Neither great, nor original - Barbara Cartland, still the queen of romantic fictionby Duncan Fallowell / April 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
She was always a terrific giver. When we were doing the punk glossy Deluxe in the late 1970s, I rang her up out of the blue and asked for a contribution and she said “if I write something new it will be expensive, because I’m the world’s most successful writer. But if you want to publish a piece I’ve already done, you can have it for nothing because it’s doing good.”
The article, on how to stay young, was transported to our office in a coffee-coloured Rolls Royce and brought in by a uniformed chauffeur. It was in an elaborate package tied with pink ribbons and accompanied by fabulous Norman Parkinson photographs. And there she is in our second (and last) issue, looking perfectly at home between Allen Jones on fetishism and a fashion spread called Wet Dreams.
A while later, I met her at the opening of a jewellery shop in Sloane Street. Periodically thereafter I’d ring Dame Barbara when wanting any information on the love lives of characters from the past. She was very good at this. Like most people she enjoyed sexual gossip more than any other and usually prefaced her remarks with “this didn’t come from me, but…” She was particularly helpful when I was trying to put together a brief memoir on the bisexual charmer Napier Alington, last of the dandies, but she was the only one who was, and the piece never appeared. On erotic matters generally she was without inhibition and was in this respect more regency than modern. Her heroes are men of worldly experience and her heroines are virgins until marriage. This state of affairs presupposes another, non-marriageable class of women. The prostitute and courtesan and mistress were part of her world-view, though she didn’t necessarily approve of specific instances.
It wasn’t until near the end of her life that I thought of interviewing her. Of course, she said, come over. But there the giving stopped and the sharp media operator cut in. I would have to give her copy approval. (She always demanded this for interviews-which is why there were no good ones, until now.) But she assured me that alterations would only be made to factual errors. So I went ahead and spent a delightful, revealing afternoon with her in May 1995. After she’d read the result, she rang.
“I liked the opening but it’s much too long. I’m top of the pops so I know what I’m talking about-I was taught by Lord Beaverbrook who was the best and he always said that a paragraph should only be one sentence long and that all sentences should be short. If there’s a lot of unbroken print people skip it. Everyone does. Your paragraphs, sentences, words-all too long. So we’ve changed that. And taken out the things which were a bit unglamorous. And the private things.” And any adroit observation or original turn of phrase, or anything which could be remotely construed as gossip or which conveyed her distinctive manner of speaking. By the time she and her secretary had finished, nothing of special interest remained, and hardly anything of mine, reducing the thing to a generalised Cartland press release virtually written by herself. After the murdered piece was published in Australia, she wrote me a letter. “Thank you a million times for the very nice things you say about me. It is all absolutely accurate which is unusual and also you have been very kind to me.”
Now I am able to publish an authentic account, not less accurate but much more truthful, not less kind but much warmer and more human. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Dame Barbara Cartland.
Motorways, pylons, supermarkets, housing estates, leisure centres, shopping malls, offices, roundabouts, factories: this is once-historic Hatfield, where Queen Elizabeth I spent her childhood. The district has been eaten up by post-1960s suburbia which is still munching into what remains of the green belt around London. Here the motor car, not man, is king. Yet somewhere in the vicinity lives the Queen of Romance.
Taking a lane off a busy road, you enter quite abruptly a pocket of old rustic Hertfordshire, several villages among sylvan hills, miraculously preserved. And here sits Camfield Place-since 1950, the home of Dame Barbara Cartland.
The interior is far grander than the exterior and not what I was expecting. Instead of a loud newness, all is faded gilt, muted colours, somewhat dusty, in the classical manner but informal, with many casual human touches, all doors open, obviously a home. And suddenly I am sitting on a sofa in the drawing-room alongside a fantastic apparition in mellow pink.
Dame Barbara is not the greatest person I’ve ever met, nor the cleverest or the most original, but she is the most phenomenal. It is not simply that even in her mid-nineties she retains her faculties and works at full stretch. It is not that to date she has produced over 620 books, which have sold 700m copies. It is not her gift for publicity. It is that, coupled with this vitality, comes an amazing openness. Despite her fame and wealth, she is in the telephone book; there is hardly a barrier between herself and the rest of the world. It is as though the planet were her garden and I’d guess she is around 95 per cent pure function-advanced Buddhists rarely manage so much.
Her two small dogs have joined us. The creaky cream Pekingese is stand-offish and wheezing dreadfully.
“Is the Peke all right?”
“He’s growling,” she says.
“I think he’s wheezing.”
“No, growling. Today I’ve done 6,000 words and I’m the only person who for 20 years has done a book a fortnight and I do it every day when I’m at home which is why you couldn’t come until half past three.”
They are short books, about 150 pages long, with short paragraphs, in large print, but even so…
“What time do you get up in the morning?”
“Not very early. A woman comes to do my hair and we have letters to answer. It used to be 30,000 a year, now it’s down to about 25 a day, most of them from abroad saying will you tell us how to feel well.”
She began hesitantly, but sensing that I’m not here to bamboozle her, or even interrupt her very much, she relaxes into her stride. More than a stride-a canter-a gallop. Dame Barbara talks rapidly. Her thoughts run ahead of her ability to express them. For this reason she doesn’t like long words.
“Have you ever suffered from insomnia?”
“Look, as the head of alternative medicine, I don’t suffer from things like that.”
“You’ve never been sick?”
“Of course I have. Operations and things. But we’ve discovered a wonderful new thing. The secret ingredient is calcium. And it makes men frightfully, let us say… loving. We’ve called it Flame.”
“You mean calcium has aphrodisiac side-effects?”
“You say it makes men loving.”
“Like an aphrodisiac?”
“I asked a 50-year-old man how he felt on it and he said he wanted to dance all night.”
Defying time has been one of her greatest campaigns and it accounts for her passion for alternative medicine. From what one can see of them, her legs and arms are in remarkably good shape. Her skin too, which is not so much lined as finely folded. Not that she is beyond art in these matters. The most striking device-and this really is redolent of Edwardian drawing-rooms, of the pre-facelift era-is her use of two sticking plasters beneath the make-up and powder to pull back the cheeks a little. The famous blonde bouffant is thinner now. It makes a dashing but ghostly show and gradually comes apart in the course of the afternoon.
“What makes you feel guilty?”
“What makes you feel afraid?”
“Nothing, oh, except these days I’m afraid because everyone steals. When I was young nobody stole.”
“Are you rich from writing?”
“They keep saying I’m rich. But, you see, all the percentages get taken out, 40 per cent by the government straight off, and I have five secretaries who are not cheap. On top of that everyone writes for donations, we usually send a signed book, and what with answering letters, my postage costs are appalling.”
“What other staff do you have here?”
“My chef who’s been with me for 30 years. My housekeeper who’s been with me for 45 years. My top secretary’s been with me 20 odd years. We’ve got the gardeners and the estate of 40 acres here and-[she puts her hand over the microphone]-one mustn’t say so but we’ve got a shoot.”
“And your two sons live here?”
“My eldest son has just had a divorce, so he’s given up his flat in London and he’s got a little house at the end of the drive. My other son was on the stock exchange but by 50 you’re considered no use so he’s working for me too. I had lunch with the judges the other day at the Old Bailey, 23 judges and me, and I said ‘why are you such silly fools as to get rid of the older judges?’ The best pictures, the best music, the best writing was all done by people over 70.”
“Who are your favourite authors?”
“My favourite for years was Sir Arthur Bryant. He said I was a very good writer because I never use superfluous words. I’ve got about 7,000 books in the library, most of them history. But I have to be read to, which I don’t like but there’s no other way.”
The majority of her novels fall into the category of historical romance.
“And as I’m used a lot in schools around the world, my facts must be correct. I rang up the War Office the other day-I always go straight to the top-and said so sorry to bother you, it’s me, and would you be kind enough to tell me what you paid the soldiers at Waterloo, and they said certainly and they also told me what they paid Wellington too!”
A special disbursement was made in 1819 for the men who fought at Waterloo. Wellington got ?60,000, most of which he returned to the Treasury, and the privates each received ?2.50.
“I’m reading War and Peace at the moment. Have you read it?” I enquire.
“Oh yes, ages ago… I’m particularly interested in India. They wanted me to go out there again the other day to open something but I said I didn’t think I could, and they said a lot of people will die from unhappiness if you don’t, which I thought a bit mean, the Indians are cunning like that, but I’ve already seen all the sights and met all the maharajahs so there’s really no reason for me to go but now they say they’ve fixed up a whole bed for me on the aeroplane so that I can fly horizontally-it’s my legs that are a problem on long journeys-so it’s getting very difficult for me to refuse. I’d really like to go to Scotland to see the Cartland Crags which I’ve never seen.”
She is also very popular in France. The pink pamphlet given to all enquirers, and which contains a resume of her life and work, has the following paragraph: “1988. Receives the Gold Medal of Paris, which is the greatest award the Mayor, Monsieur Chirac, can give for achievement. Has sold 30m books in France. Publishers pay for an hour’s television show which finishes with a display in the park outside of fireworks all in pink, with BC in a heart and bursts of roses. Watches from a white Rolls Royce. It is the first time such a tribute has been given to an author.”
“Why do the French like you so much?”
“Because they like love. I only write about love, not sex. I don’t touch sex.”
This is not quite true. Love and sex cannot be so separated. What she means is that she is not pornographic. However, that she learned early the universal appeal of eroticism is evident in the blatant title of her sixth novel, A Virgin in Mayfair.
“East of Suez everybody understands what I’m talking about. In Russia now I’m selling 3m books a year. I went there in 1978 through Dickie [her great friend Lord Mountbatten] and had the red carpet. I could do anything I wanted.”
“I rang America last year and asked what’s happening and they said oh, we’re only interested in sex, very hot sex, or something nasty such as libellous revelations, love is completely out they said.”
“How did you discover the facts of life?”
“By living them! I had 26 proposals of marriage before I married and if you haven’t learned about love by that time you must be very stupid. The first proposal was nine days after I left school and my mother said ‘You must get used to it.’ But in those days the men protected you. Now they don’t and it’s entirely the women’s fault. When the man comes home tired after work, instead of saying ‘Oh, darling, are you tired? Now sit down and let me get you a drink,’ the woman goes on and on about her day, or moans at him, so of course he carries on with his secretary. These days there are so many pushy women! When I went to Germany the other day I said 50 per cent of English marriages fail and they said oh we’re 60 per cent and I said it’s nothing to boast about. The children from broken homes, remember, are never quite normal. Now they take to drugs and hooliganism and can’t get jobs. I’d shoot any man I saw giving drugs to a child. Incidentally, a man is unhappier out of work than a woman is, so if possible always employ a man rather than a woman.”
“Why did your own first marriage fail?”
She rapidly screws up her nose and unscrews it again. “Oh, it’s a long and complicated story. He was a secret drinker. I didn’t realise and funnily enough my second husband, who was his cousin, had no idea he drank either. A bottle of sherry before going to the office. He was always charming to me but he had a girlfriend whom he’d known since childhood and she drank with him, I don’t think they went to bed at all.”
“And in what way, therefore, is your daughter from that marriage, Raine, not quite normal?”
“Raine’s father went on to marry quite a nice woman, rather dull, and Raine didn’t see much of him and I’m sure she felt it, but she was fond of her stepfather. The divorce left me with no money, not like today [she had a marriage settlement of ?500 per annum], and I also had to work terribly hard at that time to get my brother his parliamentary seat in Birmingham. Ten thousand words a day to pay his electioneering expenses, but we did it! He got in. My brother and I were so happy together… Now this divorce virus has infected the royal family.”
Dame Barbara is connected to the British royal family through the marriage of her daughter, Raine, to the Princess of Wales’s father, Earl Spencer. When Diana married the Prince of Wales, Barbara (not yet a Dame) was invited to the wedding at St Paul’s but allocated a poor seat behind a pillar, so she stayed at home and watched it on television, wearing the uniform of a Commander of the Order of St John of Jerusalem and inviting up the women of the village.
“You see, the Princess of Wales was 16 when Raine married her father and she was very gentle and there’s a frightfully good picture of her sitting up in bed reading one of my books. She was five when her own mother left her, a frightful woman that mother, and her brother was three, and of course children don’t understand, they want their mother and father and to feel security. I was just going to sleep the other night and the radio rang and said there’s a woman who wants a career and her children, and I said you can’t have both and she said-‘But you had both.'”
“When I was a wife and mother I was mostly at home. When my husband died [in 1963] of his war wounds from 1917, I’d only written 100 books. The rest were done afterwards. I then had the time, you see. Anyway, this woman who wanted children and a career said I was a stupid out-of-date silly thing, and I said it’s the children who suffer, ask any policeman or judge, whereupon the man doing the interview said yes, he had wanted to kill people because he came from a broken home but he was saved by a priest, which moved me very much. The Princess of Wales I know was a virgin when she married, she didn’t go out with boys at all. At 17 she liked to play with my grandson aged five. That’s not normal, is it?”
“And there’s no one to advise the royal family now. There used to be heaps of old dukes and lords puffing about Buckingham Palace. Then there was Dickie, who looked after the Prince of Wales. The Prince of Wales has no one with him now, except people he pays… he was bullied terribly at Gordonstoun. They used to hang him upside down over the lavatory and pull the chain and then in the bath they’d pinch his bottom with coal tongs and now I see that Princess Anne is sending her children there. How can she do it, knowing how her brother suffered?”
We ponder that for a moment, gazing down the pink and green drawing-room and out at the lawns and woods, tranquil in the May sunshine. I look back at her and ask “have you ever been unhappy?”
“Desperately. Of course one’s been unhappy and lonely. If you lose someone you love, you cry. As far as my husband is concerned, I’m happy I had him for so long, and I believe I’ll see him again when I die.”
“Are you afraid of death?”
“Not at all. I was meant to die when I was 80 but the Almighty refused to have me, so I’ve got to carry on until he changes his mind.”
“You are a religious person?”
“When I want a plot, I say a prayer and God gives me a plot. Don’t ask how it happens, I don’t know, it’s absolutely amazing. The other day I said a prayer and nothing happened-usually it happens immediately-and I thought perhaps He’s bored with me. So my secretary brought me in the stuff on the regency which we’ve got lots of and which I started to go through, and suddenly I heard the voice. It said to me ‘Suez Canal.’ And I had my plot.”
“A romantic novel about the Suez Canal?”
“What makes you angry?”
“The treatment of children today. I’ve had the law of England changed twice. One law to bring back prayers in schools, and another to provide campsites for gypsies so that their children could attend school. [The site she set up at Camfield the gypsies christened Barbaraville.] The other day the Archbishop of York said that school prayers every day weren’t really necessary, once a week would do, which made me furious… Priests are hopeless now and I’m terribly annoyed because I’m the only person who’s bought 1,000 white wedding-dresses, it was during the war, so that women could have church weddings and it made them so happy! I’m the only person who’s done This Is Your Life on television twice, and they produced a woman who said it was due to me she’d been married in church in white, and now they say you can be married in a swimming pool. How dare they!”
Barbara Cartland was made a Dame of the Order of the British Empire by the queen in the 1991 new year’s honours list, for services to literature and to humanitarian causes. She has, of course, done nothing whatsoever for literature, although her failure in that huge body of words to produce a single graceful sentence is indeed remarkable. But to the causes already mentioned one may add that she has campaigned vigorously on behalf of nurses, midwives, old people, health food, and the St John Ambulance Brigade, as well as against pornography and fluoridation of water. She’s also done lighthearted things such as recording an album of love songs in 1978 with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Most of it has been covered in her numerous autobiographies. Her philosophy is outlined in two works, I Seek the Miraculous and I Reach for the Stars. She has also produced history books (The Scandalous Life of King Carol), cookery books (Recipes for Lovers), beauty books (Look Lovely, Be Lovely), and sociological works (Men are Wonderful and Sex and the Teenager). Not to mention those hundreds of novels. In addition, she has been a farmer, a local councillor, a songwriter, a dramatist, an interior decorator “including RAF stations during the war to raise morale,” voted best-dressed woman in the world in 1983, and so on.
“The world before the first world war, does it seem a lost paradise?”
“My father was killed in 1918, we had no money, I had to work frightfully hard but that’s all a very good education, and because in those days nobody worked my first book made a stir, I’ve still got the cuttings, ‘Society beauty has written a book,’ [Jigsaw, 1923], which went into six editions and five languages and made me ?200 which was a large sum and that’s how it started… Both my brothers were killed in the second war, they were killed entirely through carelessness. At the start of the first war the military used to take the weekend off. My brother Ronald, everyone said he’d be prime minister one day, he was the first MP killed, shot through the head.”
“Are you a pacifist as a result of all that?”
“Am I a what?”
“What’s that mean?”
“Are you against war?”
“Of course you’ve got to have war. Of course you’ve got to protect your country.”
“Do you cry easily?”
“Well, not, um really cry, um, it’s thinking about people you’ve loved and lost, of course you cry, to a certain extent. After my father was killed we moved to London and I was a huge success immediately, masses of people taking me out. They made a rule, you weren’t allowed to dine with a man but you could dance all night with him, which suited the men coming out of the forces, most of them weren’t very well off, so they went to the Guards Club, had a dinner, put on white tie and tails don’t forget, took a taxi to me, and we danced until two in the morning. The Berkeley opposite the Ritz had the best band. Then a friend of mine said there’s a man called Lord Beaverbrook who has a newspaper, the Daily Express, and I’m doing a social column for him and since you’re out dancing every night, if you give me a paragraph I’ll give you five shillings. Which was wonderful. I could have my hair done for a shilling. Eventually Lord Beaverbrook sent for me to the Hyde Park Hotel, I thought he was falling into the grave, he was over 40, and of course he fell in love with me and said ‘May I kiss you?’ and I said ‘I want to be kissed by the man I love’ and so he didn’t kiss me but he sent the car two or three times a week and I went down to his house at Roehampton where there was always a chaperone and his best friends, Lloyd George, Winston Churchill who’d just lost his seat and the Stock Exchange sent him a telegram ‘What is the use of a WC without a seat?’ and there was Viscount Castlerosse who was the great wit of the day, and the Duke of Sutherland who fell in love with me and loved me all his life but unfortunately he was married already to a woman who was barren so he had no heir, and another man called Sir James Dunne, a great friend of the Beaverbrooks, who died the other day and left ?40m and he asked me to marry him but I thought he was falling into the grave too, he was also having a divorce. They were all brilliant men and I was a kind of mascot to them.”
“Who is the most charismatic woman you’ve met?”
“The most what?”
“What’s that mean?”
“The most impressive. The most remarkable.”
“I’m better on men, um, impressive woman…” She again screws up her nose with playful distaste-this is another mannerism of hers, along with the wide-open eyes and sugared smile at critical moments. “I think my mother [Polly who died in 1978, aged 98] but I much prefer men and one of the most remarkable men was Dickie. I tell you who came over last month, what’s he called, I’m so bad at names, the film star Douglas Fairbanks! He and Dickie together were so good-looking. When they entered a room you woke up, you thought who’s that? They had that vibration. None of the people today have that vibration, none.”
She has that vibration. She grew up in the imperial age when Britannia ruled the waves and the world was its possession, when people were not afraid to be 100 foot tall, when they had to project to be seen. Now all amplification is done by the mass media and people in the flesh are less than their images. Today’s personalities hide, are ex-directory, refuse to give interviews, travel incognito in dark glasses. Dame Barbara is the last of the 100-feet-tall people. And sense of humour? She does have one, but it takes second place to her incandescent self-belief which blots out any sense of irony or of the absurd. Which means that self-questioning is not her strong suit.
The Top Secretary enters, wearing spectacles and flat shoes. She is so absolutely the opposite type to Dame Barbara that it can’t be accidental. There is an incredible flatness about her, the dispirited air of one who knows everything but has caused nothing. Her face is wholly without animation or humour, but deep down beneath the layers of impassivity, there’s something. Fury, resentment, hate, antagonism?
I switch off the tape-recorder and the Dame says “Let’s have tea.” In the dining-room an enormous tea has been laid. Silver and porcelain gleam in the afternoon sunlight. Small plates of shortbread hearts, chocolate fudge, meringues, and miniature cucumber sandwiches are placed about the tablecloth. But the whole arrangement is dominated by a giant circular extravaganza of pale yellow and coffee butter cream, theoretically a cake but with, as it happens, very little cake in it.
“We moved here because my husband, like all men, wanted to live in the country,” she says as she slices up a wedge of cake on porcelain plates and puts them on the floor for the dogs. “But we had to be near London for his business.”
“Isn’t there a ghost here?”
“It’s been laid. It used to sit in the drawing-room on the sofa by the fire. Beatrix Potter lived here as a girl. The original house was Elizabethan and I think it was Potter’s grandfather, who was rich and common, who pulled it down and built this. It was improved enormously by the man who was here before me, he had two American millionaire wives and it had seven bathrooms which was the great attraction and unheard of. Now we’ve got 12 bathrooms! Anyway Beatrix Potter was sitting in the drawing-room one night and the candles went out one by one as though snuffed out by an invisible hand. She was frightened but her grandmother stayed calm and rang for a footman who relit them.”
“Do you have any phobias?”
“No… pho-bi-as. Like being frightened of spiders.”
“Frightened of spiders? Of course not, don’t be ridiculous!”
“And what are your regrets?”
She gives the demure, simpering 1920s smile and says “I don’t think I’ve got any.”
The secretary pops in and says “The Daily Mirror is on the phone. They want a response to what the Bishop of Edinburgh has just said.”
“What did he just say?”
“Extramarital affairs are not sinful but genetic.”
“How awful,” replies the Dame matter-of-factly but opening her eyes very wide. “I think the church has gone mad,” and she battles out to the telephone to tell them so as I pick off several more mini-cucumber sandwiches. I don’t believe I’ve said that Dame Barbara was born 9th July 1901 (she used to say 1904 until longevity became her strong point) into a family of Birmingham businessmen. Her grandfather went bankrupt and shot himself. Her father lived as a gentleman in reduced circumstances.
When she returns I notice that her eyes look eerily young. Liquid and shining and deep. They weren’t like that before and she must have taken the opportunity to put some rejuvenator in them. Her leaflet recommends Eyebright from Healthcrafts so I presume that’s what it is. The effect is disconcerting, but I’m delighted she gets herself up in all this stuff, the pink, the tapes, the false eyelashes, the hairdo, all of it. It’s marvellous that she refuses to be a little grey old lady sitting quietly in the corner.
My mind wanders briefly, when I come round again she is saying “…the poor darling, her son calls himself the King of Albania, and she was the queen but he’s stuck her in that place, you know, the…