The British press has been in a flap the last couple of weeks in response to a lecture in which Hilary Mantel, the prizewinning author of Wolf Hall and Bringing Up the Bodies, sharpened her authorial scalpel on the new duchess of Cambridge and the late Princess Diana. Was Mantel on to something, or just being mean? Did she attack the royals or the press and society?
I don’t intend to take up any of those questions here. You can decide for yourself by reading Mantel’s “Royal Bodies” online. But Mantel mentions in passing the romance novelist Barbara Cartland, who happens to have been Princess Diana’s step-grandmother. Mantel says that she is “far too snobbish to have read” a Cartland novel, but that she assumes “they are stories in which a wedding takes place and they all live happily ever after. Diana didn’t see the possible twists in the narrative.” “She didn’t know the end of her own story.”
In short, Mantel invokes—perhaps unintentionally, perhaps not—the old canard that romance novels are the equivalent of the distaff that pricks Princess Aurora’s finger and sends her into a hundred-year sleep, and reading a book that concludes with a wedding and a fairy-tale ending forces you to believe that life plays out the same way. My buddy Diana Holquist has already tackled the romance novelist aspect of Mantel’s comments in this post. Today I’m talking about the second part: the readers.
Confession time: I used to read Barbara Cartland novels. I read quite a lot of them, in fact—probably about thirty—when I was in college. I read them with several of my close friends, and we thought they were a complete and total hoot. I lent one to my mother right after her hysterectomy, and I had to take it away from her because she was so busy laughing that she nearly tore out her stitches. I read Georgette Heyer, too, and Emilie Loring, but Cartland was, by far, the ideal study break. You could toss one off in an hour and a half, read the choice passages aloud to the rest of the group, chortle a bit, and get back to work.
Barbara Cartland went on to have a truly spectacular career: she published 723 novels and reportedly left another 160 to her estate. Hence my thirty constitutes such a tiny fraction of the whole that it would be negligible, were it not for one thing. Every Cartland novel has the same plot: beautiful (or potentially beautiful) virgin meets handsome, dashing, relatively young (but always older than she) nobleman and instantly falls in love. Something—usually several somethings—gets in the way, but sooner or later virgin and nobleman declare their love and marry or, if married early in the book, declare and consummate their love. The virgins are always innocent, the noblemen worldly, one or both of them has enough money to support a small country, and anything much beyond a kiss occurs only between a married couple and then behind closed doors.
And there are ellipses—lots and lots of ellipses. Whenever the virgin must interact with the man of her dreams, you can count on ellipses (my college friends and I referred to them as dot dot dot, as in “I love you dot dot dot Drogo. [Yes, even my sample included several heroes named Drogo—I have never personally known a human being named Drogo, have you?] I love you dot dot dot and I am dot dot dot yours, completely and absolutely yours. I dot dot dot always have been”).
The purple prose, the conviction that one look sets a person’s destiny forever, the bizarre twists dressing up the same underlying plot (American heiress loses 200 pounds, moves to her husband’s ducal estate, and goes unrecognized while she wins his heart in The Unknown Heart; Irish heiress dons dark glasses and moves to London, marries a duke who’s in love with her aunt, runs off to Paris and goes unrecognized as a pretend courtesan while she wins the duke’s heart in Desire of the Heart, the source of the Drogo quotation above), the cookie-cutter titles: it’s all hilarious. But is it, as Hilary Mantel implies, dangerous?
I suppose it could be, if anyone takes it seriously. But is that possible?
I can’t speak for Princess Diana. My acquaintance with her didn’t extend beyond watching her wedding in 1981 and endless glimpses on the nightly news thereafter. I wouldn’t presume to know what she read or what she thought about what she read. Perhaps, at nineteen, she did believe in fairy tales.
I know I did. I read Heyer and Loring because I believed in fairy tales—or at least desperately wanted to believe in them, despite already suspecting that life was not that simple. When I grew older and acquired more experience, I stopped reading Loring in favor of more complicated stories; eventually, I stopped reading romances and moved on to other kinds of books—although I still love Georgette Heyer, who had a gift for characterization few other authors can match. And although I write romance into my own novels, my romances never quite fit the formula and remain secondary to the plot. I can’t make it work. I want something more realistic.
But even in my romance-reading heyday, Barbara Cartland’s fairy tale was too outrageous to swallow. It was funny four decades ago, and it’s even funnier now (yes, I found used copies of the American and Irish heiresses’ stories on Amazon.com). If Princess Diana believed that story for a moment, it can only have been because her life imitated it—for a few months, until she found out that she wasn’t playing the heroine’s part in her husband’s story after all. Then real life intervened, and she had to deal with it, just like everyone else. Maybe once in a while she reread the fairy tales for solace, until they became too painful and she put them aside.
Fairy tales aren’t real, even when we wish they could be. But just like a trip to the Caribbean, they can offer a fun place to escape—for an hour. Let’s not bash readers by assuming they don’t have the sense to know the difference.
|Dame Barbara Cartland|
Queen of Romance (and Pink)