Sunday, January 27, 2008

In the papers

There has been a lot about Mills & Boon in the UK newspapers this week or so - inevitably, because of the interest in the Centenary celebrations for 1908-2008. As I've already discussed, some of the coverage has been less than wonderful - by that I mean less than accurate and written by journalists who either haven't read a Mills & Boon novel in their lives, or, if they have, have read one that dates back to about 1978, rather than anything published recently. And the comments by critics have been equally badly informed.

So it's good to be able to report a better, more balanced and at least better researched couple of articles that have appeared recently.

There was an article in The Times on Friday on How To Write a Mills Boon Novel. If we pass on the ridiculous illustration at the top of this page - a dreamy lady on a settee (where else ? I'm just relieved it wasn't a chaise longue) drafting her novel with the aid of a purple feathered quill pen. For the purple prose, one assumes. Right! The real romance novelist is probably far more likely to be like me - hunched over the computer keyboard at stupid o'clock, still in my pyjamas, hair uncombed, slightly bleary eyed (can we just say sick husbands with stomach bugs do not make for a peaceful night's sleep) - dreadline looming and no time to breathe.

Add this to the rather stupid first paragraph :
There comes a moment in every unpublished novelist's life when she wonders, is it time? Time to change her name to Valerie Lafayette, take to bed with a box of chocs, a dreamy smile and a big pink notebook and begin her career as a romantic novelist for Mills & Boon.

- and I didn't hold out much hope of a reasonable report here either. (Oh if only I could take to my bed with a box of chocs - now that would be a romantic dream!)

But after this inauspicious beginning, the rest of the of the article ain't bad. The editors come across as human and professional ( though knowing them I suspect that a little poetic licence has been taken in the description) and the tips for aspiring novelists might actually help someone who is thinking of writing for M&B.

Then yesterday there was a two page article in The Mail's Weekend magazine. (sorry - I can't give a link for this). Passion Under the Covers screams the headline above a blow up image of a cover - from 1986 of course! This article starts with the infamous quote from Violet Winspear claiming that her heroes need to be men who are capable of rape. But at least there was some justification for this in that the piece was talking about the history of Mills & Boon and the writers who formed the foundation of the company's success back in the first half of this century of pulishing we're celebrating.

Along with Violet (born 1928 and who lived in Leigh-on-sea in Essex) the article mentions Anne Hampson who is still alive and 'a bit more' than her late 80s. Anne wrote 98 books for Mills & Boon from 1969.

And the other novelist the article discuss is was the brave and charitable Mary Burchell ( real name Ida Cook) who wrote in 1930/40s, earning around £1,000 a year. She also "began sponsoring Jewish refugees fleeing Nazism, also helping them to smuggle out their jewellery and furs.' Together with her sister Louise, Ida is believed to have saved up to 60 lives and were honoured as Righteous Among the Nations by the Holocaust remembrance organisation Yad Vashem. Personally, I love the story of the way that they explained why they were trying to get som many furs and jewels out of the country :

"We had one standard answer to frontier officials who wanted to know why we had so many jewels and furs - we were a couple of nervous spinsters who didn't trust our family, so we took our jewels with us."

That just sounds to me like a wonderful symbol for M&B books as a whole - dismiss them as dotty females, who flutter and are overcome in the face of a strong male, and you'll never get to see the real strengths they are concealing inside that 'pink and fluffy' exterior.

This article does had one small last paragraph quoting executive editor Tessa Shapcott pointing out how much the books have changed and moved with the times, so the modern balance is added, although the overall impression to anyone who just glances through it would be to assume that the books are just the same as when Violet, Anne and Mary/Ida were writing in years gone by.

Finally, today we have the latest article - and this is one that I had a hand - or rather, a voice - in. I meant to mention that I had been interviewed by a journalist from The Observer - other things intruded and pushed it from my mind - but today the article by Francesca Segal is published.

And when I tell you that the article is headed Who Said Romance Was Dead? you'll get a hint of the positive tone of this one. I knew that Francesca Segal had done her research on this as the interview was extensive and I asked her straight out if she had read any M&Bs - she had. I also know that she interviewed other M&B authors (so I was suprised to see that they weren't quoted) and a Senior Editor at HMB (ditto) - but as a result of that research she's written a balanced and informative article (and that's not just because she quotes me several times!). She does, unfortunately, mention that quote again (How I wish that dear Violet who never had sex with any man in her life had kept her mouth shut!) and she implies a control by M&B that denies the authors their creative value and freedom and really just does not exist. Certainly, I've never encountered it.

Such a comment denies the fact that the authors who write for M&B do so because they love the books, they love to read them as well as write them, and they write to tap into the pleasure gained from the books by the numbers - the huge numbers - of women who read and enjoy them, worldwide.


juliemt said...

I've read all the articles except for the one in the Mail, and it was great to finally see some positive coverage of M&Bs! (Even though they did have that ghastly quote by Violet Winspear!)

Hope the BM gets better soon!

Trish Wylie said...


And I'd like to promote the idea that we're all beautiful at the keyboard but I'd be LYING... ;)

I'm SICK-TO-DEATH of that rape quote you know. But on the whole it is turning some isnt it?

Anne McAllister said...

Great article, Kate. Thanks for getting the whole thing and posting it. Take that, Martin!


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