What was so compelling about those tall, chiselled, rich men in Mills & Boon paperbacks?
Most women of a certain age have flirted with branded romances. Like eating orange cream cookies, we did it on the sly. When I was 12, I discovered Harlequin Romances and a new friend at the same time. Before Urvashi, I saw only library books, and public libraries back then did not stock Harlequins. You had to buy them, for an unthinkable 75 cents. But Urvashi actually owned a small collection, and she swapped and traded with friends for new titles. She taught me the taste of orange cream.
We were reading buddies. In three years, we ploughed acres of teen romances, historical romances and gothic romances, but Harlequins gave us an instant sugar-high.
Then Urvashi moved away, and the Harlequins went with her. Years later, when I found a library that lent Harlequins, I could no longer stomach them.
Out of the range of books with heaving women on the cover, branded romances like Harlequins or Mills & Boons were a level stretch on which you could stop to take a breath. Unbelievably, there was almost no icky sex in them. What you got instead was 186 pages of half-dressed foreplay, light physical aggression and heavy verbal sparring until man and woman locked lips.
Until the late 1980s, every reader knew the drill. The woman was a 20-something professional lightweight. The man was the tallest and richest one in the room, either a silken master of the universe or a rugged lone wolf wearing work boots. He drove, respectively, a purring Jaguar or an all-terrain vehicle that ran on premium testosterone.
Some variety was introduced, partly professional (doctor vs nurse, executive vs secretary, landowner vs. housekeeper) and partly sartorial (brunette in string bikini or blonde in bias-cut satin dress).
The man was often foreign and mysterious, or at least Scottish, and he gave punishing, savage kisses. If you met him in real life, you'd rummage in your handbag for the pepper spray. And yet, there was something strangely compelling about the underlying theme of abduction. Was it a secret longing for the simple life, when the right man would simply carry you off, in his light plane, to his well-appointed cave?
By the 1990s, abduction went out of style, even in Mills & Boons. The men did less smouldering and more vacuuming. No one was a virgin any more. An astounding number of men on the covers dandled babies on their knees. But domination persisted. He was still the one with the real job, while she dabbled in textile design.
And the Mills & Boons of today, well, do we even want those? Girls now seem to ignore them, looking instead to vampire romances for a dark, domineering alpha male. The whole point of the brand was the soft focus. The idea that, in a parallel universe, there were tall, chiselled, rich men who wanted to pursue you, love you and take care of you. Without a vintage label on that idea today, it would just make you squirm.
Keywords: Mills & Boon