I was going to write a column today asking what was the first romance you ever read. I, however, have no idea what, specifically, the answer to that question is personally but I’m sure whatever it was, it was written by Barbara Cartland. So I searched for Barbara Cartland on the site and this wonderful piece came up. So, I’m asking today instead about your experience, if any, with Dame Cartland. Did you read her? Love her? Hate her? Think her work is seminal to romance?
I always brag about reading Georgette Heyer and Laura London at age 13 – and it’s true. Early on I developed a taste for the good stuff. What I mention far less often is my undeniable huge (as in gigantic, oversized, and extra large) appetite at that age for Barbara Cartland.
During my teenage years I devoured Dame Barbara. And, considering her huge backlist, that amounted to one major league crap-load of pink-tinged dreck…er, Cinderella stories. And, considering that she wrote the same story featuring the same characters over and over and over and over, that added up to young Sandy being heavily inundated with the lady’s ideas about romance and gender. (Shiver.)
But, heck, I’m betting that a lot of us did our time in Cartland-land. And, undoubtedly, we all learned some important lessons, right?
- Heroine Requirement Number One: Virginity. Completely non-negotiable. You must be a perfect example of shining innocence to capture the heart of a duke, earl, marquis, or even the occasional prince.
- Heroine Requirement Number Two: A tiny, heart-shaped face. This always stopped me. I mean, how in the heck can you have a head with a dip in the center?
- Heroine Requirement Number Three: Large eyes. While carefully avoiding troll territory (who, as we all know, had eyes as big as dinner plates), your eyes must be impossibly large for your tiny, heart-shaped face.
- Heroine Requirement Number Four: Small hands. Small hands are necessary for your duke, marquis, earl, or even the occasional prince to muse: “Such a small hand, yet it is large enough to hold my whole world.”
- Heroes always have dark hair. Blonde hair (frequently accompanied by a weak chin and beady eyes and may, in fact, describe number eight) is a sign of weakness in a man. In a heroine, blonde hair, while not required, is acceptable.
- Marry up. Dukes, marquises, earls, or even the occasional prince are the only way to go. What? You say there aren’t that many dukes, marquises, earls, or the occasional prince where you live? A Kennedy or a Rockefeller will do just as nicely.
- When picking your guy, don’t worry about that selfish mistress or wicked stepmother. Rest assured that the beauty of your heart-shaped face, impossibly large eyes, and small hands, when combined with your shining innocence and goodness, will triumph.
- There is always an evil, older roué who has designs on your virtue. And that’s okay because it’s those exact designs that will cause your duke, marquis, earl, or even the occasional prince to Come to His Senses and realize that in your small hand you hold his entire world. When he rescues you Just in the Nick of Time, of course.
- Keep a chair handy. Chairs are essential since you can grasp the back of it to keep from falling when you are swooning from your hero’s kiss.
- Never forget, all rakes want to be reformed. As they proceed through their jaded, selfish life serial-seducing woman after woman, they are all waiting for the virtuous young woman who possesses numbers 1, 2, 3, and 4 to Save Them from Themselves. (Warning: This rule alone is guaranteed to screw you up for a good 15 years.)
So, how about you? Did you read Barbara Cartland back in the day? Did you survive? Are there any other authors who may have messed with your head in your formative years?
Note: Yes, that is Helena Bonham Carter who does, indeed, seem to possess a heart-shaped face, large eyes, and small hands, portraying a Cartland heroine. There were a few TV movies made back in the day, with one starring Hugh Grant (I Am Not Making This Up). I think I even remember one with Diana Rigg playing the hero’s wicked stepmother.
I didn’t read a romance until I was about 40 when my sister who managed book stores all of her life, handed me The Wives of Bowie Stone when I visited her. I blame that book for me being unable able to enjoy a strictly fluffy romance, even though occasionally that is exactly what I’m in the mood for. She followed that tear jerker up with Silver Lining, both from Maggie Osborne. I remember driving home across the state of Pennsylvania, through the straight and uninhabited center, wiping my eyes as I recalled scenes in those books.
Driving, crying, and reading all at the same time?!?!?
Another Osborne fan here! Yes, she’d pretty much ruin anyone for Cartland ;-)
I have never read a Barbara Cartland book! I think the first romance I read was an old Mills & Boon by Betty Neels, when I was 13 or 14 – can’t remember the name of it now. I was hooked on Jean Plaidy at the age of 11, and also read Norah Lofts, Anya Seyton, Victoria Holt and Phyllis A. Whitney (all courtesy of a list of recommendations by my then English teacher!) I read every Heyer I could get my hands on in my twenties (not all of them were in print or easily available then!), but I was mostly into historical fiction and classic lit. until the early 2000s when I got a Kindle and started reading historical romance in a big way.
I’ve never been tempted to pick up one of her books… I suspect her frequent TV appearances – all that pink froth and big eyelashes – may have put me off!
I liked her TV interviews more than her books. I did get one of her books out of the library — about at the same time I was reading early Woodiwiss, Rogers, etc. Even though the Cartland book was much (much!) shorter, I ended up skimming it.
From an interview on an American news show, I remember being awed by the way she promoted vitamins and stood up for Travellers. On the other hand, I’m not a fan of some of her other stances (the stress on virginal heroines, her stance against divorce, and so forth).
Of course her step-granddaughter was Diana Spencer, who seemed to be the living embodiment of a Cartland heroine for a while, and we all know how that turned out….
Talk about serendipity…..I was trying to remember the name of a Helena Bonham Carter movie the other day. I came across “A Hazard of Hearts” – which triggered the memory of watching this with my mom. I loved the TV movie! And then I saw the screen shot for your post!
I never read Barbara Cartland. My library didn’t have any of the books. At about this age I was reading the Sunfire historical romances set in the US. The titles of the Sunfire books were the heroine’s first name and the cover featured the heroine in between her two love interests. The Sunfire books were my introduction to historical romance.
Yes, I read the Sunfire books as well, not Barbara Cartland, but I’ve seen A Hazard or Hearts more than a few times and admit I still have a soft spot for it.
I read and loved Mary Stewart back when the books were new but never thought of them as Romances. They were just books. I tried Victoria Holt and Phyllis Whitney (Female Gothic was their label) but found them too humorless. As a teenager I loved Sir Walter Scott, and those books are certainly romantic. From them I learned that good girls were blonde and insipid, and brunettes were not so good but much more interesting.
I never read Barbara Cartland—I never even heard of her until about 15 years ago when I tumbled into the romance world. The first officially Romance book I read was Mr. Impossible, which got me hooked and also set the bar pretty high. I doubt Ms. Cartland would make the grade.
I started reading romances around 8th or 9th grade in the 1980s. My first romances were Harlequin Presents (contemporary) and Signet Regency (historical). I did read a few Barbara Cartland books but I didn’t care for them. Her heroines seemed too young and naive – I liked a heroine with more gumption – and overall, I just didn’t find the books all that interesting.
Great column Sandy!
I ran across a stash of Barbara Cartland romances and Glamour magazines at about age 14 or 15; and both had a significant impact on me: I made a point of NOT reading another “romance” for about 30 years (and have yet to willingly peruse a fashion magazine). But when I returned to reading romances, I made a point of rereading the one Barbara Cartland I remembered. It reinforced everything I remembered about the BC books at the time (and much of what Sandy summarizes above). Cartland’s books are completely escapist fairy tales, with no resemblance to real life whatsoever. If that is a reader’s jam, ok. But they did not work for me at all.
My earliest, memorable romances were things like the overwrought historical Ramona by Helen Hunt Jackson, Mrs. Mike (another historical) by the Freedmans, and Ann Head’s contemporary YA Mr. and Mrs. Bo Jo Jones, My Darling, My Hamburger by Paul Zindel, and Jeremy by John Minahan.
I credit Mr. and Mrs. Bo Jo Jones with my younger obsession with birth control. I reread Mrs. Mike a few years ago and thought it held up well. Ramona is overwrought–it’s a book I remember well and have never had the slightest interest in rereading. I loved the romance in the Wrinkle in Time books as well as that in the Prydain Chronicles.
You and I have a lot in common in our reading histories Dabney. I loved both A Wrinkle in Time and the Prydain Chronicles too! I thought more young readers would discover and enjoy Lloyd Alexander’s work during the Harry Potter era but sadly, not so much. They are missing out on such a great read.
And Mr. and Mrs. Bo Jo Jones was pretty foundational to much of my own feminism as well.
I have been listening to The Book of Three–the audio is great. It’s such a stellar series. My kids read it and loved it but none of their friends knew about it.
I remember Mr. and Mrs. Bo Jo Jones fondly. It was turned into an excellent TV movie (ABC Movie of the Week?) with Desi Arnez Jr.
I read a lot of Violet Winspear and Jean Plaidy when I was about 12 . My library at the time had mostly winspear, Plaidy and some Betty Neels. I remember my very first romance novel was The Girl at Goldenhawk by VW. As far as Cartland goes, I tried but she was too much even for my starry eyed 12 year old self.
I found your article hilarious. It is so spot-on on what those growing up years were like when one is secretly giddy reading those first romance books. My first was also M. Cartland. I too devoured her books. But I too wondered after some time why all her heroines were wide-eyed damsels with heart-shaped faces who were orphans, or poor relations (but of good family of some sort) but whose beauty and purity was so astonishing that the hero (always a duke or an earl, or something grand) from his great height would start nurturing a secret tendre for her.
I now find the template ridiculous but I do believe that those books shaped a lot of my early ideas of what love and relationships are like and what a partner/romantic ideal should be. I believed in love at first sight (described more as a special awareness of someone, ehem), a strong protective hero, the importance of protecting your goodness (not specifically purity but retaining this wonderful good person you think you are) and love as the ultimate triumph of your life. Those ideas have been modified significantly but they also continued to hold some grip on my subconscious. I felt very strongly that I should marry someone I had a very fundamental, gut attraction to, and I appreciated having a protective partner although now I also see how important it is to be protective of my partner as well. So many wrong notions from those books, but I suppose in the end, some good came out it. And reliving those wonderful feelings of falling in love is still nice.
I love this response and can so relate!
It was such a fun trip down memory lane.
If I read any Cartland back in the day, I don’t remember it. I do remember lots of Victoria Holt/Jean Plaidy/Phillippa Carr, Phyllis Whitney, Anya Seton, Mary Stewart, and a few others. In the 1970s, I was more into gothic romances, while Cartland was more of a regency romance writer. I do remember Cartland from several interviews that she did for TV. She seemed very over the top so maybe I never took her seriously.
Small hands aggravate me no end. Stephanie Laurens heroines often are tall, but they all have small hands, which seems odd to me. Maybe she was a Barbara Cartland fan.
Although I know there have been famous pianists with small hands, it always bothers me when some Georgian or Regency heroine has small hands but is great on the harpsichord, pianoforte, or harp. I prefer characters with longer fingers and elegant hands. Some villainous male characters do have spatulate fingers or stubby, thick-fingered hands, which feeds into with my personal prejudices.
This is such a great summation on Cartland and her oeuvre; I haven’t read her in tons of years. but it rings true.
I’ve always read a lot but, throughout my life. have gone through different phases. When I was12/13/14ish I was definitely in a romance reading phase.
These were books from the school library – Mary Stewart, Jean Plaidy, Georgette Heyer, Frank Yerby etc. – and books that me and my friends bought – Barbara Cartlands and Mills and Boons. It was an all-girls boarding school and many of us immersed ourselves in these books as a form of escapism.
I will confess that I loved Barbara Cartland’s books then. Looking back, it’s the passivity of the heroines that strikes me now. They seemed to be able to attain a happy, glamorous life and someone to love, who loved them back, without putting much effort in – just by simply ‘being’. Any kidnappings, druggings etc. (and there were many!) were just sorted out for them. I think this must have been very appealing to teen-me, who had her life ahead to navigate.
When I moved to reading ebooks about 10 years ago, I reread all of Heyer’s historicals but couldn’t manage to get through even one Cartland. I found the writing style much too florid.
I’ve never read Cartland, so I’ll answer the first question. I was mainly reading books my dad suggested and books for school, but Victoria Holt and Phyllis A. Whitney’s books are the first romances I read. I have no idea what the actual first book was, but I do remember reading these in high school. I was also collecting very bad romantic poetry, although I have no idea who wrote them or where they came from. The girls at school just passed them around! :-) So I was definitely a teenage romantic. But for some reason what stuck with me were the mystery aspects of the Holt and Whitney books, and I went straight into mysteries as my go-to genre for decades. I didn’t read Jane Austen until I was 41 and pregnant with my youngest, and I went on to burn through every book she wrote. Then it was Georgette Heyer. But from there I went back to preferring mystery or suspense plots with my romances.
It doesn’t sound like Barbara Cartland is an author I’d enjoy.
I was an avid reader from a young age, and, it seems to me, looking back, that romance was always in the frame—whether a book was overtly romantic (KATHERINE, MRS. MIKE, PRIDE & PREJUDICE, Victoria Holt gothics) or romance-adjacent (books by mid-century authors like Mary Stewart or Elizabeth Cadell, where the romance might not be front-and-center but there is generally a couple who will get together by the end of the book). That being said, even teenage Deb, who read omnivorously and uncritically, felt Cartland was too glossy and over-the-top for her. I remember reading a couple of Cartlands and being unimpressed. Also, someone who is more familiar with her books will have to verify this, but I seem to recall Cartland overusing ellipses (…) to the point that I started waiting for them to appear on the page. Let’s just say, Cartland is rococo in style and I’m a baroque gal.
OMG, since retiring I’ve noticed that I use dots and dashes a lot when writing emails and texts to friends and when posting, which I didn’t in my ‘work’ writing. Is my young teen addiction to Barbara Cartland’s books to blame? ;)
To answer your question, I can’t remember her using them in her books but it would fit with the tremulous, breathy heroines
Sometimes she abuses them when her heroines speak hahaha.
Yes, on the ellipses. Her heroines always seemed to speak like they were out of breath. Also, information dumps – Cartland gave backstory in her characters in long, detail saturated paragraphs.
I remember in the 1980s abridged versions of Cartland romances were included in women’s mags in Australia (was it New Idea or Woman’s Day?) After the first double page of text you had to follow the columns sprinkled throughout the magazine like a treasure hunt to finish the story. I read a few out of curiosity (I was about 12) but they were fairly uninspiring. The illustration at the beginning though, matched your rules perfectly.
Oh, and one of John Mortimer’s Rumpole of the Bailey stories wickedly sent up Barbara Cartland (barrister Rumpole was defending her and I think her deplorable lack of historical accuracy might have been key to getting her acquitted…. or maybe I’m remembering it all wrong and that’s just wishful thinking).
I meant to say that Rumpole was defending a lady historical novelist who was obviously based on Barbara Cartland….
Gone with the Wind, Pride and Prejudice, and a couple of Louisa May Alcott books were my first romances, mostly because they were on my parents shelves. In addition, I read Gene Stratton-Porter, Samuel Shellabarger, and Robert Neill at my maternal grandparents, who had moved next door to us by the time I was in junior high. The novels were my grandfather’s. Grandma was a letter writer and active in women’s groups, not a novel reader.
Sometime around then a friend brought some Emilie Loring books to a slumber party, and I read all I could get my hands on. I also read a bunch of teen, nurse, and country-mouse-city-(rich)-boy books.
We got bookmobile service when I was in sixth or seventh grade, and I asked the bookmobile librarians to recommend books, and that was where I first received a Georgette Heyer book. I read almost everything Heyer wrote (courtesy of interlibrary loan), and went on to other authors and titles from there, such as Elswyth Thane. The bookmobile came every two weeks, and during the summer I could go to it on my own. During the school year, my mother relayed requests. Part of the reason I love buying books and having them around me is that I grew up pretty much without access to bookstores and libraries.
I did get hold of a few of Barbara Cartland’s books in high school and just never got excited about them. Looking back, I think I never really found the characters living in my imagination. I did not make up alternate stories about them like I did for Scarlett O’Hara or the Girl of the Limberlost. I never reread a Cartland book, even though I can’t count the number of times i reread Austen or Heyer. I think I also subconsciously noticed Cartland had a more limited vocabulary and a less complex writing style — it might be interesting to see a statistical and analytical comparison between a Cartland book and Heyer’s Venetia. I doubt Cartland would show to advantage.
I don’t think of Gone with the Wind as a romance–I never believed Scarlett and Rhett would reunite.
To me, Cartland was fluffy in a way teenaged me loved although I’ve never gone back and reread a single of her books nor have I read one since I was 13. I’ve just bought one and am going to give it a whirl.
I agree that Gone with the Wind was not a romance, but that was the first novel where the characters lived in my head for years. I “fixed” their conflicts numerous times, but I don’t think I ever believed my revisions actually worked. I just enjoyed working through all the “what ifs.”
I am from the American Old South and Gone With the Wind always made me uncomfortable. I read it when I was ten though and I remember liking the book better than the movie.
I’m always on the lookout for vintage, old, no-sex romances so at some point I saw Barbara Cartland on the web.
Actually their stories are quite adorable there’s something nice about thinking that a kind, young and naive heroine can remain so and will always find help from well-meaning people (or a very capable hero) in her path… I know in real life A woman must be strong, independent, etc… well, it would be nice to be able to cry and have someone ready to help you appear hahahaha. Her heroes are not that bad, there are some jerks, but others are quite correct and nice and not the rogue type.
But although it is nice to read it, my problem is that the romance is very underdeveloped and short, EVERYTHING is love at first sight or instantaneous, if the hero looks ugly at the heroine when he meets her, it does not matter in the end it is revealed that he loved her anyway the first time he saw her and she saw him because slow burning doesn’t exist! Their romance is something…”the heroine’s misfortunes are described, she meets the hero oh he’s beautiful, she loves him!…or maybe he’s beautiful but hateful she absolutely hates him!, misfortunes happen… evil pervert man appears, evil woman appears…they do bad things to the heroine, they are defeated with the help of the hero who has always loved the heroine ever since he saw her! oh and she realizes that she loves him too It doesn’t matter if they’ve only spoken 2 times since they’ve known each other.
If the novels were a little longer, the romance better developed and maybe the virginity rule was more even (I’m a Christian I believe in waiting until marriage and I don’t have a double standard with that) I would be happy.
You might like the Gene Stratton-Porter books set in the Limberlost. Titles include The Harvester, Girl of the Limberlost, Freckles, and one or two others. Her later books set in California are not as good, and include some racism at times. She includes a lot about nature — birds, plants, moths, and so on. I enjoy that, but ymmv. Birds and pets are minor characters in some books, not just part of the scenery.
Thanks for the information!
I think Betty Neels filled the Barbara Cartland reading space for me, and she might be someone you’d enjoy as well.
I think Neels is a better storyteller than Cartland. Plus, all those cute Dutch guys!
I agree. Cartland’s writing/characterization/plots were Too Much for me; Neels is actually still kind of a comfort read.