From radical research to Mills and Boon; an eclectic life

Return of the Stranger by Kate Walker

Mills and Boon landscapes are places where alpha males strut and lesser females submit. M&B were about submission long before 50 Shades of Grey turned domination into a supermarket sex word. In the literature world they might not always be taken seriously but there’s gold in them there pages.

I was given a M&B for homework. The genre being romance, I expected Bridget Jones meets Catherine Cookson. ‘The Return of the Stranger’ by Kate Walker was more the visceral stuff of archetypes. All the classic M&B ‘ingredients are there. Lust. Revenge. Money. Power. Men portrayed as testosterone driven heroes. Women submissive. ‘The words shrivelled on her tongue as she saw the dark frown that snapped his black brows together over his blazing eyes, the sudden ferocity of his anger shaking her.’

M&B men have control over women who appear to want to be controlled. ‘He could have her now. Kiss her into submission….one day she would leave all her pride in the dust and she would beg for his touch’. Scary stuff. Women in M&B might have careers and social status but underneath they’re quivering psychological jelly.

I’m reminded of the heroes of ancient Greece who cared only about themselves. Theseus – who promised to marry Ariadne in return for a ball of thread to guide him out of the labyrinth – then snuck off in the night abandoning her. Odysseus – who took ten years to return from Troy, having affairs with Circe and Calypso on the way while Penelope kept house, weaving tapestry through the night to deter her suitors. When Odysseus came home he had all her maidens hung in the yard for the crime of sleeping with the suitors’ servants. Arrogance on legs. Plato’s utopian idea of a Republic contained three categories of people – the philosopher, soldier and artisan. All male of course. Women didn’t get a mention. It looks like patriarchy continues to thrive on a 21st century M&B booklist.

I turned to the M&B company for the advice they give to authors. There is acknowledgement the alpha hero has become somewhat politically incorrect yet the message given to M&B aspirants is ‘the success of Modern Romance proves that many women still fantasize about strong men’ The woman is the heroine but only as primary she-character rather than another Lara Croft or Grace Darling. An M&B heroine only finds her destiny or what M&B call her  ‘journey of fulfilment’ via the hero. More scary stuff.  ‘He takes control and drives the story; he has the power to make things happen! He is the key driver of the romance – he is the aspiration of the story’s heroine (and the reader) The Alpha Male is a celebration of strength!’  [their italics]

Glossing over the stereotypical images and clichés (I hate clichés) it’s my M&B had a story (albeit a reworking of Wuthering Heights). The author was skilled with the formula. For me there was too much description of what the characters were thinking in between their sentences. Many pages were all thought and not enough action. Descriptions of eyes like ‘shards of black coffee ice’ were original (at least to me – I may need to read more M&B to make an accurate judgement).

The best stories are those with space for the reader’s imagination. Writers need to show not tell and there isn’t much showing in a M&B. You’re given all the detail rather than the space for producing it yourself and in most places the detail is too much. M&B is primal stuff – driven by power and desire. M&B call this genre Modern Romance but it could equally well be Fantasy.