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Media : New Owners Rescue Mills & Boon From Strong Heroes, Pliant Heroines : Venerable British publisher updates its romance novels with materialism, more sex and a bold seductress or two.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

While few Americans have heard of the publishing house, Mills & Boon is a household name in Britain--as familiar to women as brand names of lipsticks.

Indeed, Mills & Boon claims that eight out of 10 women have heard of the publishing house (but not necessarily any of its authors) because of the classically corny romantic fiction, rooted in traditional stereotypes: strong, masterful heroes; chaste, pliant heroines.

Mills & Boon now sells about 15 million copies annually, translated into 26 languages in more than 100 countries.

Since its founding in 1908, the publisher has been the leader in romantic fiction. The format never varied: Woman meets man, man mates woman--but only after marriage--and they live happily ever after.

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But this year the winds of change have rustled through the corridors of Mills & Boon. The publisher’s efforts to update the man-meets-woman story prompted the resignation of Managing Director Robert Williams and Editorial Director Frances Whitehead when, insiders say, it was “suggested” to them that their tastes were too old-fashioned.

Mills & Boon’s Canadian owner, Harlequin, is demanding a sexier image for the 1990s fiction--and getting it.

Back in 1923, for instance, a typical Mills & Boon romance called “A Perfect Little Fool” read: “One of his conquering hands took command of her burning face. Nothing could ever be the same again.”

As recently as 1986, “Passionate Choice” concluded: “His display of masterful jealousy excited and pleased her. He was the lover she needed, a man who could sweep her off her feet.”

Well, that was pretty mild stuff for the 1990s, concluded the new Mills & Boon editors.

So this spring’s leading offering features T.J. Harris, an Atlanta-based journalist who accepts a marriage proposal to live with her lover at his island resort--on condition that he has “satellite television hook-ups, a computer modem and a fax machine.”

The latest M & B heroine is Molly Hill, an important Hollywood agent, who seduces the naked hero in her office while she completes a business deal on the telephone.

In Britain, such fare has given Mills & Boon 4 million faithful readers in Britain and 54% of the $100-million paperback romantic fiction market--a category that constitutes the largest single sector of the adult paperback fiction market.

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About 500 Mills & Boon novels hit the shelves every year, selling at the rate of one book every two seconds in the United Kingdom alone.

The company draws on about 300 authors from a variety of backgrounds, mainly part-time writers. More than 5,000 unsolicited manuscripts are received each year. Most writers are unknowns--though once the publishing house boasted authors such as Jack London, Hugh Walpole, Georgette Heyer and P.G. Wodehouse.

The company was founded when Gerald Mills and Charles Boon joined forces with their first book, a romance, titled “Arrows From the Dark.” The romance novels were priced low, designed for a mass market.

With the rise of local lending libraries, and the readers’ appetites for escapist romances during the Depression, Mills & Boon came into its own--with the company concentrating on hardcover romances.

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But in the post-war period, the publishers moved quickly into paperback, pioneering sales through newsstands to increase volume. In 1964, John Boon, son of Charles Boon, became managing director, with his brother, Alan, as editorial director.

The standard tome ran 192 pages: Rich, handsome hero; beautiful young girl, and always a happy ending. Injured soldiers were popular during the war. Later a series about doctors and nurses was a phenomenal hit and sold well abroad.

In 1972, Mills & Boon merged with Harlequin and in 1981 came under the wing of the Canadian Torstar Group. By then Caribbean cruises and backgrounds often served as a romantic backdrop.

In the past, the classic theme was enunciated by outgoing director Whitehead, who said that marriage was the goal of the hero and heroine.

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“To have them decide they don’t want to spend their lives together would be comparable to James Bond admitting defeat or Hercule Poirot failing to solve a case.”

With the new sexier approach, Mills & Boon has souped up its covers, with less starry-eyed and more sensual heroines. Plenty of cleavage and thigh is now mandatory in the “Temptation” series.

Why change such a successful format? M & B Marketing Director Heather Walton replies: “It’s true that we are a household name, and that we have over 4 million regular readers, but there are still a lot of people who don’t read Mills & Boon--many because they mistakenly believe the books to be somewhat old-fashioned.

“Research proved that many of these people would be genuinely and pleasantly surprised at how different our books are from their current perceptions.”

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Walton maintains that the new Mills & Boon treatments “mirror the lives of contemporary women” and that readers enjoy sexual realism. Critic Alison Henegan, editor of a feminist book club, “Open Letters,” suggests that the Mills & Boon appeal may be “giving yourself permission not to be bright, to read something that technically someone like you shouldn’t want to read.”

Writer Jackie Wullschlager, in describing the appeal of romantic fiction even in the 1990s, says: “At its heart lies classic female fantasies which never change. In identifying with a beautiful, beloved, lucky Mills & Boon heroine, women readers fall in love with an idealized self-image. Both heroine and reader see life through sensual-tinted spectacles: themselves in that dusky, pink bikini, waiting for their lover on a beach, writhing with desire.”

Not everyone, including the ousted executives, agrees with Mills & Boon’s new direction.

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Dame Barbara Cartland, the queen of romantic fiction authors, says: “I think they are making a big mistake going down that road. I’ve read one or two of their (previous) books and they were very nice, very clean, very pleasant for young girls. Gradually people are realizing that sex, sex, sex is wrong.”

Dame Barbara is also adamantly opposed to including safe sex--or even unsafe sex--in romantic fiction.

“We know it happens,” she says, “but we don’t want to read about it. I never have anything to do with sex whatsoever--not in my books.”


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