Doug Bonderud

May 18th 2018

Barbara Cartland: Romance Novelist, Glider Revolutionary?


Who is Barbara Cartland? A quick Google search turns up the obvious result: Mary Barbara Hamilton Cartland (later honored as Dame Cartland) was one of the most prolific romance novel writers in history, with more than 700 published books. As noted by the New York Times, she regularly churned out 23 novels every year. No surprise, then, that she appeared more than once in the Guiness Book of Records as the world’s best-selling author, and her works have been translated into 36 languages.

If that were the whole story, it would certainly be enough for literary enthusiasts and those curious about the sheer speed of potential prose production. But there’s another side to Dame Cartland: She was a daredevil who pushed the high-society fad of glider planes to their limits — and shares at least some credit for the Allied victory on D-Day.

Curious? Here’s the real story of the romance novelist-turned-innovator.

Dame Barbara Cartland in 1987 (photo credit: Allan Warren via Wikipedia)

High Society

Born in July 1901 to Mary Hamilton Scobell and her husband Major Bertram “Bertie” Cartland of the British Army, Barbara Cartland began her life firmly in middle-class comfort. The death of her grandfather and father in short order, however, forced her mother to find a new home for the family and open her own business — a London dress shop — to cover expenses. Cartland’s two younger brothers were killed in battle in 1940, while she gained success first as a society reporter and then as a romance novelist. Her work followed a consistent theme: innocent young virgins meeting handsome and entirely honorable men, getting married and enjoying chaste romantic encounters — Cartland herself was said to dislike physical contact and eschewed common vices such as smoking and drinking.

Despite the relatively tame nature of her subject matter, however, her novels remained risqué for the time and were effectively pulp fiction, especially given the rate at which she churned them out — always dictated to aides, never written by hand or on a typewriter. And while her written work paved the way for financial success, she also earned popular acclaim for her sense of style and contributions as a welfare officer during World War II, eventually securing a place in the Order of the British Empire. Cartland died in May 2000 at the age of 98.

Taking Off

The description above paints a clear picture of Cartland: society woman facing the challenges of family hardship and creating a lucrative career that paved the way for a lasting role in British celebrity life. But there’s another side to Barbara Cartland, one with her feet off the ground and her head in the clouds. She was a daredevil, obsessed with the high-society sport of gliding. As noted by io9, gliders became popular among the upper class during the 1920s and 1930s, and Cartland was an accomplished pilot. Gliders occupy an odd space in aeronautics: They’re what you get when you take a plane and remove their ability to independently sustain flight. Instead, gliders are towed by powered aircraft and then let go for short-haul flights.

But this wasn’t enough for Cartland. She arranged for the first long-distance (200-mile) tow and, along with two Royal Air Force officers, designed the first aircraft-towed airmail delivery glider. During World War II, the Allies expanded on her idea, using powered aircraft to tow troop-carrying gliders near their destination and then cutting them loose. Skilled pilots were able to land these gliders with almost pinpoint accuracy, meaning units could quickly get to work rather than collecting members and equipment after parachute-based drops. In addition, troop gliders were virtually silent, making them difficult to detect in flight. Early success led to gliders as key troop transports during D-Day, and though Cartland wouldn’t have said so herself, her contribution was considered critical to Allied success at Normandy. Today, a thriving tow-and-glider plane culture exists, informed in large part by Cartland’s work in the early 1930s.

Dame Barbara Cartland doesn’t seem like an innovator at first glance but, just like radio-guidance developer Hedy Lamarr, makes it clear that creativity is an unpredictable force — romance novelists and glider revolutionaries aren’t so very far apart as one might initially think.