With their gazes locked, everything inside him slowed into a crawl. Warmth suffused him, along with a yearning so pure he couldn’t fight it. He inched closer…” Self-censorship prevents me from adding further so feel free to fill in the blanks. If you are a romance novel reader, the task shouldn’t be difficult.
Truth be told, a certain “warmth suffused” me too as my eyes scanned these ultra-cheesy lines in a book I picked up at a friend’s house recently. No prizes for guessing which one it was: a glossy Mills & Boon with its cover of a rake with a square jaw and piercing blue eyes leaning in on a brunette with almond eyes and a full pout.
Leafing through its tantalising pages, I was glad that some things in the world of romantic fiction had remained delightfully unchanged — like the way a rich Greek tycoon (or was he Italian or French?) woos his feisty lady love who initially hates him but gives in to his seduction routine soon enough.
I don’t blame her. Who can resist the attraction of a Greek god in a stunning Mediterranean island?
I ignored my brain’s clamour to read something more ‘enriching’ and, instead, followed the couple’s amorous adventures till the very end. It brought back memories of smuggled reading that most women of my vintage indulged in back in the 80s and 90s: Barbara Cartland, Danielle Steele, Georgette Heyer, and, of course, Mills & Boons — the ultimate in kitschy romantic literature whose TDH (Tall, Dark and Handsome for the uninitiated!) heroes stalked our romantic dreams for years.
The good news is that despite notions of love and lust undergoing a sea change, MB romances are still doing a rather good job of fuelling fantasies. A quick Google search threw up interesting numbers about the famous imprint founded in 1908 by Gerald Mills and Charles Boon. Harlequin Enterprises, that owns Mills & Boon, brings out 700 titles a year, with manuscripts from nearly 1,500 authors worldwide and a sale every five seconds. Simply put, for nearly 113 years, Mr Mills and Mr Boon’s legacy has spawned over millions of fictional kisses, marriages and happily-ever-after endings. And no one is complaining.
Steamy encounters in fab locales
Forget the new definitions of love, consent and marriage in the #MeToo era, the feel-good, conflict-free world of MBs continues to captivate women. As noted interior designer Pallavi Dean says, “Sometimes it is nice to take a break from all that intellectual ivory tower thinking and have some mindless fun.” A self-confessed “die-hard romantic” whose reading list includes a generous dose of MBs and Julia Quinn along with titles on leadership and business, Pallavi was fascinated by romance novels when she was introduced to them by a hip, cool friend at 15. “Having grown up in a conservative household, it was super interesting to discover forbidden romance and sexuality in a different way than what was taught in biology textbooks,” she says.
Interestingly, most female readers from the pre E-book and Kindle era have a similar story to narrate. They get initiated into this fluffy world through a friend or their mothers, with circulating libraries and roadside booksellers providing ample support. Soon, they are tripping on tales of Greek millionaires, American ranch owners and rich Arab Sheikhs. “Romances are my guilty pleasure,” says Jasmine Choksi, a content writer who reignited her affair with MBs when she spotted them with a roadside bookseller in India. “After a long hard day at work, I want to escape into the simplistic lives of men and women whose only problem seems to be unrequited love. I do roll up my eyes much of the time, yet I can’t keep away… I like the smut factor too of course!”
Ah, the smut! Let’s face it, you don’t pick an MB for intriguing stories, emotional gravitas or depth of characters. You read them only for an instant escape from the boredom of routine as steamy encounters of fictional characters in fabulous locales often make up for flimsy plotlines and an unapologetic lack of wokeness.
The standard template of boy-meets-girl, girl-hates-boy and boy-and-girl-kiss-and-make-up may irk serious readers but curries favour with fans even now. Producer-director Anusha Srinivasan Iyer, who has a voracious appetite for romance novels, disagrees that MBs have no plots. On the contrary, she has a healthy appreciation for its formula and credits it for inspiring her to turn director. “I can finish five Mills & Boon novels in a day if I am in the mood,” she says. “I like the way they are written, researched and structured — and I react to them the same way today as I used to as a teen. MB is pure love packaged in a paperback.”
Indeed, for all the criticism the series has garnered over the years, MBs have been doing something right. For over a century, they have been using the same blueprint to bring out thousands of novels, and are yet super successful. Never mind the awful titles like The Billionaire’s Virgin Bride, With The Lights On and The Italian’s Baby, fact is they continue to strike a chord with women across geographies and age-groups.
Harsh Purohit, ad filmmaker and one of the few men who admitted to having read MBs, feels that the absolute predictability of these novels contributes to their success. His tryst with romance titles started out of necessity, when his boss asked him to read one to understand women’s psyche before the launch of a product. Soon, he was choosing MBs regularly from the library. “I realised that readers have no issue with the plot being clichéd. This flew in the face of what we all toiled for when we developed TV commercials — the unexpected ending,” Harsh says.
Moreover, for women who have grown up on a diet of Hollywood and Bollywood rom-coms, predictability is rarely a hindrance. Aastha Atray Banan, editor, podcaster, and one of the earliest Indian MB writers, believes that the popularity of romance novels, especially among South Asian women, can be traced back to the Bollywood influence. “What is MB if not every Bollywood movie ever — boy meets girl, fight and then they come together?” she asks.
MBs and the millennials
With cinema becoming cooler, cutting-edge OTT content redefining modern relationships and Tinder and Bumble making hookups easy, not many millennials have the patience for “his passionate eyes froze her” kind of mush. (“Why read an MB when you can watch 365 Days and Bridgerton,” laughed a 23-year-old I spoke to). But there is always the odd romantic even in this generation who swears by the appeal of a book.
Aashna Raje, 25, marketing professional, is one such rare fan who got hooked to MBs in grade 6 and has been obsessed with them ever since. “I read them because they taught me to love the idea of love!” she says, “It sounds crazy but I would put myself in the shoes of all the female protagonists, imagining and reimagining my life. Any friendships I’d have with boys, I’d assume the teasing and taunting was actually love. Because, why not? If all love stories start with hate, why shouldn’t mine?”
An imperfect world
Unfortunately, it’s this very idea of perfect relationships perpetuated by the series that has come in for scrutiny. MBs have been the subject of a lot of research and not all have pretty things to say. An oft-quoted study is that by psychologist Susan Quilliam in 2011 which blamed romantic fiction in general and Mills & Boon romances in particular for poor sexual health, relationship breakdowns, unrealistic expectations about intimacy and equating lack of romance with a lack of love.
The more severe remarks were directed towards its outdated characters, especially alpha male heroes, virginal heroines and simplistic writing style with cringe-worthy lines. The regressive notions of love, often rooted in patriarchy, continues to rile some feminists while others point out its political incorrectness — the strong hero is often shown rescuing the damsel in distress, the heroine is rarely older than the hero and they are all insanely good-looking, perfect and rich.
Regular readers, though, pooh-pooh these criticisms defending that modern MBs have kept up with the times. The heroine is often a successful professional or businesswoman. The lady-killer hero, even if he continues to be a hunk with six packs, isn’t a jerk. So what’s wrong if they peddle some good ol’ fashioned romance?
“People who say MBs are regressive have not read them,” says Aastha, who got a chance to write her own novel, Monsoon Bride, after winning a contest organised by Harlequin during their 100-year anniversary celebrations in India. “My heroine was like me — an independent girl working in Mumbai. In fact, current MB heroines have a lot of agency, sexual or otherwise. They are not the Anastasia Steele of Fifty Shades of Grey or Bella of Twilight,” she says, adding that readers are intelligent enough to know what’s real and what’s not.
Simply put, there is a happy and willing suspension of disbelief when it comes to romance literature. “The language and narrative are beautiful even if the tropes are familiar and somewhat sexist,” says Jasmine. “I am partial to the writers of 70s and 80s, but there are some awesome contemporary writers apart from MBs that I recommend: For example, Mariana Zapata for slow-burn romance, Penny Reid for her quirky heroines and droolsome heroes, Tessa Dare, Sally Thorne, Jana Aston, Lauren Blakely and more. New-age romance writing has evolved but MBs have a certain nostalgic value.”
For those who love romantic fiction but are queasy about the gender equations of MBs, there are always Regency romances to fall back on. Author-producer Naomi Datta, a former MB fan, is currently bingeing on Julia Quinn, Lisa Kleypas and Judith McNaught, especially post Bridgerton. “I would qualify these as MBs but set in another century. This, I feel, makes it possible for writers to write about alpha males heroes who, in contemporary times, would be terribly problematic. I also feel romance as a genre now is challenging to write/make, as a series, because it is difficult to find conflict points or have these brooding heroes. So, in that sense, historical romances work.”
Demystifying what women want
Meanwhile, even as women debate their relevance (or lack of it), men still are trying to decode what the fuss is all about. Most men I spoke to grinned and said a polite ‘No, never’ to the simple question, “Have you read an MB?” But finance professional Suhrud Javadekar feels men should give it a chance. “They should explore the softer side of their personality,” offers Suhrud, who is often found browsing the romance section at bookstores.
Harsh believes MBs helped him understand women better. He lists the insights he gathered through these books: “1) Women were constantly seeking romance and love; 2) TDH was the archetype of the man who is most desirable; 3) Chained by societal norms and years of patriarchy, some women empathised with the emotion that they were damsels in distress who needed rescuing; 4) The key trigger to a woman falling in love was generally a man helping her in some form or the other.”
So what would one call those who sneer at MBs? “Hypocrites,” pipes in Pallavi. “Liars,” offers Anusha. “We live in a world of emojis. Check the WhatsApps of people who mock romance novels, you will find a thousand emojis.”
Naomi points to why Bridgerton is Netflix’s biggest hit. “Everyone loves pulpy romances. You can argue that Bridgerton had diversity and was a clever reinvention. But it also worked because it had all the MB tropes in place: exceedingly handsome and rich man of the world finally finding love with a beautiful innocent. It is a formula that never goes out of fashion so sneer away!”
Indeed, in a pandemic-infected world with a depressing news cycle, escapism is all that we need. And if it means wading into the arms of a Greek billionaire with a “smile that makes your insides melt”, why not travel to Temptation Island?
Give us more amour please!
(Lekha is a journalist, currently based in India.)
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