First Person: How I fell in love with tall, dark and handsome
Mills & boons in the 1980s were ensconced in stereotypes, and yet I couldn’t have enough of them
Pride and Prejudice or Wuthering Heights weren’t my printed avatars of romance. They were textbooks as far as I was concerned. Romance — impossibly stereotyped and hopelessly sexist/ageist — popped up for me sometime in the mid-1980s, when, in school, I noticed girls furtively exchanging books that, they claimed, would be confiscated in case teachers got wind of this extracurricular activity.
Mills & Boons. Or MBs, as they were referred to endearingly.
I was curious. What are these, I wanted to know.
Love stories, a classmate giggled. “Haven’t you heard of them?”
I hadn’t. Till then, I’d get my kicks when Nancy Drew coochie cooed with Ned Nickerson while solving mysteries. The said classmate gifted me my first MB. I still remember it vividly: Mary Wibberly’s Logan’s Island, in which a vestal Helen fetches up on a tropical island to encounter the rakish Jake Logan, who wore a patch on one of his eyes.
While the MB women were always chaste, emotional, imbued with Victorian values, the men had been around the block, stoic, yet resolutely louche. Memorable heroes used to be of Spanish, Italian, Greek, even Arab lineage; they spoke fluent English, but had this knack of breaking into “Que pasa?” or “per favore” when passion overwhelmed them enough for their eyes to darken dangerously.
And yes, they were always tall, dark and handsome. Dark meant olive-complexioned, with black/dark brown hair; it was rare for them to be blonde, even if they were true-blue English… and if they happened to be English, they were sun-tanned to crispy beige in their skin. They were usually very rich and successful. If they were middle class, it was because they had turned their broad backs on wealth that was theirs for the asking while they lumberjacked stolidly in a remote jungle.
I used to note how there was a considerable age gap: the men were older than the ladies by leaps because that way the fairer sex could look up to them in fervid servitude. I was intrigued when I came across a 16-year-old leading lady who caught the attention of a semi-duke kind of man, one in his early 30s (who referred to himself as an “old man”); in the same book, a 24-year-old “mature” ‘other woman’ (vying for attention from the same man and deemed more ‘suitable’ in the age context) was described as having aged badly because lines showed up on her face at a candlelit dinner while the teenager’s visage glowed with youthfulness.
In a reverse sweep, as a teenager, I thought turning 27 was reaching the fag-end of life: I’d read an MB titled Tabitha by Moonlight, where the heroine, Tabitha, a nurse, was about to turn 27 and still single,
and she had said, “If by 27, I’ve not been able to find a man, I’d better make peace with the fact that I’m going to be an old maid” (or something similar). The age-crusted doctor she subsequently falls for was almost 40.
Other than lookism, sexism and ageism, I was riveted by the titular slants. Somehow, they were a pointer to what would lie between the covers. Names like Brand of Possession, Devil Lover, Ice In His Veins, Satan’s Master, Forbidden Surrender would evoke taboo landscapes in my impressionable mind, but I would never be uncomfortable with them since I knew, in the end, the hero would look deeply into the woman’s eyes and mutter, “I need to put a ring on your finger.” The bruising kisses that almost sucked the life away from Miss Goody Two Shoes were a reminder that she was getting primed to earn the mantle of respect.
My relationship with MBs lasted for about half-a-decade. The 90s’ onwards, I heard they got steamier, raunchier. Consummations didn’t wait for till after saying “I do”. In a weird way, I was happy to be a part of an age of subverted innocence those books represented.
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