Cloud of Witnesses: Dame Barbara Cutland

“The less women fuss about themselves, the less they talk to other women, the more they try to please their hus­bands, the happier the marriage is going to be.” The audacious feminin­ity of Dame Barbara Cartland (1901­-2000) was more radically feminist than the feminists she infuriated. She ran cosmetics and health food corpo­rations (honey was her secret to liv­ing 98 vigorous years, and she never failed to take two brandies and soda at meals). The first white woman to en­ter King Tut’s tomb, she patented the turquoise shade she found there for eye shadow.

The Guinness Book of World Records lists her second only to God and first among human authors in the number of books sold: more than one billion, 700 titles in 36 languages, mostly ro­mance novels evocative and even pro­vocative but decent: “A historical ro­mance is the only kind of book where chastity really counts.” She prayed before dictation, but her cosmology was vague: “As long as the plots keep arriving from outer space, I’ll go on with my virgins.” Basil Cardinal Hume decided not to write an introduction to her book of spiritual thoughts be­cause of her belief in Martians.

We became friends when I was filming a documentary in London. She liked lunching at Claridge’s every week with Lord Mountbatten, whose photograph with her she left me. “I have sat at this table every Wednes­day since 1917,” she announced. Once she produced a handwritten letter from the Queen Mother who had been trout-fishing at her Castle of May in Scotland, a theatrical way of assuring me that if Her Majesty was compos mentis, so could a grande dame one year younger be. Relations were strained with her step-granddaughter, the princess of Wales, though vivid enough for her to propose that I cat­echize Diana the following summer, but that was the fatal summer. She was sure that the princess, muddled in ways, wanted to act on promptings of Mother Teresa.

Dame Barbara knew that one can hardly be more lapsed than to have lapsed from the Church of England, as she threatened to do. “I know you don’t think our bishops are real bishops, but at least they used to be gentlemen and now they are not even that.” Her be­loved mother Polly, who sedately died behind the wheel of her stationary Rolls Royce at 100, had climbed up the Holy Stairs in Rome on her knees, declared at the top that the pope was right, and converted.

Philanthropies included housing for the aged and civil rights reform for Romany Gypsies who made the Queen of Romance an honorary Gypsy queen. She confided that when she turned 80 she had to choose between preserving her figure or her face, and she chose the face. What did I think? The imperious question was hard to answer as she wore theatrical makeup in the daylight. “I loathe dressing like this, but the people expect it.” When­ever she arrived all pink and feathered in a huge touring car with lap dogs and a Rudolph Valentino clone as chauf­feur, it was easy to forget that Win­ston Churchill had written the preface to her biography of her brother Ron­ald, who died with another brother, Arthur, at Dunkirk.

She became something of a sur­rogate grandmother but was too co­quettish for that title and did not blink when a tabloid reporter tried to make us an item. Camfield Place, her country house, had belonged to Beatrix Potter. For my father in his last years, she sent a recording of herself singing “A Nightingale Sang in Berke­ley Square.” Papa’s criticism of her voice meant that he actually enjoyed it. When my father died, she sent my mother a gilded leaf from a tree planted by Elizabeth I. She is buried next to that tree in an environmentally friendly cardboard coffin.


  • Fr. George W. Rutler

    Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael's church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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