“My mother, Barbara Cartland, and her world of old-fashioned Romance”

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She was the undisputed queen of the 1970s kitsch romance novel.  While the western feminist revolution raged, housewives everywhere worshiped her old-fashioned fantasies of virgin girls falling for masculine men. Cartland stated that she had “always found women difficult.” She didn’t “really understand them”, she claimed. How is it then that she could become one of the most popular writers in history? According to her son, Ian McCorquodale, there was a woman of extraordinary discipline behind that remarkable success.

Historyradio.org: What sort of person was Barbara Cartland? Did she resemble her own fictional heroines in any way?

Barbara Cartland & her son, Ian. Image credit: Ian McCorquodale

Ian McCorquodale: My mother was always incredibly well organised and always had time for everyone especially her family. She used to say “if you want anything done, ask a busy person as they always have time for everything.” She was very beautiful and had many admirers and was indeed very romantic herself which is why she wrote about love so eloquently. She was blissfully happy with my father for 27 years before he died of wounds inflicted in the first world war.

Historyradio.org: Do we know anything about why she started to write, and why she chose her particular genre of literature?

Ian McCorquodale: She was starved of books to read when she was at school as girls were not expected to be intelligent in those days. So whenever she had the chance she read avidly and was particularly taken with romantic novels of great authors such as Ethel M Dell (1881–1939), E M Hull (1880–1947) and Elinor Glyn(1864–1943). And she then believed that she could write romances too. She wrote her first book at the age of 19 and it was published in 1925 called “Jig-saw” and it was a bestseller selling more than 100,000 copies in hardback and was translated into 6 languages. There was no stopping her after that.

Historyradio.org: Cartland wrote more than 723 novels, sold almost a billion copies and nearly became a dollar billionaire. How is this even possible? 

Ian McCorquodale: She was very disciplined and she worked very hard. She said that it was no use sitting sucking a pen and waiting for the muse to arrive as the muse never comes. Her most amazing feat of production was when her publishers asked her for more books at the age 77 when most people are put out to grass, and she doubled her output from 10 books a year to 20 and she kept this up for an amazing 20 years writing 400 novels between the ages of 77 and 97 when she wrote her last book entitled perhaps prophetically “This Way to Heaven”. Her publishers could not keep up with her and when she died she left me 160 unpublished manuscripts, which I am now successfully publishing digitally in the Barbara Cartland Pink Collection.

Historyradio.org: Could you describe what a normal work day would have been like for her? Did she neglect her children?

Ian McCorquodale: Again it was discipline and determination. She wrote 3 or 4 days a week, starting after lunch at 1.30 on the dot. By 3.30 she had dictated up to 8000 words which is chapter, so with 7 chapters she wrote a book in a fortnight. Her secretary would type the chapter before she left at 5.30 and it would corrected for final typing the next morning. She never neglected her husband or her children, there was always time for them in her day.

Historyradio.org: She wrote a lot of historical romances, how did she find time to do the research required for writing them?

Ian McCorquodale: She used to read as many as 20 books for each novel to make sure that her backgrounds and clothes were historically accurate. She was most fortunate to be a block reader.

Cartland seated on her couch dictatating a book to her secretary (Image credit: archive.org newsreel)

Historyradio.org: As a literary scholar, how would you describe Cartland’s style? Did she have any literary role models?

Ian McCorquodale: She wrote in short paragraphs and used a lot of conversation as she believed that readers skipped long paragraphs to get on to the next quotes. She never used an unnecessary word and was a great storyteller. Her role models were Arthur Bryant and Winston Churchill, she read all their books.

Historyradio.org: She wrote many books, but surely they must contain some common plotlines.  What are the ingredients of a typical Cartland novel?

Ian McCorquodale: Some of her plot lines were a little similar but she always managed a new twist in the plot to keep her readers guessing although there was always going to be a happy ending. Her basic story was boy meets girl normally from an aristocratic background, they fall in love and for 150 pages all goes wrong, they encounter endless obstacles to their love and there is a bad guy trying to steal her away. In the last chapter everything turns out right. They are married and then the hero is allowed to carry the heroine up to the bedroom and the book ends at the bedroom door – there are stars in the sky and they live happily ever after.

Historyradio.org: Cartland maintained some pretty old-fashioned views on gender roles? How could she be so popular during the height of the feminist revolution?

Ian McCorquodale: My mother’s popularity, especially in America, took place in the late 1960s when pornography was legalised and at one stage in the 70s Bantam was selling 400.000 copies of each book at 2 a month. She wrote “pure romance” and refused to change when romance became sexualised in series like the bodice rippers. Her competitors were told to write like Barbara Cartland and put lots of sex into it So her popularity waned in the 90s and early 2000s and is now coming back as women are fed up with so much sex and violence in so-called modern romance. Her values may seem old-fashioned nowadays, but the public still like it.

Historyradio.org: Do you think her connections to the British nobility influenced her popular appeal?

Princess Diana reading Barbara Cartland novels (image credit: Ian McCorquodale.)

Ian McCorquodale: Her readers appear to prefer to read about Royalty and aristocracy rather than kitchen sink and doctor and nurses romances. Thus her enduring following in every language. Her connection to Princess Diana, an avid Barbara Cartland fan, certainly did no harm to her sales.

Historyradio.org: There is a story about Cartland that she always wrote about cousins who have an affair. In what way is this true?

Ian McCorquodale: Occasionally she wrote about cousins as heroes and heroines, but they were distant cousins.

Historyradio.org: If you were to compare Barabara Cartland’s novels with a more modern piece of fiction, like Fifty Shades of Grey, what does it tell us about how the world has changed the last three or four decades?

Ian McCorquodale: As I have mentioned my mother never changed her style or compromised on sexiness in her books and there will always be a following for her type of fiction – the spiritual and inspirational kind. Her success as a romantic author has endured for more than 90 years and I believe that her books will still be read in 200 years time. As opposed to books like “50 shades of grey” which will have one stunning success and then fade. My mother’s “pure romance” has a strong moral message and many women have told her that they started their 13 year old daughters reading Barbara Cartland so that they would have the right ideas and ideals in life.

 

A beautiful young woman falls in love with a devlishly handsome highwayman, who saves her from her brutal husband, killing him in a fair duel. But when Charles II returns to claim his throne as king of England, she suddenly finds herself the enemy of the king’s former mistress. Can the outlaw still protect this damsel in distress (quote from the cover)
  Listen to an audio version of Barbara Cartland’s The Lady and the Highwayman

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