She was called the "Queen of Romance" in her day, though I suspect there are many romance readers today who have never heard her name. And yet, she is credited with writing more than seven hundred romance novels over the course of a seventy-year career. With her big hair, plumed hats and pink dresses, she became something of a caricature of herself in her later years. But she also did a lot of good in her long life, working diligently for many charities, and I think she was entitled to do as she pleased.
There are those who might dismiss her work as fluff, and perhaps some of her later novels might merit that description, but not her earlier work. The novels of Barbara Cartland gave me a lot of pleasure in my early years as a Regency romance devotee. May I share some reflections on the work of Barbara Cartland?
I happened upon my first Barbara Cartland novel in the early 1970s, when I was seeking a new Georgette Heyer novel at the local bookstore. At the time, I had read all the Heyer novels they had in stock. But nearby, a another book caught my eye. The cover was very similar in design to those of Heyer’s novels, and across the top of the front cover I saw "Bold Romance and Tingling Suspense in the Tradition of Georgette Heyer." It was set during the Regency, and as I wanted a new Regency for an afternoon of summer reading, I bought it. The novel was A Hazard of Hearts, in which a young lady is won, along with her family estate and her fortune, in a game of hazard by a rakish marquis. I thoroughly enjoyed the story, and from then on, the novels of Barbara Cartland filled the gaps between the releases of Georgette Heyer’s next novels.
Cartland’s novels were not all Regencies, she wrote novels set in many historical periods including Elizabethan, Georgian, Victorian, Edwardian and several "contemporaries" (though keep in mind, they were written in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s so they would not seem quite so "contemporary" today). Her settings ranged all over Europe, Russia, the Arab world, India and even South America. Her early romances were rather good, and I particularly enjoyed her historicals. It has been said that Georgette Heyer was the next best thing to Jane Austen and in those days, Barbara Cartland was the next best thing to Georgette Heyer. Cartland’s research may not have been quite as meticulous, but she had a good sense of the time period in which she was writing, she wrote well and there were no egregious modernisms in her work. It is a curious thing that when she first started writing in the 1920s, her work was considered rather scandalous. That is especially ironic, as by the end of her career all of her heroines were virgins, there was no sex outside of marriage, and there was essentially no "on-page" sex in her novels, even if the couple was married.
By the time Cartland had written a few hundred novels, her later work did become rather formulaic fluff. But it was fun fluff, and I think that was partially driven by her readers. She wrote what they wanted. These later novels started coming out during my last years as an undergraduate. But I continued to read them, even into graduate school. They were a nice change of pace from my studies, which were pretty intense. I didn’t want great literature, or the overwrought bodice-rippers which were prevalent then. I just wanted a fun and entertaining read. Plus, Cartland’s later novels were a bit shorter than her earlier novels, perhaps 175 to 200 pages. That was fine with me, as I could get through one in under four hours. I could usually only spare an afternoon here or there to indulge my guilty pleasure. I did not have the time in those days to spend six hours or more with a novel, so short was good for me. The stories had interesting settings and plot lines, I always picked up an intriguing historical fact or two and the heroine and hero eventually lived happily ever after.
There were some drawbacks with Cartland’s novels which would probably cause them to be rejected by most romance publishers today. Her heroines were very young, usually seventeen to eighteen, and seldom older than twenty, if their age was mentioned at all. The heros tended to be older, though their age was not always mentioned either. In a sense, these heros were the prize for the heroine more than an individual. Many times the hero is referred to only as "the Duke," or "the Marquis," or "the Earl," rather than by name, throughout the story. In some cases, the hero’s first name is never mentioned. But when they are, what a plethora of interesting names for both heros and heroines! Heros’ names included Valdo, Norvin, Tarquin, Drogo, and Valient, just to name a few. The heroines often bore unique names as well, for example, Seraphina, Pandora, Ravella, Fortuna, Sylvina and Celesta. An aspect of Cartland’s novels which would not be well-received today is that in some of them, the hero and heroine spend very little time together. Today’s readers seem to want a lot of interaction between the main characters. Cartland was more interested in the overall story. If that meant her main characters had to endure long separations, that is how she wrote the story. But the heros were always courageous and honorable men, and the heroines were always moral young ladies who held out for true love and would not compromise their principles. Old-fashioned stories perhaps, but charming, lively and amusing.
Georgette Heyer certainly created the Regency romance genre, but Barbara Cartland built on that foundation and popularized Regencies and other historical romances. She also provided many happy hours of reading for me and countless thousands of others for decades. Barbara Cartland’s romance novels are more restrained than the romance novels you will find in any bookstore today. But if you liked the traditional Regency novels which are no longer published, you might enjoy her romances. Her novels are still available from a number of online used booksellers, and you can often pick up large lots of them fairly inexpensively on eBay. I also discovered when I Googled her name recently that she left over a hundred and fifty manuscripts unpublished at the time of her death (age 98, in May 2000). Her son and granddaughter are now publishing them a few at a time.
If you are not already familiar with Barbara Cartland’s work, below is a short list of her Regency-era romance novels which I most enjoyed:
- A Hazard of Hearts
- A Duel of Hearts
- The Elusive Earl
- The Audacious Adventuress
- The Odious Duke
- Love in Hiding
- The Irresistible Buck
- The Husband Hunters
- Love Holds the Cards
- The Ruthless Rake
- The Saint and the Sinner
- The Complacent Wife
- The Ghost Who Fell in Love
At Wikipedia you can find a full list of Barbara Cartland’s novels, in alphabetical order, by title.