Mills & Boon and the Sheikh Subgenre


Mills & Boon was founded in 1908 by Gerald Mills and Charles Boon. Although they initially did not focus on romance novels, over the years the Mills & Boon imprint has become synonymous with romantic fiction: the Oxford English Dictionary defines Mills & Boon as a ‘trademark used to denote an idealized romantic situation of the kind associated with the fiction published by Mills & Boon Limited: the Mills and Boon tall, dark stranger’. After a merger with Harlequin in 1971, the company has enjoyed unbounded success: according to the company, a Mills and Boon book is sold in the UK every 3 seconds and it is estimated that romantic fiction accounts for 20 per cent of the fiction books retailed in the UK – that is one in every 5 fiction books sold. The company claims a huge global readership, selling 200 million books worldwide each year, distributing in 109 different countries. To put this in context, all seven of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter titles, including three companion books are estimated to have sold 450 million copies. If Mills & Boon continue to publish at the same rate (and evidence suggests that their sales remain buoyant even in a global recession) Mills & Boon could sell this many novels in just over two years.

Although not published by Mills & Boon, E. M. Hull’s The Sheik (1919) has been widely accepted as the first formula ‘sheikh’ romance. I define sheikh romance as a love story set in the deserts of the Middle East or North Africa, with a sheikh or sultan hero and almost always a western (which is usually British, North American or Australian) heroine. A typical sheikh romance might begin with the forced marriage of hero and heroine following her abduction to his desert kingdom: an experience interspersed with midnight horse-riding in the desert, camping in a Bedouin tent, getting rescued from a sandstorm, bathing and being luxuriantly massaged in the sheikh’s jewelled palace, and enjoying a host of other Orientalised luxuries. The success of Hull’s The Sheik spawned many more sheikh novels, including the first Mills & Boon sheikh romance, Louise Gerard’s A Sultan’s Slave (1921). Mills & Boon followed this up with Desert Quest by Elizabeth Milton in 1930, Maureen Heeley’s The Desert of Lies and Flame of the Desert in 1932 and 1934 respectively and Circles in the Sand (1935) by Majorie Moore. Sheikh romances seem to decline in popularity during the 1940s, at least in terms of Mills & Boon publication, but return in the 1950s and 1960s. At least three original sheikh titles were published by Mills & Boon in the fifties, six in the sixties, growing to 12 in the seventies, 17 in the eighties and 24 in the nineties. However in the 2000s the growth in popularity was exponential, with over 100 original titles published by Mills & Boon from 2000-2009. Even taking into account the increase in the number of novels published, this is a substantial increase, suggesting a significant contemporary market for these sheikh romances. Although sheikh titles appear in many different series, the majority of recently published sheikh titles in the UK have been part of Mills & Boon’s flagship ‘Modern Romance’ series which began in July 2000. From the beginning of the ‘Modern Romance’ series until December 2009, Mills & Boon published 57 original sheikh titles in the ‘Modern Romance’ series [1] and these are the texts I focus on in this paper.

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