Love it or hate it? Mills and Boon at Reading

Today’s guest post from Judith Watts explores our Mills & Boon Collection. Judith is studying for her PhD as part of a unique collections-based research project at the University of Reading. The working title of her thesis, which explores the nexus between publisher, author and reader, is The Limits of Desire: the Mills & Boon Romance Market, 1946-1973.

m6 toll sign

Marmite, the M6 Toll road and the Oxford English Dictionary are just three of the many things which drew me to the Mills & Boon archive.

Long before ‘twerking’ and ‘selfie’, the OED added the noun ‘Mills and Boon’, denoting an idealised romantic situation. A section of the M6 Toll road was built with two and a half million copies of old Mills & Boon novels to prevent it from cracking. Quips about the road to the road to true love and how the slushy novels helped turn the tarmac solid soon followed. Mentioning Mills & Boon invites, at the very least, a wry smile. It can also provoke a heartfelt defense from romance scholars and genre addicts, or equally passionate criticism from feminists and literary critics. Like Marmite, it’s a brand that people want to love or hate.

Staff Nurses in Love

A household brand in publishing is a rare commodity. Mills & Boon and Penguin are two of the UK’s internationally recognized heavyweights. For a specialist in ‘light’ fiction this is an impressive achievement. The history of Mills & Boon from the 1930s on is a study in the power of branding and building relationships. At a time when trade publishers must adapt to digital reading and consumption they would be wise to take a leaf from the Mills & Boon book of customer courting. The archives tell a rewarding story of effective sales and marketing and provide a blueprint for best practice in how to get close to readers and to develop and keep their loyalty.

As a lecturer in publishing the idea of brand fascinates me. Author brand, publisher brand – there is much to discuss.  But I have to confess, my interest in the concept of ‘Mills & Boon’ was sparked by borrowing books from the local library for my rather unromantic nana. With her regular and tantalising request for ‘two doctors and a Sheik’ my affair began. Being awarded a doctoral studentship to work in the company archives at Reading University may have triggered an obsession. Each week I am privileged to open files and letters knowing that I can add to the conversation about Mills & Boon as a publishing phenomenon. Perhaps the plot was always meant to end with me living happily ever after as Dr of Desire? That I am able to combine my research with my passion for writing about sex would have sent my nana into a swoon. No doubt ‘the Mills and Boon tall, dark stranger’ of the Oxford English Dictionary would have swept her up.

For those interested in further reading about the history of Mills & Boon and the brand’s creation Judith recommends as a starting point Joseph McAleer’s Passion’s Fortune, Oxford University Press, 1999.

Images sourced from public domain or unattributed under Creative Commons licence except the book cover taken from the Reading University archive and website.

New Collections-Based PhD studentships for 2014/2015

Have you heard about the collections-based research programme here at Reading? This October, we’ll be welcoming the second cohort of a unique doctoral skills training programme here at Reading. Drawing on the extensive research potential of the University’s internationally recognised museums and collections, this programme will train doctoral students in the practical skills and intellectual sensitivities essential for quality collections-based research.

Applications are open until 31 July for the following fees-only bursaries commencing October 2014:

PhD Studentship in Collections-Based Research (English Literature) Project title: Beckett and the City
Department: Department of English Literature
Supervisors: Dr Conor Carville and Professor Steven Matthews

PhD Studentship in Collections-Based Research (English Literature and History)
Project title: Four local parish libraries: Henley, Abingdon, Didcot and Buckland.
Department: Department of English Literature and Department of History
Supervisors: Dr Rebecca Bullard (English Literature), Dr Mary Morrissey (English Literature), Dr Helen Parish (History)

PhD Studentship in Collections-Based Research (Typography)
Project title: Edward Johnston’s Underground typeface from inception to ‘New Johnston’
Department: Typography & Graphic Communications
Supervisors: Professor Paul Luna and Dr Rob Banham

PhD Studentship in Collections-Based Research (History and Geography)
Project title: Preservationism and Development in Rural England, 1926-2016: Policy and Practice
Departments: History and Geography
Supervisors: Dr Jeremy Burchardt, Department of History and Dr Hilary Geoghegan, Department of Geography and Environmental Science

PhD Studentship in Collections-Based Research (Literature and Science)
Project title: Nature’s Stories: Francis Cole, Zoological Collections and Narrative
Department: English Literature
Supervisors: Dr Andrew Mangham and Dr John Holmes

PhD Studentship in Collections-Based Research (Archaeology)
Project title: Roman ceramic building material
Department: Archaeology
Supervisor: Professor Michael Fulford

PhD Studentship in Collections-Based Research (Archaeology)
Project title: Technological Innovation in the Late Iron Age: Ceramics as a Case Study
Department: Archaeology
Supervisor: Professor Michael Fulford

Steamy Sentences from Mills and Boon

Mills and Boon covers

Tired of hearts and roses for Valentine’s Day? Delve into the Mills and Boon world of innuendo instead! Boon Mots: Anthology of Artless Extracts compiles Mills and Boon editors’ favourite one-liners from over the years. A few of the best:

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 Neals, Pineapple Girl)

Anything you desire- I’m ready, willing and able, as the hosepipe said to the fire.

Judith Watts, a PhD researcher in the University of Reading’s Mills & Boon archive and a published author of erotic fiction, said: ‘As a collection the letters testify to the importance of the relationship between authors, their readers and the publisher – from the importance of women writers earning their living, to the desire of the reader to get their next romantic fix, and the publisher’s need to stay in business.

‘Through decades of charming correspondence M&B authors and the publisher discuss the changing nature of the romantic novel, and the desire to satisfy readers’ needs. Though the language of love evolved to reflect each era, the genre’s role in providing pleasure and escape was constant.’

Read more: 

Naughty notebook reveals Mills & Boon editors’ favourite phrases (University of Reading press release)
Mills & Boon’s world of innuendo (BBC)
Notebook reveals Mills & Boon editor’s favourite steamy lines (Independent)
Boons Mots: the best lines from Mills and Boon (Telegraph)
University’s Mills & Boon Archive offers a fascinating snapshot of the changing nature of romance (getreading)


Happy Birthday, Charles Darwin!

Guest post from Dr John Holmes, Associate Professor in English Literature at the University of Reading, to celebrate Darwin Day: a global celebration of science and reason held on the birthday anniversary of evolutionary biologist Charles Darwin.

Three quarter length studio photo showing Darwin's characteristic large forehead and bushy eyebrows with deep set eyes, pug nose and mouth set in a determined look. He is bald on top, with dark hair and long side whiskers but no beard or moustache. His jacket is dark, with very wide lapels, and his trousers are a light check pattern. His shirt has an upright wing collar, and his cravat is tucked into his waistcoat which is a light fine checked pattern.

Charles Darwin

Happy Birthday, Charles Darwin!

Today is International Darwin Day, held every year to celebrate the birthday of Charles Darwin (he would be 205 today!). It is hard to exaggerate Darwin’s impact on science. In his seminal book On the Origin of Species (1859), Darwin showed for the first time that all living things were related to one another in a great tree of life. For Darwin, the variety of life of earth depended on two main principles: descent with modification, and the struggle to survive. The result was natural selection, as those creatures which were best placed to survive and reproduce passed on their particular advantages to their descendants. As the conditions of life changed, so the populations of different species would inevitably evolve.

Darwin’s work became the foundation of biology and ecology as we know them today. But he also transformed how we think about ourselves. Darwin showed that we have no grounds to believe that we have a special place in nature. Our intelligence, our society, our love of beauty, even our morality, can all ultimately be traced back to natural selection. Darwin explained the origins of our humanity, but he did not explain it away. Scientists and scholars who think that, because we evolved, evolution can account for everything about us, from computer games to Jane Austen, are under an illusion. But Darwin did transform what it means to be human, stripping away our vanities and placing us firmly within the ecology of nature as a whole.

Because Darwin changed what it means to be human, he matters to the humanities almost as much as he does to the sciences. It is not just that On the Origin of Species is one of the most beautifully written and sustained arguments in English—a great book, in other words, in its own right. The novels of George Eliot and Thomas Hardy, the science fiction of H. G. Wells, the plays of Strindberg and Shaw, all bear the imprint of Darwin’s work. In writing my own book Darwin’s Bards, I found that British and American poets too had been wrestling with the implications of the Darwinian condition for the last hundred and fifty years.

Origin of Species, title page, 1859

Origin of Species, title page, 1859

Darwin’s scientific research precipitated the most profound shift in our understanding of ourselves that has ever taken place. It is no surprise, then, that it transformed literature and culture too. To read more about how literature in particular has engaged with Darwin and Darwinism, click here. In the meantime, I hope you’ll join me in wishing the old man a very happy birthday!

Italy at War: New staircase hall exhibition

Italy at War

Italy at War

Our fascinating new ‘Italy at War’ exhibition is now in place in our staircase hall.  Archival material from the Special Collections of the University of Reading offer a captivating insight into life under Mussolini’s final Fascist state.

‘The University holds fascinating records relating to modern Italian history. This display will highlight the rare survivals of documents from the Repubblica di Salò – Mussolini’s final Fascist state that lasted from 1943 to 1945 – and the archive of Cecil Sprigge, Reuter’s chief correspondent in Italy from 1943 to 1946.’

Italy at War passport

Italy at War passport

Italy at war: a selection from the archives
Tuesday 11th February to 30th March

We apologise for any inconvenience caused by the delayed opening of this display
Staircase hall, MERL/Special Collections
Free, drop-in, normal museum opening times

Highlights from the University’s fascinating records relating to Italian history.