All because the lady loves a foreign accent
By Samanthi Dissanayake
It is the stuff of escapist fantasy. A tall, dark and handsome type sweeps a cream-and-roses Home Counties heroine off her feet. In its 100 years of publishing, the exotic alpha male has been a staple of the Mills and Boon romance.
The tale of the passionate desert sheikh who sweeps secretary Janna Smith off her feet in Violet Winspear's 1970 romance Tawny Sands is perhaps the quintessential Mills and Boon story.
"His tone of voice was softly mocking, but she knew he didn't really jest. He was Raul Cesar Bey and the further they travelled into the desert the more aware she was of his affinity with the savage sun and tawny sands."
Shocking and suggestive, the tale of their love was wildly popular with a generation of readers.
It is also typical of a taste for foreign pleasures when it comes to romantic fiction.
It's 100 years since Mills and Boon published their first book. Sold in 109 countries and translated into 26 different languages, it is arguably Britain's best-known publishing house worldwide.
From early in the company's history, its winsome heroines have looked beyond Britain's shores to find love.
Nobody can quite identify the very first Mills and Boon romance to feature an exotic hero or location. But Dr Joseph McAleer, author of Passion's Fortune: The Story of Mills and Boon, says it was probably in the 1910s, following the lead of Hollywood cinema and its preoccupation with desert sheikhs and jungle escapades.
The fascination still exists today with the best-selling title of the June 2008 Modern Romance series being Desert King, Pregnant Mistress by Susan Stephens.
"Exotic locations gave great scope to authors to be a bit racier. It is usually an English person going into the tropics to experience this different culture," Dr McAleer says.
"But they never lose their moral foundation. The heroines normally wind up reforming the sheikh."
In 1915 Louise Gerard wrote The Virgin's Treasure, the story of Dr Keith Harding, who leaves England for Africa to treat tropical diseases.
"This was not England but the tropics where blood was hotter and where incredible things happen with amazing swiftness" Gerard writes, preparing the reader for the steamy scenes to come. It was only in the 1930s that Mills and Boon became a dedicated romantic fiction publishers. Since then, enigmatic sheikhs, brooding Spaniards and sardonic Greek tycoons have become a staple of their storylines.
These international tales have tended to mirror broader social trends. The experience of World War II enhanced the possibilities of love abroad. WAAF Into Wife, by Barbara Stanton, follows the fortunes of Mandy Lyle, who falls under the spell of Count Alexei Czishkiwhizski, leader of a Polish squadron.
"With horizons being broadened and more international travel, the romances set in rose-covered cottages did not have the same cachet as Greece, Ibiza, and South Africa," Dr McAleer says.
The exotic and the international became a key measure of the ultimate romantic lead.
"The alpha male has to be larger than life, an incredibly heroic figure. He was usually fabulously wealthy with a mystery about him," says Dr McAleer.
Find out how to write a Mills and Boon novel
Greek shipping magnates emerged in the 70s and 80s, and the Mediterranean hero rose in popularity as package holidays became the norm.
The growth in air travel also saw the rise of the air hostess/pilot romance, with many tender words lavished on the captains holding passengers' lives in their manly hands.
Nowadays, Italians and Spaniards remain popular heroes and at least one sheikh romance a month is published. Even Russian oligarchs have made an appearance.
"As the world has become more globalised our settings have had to become more exotic, more luxurious and exciting. Where our heroes were once millionaires, now they have to be billionaires," says Clare Somerville, marketing director for Mills and Boon.
Middle Eastern tycoons feature frequently but hail fictional countries and kingdoms - there is little room for the realities of the region's geopolitics in escapist fiction.
The company's largest markets have been the UK, United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Demographically, North America is the biggest market but with the launch of English-language editions in India earlier this year, Mills and Boon acknowledges this could change.
As India's middle classes exercise their consumer muscle, so the company wants to expand its roster of romantic heroes.
"We are also looking at the Indian prince idea. He is a clear extension of the alpha male and we are looking at launching this next year," says Ms Somerville.
It is also running a competition to find new local authors in India. Mills and Boon novels are translated in China, and for some years now its romances have graced Japanese bookshelves in the form of manga comics.
Mills and Boon claim its readership all over the world look for the same thing: identification with the heroine and intense romantic relationships.
Violet Winspear, one of Mills and Boon's best-selling authors in the 1960s and the author of Tawny Sands, set many of her books in Greece, Spain and North Africa.
But she was a spinster who reputedly never left south-east England - instead she meticulously researched her far-flung settings at the local library.
Miss Winspear caused considerable controversy when explaining her archetypal hero - the sort of men "who frighten and fascinate" and "the sort of men who are capable of rape: men it's dangerous to be left alone in the room with".
Although this comment would haunt her, Dr McAleer says she thought hard about what exotic themes brought to her readers. In a letter to her publisher, Miss Winspear wrote: "Who on earth can truly identify with a sardonic Spanish Don, a handsome surgeon, a dashing Italian or a bittersweet Greek? The real aim of romance is to provide escape and entertainment, not to dish up 'real life' and 'real life people on a plate with egg on it'!"
Shirley Valentine would surely agree.