Shelfie with Val Derbyshire

My name is Val Derbyshire and I love reading Harlequin Mills & Boon romances. If this has the air of a guilty confession about it, then it’s probably because it is one. My doctoral research concerns a highly respected eighteenth-century poet and novelist, Charlotte Turner Smith (1749-1806).

Bookshelf stacked high with colourful titles

The Mills and Boons are just a hobby project – and something of a guilty pleasure.
I’ve been reading Harlequin Mills & Boon romances since I was a teenager, but I’ve read one HM&B author more than any other, that author being Penny Jordan.

Let me take you back in time to my first introduction to Jordan’s work. So… it’s 1985. In response to a somewhat tricky question on the subject of “the facts of life”, my older sister thrusts a book into my hands by way of answer. Surprisingly, it’s a Mills & Boon. It’s a Mills & Boon by my sister’s favourite romance author, Penny Jordan; one of several offerings from Jordan for 1982, Escape from Desire.

Mils & boon romance book cover: Escape from desire
(Penny Jordan, Desire for Revenge, (Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon Limited, 1985), p. 128).

At first glance, what my sister has given me seems very promising. A young woman glances half-admiringly, half-fearfully up into the eyes of the experienced, older man (a man who appears not unlike famous film star and Bond actor, Sean Connery). The book relates the story of Tamara Forbes; a sweet, naive heroine, who like most of Jordan’s heroines is really very likeable indeed. However, she does have her limitations, her main flaw being (and it’s a big one if one considers the genre Jordan is writing within) that Tamara has terrible taste in men.

When the reader first meets her, she is engaged to the insufferable Malcolm, a stuffy country-gent type who expects to inherit the country pile very shortly. Malcolm doesn’t really get much of an outing in the novel, which is probably a good thing, because, Tamara changes her mind about her engagement when she gets kidnapped by terrorists whilst on holiday and held prisoner with the hero of the tale (and Sean Connery lookalike) Zachary Fletcher. Tall, dark and handsome, Zachary proves himself to be resourceful, brave, and passionate (thanks to some very dilatory terrorists he even manages to deflower Tamara in the jungle, whilst simultaneously leading the escape from their captors): he is the ultimate alpha male. He is also harsh, critical, deliberately taunting and cruel. Yes, he saves Tamara’s life when she gets bitten by a poisonous spider and nearly dies; but one still can’t help questioning just why she falls in love with Zachary so quickly. Perhaps she was still suffering from the effects of the spider toxins.

Now, if I am completely honest, the book my sister gave to me raised more questions than it answered. However, from that point on, I was hooked. From the age of fourteen onwards, Jordan was – and still is today – my ultimate escapism. I will admit it freely; my interest in Jordan’s work is more than academic.

However, I would also be the first to admit that the reputation of this type of literature is as terrible as Tamara’s taste in men. Yet, despite the mockery these novels incur, there’s much more going on in them than readers initially suspect.

It might seem surprising, but these novels are incredibly socially aware. Penny Jordan wrote 187 novels for Mills and Boon, mainly in the modern romance series over the course of three decades. Her career commenced in 1981 with the publication of Falcon’s Prey. From 1981 onwards, she penned multiple romances every year (in 1982 alone, Mills and Boon published nine of her novels), until her tragic and untimely death in 2011 of cancer.

In an article in Red magazine focussing on women who work from home, Jordan explained her daily writing routine. She spent at least an hour a day reading popular contemporary women’s magazines and used the stories within these for inspiration. In other words, she kept her finger on the pulse of what was current and topical in society. Her novels chart social change from the perspective of an ordinary woman, writing for ordinary women readers. She captures aspects of social history which would otherwise be forgotten. Her work recalls simple things such as changing fashion tastes. For example, 1985’s Desire for Revenge, shows its age when the heroine willingly dons that eighties fashion faux-pas, a “casual lemon flying suit” post-shower (Penny Jordan, Desire for Revenge, (Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon Limited, 1985), p. 128).

Yet this superficial scratching of the surface of popular culture is not the limit of Jordan’s capturing of social history. In an analysis of The Literature of Polar Exploration, Sarah Moss will consider a Mills and Boon novel entitled Arctic Nurse. Moss’s discussion of the text is brief and makes clear that she believes it to be a poor example of Polar literature (because we’re back to black sheep of the literary family again). However, Moss does note that “the intriguing thing about Arctic Nurse is its surprising level of political awareness” (Sarah Moss, Scott’s Last Biscuit: The Literature of Polar Exploration (Oxford: Signal Books, 2006), p. 193). In fact, you don’t have to read all of Jordan’s 187 novels to realise that this level of political awareness runs throughout her novels; as it probably does through most authors’ work from the Mills and Boon stable. There is nothing surprising about it. After all, one cannot write for contemporary women readers, unless one understands the issues these women are facing in their lives. For Jordan, these issues were inclusive of the state of the nation that she, and her readers, were living within.

Over the course of three decades of writing, she captured the recessions of the early 80s, 90s and the financial crisis from 2008 onwards. Her heroines have had to cope with negative equity, the credit crunch, rising unemployment, cash crises, low interest rates on savings accounts, and overwhelming debt – along with the rest of us.

In 2009, Jordan addressed the current age of austerity we are living within in her novel The Wealthy Greek’s Contract Wife. In this, the novel’s heroine, Lizzie, is struggling to cope in the economic downturn. A previously successful interior designer, the contracts have dried up, the house is about to be repossessed and she’s struggling to put food on the table and support her sisters and her twin nephews. Lizzie, as Jordan realises, is in a situation familiar to many of her readers. A victim of low interest rates on savings and an economic downturn, like many small businesses, Lizzie suffers from her clients refusing to pay her, so when one of them offers her a share in a Greek apartment block instead of cash payment, she decides it’s better than nothing, and accepts. Unfortunately for Lizzie, the deal turns out to be fraudulent and she finds herself face to face with Greek billionaire Ilios Manos, and he’s telling her she owes him a lot of money; money she hasn’t got. With only “just under fifty euros in her purse [and] nowhere to stay”, how is she going to pay him? (Penny Jordan, The Wealthy Greek’s Contract Wife (Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon Limited, 2009), p. 20).

Well, it’s a Mills and Boon, so it’s no real surprise when Ilios decides upon meeting Lizzie that what he really needs is a wife and that she’ll do. He’ll also pay her £100,000 to pretend to be his wife until he has concocted some dodgy dealings of his own and then to go away again. It may sound like a bizarre solution to desperate financial straits, but what it does illustrate is how Jordan has twisted contemporary current events and turned them to the advantage of her formulaic romance. Gaining inspiration from the common woes of her readers, Jordan can reach out to them and engage with them on common ground.

Jordan is also offering escapism from financial woes – both for Lizzie and – in the act of proffering a romance to escape into – the opportunity for her readers to escape their problems – albeit temporarily – as well.

I, myself, find that I tend to pick up a Mills & Boon romance to read when I’m feeling in need of cheering up. They’re quick, easy to read, and yet – no matter how ridiculous the plot – strangely satisfying. I will be at the Ignite event, at the Crucible Theatre, on Monday 7th December talking more about Harlequin Mills & Boon romances.

Written by Val Derbyshire on 13 November 2015

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