Barbara Cartland's Monument: 170 Romantic Novels and Not One Virgin Ever Gets Seduced
The woodwork is peacock blue trimmed in white, the carpet solid pink, the draperies and upholstery yellow damask. Some 2,000 books in glass-fronted cases line the walls, and there’s a gilt table decorated with carved heads of American Indian braves.
The library of Camfield Place in Hertfordshire, England is also the workroom of novelist Barbara Cartland, one of the world’s liveliest septuagenarians and easily the all-time best-selling author of romantic fiction (sample titles: The Wicked Marquis, The Taming of Lady Lorinda, The Slaves of Love). Currently 80 million copies of her 220 books (170 of them novels) are in print around the globe.
As with her plots of life and love among the high caste, the creation of a Cartland novel follows a set pattern, with only minor variations. After a light lunch (cold cuts, mixed salad and Brie washed down with ice water), Barbara Cartland goes to the library where she kicks off her shoes, snuggles her feet under a hot water bottle, swaddles herself in a white fur coverlet, props herself up on pink silk cushions—and begins dictating.
Taking down the words is Mrs. Audrey Elliott, one of four secretaries. Also present—and dozing contentedly—are Duke, Cartland’s 1-year-old black Labrador (a gift from longtime friend Lord Mountbatten), and Twi-Twi, her 6-year-old white Pekingese.
Though Cartland’s normal conversational pace can make machine-gun fire seem leisurely, she restrains herself during dictation (“Otherwise I would never get it down,” says Mrs. Elliott). Perhaps because she gets wrapped up in her own stories, the author also changes her voice to differentiate the characters: “soft and dreamy” for the heroine, “deep and sharper” for a nasty aunt or stepmother. The hero is “businesslike, though gentle when speaking to the heroine.” Explains Cartland, “I am seeing in my mind what is happening, as if in a cinema.”
Work interruptions are few (she is a dedicated antismoker and drinks only wine or champagne—lightly—on weekends). Occasionally she will glance at a fold-up travel clock on a side table to check her progress, which is usually substantial. Her output averages 6,000 words during a two-to-three-hour session, and on a particularly productive day it can go as high as 9,000 words.
In contrast to authors who toil over manuscripts for months or years, Barbara Cartland wraps up a book in two weeks. Her typed dictations are sent to a local schoolmaster, who puts in the punctuation and corrects what Cartland pointedly refers to as her “secretary’s mistakes.” The author gives the manuscript a fleeting once-over before it is dispatched via chauffeur-driven white Rolls-Royce to her London publisher or by courier to New York.
“Just properly run like a factory,” Cartland cheerfully describes her lickety-split approach to producing novels. “If you’re working to a deadline, you can’t wait for the muse to arrive.”
In her 76 years, Barbara Cartland has already managed to fill four autobiographies (more like almanacs of personal anecdotes, annotated with witty observations). Her latest update, called I Search for Rainbows, hit the paperback racks this summer.
Twice married, once divorced and now widowed, Cartland retains the Edwardian radiance of the debutante she was more than a half century ago, a triumph of preservation she credits to the 50 and more-vitamin pills she pops each day. To her admirers she remains a goddess of eternal youth, enshrining a romantic era which, in the case of virtually all her novels, spans the 100 years between 1790 and 1890.
Critics have not treated Cartland gently. “Sleazy snobbery,” jeered one at her book of etiquette, going on to suggest that her writing reflects “something rotten at the heart of the English way of life.”
Such characterizations will seem grossly unfair to those initiated in the Cartland style of romance. Despite the come-on titles on the covers (more samples: The Ruthless Rake, An Angel in Hell), her novels are totally devoid of sex as it is known these days on the screens and at the newsstands. Violence or profanity do not exist. Whatever the circumstances and temptations depicted, all of her fictional heroines remain dedicated virgins to the end.
“Writers have an enormous responsibility for the morals of the world,” says Cartland. She does not conceal her disdain for modern novels containing “ugly” descriptions of sex and “the most revolting language—words I’ve never even heard of.” Yet her prudish-ness may be her strongest appeal if, as she claims, “Women are starved for beauty and love.”
This spring Cartland carried her case for virginity into the pages of the Times of London, in an article later reprinted in the New York Times. A mini-uproar followed on both sides of the Atlantic. Letters poured in terming her stand “absurd” or “a dangerous return to the Dark Ages.”
Cartland is unmoved by the fuss. “I’m delighted when women attack me, because I know it’s on grounds where they’re wrong,” she insists. “That’s why they hate me. They know I’m right. What I do mind is corrupting the minds of teenage girls by encouraging them to lose their virginity. I know how half-witted 16-year-olds are. Love is a spiritual thing, and sleeping around always reacts badly on the girls.” She adds with finality: “If women are going to sleep around, they at least ought to sell themselves high, not just for a meal out.”
Though Cartland writes primarily for female readers and rarely hesitates to speak for all woman kind, she is no friend of the feminist movement. “I don’t like women,” she admits without hesitation. “I can’t bear ugly women who sit about doing nothing but waiting to play bridge. All my life I have thought men were something very special. It is a treat to be alone with them. I prefer a dumb man to an intelligent woman.”
If Barbara Cartland is dated—”some sort of marvelous British heirloom,” by her own description—her value in the marketplace has soared. Last month, in what was billed as the largest literary acquisition in the history of the entertainment industry, Ed Friendly Productions in the U.S. bought an option on the film and TV rights to all her romantic novels—those published or still to be written. No price was revealed, but the mistress of Camfield Place is assuredly far richer now.
Like her fictional heroines, Barbara Cartland was a virgin (“Of course!”) when she married wealthy Alexander McCorquodale at London’s fashionable St. Margaret’s, Westminster in 1927. “In those days we were all terribly innocent and pure,” she says. “Remember, there was no such thing as the Pill. The difference between the lady and the prostitute was enormous.”
A certain soap opera plotline ran through her own wedding. It was at the ceremony that the bridegroom’s cousin, Hugh McCorquodale, first saw Barbara and, as she tells it, fell in love with her on the spot. The marriage of Barbara and Alexander “was disastrous.” When she sued for divorce five years later, he cross-petitioned, citing Hugh as co-respondent. The allegation was dismissed in court. She calls it a “spiteful, dirty trick.”
She still mourns three other men who were close to her. Her father, the spoiled (“taught to do nothing”) polo-playing son of a financier, died in action on Flanders fields in 1918. Her two brothers were killed on successive days in 1940 during the grim struggle at Dunkirk. Nearly four decades later Barbara refers to brother Ronald, a rising young Tory politician, as “the great love of my life.” He was the first member of the British Parliament to die on the battlefield in World War II.
Though theirs was a “poor rich man’s existence”—long on class, short on cash—the Cartlands regarded themselves as part of the upper stratum. On their farm in Worcestershire, she recalls, the family always dressed for dinner. Still, the continuing financial bind instilled in her “the ambition to succeed,” she says. Leaving school at 18, she quickly fell in with London’s high society and became the protégée of Canadian-born press baron Lord Beaverbrook, who introduced her to the likes of Lloyd-George, Winston Churchill and H.G. Wells.
In addition, Beaverbrook personally edited the gossip copy she contributed (at $1.20 an item) to the Daily Express (which Beaverbrook owned). “Though he was very much in love with me, he never kissed me because he was married,” Cartland reveals. “People today can’t believe it could be like that. It was a great start to my writing career.”
When she was 22, she published her first novel (Jigsaw) and developed the technique that would serve her well for the rest of her career. “All of my books are serials, really,” she says. “I had 49 proposals before I married and have had hundreds of men in love with me. So I know it all. Like a journalist, I’m repeating what they said.” (Cartland also reads a great deal and is a diligent researcher.)
Three years after her divorce from her first husband she finally married Hugh McCorquodale, who, like his cousin, was a director of a family-owned international printing firm. They enjoyed 27 “blissfully happy” years of wedlock, Barbara says, until his death in 1963.
Aside from her books, she has associated the Cartland name over the years with some of Britain’s zanier causes—from a scheme to deliver airmail by gliders to promoting an aphrodisiac containing honey from Mount Hymettus in Greece. She also once won election to the Hertfordshire County Council and served dutifully for nine years.
The center of her world now is Camfield Place, a 400-acre estate with a 23-bedroom Victorian mansion and a literary past (as a small girl, Beatrix Potter, who created Peter Rabbit, used to visit her grandparents there). Cartland’s two sons (by Hugh) are at her side: Ian, 39, who is his mother’s business manager, weekends with his wife and two daughters in a farmhouse on the grounds; Glen, 37, a bachelor stockbroker, stays in the main house, where he helps with the research and is often his mother’s traveling companion. Her daughter Raine (by Alexander) recently divorced Lord Dartmouth to wed Lord Spencer. “One earl to another,” the proud mother-in-law gloats.
Cartland guards her own public image jealously. “I’m a 76-year-old woman trying to look 48,” she laughs. But she claims to be so busy writing about romance that “I haven’t time for lovers.” Of course, she adds, she has had proposals, but “I don’t want to start again. Besides, I’m in love with my characters, and that’s enough. The men are all young and raffish and very exciting—and I can manipulate them without any trouble.”