The allure of Mills & Boon: from Marmite and the M6 Toll Road to the OED


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

The noun 'Mills and Boon' was added to the  Oxford English Dictionary in 1997.

The noun ‘Mills and Boon’ was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 1997.

Long before ‘twerking’ and ‘selfie’ the OED added the noun ‘Mills and Boon’, denoting ‘an idealized romantic situation’. More bizarrely, 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 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 heartfelt defence 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.

2.5 million Mills & Boon novels were used to build the M6 Toll Road (Image Phil Hill/REX)

2.5 million Mills & Boon novels were used to build the M6 Toll Road (Image Phil Hill/REX)

A household brand in publishing is a rare commodity. Mills & Boon and Penguin are the UK’s two 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 (today a Harlequin or Mills & Boon romance novel is sold somewhere in the world every four seconds).

Love it or hate it? Marmite and Mills & Boon both polarise opinion (Image Tim Scrivener/REX)

Love it or hate it? Marmite and Mills & Boon both polarise opinion (Image Tim Scrivener/REX)

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 tantalizing request for “two doctors and a Sheik” my affair began. Being awarded a doctoral studentship to work in the company archives at Reading University many years later may have triggered a new 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.

Staff Nurses in Love by Hilda E Pressley was published in 1962 as Volume 696 of the Harlequin Romance series (Image: Reading University Collections)

Staff Nurses in Love by Hilda Pressley was published in 1962 as Volume 696 of the Harlequin Romance series (Image Reading University Collections)

I’m studying for my PhD as part of a unique collections-based research project at the University of Reading. The working title of my thesis, which explores the nexus between publisher, author and reader, is The Limits of Desire: the Mills & Boon Romance Market, 1946-1973.

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

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One response to “The allure of Mills & Boon: from Marmite and the M6 Toll Road to the OED

  1. Pingback: Kingston researcher reveals Mills & Boon editorial scrap book | Kingston Publishing: inspiring future publishers·

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