Entertainment & Arts

Mills & Boon's world of innuendo

Opening pages to the notebook Image copyright University of Reading
Image caption The notebook was compiled by Mills and Boon editors "with mean minds" in the 1970s

A tattered notebook dating back almost 50 years gives a glimpse into the mischievous minds of romantic publishing house Mills & Boon's editors.

Compiled in the 1970s, the book contains their favourite sentences clipped from the unedited manuscripts of romantic novels.

Many are unintentional innuendos that tickled the editors at the time, though they might seem tame to the Fifty Shades of Grey generation. Others are just toe-curlingly bad.

Image copyright Mills & Boon
Image caption By 1968 Mills & Boon were turning out 130 hardback and 72 paperback romances a year

To mark Valentine's Day, the University of Reading has given a peek into the so-called "Anthology of Artless Extracts", part of its Mills & Boon archive.

The A5 notebook contains such gems as:

He paused and then added more softly, 'Come on Elaine, it won't be the first time we have doubled up on a bicycle.' (Flora Kidd, Dangerous Pretence)


'My darling, help me grope back to your white ways,' he said, his voice hoarse with emotion.

'You won't have to grope. You got there last night...' (Louise Gerard, The Sultan's Slave)


Mrs White... heaved at something under the blankets and produced a pineapple. (Betty Neels, Pineapple Girl)

Judith Watts, a PhD researcher at the university and author of erotic fiction, says the notebook - and letters in the archive - reveal much about the relationship between writers, their readers and the publisher.

"They show the importance of women writers earning their living, the desire of the reader to get their next romantic fix, and the publisher's need to stay in business," she says.

"The authors were trying the reflect the times, but they were very limited about what they could say about sex and desire.

"A lot's been said about things stopping at the bedroom door. As some of these snippets show - they didn't. There was pre-marital sex and affairs, but it was all couched in innuendo and euphemism."

Steamy sentences

Image copyright University of Reading
Image copyright University of Reading
Image copyright University of Reading

The Mills and Boon catalogue shows the changing nature of the romantic novel over the decades.

Themes of class and wealth in the 1920s gave way to wartime concerns in the 30s and 40s.

In the 1950s the woman was often a widow and a mother, while the 60s brought an influx of glamorous career women. More stories were set abroad and the romantic encounters became more sexual.

Image copyright Mills & Boon
Image caption Gerald Mills and Charles Boon launched the publishing company in 1908

30 questions

Another insight into the pressures on authors to keep in touch with their readers is seen in a letter and questionnaire from novelist Violet Winspear in 1973.

Winspear became Mills & Boon's top-selling writer and shocked the older readers with her erotic tales. In 20 years, she wrote 37 titles, most of which were set abroad.

Among the 30 questions she asked Mills and Boon bosses were: Are love scenes too tame? Are virtuous heroines out of date? Are bedroom doors to be flung open. Are bedroom doors to be left ajar? Are bedroom doors to be firmly closed?

Image copyright Reading University

In her accompanying letter Winspear wrote: "I don't think even publishers realise how far removed from public opinion an author often feels... if you can spare the time to run through my questionnaire and give me a sort of guide to M&B's present-day requirements, then it will be of great help to me in guiding my romances along the sticky road to good sales or that remainder shelf we all dread."

Image copyright University of Reading

Says Ms Watts: "Violet lived with her mother and her cat, but she had dreams and fantasies like everyone else.

"I think she was worried that times were changing. She used to write her romances with the bluff hero and the virtuous girl.

"There are lots of letters in the archive discussing how far you can go."

She adds: "I had a nana who, when I went to the library, ordered her Mills and Boon and would ask for 'two doctors and a sheikh'. They were marketed like that."

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