Historical Historical: One Barbara Cartland Out of 700+
[CW: fatphobia; imperialist/colonialist thinking; generally misogynistic characterization; nonconsensual kissing]
The inspiration to read The Husband Hunters by Barbara Cartland for my #historicalhistorical series struck quite organically. I am at my grandmother’s house this week and she has a collection of vintage historicals, including a bunch of Cartlands (the house is near the beach, so most of these books weren't actually bought by my grandmother, but are titles that others have left behind over the years and that her own mother, a voracious romance reader in the 80s and 90s, used to devour). I had seen Barbara Cartland books in used bookstores before and I was always struck by their sheer number—and I know that Cartland is famous for being prolific. When I found these Cartland books on the shelves here this week, I decided it was time to read one of them for this series. It also helped that most of them are about 160 pages and I knew I’d be able to slip in this read even though I am busy this week with family.
I had six Cartlands to choose from (see picture above!!) and I decided on The Husband Hunters because of the title. I liked that it was so straightforward and, for that reason, it seemed like the most approachable of the six options to me. The premise is similarly uncomplicated. Andrina and her two younger sisters, Cheryl and Sharon, have been orphaned and have little money, although they come from a genteel family with distant aristocratic roots; Andrina decides that she and her sisters will go to London and throw themselves on the kindness of her absentee godfather, the Duke of Broxbourne, in order to enter London society and find husbands. Andrina imagines this mission as being expressly for her younger sisters, who she classifies as more beautiful than herself (although Andrina acknowledges that she is pretty, too—it is just that she sees her sisters as extraordinarily gorgeous whereas she possess [allegedly] only a normal level of beauty). Of course, Andrina ends up falling in love with the Duke (who, in fact, is not the same Duke as her godfather, but his young and handsome son) and they find their HEA.
So, what did I think of Barbara Cartland? Well, it probably doesn't surprise you that I found a lot not to like here. (Selection for my #historicalhistorical series itself is always an indication that I expect to find at least some problematic elements. Additionally, this book was published in 1976; I knew better than to expect any spice and I was correct in that assumption. And I fully admit that if you added sex scenes to this plot, I’d be 50% more interested). In addition to fatphobic elements and discussion of a necklace made in India as “barbaric-looking,” the dynamic between the hero and heroine is, in many ways, very typical of an old school historical at its least reflective—hero and heroine meet, he kisses her without her consent, she thinks he is arrogant and entitled, he calls her an idiot a thousand times, she realizes she loves him, they get married, the end.
The characterization of Andrina’s sisters is one of the most bonkers elements of this novel. The way the narrator describes Cheryl, the blond beauty, verges on misogynistic; Andrina talks about how sensitive Cheryl is and how much she loves her, but then Cartland will also have her think things such as the following: “[Cheryl] looked so lovely that it was hard for people, once they had met her, to realise she made little contribution to the conversation, or that nothing she said, if she did speak, was worth remembering.” Poor Cheryl! She is described as dumb, incompetent, weak, shallow, and too sensitive for the world. After Cheryl becomes engaged to the man she has loved since childhood, the narrator writes (again, from Andrina’s point of view): “Yet, looking at [Cheryl] now, her fear and unhappiness swept away as if by magic, it was impossible not to know that it was Hugo she loved, if she was capable of loving anyone very deeply” (emphasis mine)(133). Why are we treating Cheryl this way?!?! Are we really questioning her ability to love deeply? What did she ever do to suggest she is incapable of deep love?? It just seems unnecessary.
Meanwhile, the youngest sister, Sharon, is vaguely Orientalized throughout the novel—seemingly to contrast her with the “English rose” beauty and vacant appeal of Cheryl. The narrator talks about how Sharon resembles a long-lost “Spanish” ancestor and how she appears “exotic” after she has primped for a ball—on her wedding day, Cartland describes Sharon as looking like a “Persian Princess.” She also falls in love with and marries a Russian diplomat/nobleman, furthering confirming her "foreign" persona within the narrative. Ultimately, the sisters are rife with this kind of lazy and at times offensive characterization.
The main couple doesn't fair much better, however. Cartland doesn’t rely on the same easy shorthands for them…but they don’t jump off the page either. Neither Andrina or the Duke of Broxbourne have very distinctive or deeply rendered qualities. Lastly, hero and heroine spend almost no time together throughout the novel to an extent that would never fly for contemporary readers—these two barely get to know each other.
That said, I have to admit that I found this problematic, formulaic old school historical rather absorbing, despite all of these issues. Much like Cheryl’s fiancé, I was drawn in by the pairing of an insipid core and a pretty exterior. I knew Barbara Cartland had to have something going on that allowed her to publish so many novels so successfully and, indeed, this aspect of my reading experience confirmed this suspicion. I debated with myself about what made this novel so readable despite all the defects above. Ultimately, for me, I decided that it came down to pacing. The Husband Hunters had many defects, but it never dragged—it never lingered on much of anything, for that matter. (There were, for instance, a lot of real historical figures on page, such as the Duke of Wellington and the famous Regency hostesses of Almack’s, but, rather than dwell on those moments, Cartland almost seems to be using these historical figures to reduce having to explain and introduce tertiary characters). But that fast pace keeps you reading and wondering what will happen next—I’d suggest reading Cartland if you are a historical romance writer who wants to work on quickening your pace. This novel is screenplay-like in its lack of characterlogical interiority—and honestly, with these characters, I was fine with that. The novel has the energy and pace of a 1930s screwball comedy. It very much reminded me of an old film such as My Girl Friday and I didn’t hate it.
The ending, however, was interesting and sort of broke from this pattern (is it a Cartland signature? I’ll probably never know). For the entire novel, the Duke of Broxbourne does kind things for Andrina and her sisters, but he is quite personally brusque with Andrina. Besides that one non-consensual kiss at the beginning, he pretty much leaves her alone, only popping up occasionally to give her something that she needs while admonishing her for being foolish. In terms of repressed alpha heroes, he isn’t even that mean---he is just sort of absent and cold. Then, at the end, when she confesses her love for him, he reveals that he wanted to marry her all along, but he seemed to want to let her scheme with her sisters to play out first (and maybe win her love?? that part is unclear). Then, this guy pretty much reveals himself to be a big old cinnamon roll! With no prodding or major dramatics, he says to Andrina after they have married: “I am frightened, Andrina! You have said you love me. But if I frighten you or shock you, you may hate me again, and that I could not bear!” (Also, everything this guy says is followed by an exclamation point, it is crazy—and when she talks to him, these weird ellipses pop up, so she is often saying things like “I….love….you…too….much…to…marry….you.” It is punctuation as personality and it is crude but sort of effective?) Then, he cries on her! Because he is afraid of losing her love! And that’s pretty much the end of the novel—she reassures him and then it ends with a fade-to-black sex scene. I kind of liked this part? It was only the last ten pages. This book had no hero’s perspective and it made me realize that it would have been a lot better with his POV—instead we just have a lot of Andrina’s mean inner monologue about poor beautiful vacant Cheryl.
In the end, will I read another Barbara Cartland? Almost certainly not. But am I glad that I now know what these books contain when I see them in used bookstores? Definitely.