Escape From Desire by Penny Jordan
Introduced by Mark Brown with Val Derbyshire
Some commentators have criticised Mills & Boon books as having needy heroines, desperate for the love of a brutish man. Val Derbyshire, who has read hundreds of Mills & Boon novels, said: “I suspect people who have never read them would say that. There are an awful lot of people who think they know what is going on in a Mills & Boon by just looking at the covers.”
The novels also tackle important issues head-on, the academic said. For example, Time Fuse (1985), by Derbyshire’s favourite Mills & Boon author, the prolific Penny Jordan, tackles the subject of rape, exposing the shocking way it was dealt with by courts and how women were blamed.
This is the “literature of protest”, said Derbyshire, with Jordan addressing the issue in “the only way she knew – through her romantic novels”.
Another criticism of the books is that they are formulaic. Again, Derbyshire said that people need to read them. “Penny Jordan wrote 187 novels over three-and-a-half decades. She couldn’t have remained so enduringly popular if she was churning out the same things. She was innovating all the time.”
Derbyshire was 14 when she read her first Mills & Boon, Escape from Desire (1982) by Jordan. “I asked my sister a difficult question on the facts of life and she said ‘read this’,” the academic said. “It raised more questions than it answered, I’ve got to be honest, but it was just so much fun I’ve been hooked ever since.”
Derbyshire is a doctoral researcher at Sheffield, studying the works of the 18th-century Romantic poet and novelist, Charlotte Turner Smith, a writer who also used romantic fiction as the literature of protest.
Mills & Boon was created in 1908 by Gerald Mills and Charles Boon. Beginning as a general publisher, it made romance its principal concern in the 1930s and has gone on to publish thousands of easy-reading novels with titles such as Staff Nurses in Love, Tethered Liberty, Italian Invader and The Trouble with Trent.
Val Derbyshire, a married mother of two sons, said she always reached for a Mills & Boon if she was fed up. “They always cheer me up, they are always an enormous amount of fun and they are always much more intelligent than you think they will be. There’s always something to discover in them.”
She believes historians should also read the books because they are so of their time, capturing contemporary anxieties and societal and fashion trends that are often forgotten. Anyone studying the social history of the late 70s, for example, could do worse than read Roberta Leigh’s Man Without a Heart, Derbyshire said – a book rich with romance and developments in the British car industry.
More than anything, Derbyshire urged readers not to feel ashamed. “There is a huge amount of snobbery,” she said. “It exists not just in academia and literature circles but generally. Some people do not feel comfortable sitting on a bus reading a Mills & Boon and that is a shame. If you have never read one, how can you know?”
Text courtesy of Guardian News & Media Ltd