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How to learn about love from Mills & Boon novels

“We expect love to be one of our greatest joys. But, in practice, it is one of the most reliable routes to misery,” wrote Alain de Botton in a recent article, before informing us that divorce rates peak post-Christmas.

Some have blamed one well-known publisher of romance novels as a reason behind this tidal wave of lost hopes. One scholarly article in the British Medical Journal recently claimed that Mills & Boon was a contributing factor to divorce, adultery, and unwanted pregnancy.

Mills & Boon is over 100-years-old and has an established reputation of supplying escapist romantic fantasies for its predominantly female readership across the globe. But with Valentine’s Day just around the corner, I’d like to come out in defence of these romantic novels. Despite their escapist nature, there is a considerable amount of realism contained within their pages.

This might seem like a surprising claim. But realism in romance has always been a part of romantic fiction. Charlotte Smith (1749-1806), an early writer of romances, also injected a degree of reality into her novels. While her heroines of sensibility were being wooed from the turrets of their high towers by heroes with appellations such as Orlando and Willoughby, her subsidiary characters faced issues such as extra-marital affairs, unwanted pregnancies and marital rape. As Stuart Curran argues of Smith’s works, they record a moment in English fiction where the “intrusion of ‘real life’ into the world of romance marks the beginning of a reconstituted literary realism”.

Charlotte Turner Smith, 1792. Wikimedia Commons

And I reckon that this “literary realism” is equally available, at least in some measure, in many of the romantic novels of Mills & Boon. But how shall we define “realism”? The sceptic’s definition should suffice. De Botton lists seven rules that will allow any reader to develop the emotional skill of romantic realism, and thereby save their marriage.

Embracing imperfection

First on the list is to “accept perfection is unrealistic”.

Now, the heroes of the average Mills & Boon romance, despite appearances on the covers (which generally feature muscular Adonis-like men or heroes who bear a resemblance to popular film stars) are, in fact, very far from perfect. The male lead of Penny Jordan’s The Most Coveted Prize (2011) freely admits this to himself. As the reader is introduced to Kiryl, the narrator informs us that he has “a darkness within him that he had never wholly been able to control. Something of a mental vampire, an echo of himself that, when aroused, could only be calmed by feeding off the emotional pain of others”.

It will take the equally far from perfect 19-year-old heroine Alena to save Kiryl from himself and cement their relationship. In order for this to happen, Alena has to accept the reality that Kiryl is not the perfect hero she has constructed him to be within her imagination, saying to him: “I didn’t love you. I loved someone I created inside my own head and heart – someone I now know never existed. That was weak and foolish of me.”

Once she has admitted the truth to herself and, in de Botton’s words, “she has grasped the specifics of his imperfections”, she is free to focus on the fact that she loves him anyway, and would rather be with him and his imperfections than spend the rest of her life without him.

The art of loving

This leads me nicely onto de Botton’s fourth rule of romantic realism, which instructs us to “be ready to love rather than be loved”. Alena – along with countless other Mills & Boon heroines – loves her hero even though she is fully aware of his failings.

So the heroines have no issue following de Botton’s advice. But it must be acknowledged that the heroes do have more trouble. Their alpha male status seems to inhibit them from admitting what they perceive as weakness – which for the main part, manifests itself in the form of their vulnerability to the heroine. The final admission of the hero’s undying love for her will almost destroy him.

But, as Kiryl admits, “a man can only lie to himself for so long”, and despite Jordan reducing him to a shadow of himself – as she does with so many of her heroes – it will become clear that the hero of the tale can only be saved by embracing both the heroine and his love for her.

But it’s all about the sex, right?

One of the criticisms which have been levelled at Mills & Boon romantic novels over the years is the inclusion of scenes of an explicit nature. How realistic is the invariably great sex the average Mills & Boon heroine can anticipate with her hero?

As de Botton observes, one of the frequent failings in relationships is that we fail to “understand that sex and love, do and don’t, belong together … the general view expects that love and sex will be aligned. But in truth, they won’t stay so beyond a few months or, at best, one or two years”.

Not many Mills & Boons address this point. But some do. In another sample from her corpus, Jordan does attempt to hint that the “other key concerns” that de Botton highlights such as “companionship, administration, another generation” do have an impact on sex in relationships. In her 1982 novel, Blackmail, the heroine, Lee, is forced to take a break in sexual relations with her husband Gilles because the birth of her son “had not been an easy one”.

And akin to her literary ancestor, Charlotte Smith, Jordan also featured many older heroines. In her novel from 1989, A Rekindled Passion, for example, the heroine, Kate, is just shy of 40. Kate has spent all of her adult life as a single mother, having fallen pregnant at age 16. When the baby’s father, Joss, reappears, Kate turns down his offer of sex after he tells her he wants her, saying: “It wouldn’t be sensible. We’d both regret it.”

Both Kate and Lee love their heroes, but their love is not aligned with sex. The heroines and heroes reach their happy endings in these novels, because all parties accept this.

Harlequin Mills & Boon, as a publisher, openly retails their fiction as escapism. But like all great romantic fiction, from its earliest days to contemporary times, these novels do address realistic issues which people face every day in their relationships.

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