‘An Explosion Deep inside Her’: Women’s Desire and Popular Romance Fiction

Publication year

The genre is judged to be a legitimate target for ridicule by the non-romance-reading public, with equal quantities of scorn heaped on romance readers themselves. A frequent and familiar criticism, particularly of publications at the bottom end of the market, is that 'they are all the same'. The fact that the genre is as varied as any other, and has a very respectable parentage, tends to be overlooked. [...] What I am interested in is the evident appeal of the type of publication produced by the British publishers, Mills & Boon. (106)


In this chapter, I attend to textual representation in the popular romance fiction published by Mills & Boon. I examine the representation of women's desire in two recent romances (No Guarantees (1990) by Robyn Donald and Passionate Awakening (1990) by Diana Hamilton). These were chosen at random. By looking at representations of men as objects of desire, and at representations of the heroines' responses to them, I show that women's desire is depicted as essentially reactive in nature. Women are presented in perpetual, self-defeating struggles for self-control in their attempts to suppress the irresistable [sic] attraction of the forceful male. My investigation of these textual representations centres on detailed analysis of a single long passage, in which I examine the distribution of process types, narrative points of view, and encoding of the heroine's erotic responses. I conclude with speculations about the pleasure-providing function of romance fiction in women's lives and its socially reproductive function. (107)


There is a visual contrast of the woman's 'transparent pallor' and the darker, tanned skin of the man's hands. Eroticisation in Mills & Boon depends on the maximization of gender difference. In addition to the dichotomies I have already indicated, the eroticised difference between male and female is often encoded in skin tone. As far as I know, however, both protagonists are always white. (109)