Whenever I think back to my early forays into historical romance, four authors immediately come to mind. Georgette Heyer, of course. She was my first, and is still unsurpassed. Then came Clare Darcy, a kind of Heyer-lite, and thereafter Marion Chesney, who scandalized me with her characters’s brazenness and whom I have ever since disdained.
And then, my friends, came Barbara Cartland.
We all know the legend. We know that she is among the world’s most prolific authors, having produced more than 700 books, almost all of them romances – along with some self-help titles, several biographies, four autobiographies… and even a few cookbooks!
We also know that she still holds the world record for the most books produced in one year—a staggering 27, in 1982, thirteen of which included the word “love” in their title, and one of which is the enigmatic-sounding Book of Celebrities. There have long been rumors that she employed as many as six secretaries at any one time, all of them taking down her thoughts—either simultaneously or concurrently—as she worked on numerous manuscripts, all of them containing barely discernable differences. She was Princess Diana’s step-grandmother, and was descended from the ducal house of Hamilton.
She liked pink.
Indeed, I defy any of her readers to think of her and not immediately recall the assorted bedazzled, Barbie-worthy ensembles in which she posed for the pictures that adorned the back of her paperbacks for the latter half of the 20th century, her face a waxwork nightmare of pancake powder, red lacquered lips and penciled eyebrows—a bit rich coming from the author of Look Lovely, Be Lovely (1958), Book of Beauty and Health (1972), and Getting Older, Growing Younger (1984).
Nowadays, the name Barbara Cartland has become a byword for manufactured pulp—and moralistic, derivative pulp besides. She is decried for her elitist attitude and virginal heroines as much as for her flagrant plot recycling and stilted, nonsensical dialogue. Her language is dismissed as flowery yet dull, her incessant use of ellipses… is… a…perpetual…joke…and her later works (from the 1990s onward) are justifiably accused of being nothing more than a series of seemingly unrelated sentences masquerading as paragraphs.
But what we may little suspect—at least, those among us who haven’t read three out of four of those autobiographies…unlike, I’m afraid to say, me—is that the young Miss Cartland was something of a scandalous, even salacious, figure to 1920’s London society. She spent a year as a gossip columnist; her first novel, Jig-Saw, has been described as “a risqué society thriller” (thanks, Wikipedia!); and among her non-fiction output are such titles as Love, Life and Sex (1957) and Sex and the Teenager (1964). (Whether she’s for it or against it I can’t say, not having read the book in question, but my guess? She’s for it, as long as they’re first married to a Viscount, or better, who is at least thirty and who until recently despised them.)
Yes, let’s talk her characters. The heroines small, big-eyed and helpless, owning to the most ridiculous of names almost always ending in an “a”—Richenda, Arilla, Zenobia, Loelia, Dorina, Rozella, Salrina, Elmina, Florencia, Illita, Aldora…I could go on forever—and the heroes domineering, sardonic and freakishly tall for their era. Everyone had high cheekbones, and at least one of the couple was in penury or in peril, which only True Love could make right in the most contrived and yet oddly captivating of ways.
Her plots cleaved almost exclusively to a few favorite patterns, and for the loyal Cartland reader it became almost a game, when picking up a new title, to guess what familiar form this latest adventure would take. Forced to Marry was a big fave of hers (and, indeed, mine), with young innocents being sold into advantageous matches to pay gambling debts, forge dynastical alliances or similar, while younger, plainer sisters would beg to take the place of their elders, who were always in love with someone else (never, incidentally, someone nearly as rich or as prestigious). Improvident fathers were a major theme, as were evil step-mothers, notorious fortune hunters and the inevitable elderly letches who lusted after our ethereal innocents’…er…innocence. There was often a mystery—who killed the late Earl? What are those mysterious lights out at sea? Who is the Rightful Heir?—and frequently a Lost Treasure. Highborn governesses abounded, as did virtuous young ladies of uncertain parentage who ended up being born of the nobility, and therefore worthy of titled husbands.
At times we’d travel to the Exotic East, and be called upon to marvel at the wonderful strangeness of it all, even as we gloried in British Imperialism. Royalty from remote, largely fictional, nations was also popular: in danger and incognito, a princess would meet a Big, Strong Englishman who would undertake to get her to safety, and along the way lose his embittered, aristocratic heart; or a King would encounter a disguised scion of a rival house, and fall in love with the seeming peasant girl before discovering she was every bit as blue-blooded and inbred as he.
American railroad and/or mining heiresses were also a bit of a thing, and yet they were never as nice as their English counterparts. Who can say why?
Almost every Cartland courtship ended with the couple sharing a moment of post-coital (assuredly post-wedlock) exuberance, while birds sang, breezes wafted and stars twinkled in the Heavens. The manner of these passionate declarations was so similar in almost every instance that, to this day, my best-friend and I end our conversations like this:
Me: Heart of my Heart.
Her: Soul of my Soul.
Me: Light of my Life.
Her: Love of my Life.
Me: My love!
Her: My wife!
Yeah, we read a lot of Barbara Cartland together throughout our high school vacations. (For Christmas some years ago, this same friend gave me a CD I cherish, entitled Barbara Cartland’s Album of Love Songs, on which Cartland herself atonally sings/recites/Def Poetry Jams over assorted standards, backed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Oh, yeah. We read her a lot.)
It was during this time that we also discovered on VHS the TV movie version of that seminal Cartland masterwork, A Hazard of Hearts (1987), starring a young Helena Bonham Carter. (And about which I wax somewhat lyrical in my post No Bridget Jones’s Diary: My Top Ten Romantic Adaptations.) Hugh Grant showed up in the not-quite-as-successful adaptation of The Lady and the Highwayman (1989), and three other Cartland movies yet exist: The Flame is Love (1978), A Ghost in Monte Carlo (1990) and Duel of Hearts (1991).
One has to wonder what made those five stories so attractive to producers, ahead of all the other hundreds upon hundreds of variations on their themes. Oh, I doubt I have read all of her output—although, looking over the book synopses, I feel as though I might as well have—but off the top of my head I can easily think of five other Cartland novels that could well have made superior movies. I couldn’t necessarily give you their names (though odds are, alliteration, the word “love” and/or some variation of a nobleman’s title appears in them prominently), but whether it had been The Ruthless Rake or The Penniless Peer; The Odious Duke or The Wicked Marquis; The Mask of Love, The Tears of Love, The Wings of Love, The Wild Cry of Love or even—and yes, this is real—Love and the Loathsome Leopard, I am all but certain that pretty much any Cartland novel would have done just as well as those chosen to be immortalized in film.
Why? Because, on at least some level, they really are all the same.
And that’s okay. I always enjoyed my time spent leafing through the pages of those slim, similar volumes, and every now and then, when I delve into the recesses of my bookshelf and drag out some of my old favorites (Enchanted, The Taming of Lady Lorinda, Love Climbs In, The Saint and the Sinner, or even—and yes, this is real—The Vibrations of Love), I smile as I recall the many happy hours I spent as a youngster immersed in these cookie-cutter perfect tales of endangered virtue, missing jewelry, foreign travel and disillusioned Dukes won over by sundry simpletons to whom they’d been reluctantly wed. Who cares if all the books blend amorphously into one another over time, that the girls are all chaste, the men all alpha males, and that they actually sit around shamelessly calling each other things like “Soul of my Soul”?
Barbara Cartland died in 2000, just weeks before her 99th birthday and with some 160 unpublished manuscripts left behind. (Eat your heart out, Robert Jordan.) They are still being released, on an average of about ten per year, via BarbaraCartland.com as part of the “Pink Collection.” Her latest release, just a few months back, is A Heaven on Earth, and it’s exactly what you’d expect. Its heroine’s name? Aurora. Her problem? Being forced to marry her cruel step-mother’s debauched friend. Her love interest? The dashing, if penurious, Earl of Linford. There’s a mystery. A lost fortune. And a whole lot of ellipses. It’s Barbara Cartland at her Cartlandiest, and in spite of myself I can’t help but be a little charmed by this latest addition to her enormous, one might even say regal, literary legacy.
Sure, they’re silly love stories. Very silly love stories. But what’s wrong with that, I’d like to know?
Rachel Hyland is the Editor in Chief of Geek Speak Magazine.