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Jewish World Review May 31, 2000 /26 Iyar, 5760

Paul Greenberg

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Barbara Cartland's romance comix: She knew us better than you might think -- "HE KISSED HER until she was no longer herself but his, and it was so wonderful that it was impossible to think of anything except that she loved him and he filled her whole world, and she was no longer afraid. All she knew was that she was close against him and he was kissing her wildly, passionately, demandingly and the world stood still. ...''

Our Heroine's biography was as dramatic as her prose, and a good deal more interesting. She would blossom into a world-famous author (723 books translated into 36 languages) who would set shopgirls' hearts racing from Quito to Bangkok. Having rejected a titled newspaper tycoon's advances, she would allow him to advance her career (a girl's got to think about her future) before a Mr. Right or two came along. She would dash off an average of 23 books a year during the '80s -- and her 80s.

Our celebrated author would come a long way from her mother's modest shop in London, where they'd had to move after Dad had been lost in the Great War. Who would have guessed that she would go on to marry, twice, and that the second marriage (1936-63) would take? Or that she would die on her 400-acre estate outside London in her prime (at 98) as step-grandmother of a late and equally dramatic Princess of Wales? But all of that would pale beside the exquisite. strong, masculine touch of her one true love, forever preserved in a thousand paperbacks. ...

He, of course, never changed -- in appearance, personality or attraction -- no matter how many hundreds of her books he appeared in without ever aging. To quote the description of a Barbara Cartland hero in the New York Times, he "was invariably a dark, square-jawed chap, perhaps with bulging biceps, incessantly given to splendid thoughts, despite his worldliness. He was furthermore possessed of that indefinable magnetism that seems to surround men who have an enormous bankroll, a title and all the good connections needed to keep good women out of harm's way forever.''

There is a point at which dime-store art connects with all of us, whether you take it seriously or not. Barbara Cartland, after a lifetime of mapping the frontiers of kitsch, knew just where that point was, and why.


What a dame, literally. By royal decree, Miss Cartland was made a Dame of the Order of the British Empire in 1991. (Yes, like Elizabeth Taylor.) And when she wasn't relaxing in pink chiffon on her chaise lounge with her Pekingese, Twi-Twi, by her side while she dictated one of her best sellers, Miss Cartland lived an active life off the page.

Rah-ther. You could trace almost a century of British history in her resume: In the Empire's finest hour, she was Chief Lady Welfare Officer for Bedfordshire, having been one of the Bright Young Things back in the '20s, when she wrote plays, gossip columns and anything else to make a pound or two before discovering her true metier: the romance novel. She made it a low high art, understanding that it needed to be more romance than novel. Whether you read her stuff for ladylike fantasy or just laughs, it was something.

Also, somewhere along the way, Dame Barbara became a national champion of various people who needed championing in English society: midwives, nurses, gypsies and old people -- though she never became one of the latter. There may have been times when she was poor, but she was never common. You can tell a great society by the eccentrics it produces, and Dame Barbara was a continual testament to Englishness.

Our heroine had a genius for appealing to the popular taste, but it would be wrong to call her a slave to fashion. On the contrary, some fashions she despised. For example, she was one woman who was not about to step down to equality.

"Personally,'' she once said, "I want to be loved, adored, worshiped, cosseted and protected. Judging by the Romantic boom, this is what women all over the world want.'' She knew her audience, herself, her sex and indeed something about her species. There m

ay be more social wisdom tucked into one of Barbara Cartland's potboilers than all the dim, elevated, androgynous sociology ever written. "People don't roll around naked in my books,'' she explained. At least not without a marriage license. How old-fashioned. She understood something about allure: "You can't get more naked than naked, can you, and then where do you go from there?'' It's the same question that finally undid the Sixties. As for the post-modern, permissive society, Miss Cartland had seen its prequel as a flapper in the Roaring Twenties, and was not impressed. She saw through the inferior replay, sans costumes, in the Sixties, and pronounced it "an awful, crushing flop. There's no reason for all that pornography.''

Dame Barbara preferred soft-core romance. She once opined that she liked France because "it is the only country in the world where you can make love in the afternoon without someone hammering on the door.''

Barbara Cartland will be remembered as long as young misses into orthodontics devour her books, middle-aged ladies around the world dip into them surreptitiously, and prose remains purple.

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©2000, Los Angeles Times Syndicate