LONDON (Reuters) - Girls: you may have one tucked secretly in your handbag. Boys: you may have stumbled on a stack of them in your girlfriend’s closet. Go ahead. Don’t be shy.
How about this one? “Loving Evangeline” by Linda Howard: “She could feel the heavy arousal and hunger that tightened his lean, powerful frame. He was going to take her.”
Now, pretend you don’t want to read on! After all, someone is buying one of these books every five seconds.
A lot has changed for women in the last hundred years. But for romance publisher Mills & Boon, founded a century ago in London, it still takes precisely the same qualities to sweep them off their feet.
“The locations are irresistible, the heroes are exciting,” said Clare Sommerfield, the publisher’s marketing manager. “It’s got to be from the heart and you’ve got to feel it. Otherwise the readers can spot it.”
Founded at a time when women in Britain could not vote and few could work outside the home, Mills & Boon now publishes 60 romance novels a month by a stable of 1,300 writers, nearly all women. It has more than a million readers in Britain alone.
Since it merged with the North American romance publisher Harlequin in the 1970s, its books are published in 94 countries, translated into more than two dozen languages, including Japanese manga comic strip versions with drawings in pink ink.
The publishers estimate they have printed more than 30,000 kisses. And every story — whether the hero is a Greek billionaire, a surgeon single father of three or an incorrigible 19th century English rake — has a happy ending.
Not everyone is a fan. Feminist writer Julie Birchel wrote in the Guardian newspaper last year that the books perpetuate stereotypes based on “rape fantasies”: “Man chases woman, woman resists, and finally, woman submits in a blaze of passion.”
“There’s no doubt such novels feed directly into some women’s sense of themselves as lesser beings,” she wrote. “I would go so far as to say it is misogynistic hate speech.”
But readers keep coming back. The firm says its typical readers buy three times as many books as the average reader, and 72 percent of their book purchases are from Mills & Boon.
“They are basically fairytales for women,” said Margaret O’Brien, co-curator of an exhibition appearing in Manchester later this year, entitled “And then he kissed her: 100 years of Mills & Boon.”
“It has a certain innocence, a certain old-fashioned quality about it,” she said. “The structure is still similar to ‘Wuthering Heights’ or ‘Jane Eyre’.”
If there’s one thing that certainly has changed, it’s the sex. There’s a whole lot more of it. There used to be none.
“I don’t agree that women like dirty books. I think that when it comes to fiction women are like men with their shirts: they like them crisp and comfortable at the same time,” wrote Violet Winspear, one of Mills and Boon’s most successful writers of the 1960s.
A self-taught writer who left school at 14 to work in a factory and lived as a spinster with her mother, Winspear never traveled yet she thrilled readers with exotic locations and exotic heros — Arab sheikhs, Brazilian playboys.
“She’s got a very strong erotic undertone to what she’s writing although there’s no explicit sex,” said O’Brien.
It was a time when mores were changing. Other shelves in the book shop first began groaning with newly published sex. Mills & Boon caught up, but slowly.
By the mid-1960s, its books had sex scenes between married couples, and by the 1970s unmarried couples got their chance too. But the scenes remained tame and couched in euphemism.
“It tended to be rather breast focused,” said Sommerville. “Since then we’ve expanded our repertoire.”
The first oral sex took place in 1982, in a book called “Antigua Kiss.” (It was the hero’s idea. The heroine was “shocked” but “surrendered to waves of ecstasy.”)
In the 1980s, younger writers experimented with more overtly erotic styles, and readers responded by snapping them up.
Today, nearly all Mills and Boon books have explicit sex scenes. In some, such as the “Blaze” series, they can run to six or seven pages, complete with whipped cream, handcuffs and robust, four-letter Anglo-Saxon words.
Even the 19th century period romances have bits Jane Austen or Charlotte Bronte would have left out.
Asked if Mills & Boon would accept Austen’s “Emma” or “Pride and Prejudice” if they were submitted today, Sommerville confessed: “You’d have to ramp up the sex a bit.”
Still, there’s a lot more to a Mills and Boon romance than hanky panky, she insisted.
“You can’t just say bung lots of sex in it and that will sell. That’s not going to be the winning formula. The winning formula is everything else that goes with it.”
Editing by Paul Casciato