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 Neels, anyone? 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.