Tuesday 9 July 2013

Pioneers of Aerotowing, 1: Barbara Cartland

Had she not been cruelly plucked from us at the age of 98, Dame Barbara Cartland - socialite, celebrity, figure of fun, self-appointed expert on many things, tireless self-publicist and staggeringly prolific romantic novelist - would have been 112 today. She is still the third biggest-selling author ever, behind only Shakespeare and Agatha Christie. The upper estimate of her worldwide sales is one billion, and her published titles number 722 (23 of them in the annus mirabilis of 1983 alone). Apparently, as with Agatha Christie, her worldwide success owed a lot to the fact that her books - with their simple style and vocabulary and formulaic structures - are very effective tools for learning English, though heaven knows what idea of our national life students would gain from reading Cartland and Christie...
  Cartland's early work was avowedly inspired by the racy novels of Elinor Glyn (of It Girl fame) and she belongs in the tradition of Marie Corelli, Ouida, Ethel M. Dell, and indeed the fictional Angel - a tradition that surely died with Dame Barbara. She also seems at one time to have drawn rather heavily on Georgette Heyer (a very much better writer), who in 1950 threatened a plagiarism suit.
 To her credit, Dame Barbara did much good public work - especially during the war, when she served in the War Office in various charitable capacities, as well as being very active in the St John's Ambulance Brigade. Less well known is her contribution to aviation, as a pioneer of aerotowing (gliders towed by planes), a technique which was to play a part in winning the war.
  Her daughter Raine's social success exceeded even her own, as she married Earl Spencer and became stepmother to Diana, Princess of Wales. Barbara and Diana didn't get on, and the Princess did not invite her step-grandmother to her wedding, but the pair had apparently made up by the time of Diana's death. Cartland reportedly said of the Princess: 'The only books Diana ever read were mine, and they weren't awfully good for her.'
  I shall draw a veil over Dame Barbara's singing career - but, if you must, you can sample her warbling here...


  1. Joey Joe Joe Jr.9 July 2013 at 20:29

    Truly a mine of information, Nige! She also inspired one of the funnier Little Britain characters: Dame Sally Markham, who dictates romantic novels to her secretary, reclined on chaise longue, box of chocolates and bichon frise on lap, clearly struggling to maintain her prolific output. Saying that, the footage that the sketch is surely based on is better:
    Her legacy lives on in other strange ways, for years now NASA have been investigating the feasibility of using aerotowing to launch light satellite-carrying gliders, reducing the cost putting communication satellites into low-earth orbit.

  2. Any biography of Ms. Cartland should make some room for her beloved bother, Ronald, who, as a young Tory backbencher in the thirties, was one of the outspoken Troublesome Young Men who challenged appeasement and earned the very substantial wrath and punishment of Chamberlain and his lackey whip, David Margesson. Many of the others went on to vindication and glory, but Ronald enlisted as soon as war broke out and was killed during the BEF's retreat to Dunkirk.

  3. Thanks Joey Jo - good to know aerotowing lives on. And thanks Peter - Ronald C sounds a very remarkable man - and how much tragedy there was in BC's life - Ronald and other brother in WWII, father in WWI, etc. It must have contributed to her formidable character...