In the years when my school friends were going mad over the battered Mills & Boon – or MBs, as they were called – novels that they acquired each week from a hole-in-the-wall lending library in north Calcutta (the sex scenes were helpfully catalogued by page number on the inside cover) I was reading classics – well, at least a few classics – and being generally insufferable about the shallowness of Mills & Boon novels.
What I was concealing from the peer group, however, was that I had also discovered, quite smartly and quite early, that sex scenes in novels like Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds or Judith Krantz’s Till We Meet Again, were far more satisfying, and embodied the added virtue of not attracting any judgment from our English teachers, something that reading Mills & Boons did. Also, there was the feminist argument some senior girls with vicious haircuts forwarded: the romances created these passive and nyakaa heroines who ought to be severely slapped, not slavishly emulated.
Naturally it was entirely karmic that in my MA days and after that I was to become a convert. Talking ad infinitum, ad nauseum, about the importance of popular fiction – especially of the MB variety – that, via its insistence on the “happy ending” and allowing women to freely articulate their fantasies, was taking a post-feminist stand after all. Not only did the company, since its inception, provide enough escapist fantasies to help women overcome the daily drudgery and hardships of their lives (especially during the two world wars), but it also empowered its authors, almost all of them women, by enabling their robust careers as romance novelists.
During the 1940s, for instance, Mills & Boon discovered one of its biggest stars: Lilian Warren. She wrote prolifically, and under three pseudonyms – Rosalind Brett, Kathryn Blair and Celine Conway – and her three different voices set a million hearts aflutter.
In the 1950s, Harlequin Books, the Canadian publishing company (specialising in reprints of mysteries, Westerns and thrillers) started publishing Mills & Boon medical (read doctor-nurse romance) novels, and, eventually, buoyed by the success, the two companies collaborated more, and published each other’s titles in their own countries.
By the late 1960s, fortunately for many, the traditional themes began to be challenged and a brasher heroine emerged. Some of the older readers were shocked by the erotic turn the books took. The younger readers were not complaining.
In 1971, the two companies merged. Some years later, the Canadian communications company Torstar bought the controlling stake and the dominance of the brand became unrivalled and near-global. Second-hand MBs found their way to far corners of the globe.
In August 2014, News Corp, HarperCollins’s parent corporation – owned by Rupert Murdoch – acquired Harlequin Enterprises, including the best-selling Mills & Boon brand, from Torstar Corporation. Every month now, Mills & Boon publishes 120 new titles under sixteen distinct imprints that cater to the specific desires of a global readership, from medical romances to historical, Afro-American (“Kimani”) and paranormal (“Nocturne”) ones. A Mills & Boon book is sold every five seconds in the UK, and while their popularity is not quite as staggering in India, every bookstore has its stack of MBs for young ladies and lending libraries continue to operate with their stack of classics.
The modern girl’s guides
Inspired by massive success of the Ladybird Books for Grownups, a spoof series that takes off from the Ladybird books we all read – or were read to from – as kids in the post-colonial middle classes, the Mills and Boon Modern Girl’s Guides – Happy Endings, Happy Hour, Working 9 to 5, and Helping Yourself are four near-perfect, utterly collectible books meant for those who, like me, are not authentic fans of the original genre, but like to bandy about the word “post-feminist”, take up healing fads regularly, shop online while drunk, or find themselves on the wrong side of internet trends.
This is what the books have to say about themselves:
Since 1908, Mills & Boon have been a girl’s best friend.
We’ve seen a lot of changes in the years since: enjoying sex as a woman is not only officially fine but actively encouraged, dry shampoo has revolutionised our lives and, best of all, we’ve come full circle on gin.
But being a woman still has its challenges. We’re under-paid, exhaustingly objectified, and under-represented at top tables....
Sometimes, a girl just needs a break.
And, for a century, that’s where we’ve come in.
So, to celebrate one hundred years of wisdom (or at least a lot of fun), we’ve produced these handy A-Zs: funny, feisty, feminist guides to help the modern girl get through the day.
We can’t promise an end to bulls*t.
But we can offer some light relief along the way.
The hard-bound little books follow a simple formula. They go A to Z (though some letters have several entries and I am still trying to run a regression analysis to understand if there might be a pattern to explain which ones are repeated and why that might be the case) and each entry on the recto is preceded by a vintage – or faux-vintage – black-and-white picture on the verso. The entries range from mildly funny to hysterical on the British Humour Scale, which is, as you know, an actual thing. Consider D for Dating Apps from The Mills & Boon Modern Girl’s Guide to Happy Endings, where the following text sits next to a Gregory Peckish man surrounded by a hundred Gregory Peckish hats:
What they Say: “Our unique algorithm will use a range of metrics to find our perfect match”
What they Mean: “Our unpaid intern will pull names out of a bin, and you’ll end up with some hat collecting freak.”
Or pause at O for “Office Naps” from The Mills and Boon Modern Girl’s Guide to Working 9 to 5. A character who well might be Caroline Bingley from the Colin Firth-Jennifer Ehle production of Pride and Prejudice sleeps upon a mass of papers, disastrously close to the ink pot (image reproduced on the cover of the book):
Virginia has just realised it’s the 19th of November, the day that women have to go to work for free for the rest of the year.
This doesn’t apply to Jeff at the next desk.
He gets paid for all 365 days.
Virginia has taken the executive decision to nap for the next month and a half.
I had, predictably, reached for The Mills and Boon Modern Girl’s Guide to Helping Yourself first, having said a resounding yes to the quiz on the blurb: Have You Ever: A: Wondered whether January really is the best time to start your new diet, with all those forgiving layers and leftover Christmas selection boxes lying around? B: Had to accept that your vast collection of novelty shot glasses means you will never live a truly minimalist life? C: Considered the respective merits of clean living vs. having your cake and eating it, and ending up holding the éclair? But quickly, I had to admit to myself that it hit too close home for the laughs to be anything but guilty. The Mills and Boon Modern Girl’s Guide to Happy Hour was, on the contrary, less funny and less vague.
A guide to reading the guides
Pretend they are for your best friend’s birthday and you are gifting these as a sort of joke to remind her that once upon a time, long long ago, before Netflix and Instagram, books in general and MBs in particular, were her best friends. In truth, find self unable to part with them on the day of her birthday and gift her a Fitbit instead. Makes similar point. (Plus, you’ll never be tempted to keep it.)
Spend an inordinate amount of time trying to decide which of the four ought to be read first. Give up. Go to bed.
On the commute find “C for Commute” and laugh dementedly. For a lack of better option to jab your fingers at the book and flash it in your neighbour’s face until you realise that she might be a college student but she’s never seen a book.
Alternative methods of getting to work that would still be better than Amy’s current commute on a train franchise we are unable to name for legal reasons:
Atop an emaciated donkey like you see in those donkey sanctuary adverts
Through an actual river of treacle
A biplane full of scorpions
Just sitting and waiting for tectonic shifts in the earth’s crust to take her in the right direction
Feel miserable and empty by mid-morning when all four books have been read and the work is far too dreary to be contemplated. You inveigle your intern – not your intern but the company’s – to make a chart of the A-Zs. The lack of pattern is driving you nuts.
The Mills & Boon Modern Girl’s Guide to Working 9 to 5
A B B C D D D E E F G H I I I J K L L M M M N O P P P Q R S S T U U U V W W X Y Z
The Mills & Boon Modern Girl’s Guide to Happy Endings
A B B C D D E F F G H H I I I J K L L M M M N O O P P Q R S S S T T T U V W X Y Z
The Mills & Boon Modern Girl’s Guide to Happy Hour
A B B C C D D E E F F F G H H H H I I J K L M N O P P P Q R S S T T U V V W X Y Z
The Mills & Boon Modern Girl’s Guide to Helping Yourself
A B B C C D E E F F G H I J K L M M N N O P P P P Q R R R R S S T T U V W X Y Y Z
You are horrified to learn the intern doesn’t know what Mills and Boon is. You shoo him off and try to involve the auditors in the conference room in trying to decode the pattern.
A few days later you try to pass off a few of the jokes as your own and fail at the punchlines. Wait, are there punchlines? You realise you need to read the books again.
You obsessively try to find out who the author Ada Adverse is.
The intern comes and reports he has read his first MB. You realise, your job here is done.