RT @CamdenPT: "Safety is a priority. Comfort? No. Which is not to say Trigger Warning is just uncomfortable, it’s a lot of things." Check…
view counter

'Romancing the Teacup: a Mills and Boon Journey' Words by Fiona Halliday

A Telegraph journalist leans over and asks me if I remember my first time. I nod tersely. I remember the pink rose satin of the duvet, the curlicued wall-paper. I was thirteen. It was my best friend’s mother.

Okay, okay I’m talking about Mills and Boon novels. My best friend was raised in what I shall diplomatically term a ‘house church’ – no make up, no TV, no newspapers, no sex, no cutting of the hair. (They were nick named the Black Stockings because they always wore black tights.) Anyway, her mother’s attempts at sex education meant ordering the 4 pack Mills and Boon monthlies. When everyone else of our nonage was down fumbling with zippers and screw tops behind the bike sheds we were tucked up under her satin duvet reading ‘The Frenchman’s Plain Jane Project’ and ‘The Heart Surgeon’s Secret’.

So when I got the invitation to the launch of a Mills and Boon book club in central London, well, I hitched up the skirts of my metaphors, unclasped my adjectives and with the slow rend of a subjunctive decided to get in touch with my inner Mills and Boon. You can do this once a month with like-minded ladies at Yumchaa, which is a tea shop in Soho. Considering my last relationship was about as romantic as the Anschluss I felt I deserved it.

It was the end of one of those frightfully hot, sticky, London days as I traipsed downstairs into the cool white basement of the aforementioned teashop. A tall man with chintz blue eyes and sparkling silver sneakers looked up from a copy of ‘Public Affair, Secretly Expecting’. He was so ethereally good-looking he made the book’s front cover look like a snap from a longhorn insemination factory. ‘Darjeeling!’ he said and offered me a slurp. Yes, of course he was gay.

I wasn’t sure what to expect of the evening: something with the shifty-footed secrecy of Alcoholics Anonymous or the floral jollity of a WRI bake sale? Would we get a free bottle of lavender quink? Would the chairs come equipped with inflight sick bags?

I looked around. There was all manner of squidgy, sweet, sparkly, sequined things (that description includes the human dimension). There was a pony-tailed photographer floating around the Cadburys and marshmallows with the tense look of a Robert Capa.

I dislodged a bit of balsam from between my teeth and nervously clicked my complimentary ‘Romance is Everything’ pen. I heard whispers in the cool wind of the air con of a future event that would involve the Chippendales.

In the name of ‘romantic’ research I had spent a happy morning typing salacious words into the MB website search engine which allows you to browse novels without buying them. I started off with the obvious: ‘heaving bosom’ and returned no results. Even Regency lit amongst the acres of silken bodices there was not a bosom to be found. I delved further back in time to the Vikings and the Mesopotamians. (They have everything in the ‘historical line’.) Try as I might I couldn’t find anything. Bosoms it seems, had vanished from the horizons of Romance. They had, Dodo-like, fluttered their last.

I refined my search and it was then I made the discovery. You see, it’s all nipples in the 21st century. Stiff, hard, peaked, ridged, firm, taut, coppery, spongy, puckered, distended, tight, aching, wobbly, glow-in-the-dark, tune-in-for-the weather, hang-em-high nipples. In fact there were even ‘turgid’ nipples popping up. For those of you who, like me, use ‘turgid’ to mean ‘pompous’, ‘boring’ and ‘overcomplicated’ I refer you to the dictionary. (I fear my relationship with Cormac McCarthy will never recover this blow.)

Nipples are the MB equivalent of Chekhov’s gun. "If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don't put it there." (Gurlyand's Reminiscences of A. P. Chekhov, in Teatr i iskusstvo 1904) Think the same with nipples, ladies and you’re mounting a winner.

Anyway, thus was my brain occupied when faced with Heidi Rice, the writer in res. She was a very pretty woman with pale skin and china blue eyes and knock out knockers. I just couldn’t help staring at her breasts. I’m terribly sorry. I don't know if it was the inventorying of nipple adjectives or the new contact lenses I had adopted. That extra dioptre of vision suddenly made objects appear bigger and more bombastic. I will add though that they were just the kind of set you would expect to see on a MB auteur.

She was bombarded with questions: they discussed the deeper implications of the genre, debated the difference between chick lit and MB, the effect of Depression and recession, how the bonkbuster is making a busty comeback, the different lines. She’s written seven novels since 2007. I stare at her enviously. I’ve been writing on and off the same novel for nearly a decade. ‘If you want to write you’re best off trying the RNA’s new writers scheme. You've got more of a chance of avoiding The Slush Pile’ she said. We all shuddered: invocation of The Slush Pile has that effect on every wannabe writer and the room was full of us. I slurped some Darjeeling/Balsam/tea-flavoured event and considered my inner MB. Mine would be set in fin-de-siecle Vienna amidst the whirl of the ball season. Some scandalized Arch-duchess of Devonshire would remark ‘never trust a man who waltzes’ and we’d be off, three-four time all the way.

To be honest though, I think there’s an MB in every female journalist. Who doesn’t want a preposterous, plummy nom-de-plume? Who wouldn’t cast off the shackles of the every day and become a girlish green-eyed Heidi or effortlessly voluptuous Violetta or a boyish and banged (haircut!) Nora?

On my way home, I gingerly sneak a copy of ‘Ruthless Billionaire, Forbidden Baby’ and read it pressing it against my knees so no one can see what I’m reading. I’m on the Bakerloo line North so I’m practically finished the book by the time I arrive home. I think about my attempts at writing. Yes, sire, I have a novel in me that has all the electricity of stagnant porridge rubbing against wet concrete. It has the fattest, saggiest, most adipose middle section you’ve ever seen outside of sweat pants. I sigh as I put down the book. I do think that reading Mills and Boon's a bit like watching porn. It creates unreal expectations of both what the opposite sex want and what they're capable of. What can I say? There but for the skin of ‘an unfettered breast surging out of her tank top’ go I.

Details of next event at ..., admission free

view counter