I read Barbara Cartland’s atrocious final novel so you don’t have to

Death did not stop legendary romantic novelist Barbara Cartland from continuing to flood the shelves. According to her son and literary executor Ian McCorquodale, she left behind more than 160 unpublished manuscripts when she died in 2000. 

That’s not altogether surprising. Cartland was prolific, with over 720 books published in her lifetime. In 1976 alone she wrote 23, a rate of production rivalled only by her contemporary Enid Blyton.

While romance is fundamentally a factory genre, conventional publishing wisdom holds that flooding the market won’t necessarily increase sales. So having a few spares lying around isn’t a shock. 

What is surprising is that McCorquodale went ahead and published every one of these “lost” works as part of a series grandly dubbed ‘The Pink Collection’. I guess there was money to be made and copyrights to be protected, even though Cartland herself has never been the height of literary fashion.

Anyway, the original plan back in 2001 had been to release these as audio books sold on subscription for 100 pounds a year, but in the end they were all made available as printed paperbacks and ebooks at much lower prices. 

Her publishing team has moved with the times. Many of her current titles on Amazon have a canny if deceptive subtitle: “The Perfect Regency Novel for Fans of Bridgerton”.

Anyway, the final title, Love Finds The Duke At Last, was published in March 2018. 

This made me wonder: just how bad could a book which her publishers never wanted and which her son left until the very end actually be?

Perhaps fortunately for all us lovers of trash, the answer is: really bad.

Here’s the plot: Ivan, the Duke of Lavenham. is the most desirable bachelor in England. He’s on the verge of proposing to Penelope, the belle of the season, until he learns (via a letter sent to his cousin) that Penelope’s sole goal in life is to marry a Duke. Sick of being pursued solely for his title and wealth, he dumps her.

While departing from the Wilton’s summer residence near Hampton Court after letting Penelope know he’s done with her gold-digging ways, he rescues Devinia, Penelope’s down-at-heel orphan cousin who is distraught after Penelope had her pet dog Jo-Jo shot for attacking some swans. Ivan realises that Penelope’s father may demand he marry Penelope anyway to avoid ruining her reputation, so decides to immediately announce his (false) engagement to Devinia to circumvent this plan.

Devinia charms the witless servants at his country pile, and manages to convince most of his friends and relations that this is a genuine love match. Blind Freddie can deduce that Ivan will shortly fall in love with her. Somewhat unexpectedly, Penelope organises for Devinia to be kidnapped and shipped into the harem of the Sultan of Istanbul. Ivan races to Istanbul and persuades the Sultan, a personal friend, to release Penelope in return for some insanely rare jewellery. Ivan and Devinia travel to to Athens and marry immediately.

None of this is going to rival Emma, is it folks?  

Cartland’s breathless style is easy to gallop through and impressively banal. Here’s a representative sample, complete with rogue capitalisation. 

He had in fact been on the very edge of proposing marriage to Penelope simply because she was so beautiful and her special loveliness was duly acclaimed by everyone. Not only would their Wedding be the smartest and most spectacular Wedding of the year, but he would be the envy of all his male friends.

I laughed out loud at this sentence from the letter which Penelope writes to her best friend (conveniently, Ivan’s cousin) revealing her nefarious motives:

As I have always got my own way, I wanted you to be the first to know that I have won my bet and, as you can imagine, I am very pleased with myself. With so much love and please tear this letter up as soon as you have read it.

The entire thing reads like a poor first draft. Incomplete sentence fragments and typos abound. I really got  the impression that this manuscript wasn’t edited at all, just digitised and flung onto Amazon with indecent haste.

The plot, if you can dignify it with that label, hinges on a ridiculous number of coincidences and on our man Ivan being recognised and immediately accommodated by literally everyone he meets. Obviously the ending is predictable – there’s not going to be an unexpected twist or a lesbian doppelganger in a Cartland romance –  but there’s a distinct lack of jeopardy right from the start.

Sloppy writing and plotting is matched by non-existent research. Cartland almost exclusively wrote historical romances after 1950, but any evidence of basic fact-checking or period knowledge is entirely lacking. 

For instance, the story is set in summer 1901. The year is proclaimed at the beginning of the first chapter, and close to the end of the novel, whose events only span a few short weeks, we are told that the Sultan of Istanbul is taking his summer breakfast early.

Yet in a scene set just a day earlier, our heroine proclaims: “I am hoping that the Sultan will be reprimanded by Her Majesty Queen Victoria for behaving in such a disgraceful way.” Given that Victoria died in January 1901, in the depths of winter, that seems very unlikely.

Also, Babs, Istanbul is not and has never been a country, despite your repeated references to it as such. As well, the city of Istanbul did not start using that name officially until 1930. So your Sultan, ah, he’s  raisin’ concerns.

The one piece of good news? I read this mess in just over an hour, so that’s not too much of my life wasted. I can’t recommend you do the same. Spend your time enjoying Little Britain’s Cartland parody instead.

Main image: Wikimedia Commons

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