A Tribute to the Grand Dame of Romance

By Laura Bacchi

The other day I was lying in bed and thinking — I know, dangerous thing — about what inspired me to be a romance writer. Was it a combination of things or one seminal event that led to this maniacal desire to sit in front of a computer screen and type while the world whizzed by? As I traveled back in time to search for clues, an image formed in my mind of a petite, doe-eyed blonde wearing a gorgeous gown, its ruffles a blur of impressionistic strokes. She faced a tall, titled Englishman with dark hair and a chiseled jaw. By age 11, I had read all of Nancy Drew and was ready to venture into the adult fiction section in search of more insidious fare by Agatha Christie. Poor Agatha didn’t stand a chance, for a few shelves to the left sat dozens of slender paperbacks bearing names like “The Elusive Earl,” “The Fragrant Flower,” and — don’t laugh — “Little White Doves of Love.”

I peered down the aisle to make sure none of my girlfriends could see me pluck one from the shelf. The couple on the front held my interest, their forms a haze of loose brushwork that appealed to what would become the artist in me. The heroine bent forward, her bustle adding fluff to a perky backside as she peered into the eyes of Lord “No Bloody Way Will I Marry But Yet I Must Have You.” Her large eyes flashed passion and impertinence. Like the Earl, I was mesmerized.

Did the librarian let kids even check these things out? I flipped the book over and slouched to the circulation desk. The back cover, however, was just as telling; the writer’s photograph screamed ROMANCE, and my hand couldn’t hide the entire picture. The Grand Dame beamed up at me as she sat bejeweled and be-pooched, holding court somewhere in England. The woman seemed ancient to my young eyes but, oh, how regal and elegant. The librarian didn’t say a word. I took it home and finished it before dinner.

I was hooked. I tore through these sweet romances, listing their numbers and titles in the back of my Trapper Keeper. Barbara Cartland helped me procrastinate on homework during the school year and pass the lazy summer days while my athletic best friend played sports. She provided plot and dialogue for the imaginary relationship I had with John M., whose sole mission in life was to sit behind me in class and poke my neck with his pencil. But most importantly — and perhaps ironically — she marked the dwindling days of my girlhood. When a girl starts dreaming of men, those days are numbered. Barbara’s heroines, however, always held out for true love and never allowed a wayward hand into their bodices. Each book by the Dame gave me a starting point for a week-long fantasy that, though laced with tempting kisses, didn’t lead to anything sordid or contrary to my Southern Baptist upbringing.

I’m not sure who unraveled the Cartland mystique and ended my girlhood. If asked, my parents would probably blame Bobby C. This fellow church-goer and my first “real” boyfriend dared to go where no Cartland gentleman had gone before, and once a guy lights that kind of a fire under a girl, it’s hard to be satisfied reading about a caress above one’s evening glove. But I prefer to fault Judy Blume. “Forever” broke my heart. A friend billed it as a “grown-up love story” and warned me to hide it from my parents. My heart’s pitter-patter of expectation was replaced by the dull thud of heartbreak when I realized the author forgot the one thing sacred to every romance — the HEA.

In hindsight, I can appreciate the book’s warning about the transitory nature of young love. But in reality, I was crushed. I had been living in the realm of rich ladies who were swept off their slippered feet by wealthy gents who offered marriage, heirs, and estates. I had been wasting my time with tender little novels while feeding an illusion devoid of heartaches and jerky boyfriends. I’m still a dreamer, but to this day — and with apologies to my high school English teachers — I avoid books with unhappy endings. (By the way, mom blew up when she found “Forever,” but it was nothing compared to the trouble I’d stirred up with Bobby…)

I now know that reading Barbara Cartland wasn’t a waste of time after all. She made love magical while keeping my innocent girlhood intact. She wrote prolifically throughout her life. She packaged herself well. From her stylized book covers to the huge photo on the back, the woman was a marketing phenomenon. And as a member of the aristocracy, she lived the life she wrote of in her romances. Yeah, the prose was purple. But her bank account was filled with green, and no one save Mary Kay could do justice to pink like Barbara could. So if anyone has a few jewels and a white Pekingese I could borrow when I get “the call,” please let me know.

All this reminiscing compelled me to surf the web this morning and research the woman whom I hold responsible for the butt-shaped indentations in my office chair. She passed away a few years back at the age of 98, but, boy, did she live a full life. Besides writing like a fiend and breaking records in the publishing world, she traveled the globe (she even had a conversation with Howard Carter in Egypt as he sat on Tut’s tomb) and became a champion for the rights of people less fortunate than herself. Thinking about Barbara Cartland today has inspired me yet again. Not to read more romances or write more stories, but to spend more time away from the computer and see each day as an opportunity to live life to its fullest.

Now if I could only find a crowbar and pry my bottom from this chair….