Myth in Mills and Boon
While growing up in India in the eighties and nineties, I read hundreds of romance novels published by the British firm of Mills and Boon, many featuring “sardonic” heroes and young British heroines. It was not until graduate school that I realized that these novels, with titles like Lucifer’s Brand and Falcon’s Prey, resembled the myth of Hades and Persephone. Mills and Boon appears to have adopted the idea after World War II and Harlequin continues to publish variations of the myth. Lest this be taken as proof of “formula fiction,” however, I want to highlight some category romances—short, numbered novels marketed under an imprint like Harlequin—that adapt the myth elegantly. Such novels demonstrate the time-honored tradition of refining older tales—a tradition that fell out of critical favor following the rise of Romanticism.
In Susan Napier’s Love in the Valley (1985), cheerful chef Julia Fry is hired to cook for the annual gathering of a family of eccentric artists at their rambling home in the New Zealand countryside. The least (or most) eccentric of the lot is the oldest son, corporate lawyer G.B.H. Walton. Though a beloved adopted child, he holds himself apart from the world and is the polar—pun intended—opposite of happy-go-lucky Julia.
What follows is a mash-up of the gothic and the screwball comedy, with the brooding hero and his secret past colliding with the perky young heroine, who is frequently engaged in comic hijinks. At the heart of the tale, however, is the myth of Hades, cut off from warmth and sunlight, and Persephone, the emblem of spring.
Hugh is unwillingly fascinated by Julia’s playfulness but plans to spend his time in a self-contained attic suite, eschewing the company of his boisterous housemates to complete a book manuscript. After Julia injures his hand by accidentally slamming a car door on it, however, he reluctantly lets her make amends by typing his book, thus allowing her warmth—a “dancing flame” he calls her at one point—to enter into his realm. From this odd-couple story, a staple across many genres, Napier develops a charming category romance with a distinctive plot of its own.
Napier also pushes the novel toward stylistic complexity by sprinkling in quotations from 17th-century poems. The allusions are first introduced in the comic declamations of Hugh’s sibling Richard, a method actor who is performing them for a production, but they add an unexpected poignancy to the romance after Hugh begins to participate in the verbal jousting. While the actor’s hamming (“The Night Piece, to Julia”) exasperates Julia, and Hugh’s solemn recitations (“Upon Julia’s Clothes”) leave her yearning, both serve as a reminder that romance novels are part of an ancient tradition of courtship narrative. The poetry from Robert Herrick, as well as Shakespeare and Byron, adds a nuance to the relationship and the characters that few associate with romance fiction, let alone with the “formulaic” Harlequin Mills and Boon.
Even the novel’s title is an allusion to a line from Tennyson’s poem “Come Down, O Maid” (“For Love is of the valley, come thou down/And find him”). The depth created by this stylistic strategy adds credibility to the eventual climax and resolution. In case you hope to read the novel yourself, I won’t reveal much about the denouement other than that it is one of the most remarkable attempts in category romance to address fears of relationship violence.
Love in the Valley re-works a myth beautifully and exemplifies what makes an excellent romance novel—a story that develops the genre beyond its simple endoskeleton. I hope to bring you a few other examples of such myth-making in future blog posts.
Jayashree Kamble is the recipient of the first Romance Writers of America academic research grant and author of "Patriotism, Passion, and PTSD: The Critique of War in Popular Romance Novels" in New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction.