A boon for Mills & Boon: The rebirth of the bodice ripper
Lots of rude stuff from past and present to occupy you
According to an old article in The Guardian, a Mills and Boon paperback is sold in a UK bookshop approximately every 6.6 seconds. Contemporary human societies have consigned sexuality to the realm of the secret; and, in a world culturally homogenised by colonialism, this Victorian hangover remains virtually ubiquitous. Women in particular have always been expected to conquer their libidinous impulses, which is no doubt why the bodice ripper – a harmless outlet for the raunchier facets of our feminine psyches – has enjoyed such considerable longevity. These five titles comprise some of the quintessential dime novels: the progenitors of literary porn as we know it today.The Flame and the Flower, by Kathleen Woodiwiss (1972)
The late Woodiwiss is the mother of the modern bodice ripper, and The Flame and the Flower was her first published novel. Although by contemporary standards the taken-against-her-will trope seems grossly problematic, Woodiwiss’s gussied-up rape/hostage fantasy paved the way for Mills & Boon-style, “escapist” romances. It is also notable for the fact that it was the first romance to be published as a paperback.
When virginal heroine Heather Simmons loses her way (literally and proverbially) along the docks, Captain Brandon Birmingham mistakes her for a lady of the night and conducts himself accordingly – that is, her bodice is rent asunder. When poor Heather discovers that she is pregnant, the antagonistic pair is forced to marry and, after fielding murder charges and defeating lascivious rakes, eventually fall in love.Lady Chatterley’s Lover by DH Lawrence (1928)
It’s almost criminal to characterise Lawrence’s romantic masterpiece as a bodice ripper, but, in spite of its comparatively sophisticated register, the incendiary novel did contribute to the emergence of a literary culture in which it is permissible to refer explicitly to sexual encounters, even those of an illicit or adulterous nature.
The young, beautiful and sexually dormant Constance Chatterley lives a dulled existence with her boringly amiable, wheelchair-bound husband Clifford, until a passionate liaison with their groundskeeper Oliver Mellors empowers her to reconcile body and mind.
Penguin was famously sued for publishing the “obscene” work in a groundbreaking 1959 trial, but escaped conviction by proving that the coarse language Lawrence employed is integral to the book’s merit. In a broad sense, the outcome of the proceedings made it possible for the rise of the bodice ripper genre, as erotic themes in subsequent 20th-century novels burgeoned on the back of Penguin’s victory.The Sheik by EM Hull (1919)
Hull’s dated, offensive Orientalist fantasy was the acme of destination-romances, and inspired a slew of copycat arid-erotica. Hoyden heroine Diana Mayo ignores social mores to set off on a desert excursion with a lone “Arab” guide, only to be kidnapped by a monomaniacal, violent sheikh, who detains and rapes her in a horrifying fashion. Eventually, of course, she succumbs to the (seemingly inevitable) Stockholm syndrome and falls in love with him. As it turns out, though, the sheikh is a cynic where romance is concerned, and only comes to terms with his affection when Diana is kidnapped by a rival emir and he has to get her back. Frankly, the book is more ZZZZ than XXXX read today – but it is possible to understand how women found it appealing in the 1920s, if one considers Diana’s initial autonomy, as well as her unconventional choice of lover.50 Shades of Grey by EL James (2011)
Love it or hate it, James’s dirty trilogy made the good ol’ bodice ripper available for mainstream consumption, and will likely be remembered as one of the 21st century’s canonical penny-dreadfuls (although James has profited from our guilty pleasures far more than the word “penny” might imply).
Like most conventional bodice rippers, James’s naughty BDSM reinterpretation of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight has elicited a good deal of censure from critics, who (quite accurately) portend that protagonist Christian Grey’s behaviour is more closely aligned to stalking and abuse than it is to the consent-centric subcultures of domination and control. But James did redefine the bodice ripper for a new generation of enraptured readers, even if her romantic ideals leave a lot to be desired.Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure by John Cleland (1749)
Miscreant author Cleland wrote Fanny Hill during his sojourn in debtors’ prison, presumably because he was bereft of alternative artistic (read: erotic) outlets. The novel is widely lauded as the first iteration of “prose pornography”, and converges around the fate of the eponymous Mrs Fanny Hill, a wealthy, middle-class Englishwoman with the sexual prowess of a courtesan. It’s bawdy, witty and whimsically creative in its resourceful use of figures of speech where anatomical honesty would not do.