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Journal of the History of Sexuality 10.2 (2001) 340-343

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Book Review

Passion's Fortune:
The Story of Mills and Boon

Passion's Fortune: The Story of Mills and Boon. By Joseph McAleer. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. Pp. xiv + 322. $35.00 (cloth).

In 1998, the Mills and Boon imprint sold over 200 million paperback novels worldwide. Each title had a common and instantly identifiable framework: heroine meets hero, they fall in love, and they marry. This romantic narrative hinged upon the dramatic moment at which the heroine recognized--often unwillingly--an attraction to the hero. This moment, which Charles Boon called the "punishing kiss," is illustrated by the following passage from Golden Vanity (1912):

"I am going to kiss you," he said in a voice she hardly recognised. He might have said that he was going to kill her in the same tone. And again the blood in her veins turned to flame and scorched her as he kissed her full and closely on the mouth. (p. 30)

This curious, unsettling--yet unconvincing--mixture of interest and rejection, pleasure and pain, is also the immediate impression given by Joseph McAleer's Passion's Fortune: The Story of Mills and Boon. The book is the first analysis of the dialectical historical relationship between this commercially successful brand and its distinctive literary output: romantic fiction. It is partly an in-house history of Mills and Boon, from its foundation in 1908 to its takeover in 1972. Writing with the company's full cooperation, McAleer draws heavily upon previously unused corporate letter archives and interviews with management, employees, and authors. His close relationship with his subject makes McAleer's tone often breathless: Mills and Boon's history is for him "a romance in itself, the tale of a handful of men and hundreds of dedicated women" (p. 3).

McAleer's analysis is twofold. Section 1 is a conventional business history, which traces the transformation of Mills and Boon from a general to a specialized publishing house, manifested in the axiomatic association between brand, output, and established and loyal market base. The company's reorientation in the 1920s toward romantic fiction, McAleer argues, was an attempt to ensure continued survival and profitability by targeting and exploiting a newly identified female consumer. In the 1920s and 1930s, this involved establishing a close relationship with circulating libraries. In the [End Page 340] 1950s, the company retained its market share by expanding the production of cheap paperback editions. The parallel emergence of the Mills and Boon brand and the genre of romantic fiction is located firmly in the shifting commercial environment of the early twentieth century.

Section 2 develops this argument in a detailed--yet contradictory--analysis of the ways in which an emerging editorial policy and a close dialogue between editor and author produced the distinctive Mills and Boon style--with a particular plot, tone, and mode of depicting heterosexual relationships within romantic fiction. McAleer positions the representation of sex and gender relations within a vague historicism, sometimes attributing shifts in narrative structure and subject matter to the changing position of women in the Second World War or the 1960s. Thus, he situates the depiction of female social actors in work, cultural life, and intimate relationships in wider contemporary social formations, observing, "Since most of the women who wrote for Mills and Boon . . . were young, they were likely to be fairly closely in touch with their potential readers and in tune with changes in style" (p. 163).

Yet, McAleer's suggestion that Mills and Boon novels were, in this way, "up to date" is contradicted by the enduring subordination of female heroine to strong and dominant male hero; and the negative comments on waved hair, makeup, and contemporary social norms, which permeated the novels of the 1920s and 1930s, represent an explicit critique of the "modern girl." In addition, McAleer's observation conflicts with his own detailed readings of the process of producing romantic novels. Representations of sex and gender were mediated through intensive negotiations at the editorial stage...


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pp. 340-343
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