A fine romance: a history of Mills & Boon

Mills & Boon book coverThe publishing firm of Mills & Boon was established in 1908 by Gerard Mills and Charles Boon, and started out as a general publisher with educational textbooks, socialist tracts and Shakespeare on their lists. In the 1930s Mills & Boon became a ‘library house’ publishing for lending libraries and Boots Booklovers Library, and extended their readership significantly. It was then that romance became the genre of choice for the firm.

Using company archives and published works from the newly-acquired Harlequin Mills & Boon Archive, held in the University’s Special Collections, this exhibition shows how Mills & Boon became the king of the romance novel.

Mills & Boon published travel guides, children’s and craft books as well as a variety of fiction books. One of the firm's earliest successful authors was Jack London, whose adventure books they published between 1912 and 1923. In 1928 the company came very near to financial ruin and from then on concentrated their efforts on publishing romance fiction. 

Romance literature was not invented in the twentieth century, it was simply continuing an earlier tradition instigated by Samuel Richardson, followed by Brontë and Austen. The predictable path of the story is frequently of the girl getting her man in spite of many impediments thrown in her way, the hero is seen to slowly realise that he is in love with the heroine and the path becomes clear for her to achieve her aim. The progress of the story is paramount and in order to move the action on the authors use language that involves both the emotions and the imagination in a very direct way, characterisation is not subtle and is done with a broad brush as a rule giving a vigour to the narrative and the characters. To read the books ‘There has to be a willing suspension of disbelief, the analytical part of the brain has to be switched off and the emotions fully engaged. Both the reader and writer have to have an intuitive understanding of the dilemma that faces women in a male-dominated world, which on the one hand, sees their sex as inferior, and an obstacle to success, and on the other, expects them to cultivate their femininity’ (from The romance fiction of Mills & Boon 1909-1990s, by Jay Dixon).Mills & Boon book cover

John Boon, who was the son of co-founder Charles Boon and became managing director of the company in 1964, said ‘You see, we never despised our product. I think this was highly important. A lot of people who publish romantic novels call them ‘funny little books’ that make a bit of profit. We never did that. We never said this was the greatest form of literature, but we did say that of this form of literature, we were going to publish the best. In any field, if you despise what you’re making, you’re in for trouble.’ The following is a quote from guidelines prepared for aspiring Mills & Boon authors by the company: ‘We’re in the business of providing entertainment, a short foray into the emotions. Our readers don’t expect to read about the sort of petty worries they can encounter any day of their lives, such as an overdue library book, or the sort of serious problems which cause too much heartache or anguish. We’re talking about escapism. But escapism must be based on reality.’

The majority of the Mills & Boon authors are women as are the readers but within the romance genre there are a number of variations which change according to the times. Although Mills & Boon became a publisher of romance novels early on the books have changed subtly over the years; during the first twenty years of the twentieth century the themes of class and wealth predominate, the hero often being from the upper classes and the heroine often being younger and of a lower social class. During the 1920s the hero was often of Latin origin and the books were set abroad, often the heroine earned her own living so reflecting the increase in movement both socially and physically of the population of the time. The books also included more explicit scenes of love and passion. During the 1930s and 40s the heroines were more firmly grounded in England and had to contend with the problems of wartime living, which confined them to domestic situations, even though they frequently had to earn their own living.

The domestic settings continued into the 1950s with the difference that now the woman was often a widow and a mother, contrasting with the new breed of glamorous career women that were emerging. The 1960s saw another and more exciting change in the lives of the heroines, the books were often set abroad and became more passionate and sexual. By the 1980s more social changes were being reflected in the books, the introduction of the theme of drug taking, for example, gave a harder edge than had previously been present, though the overwhelming nature of the books continues to this day to be romance.

In the beginning...

Gerard Mills and Charles Boon had both worked at Methuen before joining forces to establish their own firm. They were experienced publishers bringing differing skills and interests to their new venture: Mills' interests lay in non-fiction and book production, whilst Boon focused on sales and advertising and developing the fiction list. Compulsory education had increased literacy producing a growth in reading and a boom in the book market. Mills and Boon were among many young entrepreneurs taking advantage of the reading public establishing new publishing houses, including Martin Secker (1910), Gerald Duckworth & Co (1898) and T Werner Laurie Ltd (1904). From the start Mills & Boon's book lists were wide-ranging, contracting both new and established authors. The Bookseller noted 'The two parties.. propose to throw their publishing net widely'.

Mills & Boon's first publication was Arrows from the dark, a romance novel by Sophie Cole, and was one of 123 books contracted for in the firm's first year. Described by many as less than heart-racing in content, it sold well and Cole would write for the firm for many years (a collection of Sophie Cole's books are held in the University's rare book collections as part of the Cole Library, the library of her brother, Professor F J Cole). Romance was not, however, to be the genre of choice at this time. In the early days Mills & Boon began experimenting with different book series including Mills & Boon's Laughter Library of one shilling titles, the Companion series with volumes such as The Lady Motorist's Companion, The Amateur Actor's Companion and The Aviator's Companion. Shilling Shockers included The Phantom of the Opera by Guston Leroux and The Kingdom of Earth by Anthony Partridge. They also introduced the 'June 15 Novel'; debut novels were published on this date each year with great sales success, creating a flurry of manuscripts sent in by aspiring authors. As early as 1910 a Sphere critic praised Mills & Boon stating 'No publisher has come so boldly to the front in such a short time as that of Mills & Boon'. Mills & Boon book cover

They attracted authors with handsome advances, meeting if not exceeding those offered by the larger publishers of the time. Among the big-hitters were Hugh Walpole, E F Benson, P G Wodehouse and American novelist Jack London. London, well-known for his novels White Fang and Call of the Wild, helped considerably in the firm's early success both in sales and reputation. Mills & Boon contracted London from 1911, accepting everything sent their way and publishing at least three editions of every title at several prices. They also published his wife, Mrs Jack London. As one of their most reliably bestselling authors, London's death in 1916 came as a blow to the company. Not wishing to miss a business opportunity, upon his death they re-issued all of his titles.

Jack London's adventure novels are an unlikely genre in the world of today's Mills & Boon. So too were A Little Book for Those Who Mourn, published in 1915, containing bible extracts, poems and quotes to reassure those in grief. The novels of Horace W C Newte were marketed by Mills & Boon as 'Novels with Morals'. The non-fiction lists included educational textbooks such as Nerves and the nervous which sold out of its first edition. Romantic novels were interspersed amongst the textbooks, craft books and The Poultry Keeper's Companion.

By the outbreak of World War I, the publishers were well-established with good sales, good reviews and rising profits. Despite the absence of Mills and Boon for three years while they served in the war, the business continued to flourish. Book sales continued to increase as they provided a much needed means of escape. Their buyers were the public and the commercial and lending libraries of the time. The 1920s proved to be a difficult time for Mills & Boon as the company struggled to keep up with the big publishers and they began to re-think their business. Novels were selling well. Notably bestselling novels were largely penned by female authors and bought by women. In this vein Alan Boon, son of Charles, selected established female writers already publishing in women's magazines like Women's Weekly to write for Mills & Boon. A clear direction was being taken to publish books by women for women. By 1930 Mills & Boon had made the shift from general press to romance publisher.

Mills & Boon authors

Mills & Boon book coverThe archive contains a great many files of correspondence from the predominantly female list. We have chosen to highlight two particular authors, Betty Beaty and Violet Winspear, for a number of reasons. Betty could be seen as one of her own heroines personified, she even married a typical fictional hero! Writing over a period of twenty years when the role of women was changing rapidly, Betty is a good example of an author writing for her time. Violet Winspear was writing slightly later and through her correspondence it is clear that she was a fascinating character. Rather atypical in that though she wrote very successful, rather racy, books, she was not ‘in love’ with the hero, quite the opposite, she had a wonderfully cynical view of men which is very refreshing in this world of romance.

Betty Beaty

The archive contains correspondence from 1955 to 1975 between the publisher and Betty Beaty, one of their best-selling authors. Betty first started writing for Mills & Boon in the 1950s, with one of her most successful works Amber Five being published in 1958.

As with many of her fellow authors Betty wrote about a world she was familiar with. Hospital stories were very popular and were generally written by authors with nursing experience, but Betty's specialism was airline romances. Having been in the WAAF and working as an air stewardess after the war, Betty had specialist knowledge of the world of aviation, she had also fulfilled the dream of many of her heroines and had married a pilot. Betty’s husband, David Beaty, then also became a successful author publishing with Secker & Warburg.

In the 1960s even though women were becoming increasingly independent and pursuing their own careers, the Mills & Boon heroine was still generally the nurse or the air stewardess while the hero was the doctor or pilot. As Betty said 'The hero is the strong but basically kind man that most women want to meet, no matter how independent they might be.' In contrast with the specimen of physical perfection and strength that the hero represented, the heroine of the 1950s and 60s was generally hard-working and independent, enabling the reader to identify with her. Betty Beaty said of her heroine, she 'usually tended to have what they call in Yorkshire, gumption, and is not a shrinking violet'.

Betty had started her literary career writing serials for women's magazines which were extremely popular at the time. It was important to write stories that would provide sufficient suspense to keep the reader's interest alive for a number of weeks; this was often achieved by setting obstacles in the path of the would-be lovers, finally providing a resolution and allowing the anticipated happy ending. Betty was an extremely successful and popular Mills & Boon author whose books sold in great numbers.

Violet Winspear

Violet Winspear began her writing career for the firm in 1961 introducing readers to a more passionate romance novel, sometimes shocking the more traditional Mills & Boon audience. Unmarried and living with her mother her life was far removed from the characters of her novels. While her novels would transport her readers to far away exotic climes with tough, tanned foreign men as her heroes, Violet herself had never ventured further than Cornwall.

The archive contains four folders bulging with Winspear’s letters and postcards to Mills & Boon, and shows us that she was not shy when it came to sharing her views on what a romance novel should be, her admiration for Barbara Cartland, her worries about competition from her contemporaries and how she and her books were received by the public. She was no less outspoken or honest on air, in a 1971 interview for the BBC’s Man Alive television programme, Violet caused a stir by describing her idea of a romance novel hero: ‘...They frighten but fascinate. They must be the sort of men who are capable of rape: men it’s dangerous to be alone in the room with’. In an accompanying Radio Times piece she said ‘I think all women like to dream about marvellous men’. Adding ‘I’ve never met any of them myself, I doubt if anybody has’.

The correspondence files contain some fascinating letters from Violet, in one dated 29 July 1972 she says ‘Romance belongs in the warm zones of feelings not where the intellect has its icy palace’ and on 4 October 1973 she wrote ‘The real aim of romance is to provide escape and entertainment, not to dish up ‘real life’ and ‘real life people’ on a plate with egg on it! Anyway, that is my philosophy, for what it’s worth.’

The exhibition will be on display at the Special Collections Service until 28 February 2013.

References and further reading

McAleer, Joseph. Passion’s fortune: the story of Mills & Boon. Oxford : Oxford University Press, 1999. Copy available for loan at the University Library (2nd floor): 655.442-MIL/MAC and for reference at Special Collections open access reference: 070.50942 MIL/MAC

Dixon, Jay. The romance fiction of Mills & Boon 1909-1990s. London : UCL Press, 1999. Copy available for loan at the University Library (3rd floor): 823.91-DIX and for reference at Special Collections open access reference: 070.50942 MIL/DIX

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