Jun 25 2011 11:00am

Barbara Cartland: Queen of Romance, or Derivative Moralist?

Barbara Cartland’s Etiquette HandbookWhenever 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”?

’Cause… fun!

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 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.

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Megan Frampton
1. MFrampton
Rachel: My first foray into romance was via Cartland, when I was about ten, I think. I read one of my mom's books, I think The Penniless Peer (with red-haired Finella as the heroine! I can't believe I can remember), and then snapped them up each week with my allowance money. I loved the covers, those Bantam books were gorgeous. I got so much history and romance and fantasy out of them. Of course, I can't read them now, but for a first dabble into romantic fiction they were fantastic. Never inappropriate, lots of meek, heart-shaped faced girls falling in love with autocratic older men. Sigh!
Carmen Pinzon
2. bungluna
@MFrampton - I remember reading that one too! Wasn't there some smugling going on to repair his fortune? I remember learning about the tomb of the sacred Bulls of Apix in a Cartland book and impressing my snobbish aunts when we went to Egypt and toured it and I actually knew about it. Never had to put up with "romances are a waste of time" harping again!!! Sorry I can't recall the tittle of that oh so excellent book.
3. rissatoo
Barbara Cartland's romances were my first foray into romance; perfect for an 11year old. My mother & her best friend bought and swapped hundreds of them, so I had plenty of chances to be "swept away on the wings of love" (my catch-all phrase for BC's smexy times). I continued to buy & read all I could get my hands on until my young 20's, when a move caused a need to purge my shelves. (A nursing home library was very happy for the donation!)
Sadly, I don't think I've read any since then. I remember them fondly, but I worry my bubble would be burst if I read them now, with more experience to filter them. But maybe I'll take that chance. I bet my local library has a shelf (or 12!!) of them. :)
4. torifl
Barbara Cartland was one of my first forays into romance. Right along with Phyliss Whitney and Georgette Heyer. My mom would hide her stash under the bed and when she went to work I would sneak and devour them by the dozens.
Megan Frampton
5. MFrampton
I was able to find some of the old covers of those books--my faves from that time--and posted them up at my own site. So much fun! I wish I had a coffee table book of all those covers.
6. Trinity Faegen
Oh my God - best post evar! I used to ride my bike to the branch library in Fort Worth and eagerly peruse the rotating rack of paperbacks, hoping and praying there'd be a new one I hadn't read. I wish I knew who donated those to the library - I owe her a lot. I spent all of my babysitting money on BC books, then hid them from my mother because I knew she'd be pissed. Mom is a lit snob, and good lord, you'd think I was smoking crack in my room, the way she carried on about my trashy books. I sat in my closet with a flashlight to eat up more BC.

When I went to college, I took a big box of them over to my best friend's house and she stored them in her attic. College and marriage and jobs and moving 300 miles away from Fort Worth meant I lost track of that box. I asked her once, what she'd done with it, and she said her mom gave it to Goodwill. I was bummed on the one hand, but hopeful on the other that some lonely girl with romance in her heart bought them for a dime a piece and discovered the wackadoodle world of BC.

Thanks for this! It really took me back!
7. Marisa
Rachel – what a great post!

I’m sorry to say I’m a BC virgin; however I have seen some of the movies. And yes, they have warmed my heart on a rainy Saturday afternoon and kept me from chores like laundry and cleaning my oven.

You’ve peaked my interest and I’m definitely intrigued and almost contemplating picking up a book by the prolific author who likes pink.
Shayera Tangri
8. Shayera
I started off with Cartland as well. I went through a period when I tried to read them all in numerical order. The used book store in my town would put new acquisitions aside for me. I moved on to Heyer and mary Stewart. But those Cartlands still occupy a spot in my heart.
9. etv13
And then there's the way those heroines' eyelashes were always long enough to rest on their cheeks. My first was The Innocent Heiress, and all I remember about it now is that the hero had a dinner party where they put the plates and the silverware directly on the polished tabletop -- that, and they each drank about three bottles of wine. But it's also in Barbara Cartland books that I first heard of phylloxera, the siege of Paris, and Lady Castlemaine. The plots and characters may have been virtually the same, but there was a fair amount of variety in the settings both in terms of place and period.
Rachel Hyland
10. RachelHyland
@ MFrampton

Those covers are gorgeous! We didn't get those in Australia, but were instead subjected to the UK versions. I just found this enormously detailed blog to illustrate my point... Yikes! They really were pretty atrocious.

@ torifl

I've never read any Whitney. Can you recommend a good title to start me off?

@ rissatoo

Oh, yes do go back and reread! If you can , find some of her earlier works... the later ones are really quite painful, and only readable at all because they're Cartland, if you see what I mean.

@ Trinity Faegan

Oh, this post was so much fun to do! I felt like I was in my teens again, which is funny, because writing my recent Teen Adaptations post, I'd never felt so ancient. And I totally feel you; my Mum is no lit snob (she reads Stephanie Plum), but even she looked askance at the name Barbara Cartland on the front of my library books. This was my passion a secret shame for many years.

@ Marisa

Oh, yes, do! But as I said to rissattoo, her earlier works are infinitely her best. Anything published after about 1985? Avoid, at least for your first time out.

@ shayera

When you say Stewart... whom do you mean, please? You mention her in the same breath with Georgette Heyer... I must know! Do forgive my ignorance.

@ bunglunga and etv13

Oh, yes, I too have learned much from Cartland. Random trivia, mostly -- although to this day I am still battling against the BC-fuelled conviction that the learning-impaired are just waiting for the opportune moment before trying to strangle me (or, perhaps, a puppy).

I kid, of course. But I do remember that happening a lot.
Louise Partain
11. Louise321
BC was so my go to girl for mind numbing after As I Lay Dying (ickiest of the icky even though I adore Faulkner) and Algebra and Civics class when I was in high school. (Sorry -- late bloomer) I, of course, after reading her bio wondered how she could have been all the UK literary kick in the 1920s. Managed to scrounge up some of her earliest novels in the dust bins of our old one room county library. A little more angst and less bodice gazing but lit?

As for all the interchangeables that we love to trash, they were great fairy tales -- almost as good as the Blue Fairy Book. I loved her descriptions of the gowns (she probably saw some of them hanging in Mom's closet.
Louise Partain
12. Louise321
And yeah,@etv13, with those big eyes, didn't they all remind you a little bit of Bambi? Wait a second. Bambi -- that doesn't end with an "a".
Shayera Tangri
13. Shayera
@RachelHyland Sorry. I meant Mary Stewart. This Rough Magic, The Moonspinners, Madam Will You Talk? I loved those books (and still do, to tell you the truth.)
Louise Partain
14. Louise321
Recently read through all of the old Mary Stewart romances with my mom. Great stuff!
15. book_girl46
I remember reading and loving Barbara Cartland about 40 years ago so when I saw a library book with several of her novels bound together I had to check it out. When I started reading it I realized either romance novels had changed or my tasted has changed because the book was totally silly. I wonder how many of us devout romance junkies started with Barbara Cartland and Kathleen Woodiwiss. I confess my romance roots are even older than Cartland – remember Emily Loring? I started reading her books when I was in high school and found a few at a used book store not long ago – they are still good.
16. JoyKY
Emily Loring, oh, my. I managed to collect many EL hardback editions at Louisville Public Library sales. Sadly neither her writing nor Barbara Cartland's stood the test of time for me. I wonder how many teenagers would read those authors now? Heyer is still one of my favorites. Any notice that likens a current author to her has me pulling out my money.
17. Gracie
My eldest sister turned me on to Barbara Cartland when I was around 12 - I have been an avid reader of her since - trading collections with friends, scouring used book stores and - when flush with cash - buying new ones at the bookstore. Of course they are nothing more than "head candy" but I love them nonetheless... always a happy ending, always a satisfying bit of justice for the bad guy and always the ending where they talk of stars and being "part of God"... ah, l'mour!
18. Liesel
I too remember reading BC, along with various authors who wrote for M&B. when I was about 12, I traded books with a friend at school, problem was, I never got to re-read the ones I borrowed from her. Anyway, there was a BC that she had that I've never seen since, had to be early '70's plot was a fat American girl married to an English lord, she falls ill after the wedding, he goes back to England, while she's sick she looses all the weight, and ends of beautiful (of course) and goes to his home in England to work in his library. Sound familiar at all? I'd love to re-read that one again if I can find it. One thing about her books, she sprinkled in bits of history I never heard in any history class on "this side of the pond"
19. MarciaOfAdelaide
In responce to post number 18 from Liesel the book you are looking for is called The Unknown Heart. Here is the blurb about it.

"In 1902. Plump Virginia Clay, was dominated by her mother, Mrs. Stuyvesant Clay, widow of an American millionaire. She knew quite well why Sebastian Ryll, the future Duke of Camberford, wanted to marry her. He was sorely in need of money--and Virginia's mother had offered him two million dollars! Virginia tried to refuse. She wanted to marry for love. She could only detest a man who would marry her for her fortune, no matter how handsome. But soon the unhappy girl found herself at the altar, vowing her love to a tall, dark, cynical stranger. At that moment Virginia thought her life had ended. She collapses from the strain, recovering a year later to find herself slim and stunning. Hoping to obtain a divorce from the man she barely knows but despises for wanting her money, she travels incognito to his ancestral home -- only to discover that the man she wed is not what she expected him to be. It was only the beginning... the beginning of dangerous intrigue and secret romance--and a most unexpected love...."
20. YvonneCrowley
Love, love this post Rachel. I grew up in a different world and did not learn about Barbara Cartland till I stumbled across A Hazard of Hearts on YouTube recently. It took my breath away and I launched into a search for all things about Barbara Cartland and of course, Marcus Gilbert. You get Barbara Cartland so right. If these are silly love stories, I still prefer them over violence packed and sexual promiscurity filled TV/movie productions these days.
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