The changing roles of the heroine in M&B by Senior Executive Editor, Joanne Grant

The changing roles of the heroine in M&B by Senior Executive Editor, Joanne Grant

We’re all excited for the launch of Scantilly Tales, our sexiest new book and the end result of a competition encouraging women to reveal their hidden writing talents and unleash their seductive side. Here’s our amazing Senior Executive Editor, Joanne Grant, who’s seen her fair share of powerful lead women since joining Mills & Boon. She’s also seen how heroines have changed…

“With over 100 years of history it is unsurprising that Mills & Boon romances have evolved with the times to stay relevant and appealing to our global readership. But just how have they changed, and in particular, how has the role of the Mills & Boon heroine adapted over time? I thought it would be a good exercise (and lots of fun!) for me and my editors to revisit some vintage Mills & Boon to see first-hand how this group of 21st century women would react to those heady days of ‘punishing kisses’, and to discuss how our romances have changed, and what has stayed the same.

The books we selected were from the 1940s-90s by authors such as Violet Winspear, Essie Summers, Betty Neels, Charlotte Lamb and Anne Mather. The discussion from the get-go was lively. The fashion! The smoking! The age gaps! The uber alpha heroes! There was so much to discuss, and strong reactions to the portrayal of the heroine, particular in reaction to that aforementioned alpha male. 

For example, the very young heroine and older hero caused a few raised eyebrows – it was just deemed a little, well, inappropriate – but back in the day this was such a popular theme. Perhaps it was in reaction to the post-war period where our readers and writers were looking for security and experience in a relationship.

It is clear that readers prefer less of an age gap today but there are some aspects of our novels that are still very much alive and kicking. Marriages of convenience littered our selected titles, pregnancy will – it seems – always bring a hero and heroine together, exotic locations were a must and it was abundantly clear that international heroes were all as popular as they are today. 

And speaking of heroes, judging by the reactions of some of the editors, the alpha hero of the bygone era was bordering on unforgiveable in his behaviour! (Although admittedly a few of us wouldn’t have much minded going head to head with these really quite spectacular individuals.) Yet the one thing we all agreed on was that he was still recognisable as a version of many of our heroes today. So what was the main difference?

There was no hero point of view! Back then, this allowed him to be utterly inscrutable, broodingly dark and incredibly mysterious. What is he thinking? Our heroines would ask. Why can’t he love me? They would wonder.  In our current books, we want to see our hero’s motivation, we want to understand why he won’t let himself love the heroine and why he is behaving in such a (seemingly) arrogant, unforgiveable way. This is so the reader can be completely assured that our heroine will spend the rest of her days with a hero who is worthy and deserving and loving of her. But we also want him to still be that gorgeous, powerful hero. It is safe to say, that our 21st century authors really don’t have it easy creating this all-important multifaceted hero!

We were in agreement however that one of the key reasons to Mills & Boon enduring success, is that our books have not only evolved with the changing tastes of our readers but more importantly, our books have reflected the changing roles of women in society. Nowhere is that clearer than in the depiction of our heroines. Trembling, virginal and at the mercy of the hero – from our perspective today, the heroine of the bygone age seemed to lack strength. She certainly didn’t have her independence!

Current readers will know that whilst our heroines can most certainly still be virgins – they are also women of their own means, confident, willing to stand up to the hero and wanting take her life’s path in her own hands. And a popular theme may be still marriages of convenience, or an unexpected pregnancy but it is quite possible that it is the heroine who has proposed the advantageous match, rather than the hero. Obviously our romances still come with a heavy dose of fantasy, as our readers want to be transported away from the very day into a world of pure passion and romance, but the change in the heroines is still very apparent.

The relationship between the inscrutable, untameable heroes and fragile innocent heroines of yesteryear made for uncomfortable reading for some of our editors, but in every book as the characters reached their guaranteed happily ever after, there was something as clear then, as it is now. It didn’t – and it still doesn’t – matter how imbalanced the power dynamic was between the hero and heroine at the beginning of the story – by the end it was the heroine who was in the position of power.

She was the only woman in the world to bring that alpha hero to his knees, the only one to tame him, and as he offered her unconditional love she was the only one who could accept it. So despite the societal roles reflected in the heroines over the years, maybe our Mills & Boon heroine had strength and the all-important power in the relationship all along…

The reaction was mixed as to whether these stories had survived the test of time – maybe it comes down to individual taste, or simply at what age you started your relationship with Mills & Boon books. But whether you look back at our romances through the ages as a litmus test of women’s attitudes or secret desires, or view them as the pure enjoyment of escapism and romance, one thing is for sure – we were and still are incredibly proud of the books that we produce. And we want to be publishing the best romances in fifty or even another hundred years… so what will those readers make of our books today? But that is a question for another generation.

In the meantime, maybe this has inspired you to take a trip into our archives – we have plenty of vintage books available for download – but here’s a warning about the fashion: you may need to use your imagination to look past the denim suits or a brown suede gilets…!”

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