In 1980, the Christmas windows at iconic London department store Selfridges featured a romantic tableau: two mannequins, a man and a woman, swept up in a waltz, underneath a chandelier, next to a festively decorated Christmas tree. He wore the classic Prince Charming costume, topped with sash and epaulets; she looked like a meringue, engulfed in ruffles and flounces. The window was a little Cinderella, a little Empress Sisi of Austria—Guardian coverage notes that the couple was wearing “Austro-Hungarian” dress. But their surroundings would have perhaps confused a 19th-century archduke: the Christmas tree was “laden with healthy elixirs and boxes of vitamin pills,” including kelp tablets.
Several celebrities had been invited to design scenes that year, among them Dallas star Larry Hagman. But perhaps the most famous was the woman responsible for this particular window, who appeared for some photos decked out in a dazzling fur muff and hat with a giant broach and a five-strand pearl necklace, sporting her signature vivid makeup topped off by absolutely enormous lashes: Barbara Cartland, acknowledged Queen of Romance and one of the world’s best known, bestselling authors, who published more than 600 books over the course of her long career. The black-and-white photos that survive are timeless—they could have been taken in 1965.
Cartland’s Selfridges window fit with her oeuvre and her entire public persona of many decades. (The kelp tablets and vitamins were part of Cartland’s longstanding public crusade on behalf of alternative health remedies to support “vitality.”) It could have been the cover of one of her hundreds of novels, perhaps Bride to the King, in which a princess from a fictional country is engaged to a young king from another made-up country, but she falls for the sensible, kind, attentive, deep-voiced, take-charge Prince Regent. He kisses her—“It was an indescribable rapture beyond expression and different from anything she had ever imagined she could feel. It was so wonderful, so rapturous, that she knew that this was what she had always thought a kiss would be like and yet beyond her wildest dreams in its ecstasy and glory”—and she immediately, haltingly blurts out: “I – love – you!” In fact, she speaks like this throughout the book, gasping – between – words. “You understand as – no one ever has – understood before and no one ever – will again,” the innocent princess chokes out later.
From another angle, if you alter the colors of the military uniform a bit, the mannequins resemble one of the most famous, celebrated marriages of the 1980s: Charles and Diana, Prince and Princess of Wales. If you squint, the dancing couple could almost be the pair on their wedding day the following year, which was staged with a worldwide audience as the ultimate Cinderella story. The Archbishop of Canterbury opened his address at the royal wedding by acknowledging it: “Here is the stuff of which fairy tales are made—the prince and princess on their wedding day.” (He proceeded to point out that the wedding isn’t really the point, and that marriage is a much longer project, which now reads like foreshadowing.)
The whole affair looked like a Cartland novel come to life, as the writer was well aware. “It mirrors my plot lines,” she told a reporter at People in advance of the wedding, “where a virginal heroine, like Di, falls passionately in love with a man of nobility and rakish, if not raffish, characteristics, like Charles. Di is chaste and chased, just like one of my characters.” And, in fact, Diana was a fan—one of her favorites, according to Tina Brown’s Diana Chronicles, was Bride to the King. There was even a family connection: Cartland’s daughter, Raine, was Diana’s stepmother.
Only, Diana couldn’t stand her stepmother, and if any story illustrates the pitfalls for a Cartland-style heroine, it’s the life of Princess Di. And despite a lifetime of advocating for virgins, for romance, for soft, youthful feminity, for “class,” Cartland was a much, much more complicated character whose life spanned almost the full length of the 20th century. A self-promoting hustler even as she bemoaned the coarsening influence of modernity on women, she embodied the contradictions of her era and was ultimately thrown over by the very genre with which she was so closely associated. But while she’s now somewhat forgotten—she was left out of The Crown—her shadow still looms over the public perception of the romance genre, shaping the stereotypes about its practitioners. Fictional romance writers festooned in pink; legions of Christmas princes striding across your TV screen; the lingering public perception of Princess Diana—they’re all intertwined with Cartland’s legacy, dancing in the shadows with her.
Barbara Cartland was born in the bucolic English Midlands in 1901, her pink shoes placed astride two eras. Her background was the stuff of, well, romance novels: In a 1979 biography, writer John Pearson locates her position in the British class hierarchy not as aristocracy, but “dispossessed Edwardian gentry.” Her grandfather went bust after investing heavily in a railway and shot himself, leaving her parents with no home and no obvious means of financial support. (They’d been living on an allowance.) Cartland’s mother Polly found them a house they could afford, guided her husband into politics, and set about the business of tenaciously clinging to their place in society, even after her husband was killed in the First World War—another setback that wasn’t simply emotionally, but also financially devastating for a woman with three children and no professional skills.
So Cartland came of age in a position recognizable to many of her heroines: She really needed to marry well, but—heavily influenced by her literary predecessors like Ethel M. Dell, as she told it—she wanted romance, and she also wanted a little fun. Fortunately for her, in postwar London the cloistered Edwardian mores of her mother’s day were falling away—chaperones were gone and “respectable” girls powdered their noses—and debutantes like Cartland had significantly more freedom than just a generation before.
The title of Cartland’s memoir of the era captures the mood: We Danced All Night, which gives the impression of an endless, sparking social whirl of parties and laughter, rendering the tight-knit world of interwar society London as a snowglobe full of pink glitter. She didn’t have much money, but she was posh enough to qualify as a debutante, and as an appealing young woman she was a fixture at parties attended by bold-faced names like Winston Churchill and Noel Coward. In her free time, she helped launch the career of designer Norman Hartnell—the man who’d rise to such heights that he eventually designed the future Queen Elizabeth II’s wedding gown—by referring him to her wealthier friends, but she usually shopped second-hand.
And since it was taking her a while to land the perfect husband—her memoir describes proposal after proposal, but she was picky—and she still didn’t have much money, Cartland got herself a very 1920s kind of job: She began feeding items to the Daily Express gossip columnist for five shillings a paragraph. She quickly progressed to her own byline, and the highly influential owner Lord Beaverbrook took her under his wing, Pearson reports, teaching her an invaluable trick: appeal to a mass readership by cramming in as much aristocracy as possible. She published her first novel in 1922, Jigsaw, about a young woman who marries a steadfast, stolid man but is tempted by his cynical, rakish brother, whom she’d met before and with whom she had shared a magical (chaste, but sexually charged) interlude. Even though the heroine is decidedly virtuous and ultimately sticks with her lawfully wedded husband, the novel was publicized as a being a bit scandalous, a sort of insider’s tell-all about the dashing, morally questionable lives of the upper crust in the fast-and-loose 1920s—“Mayfair with the lid off.”
Cartland graduated to society matron upon marrying a rich Scotsman, Alexander McCorquodale, hosting parties and turning her talents to organizing society pageants. These were elaborately costumed affairs within a broader British tradition of masquerades and historical pageants, sometimes for charity but also, more simply, an excuse for rich society women to dress in absolutely outlandish, Ziegfield Follies-style getups. A flex, basically. Hence, for instance, “Famous Trains And Their Destinations,” in support of the Kensington Fulham and Chelsea General Hospital. Her masterpiece: the “Pageant of Britain and her Industries,” in which various society women performed as “Coal,” “Wool,” “Machinery,” and “Paper.” Cartland herself appeared with three other women in the show-stopping “Shipping,” wearing a ship’s steering wheel, standing in a paper ocean.
But after five years, her life went dramatically off-script, when, after the couple drifted apart, Cartland sued McCorquodale for divorce on the grounds of adultery. This was a setback on the order of when her father and grandfather died, particularly after her husband accused her of infidelity, with his cousin, no less. Not only did she find herself in the papers for the wrong reasons, but she also didn’t get much ready cash out of the divorce, leaving her back at square one with a daughter, Raine, to support. So she doubled down on her skills and her celebrity. She kept writing novels—A Virgin in Mayfair, about an innocent debutante adrift in the choppy waters of Roaring Twenties society, published right around the time of her divorce—and she produced more journalism, and she proved handy at publicity. Cartland ultimately remarried the rich Scotsman’s also-wealthy cousin (the one mentioned in her divorce, in fact) and the pair spent many blissful years together before he died in the 1960s, from the lingering effects of his injuries in World War I. But she’d already altered the course of her life, and she was for better or for worse a career woman from the 1930s onward, producing an endless stream of what were ever-more specifically billed as romances.
She never embraced the identity, though. In fact, in 1933, the year after her divorce, when she was scrambling to earn a living, she wrote in Town Talk: “The real woman should be completely feminine, and have no real desire to take up a career or flaunt herself in public life. Women should stick to managing their men!” As the world changed, she built an entire persona on this foundation; she dug ever more tenaciously to the conservative mores of her youth as she aged, waxing louder and louder about how much better it had all been, once upon a time. Cartland’s persona morphed, from slightly scandalous young society woman of the uproarious 1920s to proud, self-appointed, pink-clad advocate for “purity,” and her work shifted to suit it. When she first began writing novels in the 1920s, they were contemporary-set romances about sheltered debs. But over the course of the ’50s and ’60s, Cartland shifted toward historical romance, with settings like Regency England and Ruritanian 19th century European countries, which provided a readier supply of sheltered virgins, her ideal subject.
In her memoir, published in 1972, she wrote: “The young men I knew in 1919 and 1920 treated me as if I were made of Dresden china. They never swore in front of me, they made no improper advances. To the men who asked me to dance I was a ‘lady’ and entitled to respect.” She’s not talking about a sort of deep, equitable caring and respect; she’s speaking about a hierarchical relationship between the sexes that accords a very specific type of respect toward a very specific type of woman. “In those days there was a very great gulf between the lady and the prostitute,” she recalled fondly, nostalgically in her memoir. As society changed over the ’60s and into the ’70s, Cartland loudly advocated for old-fashioned mores even as those mores dissolved like cotton candy in a mud puddle. Now clad strictly in either ostentatious shades of pink or—very occasionally—soft blues, she willingly put herself forward as the high-camp defender of traditional morality, always willing to appear in the media and talk about how much women wanted a specific kind of romantic love and how satisfying purity was.
“I believe in purity for women, and this is the thing I’ve been fighting for,” she told a TV interview in 1977. Cartland’s ultimate romantic fantasy was one of cosseted dependency, one that was exclusionary of sexually experienced women, working-class women, and absolutely anybody but white women.
She became a national character in Great Britain, preaching the virtues of all sorts of new-age remedies for the body, like honey and ginseng and yoga. She published numerous books about “vitality.” She boasted of curing her husband’s war-injury lung troubles with comb honey and doling out ginseng to help Margaret Thatcher’s jet lag. She talked explicitly in those books about sex, of which she was in fact a great fan—in the right time and context, of course. She argued with the sexual revolution and women’s liberation movement on any platform that would have her; once, she sat next to a big-haired, metallic-jacket-clad Jackie Collins and asked her, almost rhetorically, whether she thought her books had “helped the perverts.” And she wasn’t getting invited on because the hosts thought that the Collinses of the world needed taking down a peg, either. Tina Brown, in The Diana Chronicles, describes Cartland as “a leading player in the tabloids’ theater of embarrassment.” She was trotted out as a laugh line, frozen in amber—but she absolutely had many, many devoted fans, particularly once her books crossed the Atlantic to America.
Her reputation was so towering, in fact, that in 1983, Cartland was crowned Queen of Romance by the magazine Romantic Times, part of its second convention. She floated to the stage in a ballroom at New York’s Roosevelt Hotel, which was decked out in red drapery. A red velvet and gold (well, gold paint) throne awaited her, with a couple of fake doves perched on top. (Cartland told the New York Times that they were supposed to be live doves, but she overruled them: “They promised me the pigeons were house trained, but I have learned that they are not. So I will not have them over my head.”) She wore one of her now-signature pink dresses, an evening gown covered in embellishments that glittered wildly under a coordinating fluffy wrap that enveloped her like a vivid pink mist, giving her the appearance of a pantomime fairy godmother. Gone was the brisk young society matron of the 1930s who divorced her husband.
The promotional hoopla for this fan gathering also included the “Love Train,” in which a group of romance writers traveled together across the country, accompanied by a documentary film crew and journalist E. Jean Carroll, writing for Playgirl. It culminated in a media scrum at Penn Station, where Cartland arrived to greet the Love Train once again wearing pink—a suit and a pillbox hat with feathers shooting out of either side like geysers—wrapped in a fox fur stole, holding a bouquet of roses. She held forth on the state of romance to the reporters surrounding her, and she made clear that she wasn’t entirely pleased: “We should stop the soft porn and come back to me,” she informed a poker-faced man taking notes into a reporter’s notebook. He asked, hadn’t the genre gone through some very dramatic changes in the last decade or so?
Cartland doubled down, with smiling insistence: “It’s become soft porn, which is a terrible mistake, because that isn’t really love.”
Cartland, throughout the early 1980s, was treated as the ultimate face of her genre, because she was perhaps its most famous practitioner. At this point, Cartland had a home decor collection with Macy’s; she had a magazine for her fans and sold a board game dedicated to her literary world; she had a perfume collection; she appeared on David Letterman, proffering a gilded acorn from the tree where Queen Elizabeth I killed her first stag. “I’ve produced so many babies on it, I warn you—just be careful,” she told the slightly stunned host.
But while she was still embraced by the genre as an important figure, authors weren’t especially trying to replicate her schtick. There’s another voice in the documentary: pioneering romance editor Vivian Stephens, who appears wearing a modern, professional suit topped by a raspberry beret. She too could be a character from a romance novel—but a very different one than the confections proffered by Cartland. “Barbara Cartland has very interesting comments on the books that are out now, because she feels that the sex is a little too prominent and the heroines should really be virgins,” Stephens says with an air of determined diplomacy.
“I think she’s entitled to her opinion and in some cases, she’s fine, but you can’t change history,” she adds in a way that is respectful but puts Cartland firmly in her place. Kathleen Falk, the founder and editor of Romantic Times, also admitted to the New York Times: “Some of us would rather experiment beforehand. We want to try them out.’’
For all that Cartland was presumed by every outlet from People to feminist journal Spare Rib as the ultimate romance author, the romance genre itself was in the midst of an upheaval that dethroned Cartland. This was the era of the career-woman romance, in which authors seemed to compete for most interesting job they could give their heroine; what makes Stephens such an important figure in the history of romance was her understanding that readers wanted a new kind of book where the happy ending could involve a fulfilling career as a husband, and the best husband was supportive of those ambitions. Stephens and many of her contemporaries were working to expand the boundaries of the romance; Stephens wanted to publish a diverse array of authors and launched an imprint at Harlequin with a Black woman, Sandra Kitt, in her starting lineup. When authors like Nora Roberts who got their start in the ’80s cite a British influence, it’s more likely to be midcentury romantic suspense writer Mary Stewart, whose heroines were conventional, but also tough enough to face down murderers and other thriller-plot villains in their smart, full-skirted dresses, or Georgette Heyer, who is almost as responsible for creating the Regency romance as the towering Jane Austen. (In fact, she once nearly sued Cartland over the similarities between her own work and Cartland’s Hazard of Hearts.)
“Women are not happy when they’re not being made a fuss of and cosseted and protected and loved,” Cartland insisted while being interviewed for Where the Heart Roams. “What people want is strong men and repressed women, and there’s not enough of that around,” she said on another occasion. But if Cartland spun tales of cosseted dependency, Stephens and her contemporaries were committed to the attractions of fulfilling partnership—a bedrock foundation for that happily ever after. “A wise woman will always tell a man he is a wonderful lover, and hope he will become one!” Cartland insisted in one of her many advice books. If there’s one thing upon which almost any romance novel written since 1972 can agree, whether the authors themselves are conservative or liberal, it’s that such a sentiment is absolutely bogus.
Even the story of the princess has been transformed over the intervening years. Part of what made Meghan Markle such a compelling royal bride for a worldwide media audience was that she wasn’t the Cartland heroine who gasps out every word and has never left home. She’s also biracial, and Cartland’s heroine is absolutely drenched in whiteness. Meghan was previously married; she worked successfully in entertainment. She wasn’t a virgin sacrifice to the narrative needs of the royal family and the tabloids. She refused to be. When she and Harry didn’t like the way they were treated, they packed up and they left. Their story is still unspooling and there’s no way to predict where it will end but, as it currently stands, the prince and princess escaped the tower together and, if anything, Harry is the Rapunzel.
But first, the Cartland-style fairy tale had one last spectacular hurrah: the wedding of Charles and Diana, her own step-granddaughter.
Cartland married off her daughter, Raine, very successfully. Brown relays a story from the future Lord Glenconner—himself a society character who gave Princess Margaret her slice of Mustique—about how Cartland threw a party for Raine as a debutante and only invited possible titled husbands; one of them arrived after the Earl of Dartmouth had just proposed, and she yelled down the stairs, “Don’t come up! Raine’s engaged to be married!” Raine later left the Earl of Dartmouth for the Earl of Spencer and acquired a stepdaughter who couldn’t stand her, but absolutely loved her mother’s books. That stepdaughter was Diana, future Princess of Wales.
There’s a famous picture of the young Diana gazing up from a Cartland novel, with two more in her lap. If anybody came close to embodying the Cartland ideal of a heroine, it was her step-granddaughter at the moment she met Prince Charles. Sweet, virginal, with no advanced degree, she was working at a kindergarten in the casual manner of a privileged young woman who doesn’t really need a job, much less a career. On her wedding day, she even looked like she’d stepped off the cover of a Cartland novel, most of which were by the same illustrator, featuring slight young women in voluminous skirts curved toward their tall, forbidding, saturnine love interests, the pairing perfectly represented by the twirling couple that Cartland posed in that Selfridges window. In the right light, that could describe Charles, who was billed at the time as a hot bachelor, surfing and playing polo and tooling around in his Aston Martin.
The entire institutional apparatus of the royal family overruled Camilla and pressured Charles to find a virgin, and in 1980, marriageable virgins weren’t exactly thick on the ground. So he picked a 19-year-old who absolutely wasn’t ready for the full force of the world’s media attention, at a time when media deference to the royals was dead as a doornail and the world wanted a fairy tale that fit with the tenor of the 1980s. Tina Brown basically blames Cartland for rotting Diana’s brain: “Her addiction to romance novels became a diabetes of the soul, leaving her spiritual bloodstream permanently polluted with saccharine.” Cartland reportedly said herself: “The only books she ever read were mine and they weren’t awfully good for her.” But the royal family demanded the Barbara Cartland story; the media demanded the Barbara Cartland story; the world demanded the Barbara Cartland story. Why wouldn’t Diana have expected the same? They cast her specifically for it.
Unfortunately, Charles was working with an entirely different set of narratives about how princes are entitled to behave, with a much longer history than Cartland’s stories. And the Archbishop of Canterbury was right, at the wedding: marriage is a much longer game than the fairy tale, and it is frequently profoundly disenchanting, as is adulthood generally. In a particularly cruel irony, if there’s a story of true love triumphant to be found in the last few decades of royal drama, it’s Charles and Camilla, the woman who will likely be queen in the end, after all. But even after her own fairy tale fell apart, when she’d seen a lot more of the world, Diana’s image was still bound up the collapse between the real-world HRH and the fictional princess figure, transcending the Windsors to become “the People’s Princess” upon her death.
For all that she could have scripted the marriage, Cartland was considered a liability to the union and an embarrassment to the high sticklers in the royal family. “Miss Cartland’s family connection with Lady Diana, it is whispered in the upper strata of British society, is the only thing about the future princess’s background that is not absolutely top drawer,” the Times reported in April 1981, right before the wedding. That’s the thing about Cartland. While she sold nobility and aristocracy, she was a somewhat marginal figure within high society—too loud, too indiscreet, too pink, too much. “People say, oh you write romance, in a very upper-class sort of way,” she told David Letterman. There’s always been an element of outright snobbery in the perception of romance and its readers in the English-speaking world, but particularly in Britain in Cartland’s day, the romance genre was associated with working-class shopgirls and unsophisticated housewives and therefore dismissed as trash. That’s part of the sniffiness around Diana’s having been a Cartland fan; somehow she was supposed to be an innocent, sheltered virgin as late as 1980, but at the same time she was supposed to be wised-up.
Ultimately Cartland was kept out of St Paul’s on the big day; Brown says it’s not clear whether she was outright barred, or if she was invited but to a seat behind a pillar. It was a humiliating insult for Cartland who was, after all, a near relation of the bride, if only through marriage, and a very public proponent of the notion of “class.” But, true to form, Cartland wasn’t one to be publicly downcast. She simply threw a party for St. Johns Ambulance, a charity structured as an “Order” she’d been involved with during the war, which now provides first aid training. She invited fellow members of the corps to her home at Camfield Place, in Hertfordshire, where Beatrix Potter frequently visited as a girl when it belonged to her grandparents. Cartland produced hundreds of books there, in a room lined with their cover illustrations, staffed by a troop of secretaries.
Instead of her usual pink or blue, she wore the dark, martial uniform of the charity group, as did her guests. They gathered in an elaborate mint-green room with the wedding on the television, topped by an enormous floral arrangement. Of course, a camera crew popped by Cartland’s home to capture the moment; “It really is a lovely Cinderella story, isn’t it? It’s exactly a Barbara Cartland story,” she told the camera, before toasting the couple with a glass of champagne and wishing them long life, happiness, and a life of service. It didn’t work out that way, but Diana lives on in the public imagination as the Cartland heroine—dancing alone.
This piece has been updated to reflect it was the second RT conference, not the first.