Barbara Cartland; Prolific British Writer Was ‘Queen of Romance’


She was her own best story.

They called her the “Queen of Romance.”

Her biographer described her as “generous, flamboyant, ebullient, witty, intelligent, indiscreet, intolerant, indefatigable and unique.” A Times writer once observed that she combined the best attributes of Mae West, the Queen Mother and Glinda the Good.

She rode in a white Rolls-Royce, wore white fox furs and pearls, and dictated from a red velvet sofa. But she dressed in pink--pink chiffon, sequins or suits because pink “helps our brain . . . helps you to be clever.” She flirtatiously lowered longer eyelashes than any Hollywood screen siren, and pragmatically blackened them with boot polish that never ran when she wept.

The lady visited orphanages and old folks’ homes and campaigned--for redesigned girls’ gym suits, against water fluoridation, for better pay for midwives and to better the lot of Gypsies.


And she wrote. Or for the past quarter of a century dictated. The prolific author spun out about 6,500 words each afternoon from 1 to 3:15 p.m. and completed a book at least every couple of weeks. She churned out a remarkable 635 titles that sold more than 650 million copies in about three dozen languages worldwide.

Until Sunday, the Guinness Book of Records listed her as the “best-selling living author.”

Dame Barbara Cartland died Sunday in her sleep at Camfield Place, her Victorian mansion with the turquoise window frames surrounded by stone cherubs and cupids near Hatfield in Hertfordshire, 20 miles from central London. She was 98.

The Dame of the British Empire (since 1991) wrote two plays, the libretto for a radio opera, five autobiographies, cookbooks and books on looks and love, health foods and etiquette, and 10 biographies.

Mostly about historic royalty, the biographies included “Polly: The Story of My Wonderful Mother” in 1956 and another in 1945 about her brother, “Ronald Cartland,” a man who planned to become prime minister of England but instead was the first Tory member of parliament killed in World War II.

But not for nothing was Barbara Cartland called the “Queen of Romance” and, long before her step-granddaughter the late Princess Diana aspired to the title, the “Queen of Hearts.”

Cartland wrote historical romance novels, and with Cartland, born in Birmingham, England, on July 9, 1901, that meant romance and not sex.


“People don’t roll around naked in my books,” Cartland told The Times in 1987 when her 1948 novel “A Hazard of Hearts” was about to be turned into a British television movie starring Helena Bonham Carter, Christopher Plummer and Dame Diana Rigg. “I do allow them to go to bed if they’re married, but it’s all very wonderful and the moon beams.”

(American producer Ed Friendly was actually the first to turn a Cartland novel into a television movie: “The Flame Is Love,” for NBC in 1979. But the author--not to mention viewers--hated the result, and the British series of television movies adapted by Terence Feely a decade later, with Cartland’s full cooperation, fared far better.)

The writer who claimed to have invented virginity insisted that she never rewrote a plot, but she strictly adhered to her set formula--a formula readers bought and devoured in droves and reviewers avoided as beneath their dignity.

The formula called for a beautiful, chaste, impoverished and spirited heroine to meet a dark, cynical, titled hero in some exotic locale--say Singapore, Senegal, Morocco, India or Nepal--in the years between 1790 and 1980. They encounter obstacles for six chapters, kiss once in the seventh--touted on book jackets as “the most captivatingly romantic kiss ever written”--and marry by the end of the book, consummating the union in a finale of Cartlandese typified by the closing lines of her novel “Dollars for the Duke”:

“Then love carried them on the waves of ecstasy into the starlit sky, and they knew that nothing mattered except that as man and woman they were one now and through all eternity.”

Little wonder perhaps that the budding Bonham Carter, set to play the Cartland heroine 13 years ago, confessed that she had never read a Cartland novel and opined that “A Hazard of Hearts” shared romantic subject matter with her film “A Room with a View.” Of course “View,” the actress noted, pointedly omitting any comparison to Cartland, was written by E.M. Forster, “who has intellectual credibility.”


And little wonder too that in a rare review of a Cartland book, a Times critic wrote that her “The Wings of Ecstasy” in 1981 “boasts one-sentence paragraphs and a texture like window pane.” The reviewer excoriated further, commenting: “Why don’t the feminists burn these books? Their protagonists--helpless, coy, game-playing blushing violets who say no and run away, no matter what they feel--are offensive to most respectable members of either sex.”

Literary observers estimated that 98% of Cartland’s readers were women, but the author claimed men--especially doctors and lawyers and including such leaders as Moammar Kadafi and the late Anwar Sadat--also enjoyed her simple stories.

Barely known in the United States until Bantam began publishing dozens of Cartland novels in 1976-77, she flourished here until increasingly candid sex in books and films made her writing seem, well, old hat. But when sales slid in Britain and America (until the AIDS epidemic made promiscuous sex itself old hat, at least), she found a growing market in Sri Lanka, Tanzania and Japan.

“East of Suez,” Cartland often said, “everyone appreciates and understands a virgin bride.”

Plotting, she insisted, was simple: “When I want a book, I say to my subconscious, ‘I want a new plot.’ Your subconscious does the work for you.”

Cartland unabashedly explained that dictating worked best because that resulted in short paragraphs and “my readers detest long paragraphs.” Her key to popularity, she believed, was that most people want what she wrote: Cinderella stories with happy endings.


“My heroines are all myself,” she told The Times in 1981. “I received 49 proposals before I got married and not one of them ever suggested going to bed. I would have dropped dead of astonishment if they had.”

Her own life was a bit Cinderella-esque, albeit with tragedies. Her father died in World War I, impoverishing the never wealthy family consisting of her mother and two brothers, Tony and Ronald, who died in World War II. Her first marriage, to Alexander George McCorquodale in 1927, ended in divorce in 1933. Although her second marriage, to McCorquodale’s first cousin Hugh in 1936, was relatively happy, she told The Times years after his death in 1963: “I should have married somebody terribly important. I always believed the man should be No. 1. Instead, I became No. 1 on my own.”

Cartland arrived in London at age 18, and soon began writing gossip items for newspapers under the pseudonym Barbara Tudor for five shillings each. Eventually, she befriended the owner of London’s Daily Express, press baron William Maxwell Aitken, Lord Beaverbrook, whom she told The Times in 1976 “[was] this awful old man . . . he was 40. He fell in love with me and he taught me how to write and introduced me to everyone.”

“Everyone” included the likes of Sir Winston Churchill and Sir John Dunne.

Her first novel was “Jigsaw,” published in 1925, which she told The Times was “a very pure little book. The duke kissed the girl on page 200 and my great-aunts didn’t speak to me after that. They said it must have been experience. I hadn’t been kissed by a duke then . . . but I have been since.”

Cartland visited Los Angeles once--on a book tour for Bantam in 1976--when she maintained her style by riding about in a chauffeured white Rolls-Royce and staying at the Beverly Hills Hotel surrounded by pink flowers, a toy replica of her favorite white Pekinese and cases of the vitamins, ginseng and honey that she considered her “brain food.”

She did other things besides write, of course. She raised three children: daughter Raine from her first marriage and two sons, Ian and Glen from her second.


She also flew planes, climbed mountains and sailed the seas. She once set a record for piglet production on her 400-acre estate. She was an elected county councilor for Hertfordshire for nine years, founded the Cartland Onslow Romany Trust to aid Gypsies, and was president of the Hertfordshire branch of the Royal College of Midwives.

In 1965, she became founding president of the National Assn. of Health in Britain, espousing such poignant advice as: “It takes 80 grams of protein to make a virile, exciting lover. If every woman fed her husband two pounds of good red meat a day . . . there wouldn’t be any need for all those dirty books.”

In 1981, Cartland marketed wallpaper, curtains, table linens, bath accessories and stationery with pink flowers and ribbons, earning America’s National Home Furnishings award presented in Colorado Springs, Colo.

That same year, she launched a British travel program, Barbara Cartland’s Romantic Tours, highlighted by tea with her at her estate and lunch with her daughter and son-in-law, Princess Diana’s father, the Earl of Spencer.

Born to little, befriended by the mighty and earning fame, wealth, luxury and a title through prodigious work and even more noticeable style, Cartland espoused a philosophy as simple as her prose: “To me the greatest privilege to which we are entitled is to be alive.”