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All because the lady loves a foreign accent

Mills and Boon Cover art: Bride of the Rif, The Sheikh's Reward and  At the Sheikh's Command

By Samanthi Dissanayake
BBC News

It is the stuff of escapist fantasy. A tall, dark and handsome type sweeps a cream-and-roses Home Counties heroine off her feet. In its 100 years of publishing, the exotic alpha male has been a staple of the Mills and Boon romance.

The tale of the passionate desert sheikh who sweeps secretary Janna Smith off her feet in Violet Winspear's 1970 romance Tawny Sands is perhaps the quintessential Mills and Boon story.

Still from 1921's The Sheik
Silent film sex symbol Rudolph Valentino in The Sheik

"His tone of voice was softly mocking, but she knew he didn't really jest. He was Raul Cesar Bey and the further they travelled into the desert the more aware she was of his affinity with the savage sun and tawny sands."

Shocking and suggestive, the tale of their love was wildly popular with a generation of readers.

It is also typical of a taste for foreign pleasures when it comes to romantic fiction.

It's 100 years since Mills and Boon published their first book. Sold in 109 countries and translated into 26 different languages, it is arguably Britain's best-known publishing house worldwide.

From early in the company's history, its winsome heroines have looked beyond Britain's shores to find love.

Nobody can quite identify the very first Mills and Boon romance to feature an exotic hero or location. But Dr Joseph McAleer, author of Passion's Fortune: The Story of Mills and Boon, says it was probably in the 1910s, following the lead of Hollywood cinema and its preoccupation with desert sheikhs and jungle escapades.

The fascination still exists today with the best-selling title of the June 2008 Modern Romance series being Desert King, Pregnant Mistress by Susan Stephens.

"Exotic locations gave great scope to authors to be a bit racier. It is usually an English person going into the tropics to experience this different culture," Dr McAleer says.

"But they never lose their moral foundation. The heroines normally wind up reforming the sheikh."

Steamy scenes

In 1915 Louise Gerard wrote The Virgin's Treasure, the story of Dr Keith Harding, who leaves England for Africa to treat tropical diseases.

British woman dancing with an American GI in 1942
A fine wartime romance

"This was not England but the tropics where blood was hotter and where incredible things happen with amazing swiftness" Gerard writes, preparing the reader for the steamy scenes to come. It was only in the 1930s that Mills and Boon became a dedicated romantic fiction publishers. Since then, enigmatic sheikhs, brooding Spaniards and sardonic Greek tycoons have become a staple of their storylines.

These international tales have tended to mirror broader social trends. The experience of World War II enhanced the possibilities of love abroad. WAAF Into Wife, by Barbara Stanton, follows the fortunes of Mandy Lyle, who falls under the spell of Count Alexei Czishkiwhizski, leader of a Polish squadron.

"With horizons being broadened and more international travel, the romances set in rose-covered cottages did not have the same cachet as Greece, Ibiza, and South Africa," Dr McAleer says.

The exotic and the international became a key measure of the ultimate romantic lead.

"The alpha male has to be larger than life, an incredibly heroic figure. He was usually fabulously wealthy with a mystery about him," says Dr McAleer.

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Greek shipping magnates emerged in the 70s and 80s, and the Mediterranean hero rose in popularity as package holidays became the norm.

The growth in air travel also saw the rise of the air hostess/pilot romance, with many tender words lavished on the captains holding passengers' lives in their manly hands.

Woman reading on a beach
It could happen to you...?

Nowadays, Italians and Spaniards remain popular heroes and at least one sheikh romance a month is published. Even Russian oligarchs have made an appearance.

"As the world has become more globalised our settings have had to become more exotic, more luxurious and exciting. Where our heroes were once millionaires, now they have to be billionaires," says Clare Somerville, marketing director for Mills and Boon.

Middle Eastern tycoons feature frequently but hail from fictional countries and kingdoms - there is little room for the realities of the region's geopolitics in escapist fiction.

The company's largest markets have been the UK, United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Demographically, North America is the biggest market but with the launch of English-language editions in India earlier this year, Mills and Boon acknowledges this could change.

Violet Winspear. Copyright: Harlequin Mills and Boon
The real aim of romance is to provide escape and entertainment
Violet Winspear

As India's middle classes exercise their consumer muscle, so the company wants to expand its roster of romantic heroes.

"We are also looking at the Indian prince idea. He is a clear extension of the alpha male and we are looking at launching this next year," says Ms Somerville.

It is also running a competition to find new local authors in India. Mills and Boon novels are translated in China, and for some years now its romances have graced Japanese bookshelves in the form of manga comics.

Exotic escape

Mills and Boon claim its readership all over the world look for the same thing: identification with the heroine and intense romantic relationships.

Shirley Valentine
You're not in Liverpool now, Shirley

Violet Winspear, one of Mills and Boon's best-selling authors in the 1960s and the author of Tawny Sands, set many of her books in Greece, Spain and North Africa.

But she was a spinster who reputedly never left south-east England - instead she meticulously researched her far-flung settings at the local library.

Miss Winspear caused considerable controversy when explaining her archetypal hero - the sort of men "who frighten and fascinate" and "the sort of men who are capable of rape: men it's dangerous to be left alone in the room with".

Although this comment would haunt her, Dr McAleer says she thought hard about what exotic themes brought to her readers. In a letter to her publisher, Miss Winspear wrote: "Who on earth can truly identify with a sardonic Spanish Don, a handsome surgeon, a dashing Italian or a bittersweet Greek? The real aim of romance is to provide escape and entertainment, not to dish up 'real life' and 'real life people on a plate with egg on it'!"

Shirley Valentine would surely agree.


Below is a selection of your comments.

I've never read any Mills and Boon but my favourite book of all time is Gone With the Wind - Rhett Butler sounding like the template for all M&B heroes since. It's not real life, it's luxurious escapism. Thanks for bringing this to my attention, I'm off to the library...
Becky, Durham, UK

I must say I do agree that there is just something about a foreign man, in particular never knowing what to expect having spent so little time around them. We cannot read them like we can the English boys. But I want to know when M&B will do a book where the man isn't rich/in a first class job? I like the classic stable boy/generally working outside - a bit rustic and roguish but can still sweep you off your feet.
Larz, Chelt

I think Mills and Boon is fantastic and although it is no longer truly a British business, I still feel a little proud that they created such a well-known brand name. Love them or hate them, I think pretty much everyone knows what Mills and Boon are. There is pretty much something for everyone from very steamy lines such as Blaze, Desire and Modern Heat to very respectable Romances and Super-romances. But at the core, all of them deliver the same thing - a feel-good, escapist fantasy. Mills and Boon are also one of the few publishers that are willing to help, and accept material from, new unagented authors. Which is something of a rarity these days. For all these reasons Mills and Boon have done an awful lot for the average woman, be she a stay at home mother or a business woman.
Clarissa, Cheshire

When I was a teenage boy I read a few of my elder sister's M&B (entirely as a result of the rather saucy shots on the cover). I have to say that at that formative age, it gave me some precious insights into the bizarre workings of the female brain, which has been very useful ever since.
Dave, Belfast, Northern Ireland

In my time it was associated with James Bond... but I've always found it so vexing that the girls I knew growing up would consciously repudiate as repulsive the alpha male type, but then either fantasize about one or actually go off with one. It's the bad boy syndrome... all the nicest girls in school would spurn the intelligent or geeky guys in favour of the dangerous and cool guys. And some girls were noted for choosing an endless series of such partners, enduring the treatment such macho males are known to dish out, until they became ruined and incapable of a healthy relationship. Can any woman present please explain this well-known phenomenon to me from the female perspective? It has always been a mystery.
Dayfydd Griffing, Naples, Long Beach

Dayfydd, it's a bit of a mystery to me, too - I think it's something to do with women's desire to reform dangerous men (a desire which usually results in complete disaster in real life). Show me a real life sheikh as a romantic prospect - and I'd run a mile. Give me the geeks any day.
Liz, Glastonbury, UK

I have been a Mills and Boon reader for about 20 years. At one time I had over 900 books but cleared out to my local charity shop since then I have once again collected over 300 which will be going to the charity shop soon. I read each book at least twice some by my favourite authors many more times. I love the twists and turns. Yes I suppose it is an escapism but who cares I don't - I just enjoy them.
Beryl, Cleethorpes, England

Congratulations to Mills & Boon for creating the desperate housewife.
Faiza, West Sussex

Sadly these tomes of rubbish detract from real literature that should be valued. They are to be ranked alongside what is now commonly known as the Daddy No! titillation books littering the supermarket shelves. Being written to a formula will not give any insight to anything. Try reading The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. It will open your eyes.
Maggs, Cornwall

Maggs, I don't think it's fair of anyone to say what people should and shouldn't read. M&B might not be Booker prize-winning stuff, but is has its place and is enjoyed by millions the world over. As a commercial lawyer there are times when my day/life is so stressful that I love to come home, run a bath and sink into an easy read. As long as a book gives enjoyment then that's all that matters.
Rebecca, Norwich

Congratulations Mills & Boon on your 100th anniversary. I am 29 & have been buy your books since I was 16. I was quite surprised to find out just how many people actually buy them in my generation. I don't want to read about drugs, death etc I just want to lose myself in some far away country with a big strong rich handsome man for a couple of hours. Alas I can't do this in real life so I read Mills & Boon. Keep up the good work & here's to another 100 years.
Monique Rowe, Cardiff

The "ism" and or "isms" of the politically correct were created by a small minority intent on putting Western culture six feet underground. But what's this? Hip Hip Hooray! Folks still buy Mills & Boon, rejecting all those PC ideals we are supposed to be agreeing with. Beware the PC police - ever watchful. The construct that creates hate speech will have Mills & Boon books burned one day, mark my words.
Cliff Taylor, London, UK

Congratulations to Mills & Boon. It was what ushered most of my friends and I into the world of romance, but of course we always knew that men in real life are not that handsome. After all they are all over on the streets, but it certainly afforded us an opportunity to escape while entertaining us.
Salome, Accra, Ghana

As a foreign, tall, dark, and handsome billionaire I find these stories offensive in the extreme, reducing my whole existence to nothing more to a piece of meat manipulated to provide women with some animal titillation. Shame on you all, especially if you are the type who complain about girly mags on the top-shelf of your newsagent.
Walter, London

Walter, I want you for your brains and kindness. Where can I find you?
Helen, Oxford

You know, M&B could do all the men on the planet (AND their loyal readers) a great service by writing a book entitled How To Be a Mills & Boon Romantic Hero.
Simon C, Copenhagen, Denmark

I love Mills & Boon. I think there is this belief that only bored, unfulfilled housewives read them for a little escapism and titillation from the otherwise monotonous daily grind. On the contrary, I have a business Degree and was an A* English pupil at school. My book shelf at home is the ultimate paradox of M&B lined up next to historical non-fiction, business textbooks & biogs and classic historical fiction and plays. Everybody at sometime or other needs to feel what its like to be in someone else's shoes.
Jenny, West Yorkshire

"But they never lose their moral foundation. The heroines normally wind up reforming the sheikh." And so the alpha male is neutered and domesticated. He then slowly gains weight, becomes slower witted and learns to keep his mouth shut lest his opinion differs from that of his love. The remote control becomes his only friend. Romance is a one way street it seems. The ladies seem to be attracted to that which they cannot abide. Contrary.
Bill, Glasgow

I have been a M&B reader for the past 20 years and still do not get bored of reading them as I have a fascination for romantic stories. They are very much popular in India and the new idea to include the Indian Prince is welcome.
Patricia Britto, Chennai, India

I'm surprised that in this article there is no mention of the highly racist nature of these books. An exotic man, is only exotic because they are kept as an outsider within the readers' countries. "But they (the heroines) never lose their moral foundation. The heroines normally wind up reforming the sheikh." This reinforces that people of "othered" cultures, who are under the "SAVAGE sun", are immoral and need to be changed. The people who may identify with them are PEOPLE who are Spanish, Greek, or dating or married to a gorgeous doctor. It is this type of literature that created and now reinforces that cultures outside of an Anglo-Saxon base are to be feared, or considered mysterious... this is dehumanizing. These books are just one of the MANY mediums in the Western world that increase the xenophobia and an "Us and Them" mentality within our societies.
Nisha, Toronto, Canada

Nisha, would it make you feel better to know that lots of sexy Mills & Boon heroes are NOT sheikhs or from, as you say, "othered" cultures? They are simply larger than life fantasy heroes who star in escapist fiction. To paraphrase Mae West - I'm pretty sure it was Mae West - sometimes, a cigar is only a cigar.
Sandy, Connecticut, USA

I have never read a M&B publication and I must admit that I always turned my nose up at romance novels with steamy covers but my husband recently pointed out to me (after very kindly watching all five hours of Pride and Prejudice) that P&P has a similar story. Mr Darcy is certainly tall, dark, handsome, wealthy, and in need of reform by Elizabeth. He even takes her off to a foreign place (the Lake District). Why should one be considered great literature and the other looked down upon?
Heather, Portland, Oregon, US


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