Author: Kay Thorpe (she doesn’t have a twitter or website, she does have a wikipedia page!)
UK Publisher: Mills & Boon
Quiet peaceful home or fool’s paradise?
Which was Sculla? Thea’s life on the tiny island off Cornwall had always been happy, if not exactly exciting. Staying on after she and Gavin were married had always been her aim – until David Barrington arrived.
The new trustee of the island brought in sweeping changes, not the least of which was in Thea!
Engaged to Gavin, she had fallen more desperately in love than she’d ever imagined possible – with David, who wanted her physically but who would never love her…
It’s hard to identify when exactly in my life I became aware of Mills & Boon, it feels like I always had some idea of them, but perhaps the initial fixing of them in my consciousness can be dated to my year 10 work experience. I spent a week in my local library, which had a large spinning shelf dedicated to Mills & Boon by the counter. Several times a day, various little old ladies would come in, return a large pile of their books on one side of the desk, circuit round to the shelf to load up with more, and then complete the lap around to the other side of the desk to check out their new prizes. It was fascinating and utterly delightful to see these women reading so voraciously and with such evident joy. When I went to University, I used to see their books on display in Asda and marvelled at the different series designations – Medical Romances, Historical Romances, Friends-to-Lovers, Marriage for the sake of the Children – there were so many niches and so expertly segregated. It was like looking at fanfic tags, except in books and colour coded. I read my first Mills & Boon book when I was gifted a free ebook by Amazon for Christmas about four years ago, and it was lightweight, predictable good fun, even if the heroine did have a tendency to repeat herself a lot for such a short book. I read my second last week.
In February 2018, my husband’s grandmother sadly passed away. With his grandfather moving into care, the unenviable task of having to clear out their home was faced. We went up to assist over a weekend, and I found out that Grandma P had amassed a collection of Mills & Boon novels! Grandma P, who was always so sensible and matter-of-fact, and more than a little religiously conservative! Unfortunately by the time we arrived I only managed to rescue one of them from the bin – although I did subject everyone who questioned why I was so excited by the prospect of these books to my lecture on Why Mills & Boon Are Fascinating (post forthcoming).
There was something more than a little Jilly Cooper about the cover and the title, which… Well, shortly after I first started dating my husband at 19 years old, Grandma P gifted me a Christian romance book about a woman who discovers a passion for BDSM sex after being raped, and I spent a while wondering what I could have said to make her think I’d be interested in that. I ‘lost’ the book before heading back home. But based on that, The New Owner could have been literally anything.
When I started reading, I got to the point where the salty sea captain tells Thea she needs a “real man” who will “wear the trousers in the relationship” rather than letting her take charge, and I thought “I will make some allowances, it was probably written in the 60s”. Then I checked the imprint page and it was actually written in the 80s. Was it set in the 60s? It later talks about the prevalence of television on the mainland, making their island unusual, so I suspect it’s set in the 80s too, except that Sculla, the island in question, is trapped in some kind of Brigadoon-esque time-freeze. It’s always the 60s there. It could be 2036 and it would still be the 60s on Sculla.
No, Captain George. No.
There is a lot of examination in this book about masculinity and the role of the woman in a relationship, which I wasn’t entirely comfortable with. Gavin is described as slighter than Dave, blonde where Dave is dark, and – oddly – less hairy than Dave. All these clearly read as making Gavin seem effeminate, less masculine and – by extension – less desirable. This is made fairly explicit in an early scene where Thea muses on how she doesn’t feel desire for Gavin, and how he has never tried to push their physical relationship too far before their marriage. Dave critiques this, even saying that a real man who wanted a woman would have definitely tried to have sex with her sooner. It’s a problematic mentality, to be sure. It goes the same for women as well – as much as Captain George insists that Thea doesn’t know her place in a relationship, Gavin also believes in “wifely duties” such as… doing whatever your husband wants because he’s the breadwinner.
Aside from the social aspects – which, I suppose, I must make allowances for on the basis that the 80s wasn’t exactly progressive, and Mills & Boon wasn’t a space for huge social commentary (I won’t get into the couple of brief asides about abortions if Thea were to get pregnant due to premarital sex, and how a marriage she doesn’t want would be wiser) – I broadly enjoyed the relationship and the plot. I found Thea repeated herself generally far less than the heroine in the other Mills & Boon book I had read before, and there seemed to be a decent amount of chemistry. Unfortunately, Dave had a tendency to ignore Thea’s boundaries (do we make allowances for that? Not today, different times, etc. etc.) to prove that she shouldn’t marry Gavin because she didn’t desire him. I suppose it was progressive in portraying the importance of the sexual element of a relationship as well as the romantic – and having pre-marital sex in the book (Grandma P! I wouldn’t have guessed!), but the execution seemed very tied into slightly archaic social mores. I suspect some of that is based on the target audience, and a lot of it is hand-waved away with “things on Sculla are a bit old-fashioned”, but that’s why it was difficult to tell exactly when it was set.
I was a little bothered that we rarely saw Dave and Thea actually… getting along. For short periods they would be perfectly congenial, but Thea had a tendency to get quite aggressive and Dave didn’t have a much better temper. There wasn’t much in their interactions to suggest either of them would have a happy time of it long-term, even though they seemed well-matched in the brief periods where they weren’t bickering or having sex. It wasn’t nice bickering either, it seemed quite cutting. It was also a bit of a shame that Thea immediately conflated desire with love straight after they had sex. She resigns herself to the tragedy of being in love with a man who will never love her because he doesn’t believe in love – but she’s perhaps willing to marry him anyway because he is insistent? It doesn’t seem like a recipe for happiness, and her sudden about-face from loathing to begrudging attraction to love instead of just allowing her to enjoy a bit of hate-sex is a bit deflating.
Perhaps if the book had been longer, it might have had time to pace this out more, give more examples of how the relationship worked well between them, and maybe drop a few more hints that Dave actually liked Thea rather than just fancying her. But it was a short, quick read, not designed for this sort of interrogation.
- It was fun to read an older Mills & Boon – even though they’ve been around for so long and publish so much, I think there’s still a certain social resistance to considering Mills & Boon “real” books. For me this just means when I get to read it I feel a bit like a naughty kid getting away with something I’m not supposed to do. Heeheehee!
- It’s problematic by modern standards. Hard to say how it shores up against early 1980s standards, but I can pinpoint progressive elements.
- The age of the book does lead to some delightful asides which feel like pointed commentary on social issues of the time but just seem utterly irrelevant now, like:
From this we can assume Thea has excellent teeth.
I won’t be rating this book, as you can only now buy it second hand. It’s long out of print (the Mills & Boon model doesn’t keep a back catalogue of print books, and books are only available for a month or so), but it was a fun and lightweight look at what was deemed romantic in the early 1980s, and also a very unexpected insight into books my Grandmother-in-law used to read – presumably when she was younger! Thanks for the loan, Grandma P.