Thursday, 20 August 2020

Excusing Barbara Cartland

I had a good laugh at Barbara Cartland's expense after finishing Mission to Monte Carlo. I texted my literary chum who sniggered, thanks for the heads up, just in case I have a lobotomy and reach for one of her tomes. Why would anyone ever read a Barbara Cartland?

I emailed my sister next, chortling that my IQ had dropped several points. She said that our nan used read the fuchsia-frocked novelist's books. Really? I paused to consider what this working class woman born in the first decade of the 20th century might see in the candy floss stories.

Nana used to send us postcards when she went on holiday. I remember her shaky script and laboured words, spotting the occasional spelling or grammatical mistake. As a teenager I felt embarrassed that my elderly relative's writing was not as accomplished as my own.

Many years later on a rare visit to my parents, Mum handed me a dented Christmas-sized Quality Street tin. It contained some faded black and white photo portraits and fragile yellowing papers. One of these was a certified copy of Nana's birth certificate, for the purposes of labour, dated 13 July 1918, three months after her 12th birthday.

At the age when I was blithely reading Shakespeare and Tennyson my nan had been working for four years. Her schooling had been brought to a halt before she was a teen. She had never talked about the past and I had never asked. I can only imagine that after a tedious day in a noisy mill she would have returned home to chores. Marriage might have freed her from going out to work, but raising children and keeping a house would have taken up all her time at home. When would she have read a book? When would she have been able to exercise her reading muscle? Later in life when she finally put her feet up, would she have wanted to wrestle with Virginia Woolf? I can see why she would have gone for something cheap and cheerful: a romantic story with a happy ending, and in keeping with her nonconformist beliefs, no swearing and no sex.

Barbara Cartland's oeuvre ticked all the boxes for Nana.

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