The world-reknowned “Queen of Romance,” Dame Barbara Cartland (1901 - 2000) remains one of the most prolific writers in history. In her lifetime, she was cited by the Guinness Book of World Records as the best-selling author in the world with over 700 titles selling more than 900 million copies. Even after death, she has remained popular. At the time of her passing, Cartland left 160 unpublished manuscripts, several of which have been issued as part of the “Barbara Cartland Pink Collection” at the estate’s official website, www.barbaracartland.com.
Mary Barbara Hamilton Cartland was born on July 9, 1901 in Warwickshire County, England, the eldest of three children and the only daughter of James Bertram Cartland and his wife, the former Mary Hamilton ‘Polly’ Scobell. Her paternal grandfather was a financier who lost his fortune around 1903 while her maternal grandparent was a career military officer who felt his daughter had married beneath her station. Cartland’s father was killed in a 1918 battle during World War I and the family eventually relocated to South Kensington in London where her mother operated a dry goods store. Cartland was educated at Worcester high school and Malvern Girls’ College and attended a finishing school at Netley Abbey in Hampshire.
As a young woman, Cartland was able to participate in the London social scene by utilizing her artistic skills to draw menu cards for parties and by persuading Norman Hartnell, then a design student, to create ball gowns for her at no charge. In the early 1920s, she began to sell society gossip to the Daily Express and was taken under the wing of the publishing magnate Lord Beaverbrook, who introduced the young woman to many prominent figures including Winston Churchill. In 1925, Cartland published the first of her books, Jig-Saw (Duckworth), and although it was not well-reviewed in its day, it has come to be appreciated by later critics for its lyrical charm and its romanticism. It also established the template for her writings. Still, the novel sold well and started her off on her literary career.
In a Barbara Cartland romance, the heroine is a virginal creature from the 18th or 19th Centuries. Most of her stories are set somewhere between 1790 and 1890. The chaste and beautiful young woman generally encounters a rich and handsome (and sometimes rakish) male in an exotic location with whom she falls in love. There are myriad stumbling blocks the pair must overcome before they can marry and enjoy a life of happily ever after. Cartland herself noted that “As the plots are always similar, I must vary the situations, and I must have exciting and real backgrounds, absolutely authentic. This is the part that interests me most. I love history, and I love research, and I do an enormous amount of it.” She traveled extensively and utilized those experiences in creating the various locales for her romance stories.
As she grew in popularity and her output increased, Cartland came to rely on a cadre of secretaries to whom she dictated the tales. The assistants would not only write down what she said, but also made tape recorded copies to ensure a back up copy. In a typical afternoon session, Cartland could dictate over 7000 words.
Her own life was not as happy as those of her fictional characters, however. She had claimed to have received more than 40 marriage proposals before she had turned 21. By 1927, after she had become something of a literary success, she married the Scotsman Alexander George ‘Sachie’ McCorquodale on April 23, 1927 with whom she had a daughter, Raine, two years later. The marriage was not a particularly happy one: by some accounts, McCorquodale was a heavy drinker. After discover a cache of love letters Cartland filed for divorce in 1933. Her husband countersued for adultery, naming his cousin Hugh as correspondent, claiming Hugh had made frequent trips to Cartland’s bedroom. During the divorce proceedings, Cartland’s lawyer was able successfully to convince a jury that her behavior was idiosyncratic and normal for a creative female writer. In December 1936, she married Hugh McCorquodale, with whom she would have two sons.
Immediately after her divorce in 1934, Cartland began writing the “Panorama” column for the Tatler, although anonymously. She worked to help elect her brother Ronald to Parliament. In 1940, both her brothers were killed in battle at Dunkirk. In June of that year, she and her young children sailed to Canada to stay with friends. Eventually, Cartland demanded she be able to return to England, eventually receiving a special permit. She then became active in volunteer work, serving as Chief Lady Welfare Officer in Bedfordshire, overseeing more than 20,000 service men and women, while continuing her literary endeavors, including the novel Sleeping Swords (R. Hale, 1942), issued under her married name, Barbara McCorquodale, her first volume of autobiography, The Isthmus Years: Reminiscences of the Years 1919-1939 (Hutchinson, 1943), and a biography of her brother, Ronald Cartland (Hutchinson & Co., 1945).
By 1953, Cartland had produced 50 novels as well as other works including nonfiction and plays. Two years later, she was elected to a seat on the Hertforshire County Council and served close to a decade as County Councillor, advocating for improvements for the care and housing of the elderly. By the end of the decade, in 1959, Cartland was writing a weekly newspaper column, “All I Want to Do Is to Help You.”
The 60s saw Cartland embracing a new cause: education and better housing for Gypsies. Along with the Earl of Onslow and the Earl of Birkenhead, she founded the Barbara Cartland-Onslow Romany Fund in 1961. The following year, laws were changed that allowed Gypsy children to attend local schools. 1963 was a year of achievement (she published her 100th book) but also sadness (her husband Hugh died of complications from wounds suffered during the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917. Throughout the remainder of the decade, Cartland continued to turn out books and traveled extensively. In 1967, she published another volume of autobiography, I Search for Rainbows: 1946-1966 (Hutchinson).
The World of Barbara Cartland, a radio program on the BBC, kicked off the decade of the 1970s. Her world travels continued with visits to Tunis, India, Hong Kong, Antigua, Martinique, the United States and South America. In 1970, she published yet another volume of memoirs, We Danced All Night: 1919-1929 (Hutchinson) and eight years later wrote I Seek the Miraculous (Dutton), a spiritual work that revealed her belief in an afterlife.
In 1985, an official biography by Gwen Robyns was published. In 1990, her 500th book was published and the following year Cartland was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. In 1992, she surpassed author John Creasy as the British author with the most published books. She remained an active presence on the lecture circuit and with television and radio appearances throughout the 1990s.
Barbara Cartland died on May 21, 2000 after a brief illness at her home, Camfield Place, at the age of 98.