In celebration of its 110th birthday, I downloaded a Mills & Boon — The Greek Tycoon’s Blackmailed Mistress — and plan this coming weekend to settle down for an evening in the company of Dr Ella Smithson and Aristandros Xenakis, ‘an arrestingly handsome man… the epitome of lithe, masculine grace teamed with the high-voltage buzz of raw sexual energy’.
I’m fond of Mills & Boon. In the mid-1980s, they provided me with the sex education my otherwise excellent mother must have thought school would sort out. I stole them from my older cousins’ bookshelves, hid them under my jumper and ran home to read them behind the sofa, agog at what grown-ups got up to. Three decades later, I’ll raise a glass to them on their birthday, because I suspect no one else will.
Back in the autumn of 2008 there was a great Mills & Boon birthday fanfare. The papers were full of nostalgic pieces and the BBC commissioned a raunchy special — Consuming Passion — set in the original Mills & Boon office. But a lot has changed in ten years, and even if this was its centenary year, I don’t expect there’d be much fuss. The Mills & Boon phenomenon is just too disturbing for 2018. The Greek Tycoon’s Blackmailed Mistress is an all-time bestseller but hot on its heels comes The Millionaire’s Misbehaving Mistress, The Sheikh’s Love-Child and the ‘Desert Rogues’ collection, which includes The Sheikh and the Bride Who Said No. At a time in which Mohammed bin Salman and The Donald are the West’s arch-baddies, it’s just too weird that women fantasise about tycoons and desert rogues.
And nothing runs counter to the age of consent like a Mills & Boon. It’s not just that sheikh’s bride who says no. More than 200 million books sold a year; that’s two hundred billion kisses at a conservative estimate, and if my pre-teen memory is anything to go by, almost all at least partially unconsenting. Even now: ‘Aristandros closed his hands over Ella’s fists to hold her entrapped. He bent his proud, dark head and…’
Even more disconcerting than the near-compulsory snog-attack in chapter two or three is the inevitable ‘punishment kiss’ after some misunderstanding towards the middle. Just imagine that in a 21st-century court: ‘And what made you think Dr Smithson had consented, Mr Xenakis?’ ‘Well, Your Honour, I didn’t. I was simply chastising her.’ (His dark eyes flashed.)
All in all, it’s easy to see why Mills & Boon might keep its head down this birthday, and it’s easy to see why the fact of its continued success might make thoughtful feminists like Julie Bindel see red. They’re simply rape fantasies, she says, ‘misogynistic hate speech’. Bindel describes your classic M&B plot as an outdated ‘gender dance’: ‘man chases woman, woman resists, and finally woman submits in a blaze of passion.’ Well, yes. That’s a fair summing up. But I’ll keep my glass raised to Mills & Boon, because its feminist critics might have missed the point. I think that for all the gender dancing — because of it, in fact — there are actually some useful lessons here for modern girls.
The first is a reality check. Underlying each bestselling genre — Greek tycoons, haughty sheikhs, troubled millionaires — is a fact that the #MeToo era likes to forget: rich and successful men are attractive to women. Just as men feel a pull towards good-looking young women, so some women feel genuinely drawn to power. I say this in defence of women, and I think of it as a feminist point. Too often we sneer and cry ‘gold-digger’ when we see a gaggle of beauties draped over the likes of Sir Philip Green. But they’re not just in it to cadge a ride on his yacht. They probably actually fancy him.
And at the end of every Mills & Boon, it’s the alpha male who’s tamed, not the heroine. He simply can’t resist her. He has to marry her. That’s how the story ends. ‘I should warn you that I want you pretty much all the time, latria mou,’ Aristandros admitted, bending down to press his mouth to hers. ‘And I don’t believe in long engagements.’ Here again is a Mills & Boon lesson that millennial girls would do well to learn, one that might save a lot of time on Tinder: if a man is half-hearted about you, if he’s texting other girls, there’s (usually) no point pursuing him. Dr Ella Smithson is flattered when Aristandros Xenakis pursues her halfway round the world. A woman who behaved the same way would be a bunny boiler.
As for the rest — well, it’s fantasy isn’t it? Both the readers and the writers of Mills & Boon are happy to admit that what they want from escapist fiction is absolutely not what they seek out in reality. Have any of the hundreds of millions of semi-consensual kisses in Mills & Boon encouraged a single act of real coercion? I doubt it. That ‘punishment kiss’ so beloved of Aristandros and friends has absolutely no application in real life. One author from the 1960s, a Hilary Wilde, once said: ‘The odd thing is that if I met one of my heroes, I’d probably bash him over the head with an empty whisky bottle.’
Feminists think that we’re only attracted to the standard Mills & Boon fantasy because of centuries of patriarchal oppression. My own feeling is a little different. Back in the cacophonous real world there are meetings to go to, nappies to buy, bills to pay, meals to cook, emails to send, friends to see. Sometimes it takes a sheikh to shut out reality. I remember the first Mills & Boon I ever stole; the first love scene I read behind the sofa. Some dark-haired narcissist comes up behind our housewife heroine and unplugs her hoover before snogging her. In real life that would be enraging. As a metaphor, it’s perfect.