Romance at twilight time
N several occasions this week, we’ve had a chance to catch Jacquetta May’s sympathetic tribute to the grande-dame of romantic novelists, Barbara Cartland – IN LOVE WITH BARBARA (BBC4).
Over recent months, BBC4 has invited us to sympathise with a host of female icons of yesteryear – Mary Whitehouse, Fanny Cradock and Margaret Thatcher – and though the tone of these playlets has been tongue-in-cheek, the writers have always done their job with heart as well.
In the minds of many viewers, Cartland is practically indistinguishable from Dame Edna Everage – a cartoon figure in pink chiffon, fluttering eyelids like
Ofly-traps as she dictates romantic stories to a secretary seated behind a chaise longue. But she was a real person. And as this portrait shows, the fictional world of smouldering heroes and swooning girls that Cartland painted might have been a substitute for a love life she could never have herself.
Denied or disillusioned by the men of her generation who’d either been killed or maimed in the First World War, the young Cartland (Sinead Matthews) poured her affections on to her brother Ronald (Tom Burke). He became her confidante throughout her first, unhappy marriage, popping round to edit her books as hubby sloped off to get drunk at his club.
Some of these scenes were less powerful than the writer might have intended them to be. Matthews’ attempt to mimic the Cartland voice resulted in a scratchy lisp reminiscent of Bonnie Langford’s Violet Elizabeth Bott, the annoying friend of Just William. The line “I just can’t get him to do what I want, Wonald” might have started out as the cry of an unloved heart, but it came out like an oft-quoted line from an old Carry On film.
Things improved as the story unfolded. Like many an ambitious woman, Cartland learned to be the power behind the throne, juggling early novels with masterminding Ronald’s political career, which never reached the dizzying heights she had predicted. However, she was devastated by Ronald’s death in the Second World War, which sent her to the fringes of New Age mysticism.
She got a chance to replay her love, much more satisfyingly, in the twilight of her years, with Lord Mountbatten. The scenes between these two elderly lovers – played brilliantly by Anne Reid and David Warner – managed to be sweet without being sickly, partly because we saw them both as real people, partly because of the jokes.
There was a brief spat when the pair collaborated on a novel – a romance, naturally – set on board a ship of the line in 1815. After Mountbatten pointed out that a torrid love affair in the West Indies would have been hampered by the Battle of Waterloo closer to home, Cartland lost patience. “Life is difficult for my ladies,” she lectured him, referring to the readers. “They have fat husbands and children with squints. They don’t need to know how many frigates Napoleon had.”
In her view, love should triumph over everything. That, of course, was the extra ingredient in the twilight love scenes. We knew love couldn’t triumph for long, because we knew Mountbatten’s unfortunate fate. We found ourselves wishing that a fairy godmother in pink chiffon would sprinkle magic on the plot and send the lovers into the sunset. But this was a tale about life, and life isn’t like that. That, of course, is why Cartland’s books did so well.