I was just sitting here, debating between writing a serious post about why I write historical fiction or a rather less serious one giving tips on how to write a book set in Pre-Revolutionary Versailles when a little bird informed me that today would have been the 110th birthday of my heroine, Barbara Cartland, without whom, frankly, I wouldn’t be writing and this blog probably wouldn’t exist.
I’m not quite old enough to go the whole hog but I pay tribute where I can by sporting pink hair and, on occasion, clashing bright blue eyeshadow and what Dame Cartland would probably dismiss with a sniff as Woolworth’s Pearls. I’m not sure she’d approve of me to be honest but I still adore her.
I wonder if the other members of the Romantic Novelist’s Association will be raising glasses of pink champagne to her later on as they enjoy their annual conference in rainy Wales? I know that the image of Dame Cartland with her wildly bouffant white hair, glistening pink dresses, fluffy white dogs and airy sugar coated frankness is one that we historical fiction writers are supposed to be doing our best to get away from, but I don’t care.
I still remember my first Cartland, read surreptitiously in my room at a rather too young age. It was Desire of the Heart and starred a hapless Irish heiress who goes to London and marries into the dashing, brittle but heartless set of Bertie, Prince of Wales. She falls madly in love with her husband, of course, but he is blind to her charms thanks to a. being in love with her venal but alluring much older cousin who set them up together as a means to extricate him from financial embarrassment and also ensure that he doesn’t fancy his wife more than her and b. having to wear dark glasses due to an injury incurred after being thrown from a horse, which probably gives her a rather unhandsome Ozzy Osbourne look when coupled with her dowdy outmoded Irish dresses. However, beneath the unflattering hairstyle, the dark glasses and the buttoned up gowns it turns out that actually she is a BEAUTY. Of course she is!
The ill assorted pair honeymoon in Paris and, well, you can guess the rest…
After this, the Cartlands followed thick and fast: A Hazard of Hearts (which was made into a film starring a young Helena Bonham Carter as the enchanting Innocent Bride, Serena whose Awful Dissolute Father (Christopher Plummer) gambles her away to the Secret Hero, Lord Vulcan); Stars in my Heart; A Virgin in Paris; The Enchanting Evil; The Wicked Marquis; Passions in the Sand and on and on. Cartland published an astonishing 723 books over the course of her long career, which puts my efforts to finish my third book somewhat in the shade. In fact, in 1983, she completed TWENTY THREE novels. In one year. TWENTY THREE. Of course, she dictated her books to a secretary, while reclining on her pink silk sofa, petting a grumpy pekinese and shovelling rose and violet creams into her carefully lipsticked mouth, but even so. TWENTY THREE.
Here’s a picture of the hero of the moment, Hugh Grant and Lysette Anthony hugging chastely in another film adapted from her book The Lady and the Highwayman. Dear Hugh, look at him smouldering away and pretending to be somewhere else.
Cartland’s life was as fascinating as her books, although probably a little less racey – she allegedly broke off her first engagement after finding out what sex actually entailed and being utterly freaked out by it. She seems to have got over this though as she later married twice (to cousins, both with the surname McCorquodale) and had two sons and a daughter, Raine who was later to become the ‘wicked’ step mother of Princess Diana.
Diana was a huge fan of her step grandmother’s books (although they didn’t usually see eye to eye in real life) and Dame Cartland herself acknowledged rather wryly that ‘The only books Diana ever read were mine, and they weren’t awfully good for her.’ Which is probably a bit of an understatement although I feel much sympathy for Diana’s love for Cartland’s books as, like her, I came from a horribly unhappy background and disordered childhood and was pretty desperate for some romance. The careful structured rules and conventions of Dame Cartland’s books in which the protagonists’ love may well be challenged but always ends happily, probably with a bit of dignified no tongues church snogging was a balm to my soul in those days.
Okay, I did end up possibly a little too fixated on the idea of marriage and Happy Ever After (although I have never knowingly declared a desire to the Princess of People’s Hearts or similar) but to be honest, I’d much rather be full of starry eyed romantic idealism than follow the example of my weird, warring family when it comes to matters of the heart and matrimony so thanks for that, Barbara.
Barbara Cartland died on the 21st of May 2000, at the age of ninety eight – indefatigable to the last and the true Grande Dame of romance. Due to concerns about environmental issues, she shelved plans for an ornate cherub bedecked monument and instead elected to be buried in a cardboard coffin beneath a tree originally planted by Elizabeth I. A fitting end to a highly original life.
Barbara Cartland, I love you.
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