You are jetting off to , leaving your stressful life behind you for two glorious weeks.

A beachy holiday calls for a beachy read: as you peruse the shelves of your local bookshop, you avoid anything by Hanya Yanagihara (too depressing), Umberto Eco (too highbrow), Jonathan Franzen (too confusing), Hilary Mantel (too historical) and any blurb containing the words ‘postwar’, ‘intergenerational’ or ‘dystopian’.

You want romance. You want passion. You want levity. You want Mills & Boon. 

Only you can’t be seen with Mills & Boon, because in the pantheon of trashy, undemanding holiday reads, this particular imprint is too trashy and undemanding even for your lowbrow literary tastes.People will snigger at you by the pool. Reading Mills & Boon is like dancing to ‘Agadoo’, wearing frosted pink lipstick or sipping a sex-on-the-beach cocktail. 

At least, it used to be. Thanks to a random confluence of circumstances as unlikely as the plot of one of its books, the 114-year-old imprint is enjoying a revival.

Partly, its resuscitated fortunes come courtesy of , or more specifically #BookTok, dubbed ‘the last wholesome place on the internet’ on account of its earnest recommendation of novels old and new, many of which have then gone on to sell tens of thousands of copies a month.

With more than 67.5 billion views and counting, the hashtag has hugely revived the fantasy and romance genres, flipping the idea of Mills & Boon as a guilty pleasure and rebranding it as a choice if not to be proud of, then at least unashamed. 

Mills & Boon books are considered to be trashy - you can't be seen reading them. Recently TikTok has revived the romance fiction UK-based publisher. Illustration: Matthew Laznicka

Mills & Boon books are considered to be trashy – you can’t be seen reading them.Recently TikTok has revived the romance fiction UK-based publisher. Illustration: Matthew Laznicka

That the romantic fiction imprint founded in 1908 by Gerald Rusgrove Mills and Charles Boon has captured Gen Z’s imagination isn’t so surprising, given its fascination with the recent past.

Much as Gen Z fetishises the style of Princess Diana and the music of Kate Bush, so too does it worship the retro graphics, outlandish plots and old-fashioned titles of historic Mills & Boon novels, with those hailing from the 80s finding particular favour. #Millsandboon currently has 564.2K views, with users proudly documenting their collections.

‘How’s this for vintage smut?’ asks one user, holding up a trio of books titled Arrogant Interloper, Tiger In His Lair and A Handful Of Stars. That the rainbow-coloured spines look good on Gen Z’s bookshelves only adds to their appeal. 

But it’s not just their aesthetic that is fanning the flames: the content is compelling, too. Nineteen-year-old Evie first encountered a Mills & Boon novel while visiting her grandmother in Knaresborough. ‘I only started reading it because I’d forgotten my phone charger, and had nothing else to do,’ she recalls.

‘But then I kind of got hooked. The plot was cheesy, but I liked that, and also that it was so vanilla. Boys my age have grown up on a diet of phone porn. Vanilla, they are not. Maybe I enjoy the Mills & Boon heroes because they’re old-fashioned and romantic, with all the stereotypical behaviour that brings.

I consider myself a feminist, but I’d still like to be swept off my feet, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I’d say it’s the same reason so many teenagers love Bridgerton.’ 

It’s ironic, perhaps, that while Gen Z is enjoying the original, unreconstructed Mills & Boon novels, its publisher, HarperCollins, is set on reinventing them.Recent offerings have seen the brand respond to cultural changes by incorporating queer storylines and becoming more racially inclusive, as well as revising its covers to embrace a more contemporary look. 

I consider myself a feminist but I’d still like to be swept off my feet 

Last month, it welcomed a new author to its stable in the form of 24-year-old Amber Rose Gill, the Newcastle beautician who won the 2019 series of Love Island alongside Irish rugby player Greg O’Shea.That their love story didn’t last was no impediment to Gill penning one of her own – in which she could create the heroes she wanted. 

Before you could say ‘throbbing with desire’, Gill (with the help of seasoned Mills & Boon co-writer, 52-year-old Nadine Gonzalez) had replaced prosaic Greg with dashing Roman, the handsome protagonist of Until I Met You.‘Fed up with his corporate job, after years in New York, Roman was starting again in Tobago,’ reads the blurb. ‘The last thing he needed was a distraction, especially a free-spirited travel blogger. But something about Samantha inspired a protective instinct in Roman…’ 

While the story sounds straight out of 1983, the book’s heroine, Samantha, is independent and strong-willed, according to Gill, and far feistier than M&B heroines of old, who tend to swoon at the merest hint of a marriage proposal.

Equally feminist and independent are the heroines in Made in Chelsea alumna Georgia Toffolo’s books, whose Meet Me… series touches upon subjects such as infertility and disability, with a multiracial cast of characters. So far, they’ve sold more than 100,000 copies.

And let’s not forget Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, whose debut historical thriller, Her Heart For a Compass, was a top-ten bestseller. Published last year and based on the duchess’s own ancestor, yale the 500-plus-page romance tells of the red-headed Lady Margaret Montagu Scott, who flees an arranged marriage to find true love.

Ferguson also hosts a successful Mills & Boon book club. 

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