HERTFORDSHIRE, ENGLAND — Even for the Queen of Romance, Barbara Cartland's royal and romantic credentials are unique. The author of hundreds of historical romance novels--in which the girl lands the nobleman and lives happily ever after--lives herself in a fairy-tale-pretty Hertfordshire mansion 20 miles from central London and a stone's throw from historic Hatfield House, where in 1558 Elizabeth I received the news that she had become Queen of England.
The pair of gold dipped acorns Cartland wears around her neck are from an oak tree in her garden said to have been planted by Elizabeth I and local folklore has it that they're lucky charms.
On a more contemporary note, Cartland has a future queen practically in the family--her daughter, Raine, is Princess Diana's step-mother.
One doesn't so much seek an interview with Barbara Cartland, the world's best-selling author with a tally of 515 books to her name and sales in nearly 40 countries topping 500 million; rather she grants journalists a tea-time audience.
One approaches through winding, tree-lined country lanes following detailed route instructions faxed by one of Cartland's four secretaries. "On the left a turquoise blue fence, which is the beginning of the estate . . . turn sharp left through big ornamental gates with a sign that says Camfield Place."
The two-story, ivy-covered Victorian residence has turquoise painted window frames and an air of romantic tranquillity. The love theme begins with the stone cherubs and Cupids set in the garden on both sides of the sweeping driveway. There are more inside--gilt ones.
Cartland sees journalists in the opulent library where, every afternoon, she reclines on a red velvet sofa and dictates the next 6,500-word chapter of another book to her literary secretary. For 14 years she's been working this way ("it's less ponderous than writing") at the rate of 23 romances a year--a completed novel every two weeks.
A chorus of furious barking from two dogs signals their mistress's approach. Her labrador is the successor to the one given her by her great friend and cousin of the queen, the late Lord Mountbatten. That dog is immortalized in Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum in London.
Not that Cartland particularly appreciated the wax sculpture of her darling dog. "They asked me to go and look at him and I said: 'I think it's lovely for the chamber of horrors,' and they wouldn't speak to me after that," she said, laughing.
Just past her 89th birthday, she wears her snow-colored hair teased into a candy floss style and staggering false eyelashes that would be considered long on someone a half-century her junior. They've become her hallmark.
"When you get older your eyes get smaller so I thought I'd have false eyelashes and they've just grown in size. If people don't like them then they needn't look," she said.
A Cartland tour of her house includes the slightly Hollywood-style bedroom with the regal canopied four-poster bed she's slept in since she married for the first time in 1927. The house was once owned by the father of Beatrix Potter, author of the Peter Rabbit children's books. "Lord Queenborough had the house before I bought it in 1950," said Cartland, "and he had two millionairess American wives who put in the parquet flooring and--hold your breath--10 bathrooms. No one had 10 bathrooms in those days--now I've got 12."
Barbara Cartland was born in Birmingham in 1901, and probably got the genes for a full life from both sets of grandparents. Her paternal grandfather helped to build Birmingham during the Industrial Revolution and made and lost a fortune. Her maternal grandfather was one of the first to climb Europe's highest mountain, Mt. Blanc, and was among the earliest travelers on the Trans-Siberian Railway. She has described her life in five autobiographies and written biographies of her brother and her mother, as well as all the novels.
Cartland published her first novel, "Jigsaw," when she was 22. She'd always read novels and when she announced to her brothers that she was going to write a book, they said that thanks to her frantic social life she wouldn't finish it.
She did. "It went into six editions and was translated into five languages. I wrote it all in my own hand, and that was the beginning."
Her social success gave her entre into journalism when a friend became the social editor of London's Daily Express. Its owner, the British press baron William Maxwell Aitken, Lord Beaverbrook, asked her to phone in a paragraph the morning after each ritzy party she attended for a fee of five shillings.
"He used to ask me 'Why have you put the verb here?' and I hadn't the slightest idea, (having been) dragged up during the war with half a governess."