In the background to the lifelong role she played as the queen of love, there was one story which always haunted Dame Barbara Cartland, who has died aged 98. In telling it, she gave away much about herself.
It was about a poor-born but dazzlingly beautiful woman, slightly older than herself, who married young into the aristocracy and went to Paris to buy clothes. There she fell in love with another man, ruinously for her marriage, social position and finances. "She was ecstatically, completely overwhelmed by it," Cartland said, "as only a rather stupid woman can be."
Privately, Cartland was never stupid in that way. Although she claimed her books - more than 600 big-selling romantic novels - told the truth about love, her hearts-and-flowers, virginal romanticism was underlaid by a voracious, hard-working, hard-as-nails commonsense.
This quality, more energising than her famous 60-a-day vitamin pills, gave her an active longevity. Long life, coupled with a virtuoso instinct for self-publicity, made her into an upper middle-class monstre sacrée . In her mid-nineties she was still producing books (outside of the novels she also wrote biographies, children's stories, radio plays, beauty hints and domestic advice), replying to hundreds of letters by return of post and giving superb value in media interviews, during which she concealed her failing sight and turned her deafness into a fearsome defence against awkward questions. Her last book, a novel entitled Love, Lies and Marriage, was published in 1997.
Behind her immensely willed facade was a pathos and perceptible loneliness, though she treated this as an impertinent intruder. In her eighties, she confessed that she had always tended to dislike being touched.
The name of her game, begun in an embarrassing childhood of genteel poverty, was keeping up appearances. It was a gallant and - in the old-fashioned sense of the word- gay performance, a class act. Most endearingly, she was the soul of indiscretion. When her step-granddaughter Diana became engaged to Prince Charles, Cartland forecast that she would "reign forever as the queen of love."When, however, the marriage foundered, Dame Barbara said, "She has never really understood men."
Her love stories, usually dictated in one-sentence paragraphs, were - though stereotyped - brisk, researched with historical fervour and seldom cloying. Their popularity was genuine and long. In 1995, Essex county libraries had more than 300 of her titles- nearly half her 70-year output- in stock, compared with 208 for her romantic novelist contemporary Ursula Bloom and 27 for her own childhood mentor, Ethel M Dell.
Pre-eminent among her five autobiographies is We Danced All Night (1970), shrewd and full of anecdotes. It deserves to stand high as a memoir and source-book of the twenties. She interviewed Marconi, lunched as an ingénue with Churchill, Beaverbrook and the scientist FE Smith, bickered with Noel Coward at Deauville and Mountbatten at Broadlands. She lived in interesting times with her ears, eyes and mind open but she never, as her mother had hoped, became an aristocrat except by proxy through her daughter Raine, who achieved it thrice by marriage.
Her paternal grandfather, James Cartland, who had a pseudo-Gothic villa in Edgbaston, made his money with a Birmingham brass factory. Her mother's family were Gloucestershire minor landed gentry. The two quarrelling grandfathers failed to agree a marriage settlement, with disastrous consequences. In 1902, James over-extended himself with a railway investment, went bankrupt and blew his brains out.
The newlyweds' lifestyle collapsed from a country house with 12 servants to a glorified cottage with two. Cartland's amiable but indigent father Bertie had to travel to shoots by bicycle. But her determined mother, Polly, took as her motto, "Poor I may be, common I am not". Through thrift and personality she managed to maintain some of their social cachet.
Cartland never forgot that; she modelled herself on her mother, who also lived until the age of 98. When Bertie was killed in the trenches in 1917, they could not afford to buy mourning. "I have had my coat and skirt dyed black," she wrote to her mother, "Would you like me to get my coat-frock done too?".
This bouncy spirit of make-do-and-mend enabled her to have a London season. Through teaching at a Knightsbridge Sunday school - where she was popular because she cliff-hangingly serialised Bible stories - she gained entry to the tea dance circuit. She got an art student, Norman Hartnell, later the Queen's couturier, to make her dresses free. She was, as she acknowledged, no beauty. Her assets were irrepressible gaiety and "rather large, surprised eyes."
She made her first money drawing menu cards for parties and selling paragraphs to gossip columns. In 1923 the first of her romances, Jigsaw, earned her £200. The News Chronicle review said, "If this is Mayfair, let me live in Whitechapel." Yet, We Danced All Night brings out, better and more compassionately than most other accounts of the period, the part that shell shock, mass bereavement and unemployment played in the brittleness of the 20s.
She claimed to have had 46 proposals of marriage. But her first marriage in 1927 was undistinguished, to Sachie McCorquodale, of Cound Hall, Shropshire, who had the government contract to print postal orders. Though he sired Raine, he drank furtively and was unsatisfactory in bed.
Finding love letters in his wallet, she sued for divorce. He counter-sued, alleging adultery with his brother Hugh, who had been seen visiting Barbara in her bedroom while he was away. Her advocate, the legendary Sir Patrick Hastings, convinced a jury that this was normal if idiosyncratic behaviour for a lady novelist. But it had been the closest shave of her life. The beaten Sachie retired to hospital for two years with heart trouble.
In 1936 she married Hugh. The union, a contented one, produced two sons and lasted till his death from the after-effects of a first world war wound in 1963.
The second world war took the lives of both her brothers, Ronald and Tony. Ronald, whom she idolised, had been a One-Nation Tory in the pre-war Churchill faction of the party: Churchill wrote a glowing foreword to her memoir of him.
Unbowed, she travelled the country scavenging secondhand wedding dresses for the War Office to give to service brides- a contribution which by itself deserved a damehood, she said. She achieved that title in 1991 and made no secret about how. She said she had lobbied every politician she knew.
By the time of Hugh's death, she had written 67 novels. Afterwards her workrate accelerated to 10,000 words a day. Her tempo of interviews also increased, in the reflected glory of Raine's aristocratic marriages. In 1981 she overreached herself by organising with Raine a lucrative tourist operation to exploit Diana's wedding. She was not asked to the ceremony but- though badly hurt- managed to gloss over the snub.
The same year she was designated Achiever of the Year by the American furnishing industry for wallpaper and fabric designs. In 1988 Jacques Chirac, mayor of Paris, gave her a gold medal for selling 30m books in France.
In 1990 she sent national newspapers her own obituary, bound with pink ribbon. "I have endured a certain amount of teasing and sometimes ridicule by the press," she wrote, "but I have been shown great kindness."
In 1994 her butler sold his story to the News of the World. The worst he found to disclose was that she called all her maids Miss Snookeypuss and sometimes slapped them.
Her own most apt account of herself came in an interview when she was asked about reincarnation. "Most people tell you they were Cleopatra or some Queen", she said, "I was Scheherazade in the bazaar, telling a story every few minutes".
She is survived by her daughter Raine from her first marriage, and the sons from her second.
Michael De-la-Noy writes:
One of the first people I contacted in 1995 when I was commissioned to write a biography of Mervyn Stockwood was Barbara Cartland, for I realised she and the bishop had known one another. I was invited for tea, where letters from Stockwood, thanking Dame Barbara for donations for the homeless at Christmas, were unearthed.
She had a knack of making you feel at home by the most extraordinary display of unselfconscious behaviour. Within minutes of my arrival the telephone rang. The Grande Dame answered it herself. It was one of her sons. Thrusting the receiver at me she said: "You talk to him, darling. He knows far more about Mervyn than I do."
And while I talked on the telephone Dame Barbara sat at the desk and powdered her nose. How any more make-up was meant to stick to her already fantastically rouged face I could not imagine, nor why she thought that any more was needed. She already looked like a panto dame, with her startling false eyelashes and a wispy white hair whipped up to look like a Viking's helmet.
A taxi ride from the station had taken me into the heart of Hertfordshire rhododendron-land. The house was difficult to date: heavily panelled, hung with some good 18th century portraits and with lots of lovely china, yet the drawing room reminded me of an ice-cream parlour, all green and red, with chairs that were surprisingly frayed, and banks of flowers precariously perched on stands and tied with gigantic ribbons. It was bad taste on the grandest possible scale.
Dame Barbara's conversation was as uninhibited as her flamboyant, frankly rather grotesque, appearance. To a very large extent it revolved around sex, although she hastened to explain there was no sex in her novels. That was why they sold so well - and anyway, all the plots had been given her by God.
Yet she appeared to have sex on the brain. I was entertained, for example, to a pretty full and frank account of Lord Mountbatten's sex life, and she even made a reference to the pain she had endured on the first night of her own honeymoon.
Tea was served at one end of an enormous dining room table. The centrepiece of a generous spread was a confection of pink, green and white froth, a good deal of which was consumed on the carpet by an affectionate black labrador. Dame Barbara too tucked into the meringue. She spoke of the guests she had invited to luncheon the following Sunday. "You must come, darling, it's so important for people like you to meet people like them."
The lunch party was scheduled for 12.30pm and as I was early I hid in the shrubbery until the appointed hour, only to find a seriously wealthy baronet with a castle in Scotland, a Rolls-Royce and a suite at Claridge's, and a 90-year-old peer, dressed in a sporty waistcoat and accompanied by his third wife, already knocking back the champagne. We were eventually joined by a Russian princess who had hitched a lift from Hampstead, and several members of the cast of almost any Gilbert and Sullivan Opera.
Why we were all there no one seemed to know. Speeches were made, toasts were drunk, port was circulated. On the hall table were stacked presents for the departing guests - paperback editions of Dame Barbara's novels, wrapped in gaudy paper and tied with pink bows.
After recovering from the shock of my first sight of Dame Barbara, and despite her relentless rightwing lament that the country had gone to the dogs, I had warmed to her rather endearing dottiness. Yet I found her utterly exhausting. It was like being spoken to by a battering ram, and as with royalty, no disagreement or contradiction was called for.
As for the lunch party, it bore no resemblance to reality, but in that respect it faithfully mirrored the personality of our hostess.
Mary Barbara Hamilton Cartland, author, born July 9 1901; died May 21 2000
The things she said . . .
"The trouble with half the Socialists is they're suffering from vitamin deficiency."
"Soup is usually the only course served by the butler." (1972).
"The two best exercises in the world are making love and dancing but a simple one is to stand on tiptoe." ( 1972)
"You can either keep your face or your figure but my advice is to keep your face - which people look at first - and sit down." ( Beauty and Health, 1972)
"I shall hit you if you ask me whom a man is supposed to bed if all my women are virgins. Such a stupid question- they go to brothels, of course." (1978)
"Being 18 is like visiting Russia. You're glad you've had the experience but you'd never want to repeat it." (1978)
"If a woman's going to leap into the bedroom waving a sex manual and demanding her rights to have 15 orgasms every five minutes, men are going to lose their pride and confidence. Do that to a man and he's finished." (1978)
"Modern sex education stinks. Children are taught far too much too soon about the mechanism of sex, until a 12-year-old feels she should crawl away and die if she's still a virgin." (1978)
"Since my heroines are always virgins, they go down a bomb with the Arabs." (1979)
"Nobody sends up Barbara Cartland better than I do myself. I employ three secretaries and six outside people. I have the biggest Xerox you can buy. It's a factory here. I'm Top of the Pops and I've worked very hard for it." (1981)
"My mother, who was an outstanding rider, was always mounted by the master of foxhounds, Lord Charles Cavendish Bentinck, brother of the Duke of Portland." (From her own epitaph, How I Want to be Remembered, 1990).