For better or worse, I grew up reading Mills and Boon books I’d nicked from my mum’s bedroom.
Those romance novels were iconic back in the day, with their cover illustrations featuring muscular Fabio type fellas, posing before a permanent wind-machine, long hair in the artificial breeze. Ripped muscles peeking from even more ripped shirts. Buxom women cowering at their feet.
And the stories were hokey, let’s face it. Soap opera-quality scripts about pushy gents and reluctant ladies, that we all skimmed through to get to the sex scenes. Which consisted of very flowery language like “her pulsing lady garden opened like a flower in bloom” and a fade to black before the good stuff.
And the dialogue! Lines like: “‘My dear woman, I haven’t been so long without a woman that I shall go beserk and ravish you the instant I get my hands on your body. I merely wished to braille you – I thought we had got to know one another well enough for that.” (This is in fact, a real line from The Passionate Sinner by Violet Winspear. Probably not her real name).
But now the romance monolith is back, with what's very much being packaged as a Fifty Shades Of Grey inspired series called Mills and Boon: DARE. In capitals.
The steamy, fleshy, black and white covers definitely imply there's going to be saucier, potentially BDSM, action. There's mostly not, but it's implied.
The DARE book I devoured in one short sitting was Legal Seduction by Lisa Childs. The plot presents the very Christian Grey-ish "powerhouse lawyer" Simon Kramer, making late-night office moves on his executive assistant Bette Monroe. He has just two weeks to seduce her, because she's quit and given her notice. That's also the plot to Sexual Harassment: The Novel. But I digress.
Bette is of course a repressed preacher's daughter. We know this because it's repeated about 15 times. She's trying to con Simon, and he's trying to con her, and they are both doing that by having lots and lots of sex. Naturally in the middle of all that atop-desk and wheely-chair shagging, they fall madly in love and have to deny they have fallen in love, until they don't. Standard stuff really.
So, a few things have changed from the days of Mills and Boon old. One, there's no more descriptions of 'turgid manhood' and 'pulsing lady gardens'. They just use the word 'c**k'. And 'ass'. And 'p***y'. And say,"went down on."
(I'm reliably told that the term "swollen folds" is however used in another of the DARE tiles, Ruled).
There's sex, like, loads more sex. It's brief, but there's no flickering candlelight and suddenly it's the next morning. The sex is still impossibly mind-blowing and everyone has ten orgasms at the slightest touch, but it does feel slightly more real.
The story was fairly well-written all things considered. No ludicrous dialogue, and while everyone, as always, has the emotional depth of rom-com characters, at least their behaviour made sense and they didn't speak like time travellers.
Now, a few things haven't changed. The characters really don't get any more fleshed out than they've ever been, and the same old 'powerful bad boy transformed by love/reluctant lady with buried desires' dynamic is more or less still in play.
Simon is an aloof, commitment-phobic, womanizer. Bette is a wilting wallflower who finds out she really, really likes sex. They reluctantly fall in love, he changes his ways. Nothing new to see here.
In terms of erotica, I'd like to say that the novels have reached tantalising new heights. But honestly it's still a fairly retro universe, and all the dirty words feel a tad out of place. I both read and write fanfiction, so I'm certainly not scared of the word 'c**k'. But it does feel a touch odd, rather than refreshing, reading it in a Mills and Boon novel.
Was it a fantastically tawdry way to spend a few hours? Yep, as it always has been. Does the new series truly update the franchise? Yes and no.
But if you want tune out the world and indulge in some guilty pleasure, these books give you that in droves.
Listen: How long should you wait until you sleep with someone?