Nigeria, Maldives (I don’t know where you are Rumbie, but my guess is somewhere outside India). I guess the appeal of a happy ending and a non-demanding read can’t be denied, no matter where we’re geographically located.

  14. hi there M&B fans
    I’ve been reading love stories since primary school, i’m still very much addicted, i’m 27 and live in SOUTH AFRICA…and yes its pretty much a brain dead read…put the plots are quite interesting try the eharlequin site for free online reads.

  15. Kiara: Welcome to the site! I didn’t know M&Bs were available in South Africa, so that’s a surprise. And thanks for the eharlequin site recommendation, I’ll certainly it check out!

  16. hi,i started to read m&b when i was in class 6.enjoyed them,felt silly reading them,teased by others for still reading them.but i will continue to do so .for me these books lift me up from disappointments and are my tension releavers.favourite authors are charlotte lamb and carole mortimer.good to know about this site. where can i find old bestsellers in india?

  17. Betty Neels was a particular favourite of mine so was Charoltte Lamb. The world has lost two very great writers, as they passed away. And yes I do still love and read Mills and Boons, Harlequin, Silhoutte, the whole works. I even write my versions with my local scenery and improvise on the strength of character of heroines and heroes when I find them lacking.

  18. I used to read these in the eighties and early nineties. There was a shop near by which used to rent them very discreetly. The covers were very scandalous. Betty Neels was very popular but there were others too with good plots.I do not remember the names. I came across some recently which were as always great.No wonder they prove that you can never outgrow romances. They are timeless and age doesn’t have to do anything with it.

  19. sridevi , jackie and all……… that secret gateway to a perfect life after finding the perfect man was the dream that i used to have ……. but now that i am facing reality ….its far far away from what i used to read… but still like to peruse through the pages of M&B once in a while… and i guess will continue to do so.

  20. M& B really new for me, as boys we use to see only pictures and movies……but my girlfriend like to read it. she is reading it for quite long time. She like the romance and fanticies in it

  21. for some reason I hated the idea that the women were always in a subservient position to the men.I especially did not like the really enigmatic type.that is why I did not like Betty Neels much.

  22. In the real world it is hard to find or appreciate such romances because of so many things…So it feels nice to indulge oneself in a fairy land for some time…hey Does anyone know how to subscribe them?



  25. Hi,
    I started reading M&B quite late … say when I was 23 years old and already married…but nevertheless, I fell in love with them and now I just cannot get over them.. I think a romance is for a life time… I must have read tons of them by now … i just love them … You can find loads of M&B’s on … you should have a knack of searching them though…

  26. Yep! those were the lovely days….on the brink of womanhood, hormones raging, not enough sex education……M&B’s were the perfect outlet for hormone induced passions. completely unrealistic….best thing was to read them in a group with close friends, each one of us enacting the roles (voice over only ;))…Finished one whole local library…sneaked it to classes in college…but the interest died down in mid to late twenties. could;nt believe that ppl have’nt heard of it in the US. My husband thinks it tends to misguide young women….I can see that happening but I think the young women should have a propensity for that to begin with…neways, reading this blog brought on some nastalgia….cant read anymore now. Loved carole mortimer…her heroines had more spunk I think!

  27. Do many boys read it ? Does everyone need to do something like this for sexual pleasure. I never liked to do such things even books, magazines & films. I think if we start fantasizing such things within some months they will definitely be realized in some way. It may lead to increased immorality and energy waste. Why not just concentrate on pleasure from achievement of our goals.

  28. Hi I am from Jamaica and I have been reading M&B from i was 9 years old and basically stopped when I was 16! Funny enough I am now 27 and I went to the supermarket the other day and they had them at the check out counter and I decided to buy one. Still the same, I still love them..still predictable but still adorable. Penny Jordan is great.

  29. I am in delhi, India and have been reading MB since 9th Grade, now being 20 yrs old. married and a mother of 3 yr old, I am still a sucker for romance. There are loads of shops in delhi that sell old MB’s at nominal rate despite that now India also publishes at last.

    The ending can be predictable but the setting and new places.. it enthralls and sends on a joy ride of 45min to an hour (the time it takes to finish one ;))

  30. Aruna, Claudia: Isn’t it interesting that we all had favorite authors? I used to have fave colors too!The US has the Harlequin romances–M&B is a British imprint.
    Nancy: I love Delhi’s second-hand bookstores–there is a such a huge variety to be found.

  31. I live in hyderabad, India. I happened to discover M&B accidentally, when I was browsing through a list of books at a local book renting store. The one I saw did contain quite explicit references to genetalia (though euphemisms were used) and I was pleasantly surprised that the sangh parivar and other moral policing organizations have not cracked down on such book stores. Having spent all my teenage years in the sexually restrictive environment that we have, (this was before the internet age took over) I was so desperate that when my parents left me at home alone to let me prepare for my engineering entrance exam (on the final day before exam), I rented a book full of “scenes” and spent all the night before the exam day ‘enjoying’ that book – lol. Can you believe it?

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  34. Hi!

    i started reading M & B when i was in 8th Std now i am 23 yrs old and i still read them. They are a great way to realese the stress. What i would really like to read is a m&B book with an Indian hero and Indian Heroein.

  35. Hi All,

    i neva believed in “fallin in love” till i got my hands on a M&B which mah mom picked it up for me so tht i cud leave roaming arnd n jumping arnd and get into a good habit of reading (poor thing dint know what it had inside) …. my fav is charlotte lamb …. i love her books !!! Not only did i get hooked on it and read it religiously in every lecture and break and i cudn’t leave the book till i finsihed …. and i alwez read the last 3 pages first n then …read the complete frens used to think thts so silly…but i juz loved doing tht !! ……. i had a fairy-tale type love story too … !! the story still is continuing… 4 yrs of being together … n still its in air coz both families are villains … i cud write a M&B of my own …. i wud love tooo !!!! but these days…. there aint a lot of stories but a lot of crap …. i still love those old ones … hmmmmm !!!

    I dint know thrs indian m&bs…. i mean do they have indian character and stories now… may b authors too ….. is it ??

  36. @Rajesh …

    immorality ? energy waste ?? Oh My GOD … dude this is not porn … well as much as u do say u dont do things like this …. the word u used “immorality” and “energy waste” … sounds like u do … do a lot of other things if not read … get the dirt outta ur head… read it as a story .. a love story … !!! one more thing…only perverts fantisize abt things …. this naturally makes their hormones uncontrollable…. I used to read and i cud actually picture it like a story … like a movie !! u njoy the emotions .. the story .. the twist ..and the happy ending … u feel good abt it and thats all abt it for normal ppl… but ppl who think abt energy wastage (prob coz they do a lot of it) …continue fantasizing and finding means to do that.

    BTW .. i totally Love these books !!

  37. Hey..i never liked MBs..but i pick ’em up for my elder sis whose a sucker for them..recently in daryaganj i bought a wat looked like a second-hand MB went by d name “accidental nanny”…when i got home,i was sifting thru it wen i came across names like nikhil and raveena..only then i realisd that it was a cover for a brit MB with an indian story inside..bizzare rite??ever happend to anyone else??was wondering who d actual author(poor guy) was!!

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  40. Hi Niranjana. Loved going through this blog and the comments below. Must say this is kind of an evergreen blog considering you have posted it in 2007! My favourites were Janet Dailey and of course, Betty Neels with her blonde Norwegian heroes which were read in a time without TV, ipads or ipods – much like the Guardian writer on the train!
    My dream had always been to publish the Indian romance and I am doing it now. When you have the time, do go through! 🙂

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