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A review of a 1930s Mills and Boon novel (it’s all too divine, darlings!)

romance, romance novels, 1930s, Mills and Boon
A example of a Mills and Boon 1930s dust-cover

“Happy, happy Christmas, Arthur dear.  I hope you like sausages for breakfast?”

“I do – better than anything,” he assured her, and wanted to add: “I love you, I love you.”

I spent all last night simply riveted to this page-turning 1930s Mills and Boon novel.  In the Name of Love, by Guy Trent – and with dialogue like the sample above, I’m sure you understand why!  When my sister gave me the collection of 1930s Mills and Boons which she’d found in her attic, I was so thrilled I had to begin reading at once – and now I find I simply can’t stop conversing like the heroines!  It really is too, too queer, darling!

In all seriousness, though, reading through this eighty year old romance novel was so fascinating it’s hard to know where to begin.

I suppose it’s no surprise that British dialogue has changed since the 1930s.  We laugh nowadays at the ‘charming fellows!’ and the ‘splendid, darlings!’ of olden days, and in the same way I’m sure in eighty years’ time our grandchildren will be sniggering at our ‘lolz‘, ‘chill’, and ‘cool‘.   So it wasn’t so much the inevitable change in vocab that struck me whilst reading this book, it was, well…everything else!

Here’s the insane plot: the heroine, Penny, has a mother who was once a dancer.  Her mother was dropped on stage by a “nervous” partner, and broke her back.  Since then, Penny has been her carer.  (So far, so believable.  Even in modern times there are children who give up their lives to care for a sick parent, so I was hoping the author would develop this plot strand in a sensitive and interesting way.)

Anyway, Penny meets Mark and they fall in love.  Mark has just bought a farm in Kenya and wants Penny to emigrate with him.  Kenya was a British colony up until the 60s, and Mark is referred to as a ‘colonist’.  This terminology would be totally unacceptable to 21st century readers.  It was interesting to read, from a social point of view, as Mark is presented as pioneering, enterprising and adventurous, and of course that’s how British colonials saw themselves in those days.

Of course noble Penny can’t leave her invalid mother, even though her mother is totally selfish and treats her daughter like the house drudge.  So an angry, rejected Mark sails off on a boat for Africa (no cheap passenger flights in those days), leaving a heartbroken Penny behind.  I thought this was actually quite a good source of conflict and was interested to see how the author would develop it.

mills and boon, 1930s, romance, romantic novels
1930s Mills and Boon cover

I needn’t have held my breath.  A couple of years later – and Mark’s back!  Only this time – oh no! – he’s engaged to Penny’s sister Janice, who is also a dancer and as selfish as their mother.  How can this be?, the reader asks herself.  But no time to ponder the perplexities of an M&B plot.  In no time at all, Selfish Janice is begging Penny to persuade Insufferable Mark not to go back to Kenya after their marriage, because Janice wants to stay in the UK and be a dancer.  How ironic for Penny!  Janice’s desire to continue her career and Mark’s ambition for his farm could have provided an interesting source of conflict between two main characters…but now it’s all got out of hand.  There’s much to-ing and fro-ing between Selfish Janice, Insufferable Mark and the now Unbelievably Selfless Martyr Penny, who of course still secretly loves Insufferable Mark.  The whole situation reaches an incredible turning-point when Selfish Janice reveals she’s not going to get married to Mark after all!  Very sensible – only turns out it’s not for the usual 21st century reasons a woman might give for not marrying a man – ie the bloke’s insufferable and she doesn’t actually need the hassle of marrying him, especially if it means going to Kenya and not being a dancer any more.  No!  In the 1930s it appears the only sane reason for Janice not to marry a particular man is because…she’s met a different man!  Spanish Ivor!  (Where did he come from?  Who cares, by now?)

So of course Unbelievably Selfless Martyr Penny is voted the mug who has to break the news to Insufferable Mark.  Off she trots to his hotel, where since this is the 1930s he is obviously “dreadfully embarrassed about receiving her in his bedroom.”  (Of course everyone knows that sex didn’t start until the 1960s, so there’s no need to explain.)  There follows what I actually found quite a disturbing scene, where Mark grabs hold of Penny and kisses her violently.  The description is not remotely romantic – there’s no ‘clutching her to his manly breast’ – instead, Penny is severely upset by “the horror of the embrace”.  She rushes out.  By this point, we are still only half-way through the book and have discovered the hero is definitely an arse.  I have no idea where we are going with this.  I am intrigued. I carry on.

Mark starts sending Penny flowers like some creepy stalker type guy and – no-o-o! – to my absolute disgust she decides she really does love the newly revealed Despicably Contemptuous Mark after all.  I am disgusted.  I’ll rush through this part, as at this point I’d lost all patience.  Penny’s so lovelorn she steps in front of a car and ends up in hospital.  Mark rushes over and pays for a private room for her (the fact that he’s rich has to be thrown in – still typical of M&B), but she’s delirious and tells him she doesn’t love him.  He buggers off back to Africa, and good riddance, as far as I’m concerned.

So, we’re halfway through the book and unbelievably its only now – now! – that the REAL hero appears!  Incredible!  Penny decides no-one wants her (true, true), so she gets a job as a Nanny in Suffolk, or somewhere.  Then her employer’s brother Arthur appears and hurray!  He totally redeems the book for me!  For a start, he has bright red hair (how many ginger romantic heroes do you ever see?  Coming from a family of Irish redheads, I was ecstatic about this!)  Next, who could resist this scene: Penny’s alone in her little nanny’s bedroom late at night when she hears a tapping on the window.  Even though it’s way past Penny’s bedtime, she opens it to see Arthur’s “wild, unhappy eyes” and he tells her he’s “motored over from London” especially to take her dancing, and he thought they might “run over” to Brighton.  Motoring to Brighton!  How exciting!  Penny says she has no frock, but the resourceful Arthur tells her he has a friend in Chelsea who can sort her out.  Who could resist?  Arthur is WAY better than Insufferable Mark.  Of course Martyr Penny resists having fun for quite some time, but in the end even she succumbs to it, and all ends happily.  Phew!

mrs beeton

What a strange and fascinating read! I really enjoyed this step back in time, and one of the things I most enjoyed was the simple domestic descriptions of trips to the butcher’s and greengrocer’s, the talk of the price of Brussels sprouts and the meals Penny prepared.  Nowadays in Mills and Boon novels it’s all prosciutto and salade d’epinards, so it was great to see Penny cooking “a golden-crusted steak and kidney pudding”, “apple tart” and sieving gooseberries for “gooseberry fool”.  My husband bought me The Best of Mrs Beeton’s British Cooking for Christmas, and this has inspired me to get down to my local butcher’s and get some lamb chops for a Lancashire Hot Pot.

And I still have some more 1930s Mills and Boons to read!  I might start the next after I’ve rustled up some “beef and dumplings”!

Hope you’ve enjoyed this trip back in time.  If you’ve ever come across any old romance novels you’ve enjoyed, let me know!  It would be fascinating to hear!

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27 thoughts on “A review of a 1930s Mills and Boon novel (it’s all too divine, darlings!)

  1. Hi Roseanne, so glad you enjoyed it! Whilst Penny was in hospital after being knocked down by a car, they had to ask the selfish mother’s cousin to come from the country to look after her. The cousin loved it so much she decided to stay, so Penny wasn’t wanted any more when she got out of hospital and went to be a nanny instead. I must say, if they’d thought of the cousin on page one, Penny could have married Mark and gone to Kenya after all! But then she’d never have met Arthur, so maybe it was all for the best :)

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    1. And there wouldn’t have been a book if they would have thought of the cousin. I just wondered if suddenly the mother could walk because she was faking all that time and got found out. I will say, those old books are fun to read.

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      1. Thanks, Helena, but i can’t take credit for the twisted mind. It was a TV program I saw sometime ago (can’t even remember which one now) and it was the wife who pretended she couldn’t walk.

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  2. Hi Helena, this was so interesting. I once read a book about women in early detective fiction. Sourced all/most of the stories quoted and found them both fascinating and repellant. Our social attitudes have changed so much over less than a century the blanket dismissal of whole classes, ethnic groups, social groups etc was difficult to deal with.

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    1. Hi Anne, thanks for your great comment. I too found it fascinating to see how attitudes have changed since the 1930s. I think the great thing about romantic fiction in general is no matter what the era, the women are almost always portrayed as strong, at least within the constraints of their time. But apart from that you’re right – a lot of literature from that period can appear snobbish and racist to us now. I often wonder how our present day novels and attitudes will be judged in the future.

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  3. What an exciting find! M&Bs from the 1930s don’t come up on eBay nearly as often as ones from the 1950s, so I haven’t read as many of them. My favourite authors from the period are Mary Burchell and Sophie Cole.

    I have the impression that it was Alan Boon who solidified M&B fiction into “romance” (i.e. a central relationship and happy ending) and he took charge after the Second World War. Which is not to say that M&B didn’t publish “romances” before, but I think Alan Boon tightened up the “formula” (referring back to Janet’s post). He was certainly keen on the “alpha male.”

    Is one of the M&Bs from the attic that one with the heroine looking like she’s metamorphosing into Rosie the Riveter? Looks very interesting.

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    1. Thanks for your comment and the interesting info, Laura! The other four 30s authors I have, if you’re interested, are Helena Grose, Susan Inglis, Deirdre O’Brien and Anne Maybury. Not the two you mention, sadly, but I’ll look out for them as I’d love to read them. And no Rosie Riveter heroines either – haha! I think that cover was from a museum in Australia. They certainly make interesting reading. I’m going to save my present-day collection of M&B’s for my grandchildren – romance novels provide a great social history!

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      1. The name “Helena Grose” rings a very, very faint bell but I don’t recall reading any of the others, or even reading about them in jay Dixon or Joseph McAleer’s books about Mills & Boon.

        Mary Burchell carried on writing for M&B into the 1980s, so there’s maybe more chance of coming across one of hers. Jayne, at Dear Author, reviewed some of them.

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      2. Oh, well they’re obviously not some of the most well-known authors, then. Guy Trent wasn’t so hot, as you probably guessed! I’m working my way through the others at the moment. If I like any of them or think they’re good, I’ll let you know, in case they’re of interest. And I thought I’d heard the name Mary Burchell! I’ll have a look at Jayne’s reviews. Maybe my sister still has some of these, as well – she has a large collection of M&Bs. Thanks again for all the info – it’s been really interesting!

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  4. Love this post! Did you catch the program where author Stella Duffy, who typically writes crime novels, was tasked to write a M&B? It was concluded that drinking was the only way for her to get through writing the… intimate scenes.

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    1. Haha! Yes, I saw that! I thought Stella Duffy was great. She was really getting into it! It would have been brilliant if they’d actually published the book. I always wonder what happened to it.

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  5. Wonder what poor Penny will do if she meets Mark again ? I’m Indian and my late grand mother had about 200 copies of the old Mills and Boons (dated 1950’s and earlier). The heros bothered me & I wondered why any woman would want such a man ?Grandma lent me her particular favourites all featuring irritating, self sacrificing,home maker heroines.Perhaps it’s a generation thing! About the race thing, I suppose what was considered ‘manly’ in those days seem terribly superior and patronising by modern standards.Neither G’ma nor I (then) thought it wrong, we just accepted it as a fact of life. Really loved the review , it made me nostalgic about the days gone by! I’m sure your review must be a million times better than the book!

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    1. Hi Nitasha, thanks for your comment. Lovely to meet you!
      It’s really interesting to see how Mills & Boon novels have changed over the 100 years they’ve been going. Even if we think the stories are often silly, they are a great reflection of social history. I would love to have read some of your grandma’s M&Bs. What a fabulous collection!
      Some people believe the British “colonialists” in Kenya were racist and patronising; others think they were genuinely trying to achieve some good. I suspect then, as now, there were good people and bad people. Mark doesn’t seem to be a particularly good guy, though! Penny was well rid of him :)
      I’m glad you liked the review. The novel wasn’t a classic, but it was definitely a fascinating read.
      Thanks again for coming – it’s been great to hear from you!

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      1. Your’e Welcome!
        Helena I loved reading about your 1930s romance novel.My oldest ones are from the sixties-mostly my mom’s stuff.
        Now I’m determined to hunt up an older one merely for the novelty value.I didn’t realize such old ones were still around.
        You’re right in how the dynamic between the main characteristics has changed a great deal.I too find many older hero unspeakably rude.
        Also the ultra passive heroines of bygone times are so irritating.
        But I love many of the older historicals and stories of colonials.The former were often so much better researched and the latter allows us to enter the colonial mindspace.I am from India,one of these former colonies and I feel this helps us come to terms with things and make peace with the past.Colonialism involved exploitation and injustices,which were acceptable given the value standards of the past.However many colonials were OK types,just a product of their times and with their own personal compulsions.

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  6. Hi Keerthika, thanks for your interesting comment. It’s fascinating to read these older romances. They provide an insight into women’s lives and experiences in a way few other novels do. Colonialism has a complicated history which these old romances help shed a light on in their own way, as they help us see right into the mindset of the people of the time.
    I have half a dozen of these 1930s Mills and Boons. I intend to finish reading through them all and review some more in the New Year. If you do come across any from your side, please do let me know. It would be great to hear about them.

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    1. Hybiscus Bloom – what a delicious name! Thanks so much for taking the time to comment, Hybiscus. You’ve reminded me I have some more of these 1930s M&Bs that I haven’t read yet. I’m going to start today!

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  7. I loved your review, Helena. It sounded more fun than the book! I wrote six novels for M and B (the last one in 2013) and the heroines, even Regency ones, have certainly changed. What was most fascinating, though, was the social attitudes you uncovered. The book group I belong to has been reading crime fiction from different periods, starting with the 1930s and some of the group have found the blatant sexism and racism difficult to take, when it was simply accepted as ‘normal’ at the time.

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    1. Hi Merryn, what a great idea to start reading crime fiction through the decades. I’ve read authors such as Dorothy L. Sayers, and her books are really gripping, but the fact that the hero makes some anti-Semitic remarks and is fairly patronising towards women does stick in the craw. It’s such a shame, as I find it hard to see past this, evn though, like you say, it was ‘normal’ for the time. I also find Agatha Christie a tremendous snob, but to be fair to her it was great that she had a woman – and an older woman, too – as an intelligent detective.
      It sounds like you’re having a really interesting time in your book club. What a great idea! Thanks so much for dropping in!

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    1. Thanks, Suraiya! This book was a really interesting read – and the story had me enthralled. Funny how our language has changed over the years. I wonder if a hundred years from now people will smile at the way we talk today? :)
      Thanks so much for dropping in!

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