The A-list archive: filming the Mills & Boon collection for the BBC’s Celebrity Antiques Road Trip

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.

Mills and Boon books

Judith shows off a selection of Mills & Boon books for the BBC

What happens when the archive you’re researching is a star attraction?

Since I began my PhD last October in the British Publishing and Publishing Archive at Reading, I have been thinking about how and why different people have used the Mills & Boon collection to tell a story or support a particular point of view. As mentioned in a previous blog post, the fact that Mills & Boon is a household name means that it has been the subject of a number of TV and radio programmes – especially around the 100-year anniversary of the company in 2009. If you haven’t watched Consuming Passion, Guilty Pleasures, or How to Write a Mills and Boon they are well worth the time. The people behind these projects have approached archival material in different ways to tell their tale of the house of romance. It’s now my turn.

On Valentine’s Day this year I worked with the inspirational archives team here to showcase the collection using the ‘naughty notebook’. In selecting the ‘innuendo’ angle we were able to suggest in a short article how the language of love and desire has changed over time – a narrative which holds special interest for me. It led me to wonder how much we appropriate collections to enhance our own critical thinking or creative acts – and if our subjectivity helps or hinders when we want to engage the interest of others? On 9 July I had to think about this again when reading Special Collections hosted the Celebrity Antiques Road Trip team. This time it was a dual between presenter Rebecca Wilcox and her mother, Esther Rantzen (who had been a guest at the Evacuee archive the previous day). In part of the show the TV personality, together with an antiques expert – in this case, the charming Will Axon – visit a place of interest and are shown its treasures.

So how do you decide what to share when so much is so significant? Which letters do you extract from thousands to demonstrate the archive’s social, cultural and historical importance? Of the many and varied authors, who do you choose to best represent key parts of the story? Which covers are most evocative or cherished? Squeezing a whole collection into a five-minute broadcast means hard choice. Naturally you think of the audience. What might appeal to the widest range of viewers? How can you catch their attention without perpetuating the myths that exist? Fortunately the BBC researcher had done his homework – we needed to provide context, to cover how M&B grew and reflected the changes in society and notions of romance. But what criteria should I use to select material for its short moment of fame?

In the end I deferred to a thought-provoking article I’d read called Materiality Matters: Experiencing the Displayed Object. While it made sense to choose Betty Beaty and Violet Winspear as different yet representative authors, I selected the objects (letters, a photograph, a postcard, a sketch) which had ‘spoken’ to me, that I had connected with emotionally during my research. Through these evocative objects I felt confident about sharing my passion for the archive with Rebecca and Will. What I hadn’t expected to witness was the spark when Rebecca connected to a letter from Violet to Alan Boon. It referenced her forthcoming appearance on the BBC’s Man Alive programme. Rebecca’s father, Desmond Wilcox, had produced the programme in 1970 when Winspear achieved notoriety for her comments about male heroes. It was fascinating to experience the archive coming to life in this way. In some special way it reduced the distance between us all.

Judith and the BBC team 're-enacting' M&B covers

Judith and the BBC team ‘re-enacting’ M&B covers

The following day I read a letter in the files about how nice Desmond had been. I’m glad.
I have become very fond of Violet – protective even. She is too often characterised in the Mills & Boon story as the spinster who lived at home with her mother and cat writing racy books. Her thoughts on writing and desire have engaged me at a fundamental level, and I like to think that the archives can tell a fuller version of her story than they have so far. There is also so much more to write about how we attribute meaning and value to objects and how we experience them in archives. But for now I can say that exposing even a small part of the Mills & Boon collection for national TV was great fun – even if it took four hours of filming to create four minutes. Who knows what will make the final cut! I can’t imagine that I won’t be embarrassed when it airs in November, but I hope we managed to leave the viewers wanting more.

Further watching and reading:

And of course, Celebrity Road Trip in November!

With thanks to all the archives and library team for their help, especially Nancy Fulford for her role as ‘runner’.

Favourite finds: First Mills & Boon

millsandboonfirstbookcoversmallAlthough Mills & Boon didn’t start life as a romance publisher, the company’s first publication in 1908 was in fact a romance – Arrows from the Dark, by Sophie Cole.

While working through our own collection of Mills & Boon books, we stumbled across this gem: the very first copy sold of this very first Mills & Boon book, signed by managing directors Gerald Mills and Charles Boon on 25 March 1909 to mark the occasion.  

Sophie Cole, who was the sister of Professor Cole, Professor of Zoology in the University of Reading and collector of our Cole Collection, went on to write dozens more books for the publishing house.

Mills and Boon first book inscription

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.

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)