I just read my first, and last, Barbara Cartland book, Mission to Monte Carlo. It's a piece of romantic fluff set at the turn of the 20th century and so absurd that I had to imagine it was a parody of itself in order to get to the end. But while I sniggered through its seven chapters, the "happy" ending left me uneasy and fearful for the future of its heroine. I know it's only fiction, but hear me out.
Every Barbara Cartland story, so I'm led to believe, follows the same basic plot. In Mission to Monte Carlo it's this: A man who's had lots of affairs but never been in love, saves an inexperienced girl who's under pressure to offer up her virginity in exchange for secret information. The handsome man and the timid virgin fall in love spontaneously. They marry. The end.
Here's my problem. Our leading man Craig, a millionaire playboy, removes all agency from his supporting actress Aloya in what looks to me like gaslighing.
Craig always kisses "masterfully, possessively, passionately", "passionately and demandingly", "demandingly and possessively". Well, he is of course desperate for a shag, and Barbara Cartland won't allow it until the couple are married. Alarm bells start to ring when the ingénue doesn't even get a proper proposal. Craig prefers a casual approach to her father, "I think you know that the sooner Aloya and I are married, the safer she will be!"
Safer? Aloya provocatively asks what Craig would do if she were to disagree with him. He replies, "Then I shall kiss you, my beautiful darling, until you change your mind!" Those kisses now take on a sinister overtone.
Our virginal heroine looks unlikely to be the sort of wife to disagree with her husband. She tells him, "I want to kneel at your feet", and admits, "I shall always be frightened that you will find me inadequate as a wife and certainly as a housewife".
On the surface, Craig's demands seem to be innocuous but are surely ominous. "I want you, my darling, to make yourself beautiful for me" he says. One wonders what will happen if she fails to live up to his ideal of beauty.
With such a brief courtship there are bound to be secrets. Craig knows that his inexperienced fiancée "was longing to ask questions, but unlike most women, because she guessed he wanted to keep his plans secret, she was silent." And what secrets he eventually reveals! Craig returns to his yacht one morning and announces, "In accordance with the laws of France we have been married by the Mayor of Marseilles with the Captain acting as a very able proxy for you." Aloya doesn't even get to attend her own marriage. By this time, I'd be running for the hills, but our heroine still imagines that "in becoming Craig's wife she had reached a harbour of safety that she had never believed would be hers". She insists, "I shall love you and worship you for the rest of my life".
The next secret Craig reveals is that he's had a member of his crew fiddle with the electrics of his adversary's yacht in order to cause a fire. Our hero is unconcerned by the fact that the Baron is burned alive, and unmoved that several guests and crew are injured. "You are so - clever that you - frighten me" Aloya says, and Craig agrees, "Now you need not be frightened by anyone else ... and we can do anything we want". His new wife corrects him, "I think as it happens, it will be what - you want. How can I possibly oppose or argue with anybody as - brilliant as - you?" These are surely the words of a terrified woman who's just realised that her husband is a control freak, the sort of man whose idea of foreplay is to pick up his wife bodily to get her in bed.
Some readers call this escapist fiction. I call it psychological manipulation.