Those Long Hot Mills and Boon Summers…
I’ve been a romance reader since I was eight years old (longer if you count fairytales as romances!). My mother gave me a Mills & Boon to shut me up one evening and believe me, it worked! I’ve always remembered the book as A Touch of Silk by Aussie author Joyce Dingwell. Read more… But searching for illustrations for this piece, I discovered it’s called A Feel of Silk. When I saw the cover, the memories flooded back of how this story held me entranced (although after major flooding this last month in my local area, perhaps I should be careful about mentioning the ‘F’ word!).
Once a year my mother used to take me up to a book exchange about an hour’s drive away and I’d get my annual supply of Mills & Boons. I’d read them by the bucket full, particularly in the long summer holidays which for us in the Southern Hemisphere take place in December and January. The weather was always steamy – a bit like my reading matter! I have incredibly fond memories of curling up as a teenager with classic love stories day after day and losing myself in the fantasy. I also credit these books with sparking my desire to travel. So many were set in wildly exotic corners of the world – mind you, to a girl from Brisbane during those long, peaceful summers, even suburban Britain seemed wildly exotic!
The emphasis was definitely on English writers. Favorite authors included Jane Donnelly and Violet Winspear. Violet used to specialise in the Rebecca-style romance with innocent waifs swept up into a world of glamour and wealth and passion beyond their wildest dreams with sheikhs or aristocrats and bossy millionaires. The titles say a lot – The Loved and the Feared, Bride of Lucifer, The Silver Slave, Beloved Tyrant, and this one that I think is just gorgeous and would love to steal, Devil in a Silver Room.
But nobody rivaled Anne Mather in my pantheon. Her books were incredibly hot for the late 60s and 70s and I used to sigh over her arrogant Spanish dukes and tempestuous Mediterranean millionaires. These characters actually had sex (Violet’s never did!) and there was always a series of breathtakingly passionate clashes between the hero and heroine before they settled into married bliss. I kept every Anne Mather I ever read in a box under my bed in my room on the farm. Dedicated romance readers that you all are, I know you’ll gasp with horror when I tell you that my mother had a clean-out when I was in England and THREW THEM ALL OUT!!!! What a tragedy! I’m still in mourning!
Another favorite was Mary Burchell who wrote a popular series based around the world of opera and classical music. Talk about glamour and drama! I particularly loved her stories featuring the arrogant but compelling conductor Oscar Warrender and his spirited and intelligent wife Anthea, a famous soprano. A favorite was When Love is Blind featuring a blind concert pianist and the woman he blamed for his accident who then becomes his secretary to assuage her guilt. Yeah, lots of conflict there, yum! Mary Burchell talked about music with such passion, she even stirred me to do some piano practice! Mary Burchell was a heroine in real life too – with her sister, she helped to rescue Jews from Nazi persecution in the 1930s.
My grandmother subscribed to the English Woman’s Weekly – as a romance reader and a knitter, that was the perfect mag for her! The WW included two serialized romance novels and a romantic short story in every edition and my grandmother, because she wanted the knitting patterns, never threw them out. You can imagine what bliss I had sifting through boxes of these magazines!
A lot of the serials were afterwards published by Mills & Boon or in anthologies from the Woman’s Weekly. That’s where I found When Love is Blind, for example, in one of these soft cover books featuring a couple of full-length stories in a format that was a cross between a book and a magazine. One difference between the Woman’s Weekly stories and the Mills & Boons I was addicted to – the magazine stories were very light on the physical stuff! In fact, one of their most popular writers was Iris Bromige who wrote charming love stories that at their hottest featured hand holding or perhaps a peck of a kiss at the end. Occasionally there would be no physical contact at all, just a few meaningful looks leading to a marriage proposal and a happily ever after. The world of romance has definitely changed!
Speaking of how romance has changed, for a bit of fun, check out this slide show of vintage Mills & Boon covers from the Guardian newspaper: I couldn’t resist Take Me, Break Me! A man needs a lot of self-confidence to get away with leopard print, I always feel!