OK

I once turned down the chance to buy a pair of novelty underpants, and I've been regretting it ever since.

I was gearing up to spend the summer studying English at Trinity College, Oxford, an irony considering that I had recently joined the local Unitarian Society.  Trinity, one of the lesser known of the dreaming spires that make up this most English of university towns, nonetheless boasts a glittering roster of alumni (Kenneth Clark, Sir Richard Burton, one of the numerous Pitts) and a beautiful Grinling Gibbons altarpiece.  It's very near Blackwell's, the legendary bookstore that is about the size of a football field, and the White Horse Pub, beloved by JRR Tolkien when he wanted to get away from his family and CS Lewis, which made it a very desirable place for a bookish lass like myself.  Best of all, one of the summer faculty was Douglas Gray, a medievalist who'd studied with Tolkien himself, making me only one degree of separation from a writer who literally changed my life.  

I had a blast in Oxford - trust me, there's nothing quite like sitting down in a little basement pub for afternoon tea and realizing that holy crap, TOLKIEN SAT HERE IN THIS VERY PUB POSSIBLY THIS VERY CHAIR OH MY GOD OH MY GOD WHEEEEEEE - but that is not the subject of my diary tonight.  Oh no.  My chance to purchase a truly unique souvenir of that glorious summer came a few weeks before I actually got to Oxford, and took place a hundred miles away.

You see, I didn't spend all my time that summer in Oxford.  My friend Alyss, who is half English, was due to attend the same summer program, so the two of us decided to fly over early and spend a few weeks exploring the countryside while inflicting ourselves on spending some quality time with her grandparents in Derby.  Her grandparents (a retired chemist and a homemaker, respectively) were thrilled to have us visit, and despite plenty of loving admonishments about being very very very careful, we had two glorious weeks to devote to seeing the wonders of Britain via bus.

Among these were Lincoln (we saw the cathedral, which is enormous, and a young man lounging about the bus station who might well have been a werewolf, and no, I am not making this up), Chester (ancient shops and a red stone cathedral that boasted a gorgeous medieval roof painted with enormous Biblical figures), Derby itself (the cathedral was mediocre but there was a very old pub), and a couple of country houses.  I started keeping a running tally of how many references to the mythical bird that burns and is reborn after seeing a sign for "Great Pheonix Ridge Tents" outside a sporting goods store, got stung by nettles and was healed by Mary's knowledge of herbal cures, and ended up with a gloriously painful, itchy sunburn when what we thought would be a short hike through the fields turned into a nine mile walk back to Derby.

It was all that a summer abroad should be, and by the time we got to Oxford we'd had enough adventures, most of them unwitting, that Alyss had begun humming the Laurel & Hardy theme whenever we got into more trouble.  And if we didn't study quite as hard as we should have, well, we were there as much to enjoy ourselves as anything else.

Did I mention that it was 1981?  ?  And the Queen's oldest son was getting married?

That's right, gentle readers:  I was in England during the run-up to the alleged fairytale of Charles, Prince of Wales, taking Lady Diana Spencer as his bride, mother of his children, and future queen.   That there was a thirteen year age gap between the blushing, inexperienced bride and the noticeably less enthusiastic groom didn't seem to register in the hysterical joy surrounding the upcoming nuptials, nor did anyone recall that Charles had been rumored to have been carrying on with an old flame who was currently married to someone else.  The press, from the sober Times on down to the hysterical tabloids, was all but unanimous in its approval of the bride as the eventual replacement for Prince Philip as consort, and it was all but impossible to find a newspaper, magazine, or television program that didn't mention the upcoming festivities.

One publication (a parody that purported to be the wedding edition of Paris Match) was particularly memorable.  The contents included delights like a biography (in very bad French) illustrated by a stock photo of Shirley Temple dancing the Highland fling with the caption “Milady Di, toddler adorable.” Another, on the purchase and renovation of a country house for the happy couple, was illustrated by a picture of a demolished building labelled “l'restoration d'Highgrove.”  It was all very funny in a typically English way, and if the writers weren't exactly Eric Idle and John Cleese, well, they were otherwise occupied.

And then there was the advertisement for the “Hats of Barbara Cartland Collection.”

This, clearly inspired by those lovely solicitations from “mints” that have about as much to do with the United States Treasury as they do with country & western night at the local Polynesian tiki restaurant, was a full page ad showing tiny, fluffy, ridiculous ladies' hats.  The hats, which came (of course) with their own custom-made display case, were two inch high copies of hats worn by the prominent romance novelist, socialite, and mother of the future queen of England's less than loved stepmother, each one with explanatory notes as to when precisely it had been worn, who had designed it, and the original materials used.  

Even yummier, they were edible!  All edible!  So once you got sick of having these charming little dustcatchers taking up space in your home, you could have a dessert party!  What's not to like?  

As regrettable as it is that no one actually offered these hats for sale, the actual souvenirs were more than enough to satisfy one's yen to own a piece of the action while blowing the entire mortgage.  The items themselves, of which there were a lot, ranged from the traditional (commemorative ceramics with portraits of Charles and Diana) to the contemporary (lavishly illustrated full-color books) to the outright silly.  It would have been perfectly possible redecorate one's home, top to bottom, in royal wedding-inspired furniture and textiles, set one's table with royal wedding china, and fill every bookshelf in one's lounge with books, magazines, record albums, etc., devoted to examining every single detail of the Romance of the Century in the sort of excruciating detail usually reserved for serial-killer-of-the-month true crime paperbacks.  

And then there was the clothing.  Ah, yes.  The clothing.  I swear, it would have been possible to fill a walk-in closet the size of Nan Kempner's with the dizzying variety of t-shirts, tracksuits, hats, sunglasses, etc., etc., etc. etc. ad infinitum et al nauseam that were offered for sale, most of which showed the faces of the bride and groom (never looking at each other, oddly enough).  Add in jewelry (rhinestone or faux sapphire replicas of Diana's enormous engagement ring), skirts similar to the one Diana had worn without a slip in a memorable photograph, gowns by the same designers she'd chosen to make her strapless (and very nearly topless) black silk evening gown, ties with the Prince of Wales' feathers (or the daffodil of his principality, or his coat of arms, or the stoically happy couple, or….), and it's a wonder the entire planet wasn't wearing something royal wedding-related.

All of which brings us back to the souvenir I didn't buy.

Alyss' grandfather had worked for many years at a prominent textile manufacturer in Derby.  Despite being retired, he still had buying privileges at the company's factory seconds store, and one day he decided to take Alyss and me there to go shopping.  There was some very nice fabric at very good prices, some of which I promptly brought to make into skirts, plus samples of products that had never been made, home décor items, drapery fabrics, and so on.  A large bin in the middle of the main display space featured many of these, most at prices that were low even by the standards of thirty years ago. I dutifully went over to paw through them along with Alyss, her grandmother, and one or two other bored shoppers…and pulled out the most extraordinary item of clothing I've ever seen.

It was a pair of bikini underpants, size extra-small, made of the sort of cheap, shiny, nasty nylon that breathes about as well as a block of concrete and is as almost as comfortable to wear.  Tiny strips of equally high quality lace adorned the waistband and the leg openings for that classy, timeless look.  Best of all, though, was the image printed on the back, right where it would emphasis the pert, rounded curves of its wearer's neatly muscled gluteal region:  two little hearts, one of which said "Charles," the other which said "Diana," connected by a Cupid's arrow.

We're not talking La Perla here, boys and girls.

I didn't buy those beautifully vulgar knickers, partly because I was with Alyss' grandparents, partly because I shuddered at the thought of Mum's reaction when she would eventually do my post-England laundry.  I've regretted this ever since, because despite plenty of searching, I have yet to encounter a similar item of clothing, for either women or men, and I'm convinced I could have made a bundle on Ebay selling them to a collector, museum, or private Diana fetishist.  I hope only that they eventually ended up in the hands (or on the posterior) of someone who believed in the pure romantic ideals of the former Lady Diana Spenser, who despite everything truly seems to have believed in the writings of her hated stepmother's beloved mother, the hat-wearing, social climbing, pink-obsessed, and most definitely not invited to the royal wedding novelist, Barbara Cartland.

Barbara Cartland was born in 1901 to British Army officer Bertram Cartland and his wife, the former Mary Scobell.  Bertram, son of a financier, had been raised in comfort, and he made sure that his wife and children were raised in an equally secure, prosperous, firmly middle class environment.  Alas for Barbara and her younger brothers, the family was rocked to the core before she was out of her teens, first by the suicide of her wealthy grandfather (who shot himself after business reversals left him bankrupt), then by her father's death in Flanders' fields in 1918.

Many formerly middle class families were left in similar dire straits in the aftermath of the War to End All Wars, and no one would have blamed the new widow if she had let her family fortunes decline in the face of the double tragedy.  Mary Hamilton was made of sterner stuff - "Poor I may be, but common I am not," she declared - and after taking stock of the situation, she opened a dress shop in London to provide for her family.   This proved enough of a success to allow young Barbara to attend the sort of excellent, respectable, firmly genteel girls' schools that would prepare her for life in the sort of society in which she had been raised and to which she hoped to return.  

To this end, Barbara moved to London after finishing school and took a job as a society columnist for the Daily Express.  Her job meant that she rubbed shoulders with the cream of British society, and soon she was writing racy thrillers, hosting parties for the hard-driving Bright Young Things who were determined to forget the horrors of war in an orgy of alcohol, drugs, and sexual relations (not necessarily in that order), and authoring plays questionable enough to be banned by the Lord Chamberlain's Office as too risqué for the vulnerable British theatergoing public.  She also took an interest in car racing and early aviation, including pioneering work to develop long-range towed gliders.

Along the way Barbara also found time to get married.

Her first engagement, to an officer in the Guards, had ended after Barbara had learned exactly what the physical intimacy of marriage entailed.  Clearly her ideas about sex changed or she never would have run afoul of the censors, let alone married yet another officer, the grandly named Alexander George McCorquodale.  Alexander was also the heir to a Scottish printing fortune, meaning that his new wife had plenty of money to throw her lavish parties, plenty of time to write her increasingly popular novels, and more than sufficient access to the outermost flakes of upper crust British society.  They welcomed a daughter, Raine, in 1929, and if Alexander suspected that the baby might actually be the fruit of his wife's close, intimate friendship with Prince George, Duke of Kent, he manfully kept this news to himself.  He also never said a word when Barbara became (thank God, platonic) friends with royal cousin Louis Mountbatten, the future World War II hero, viceroy of India, and victim of an IRA bomb.

This will be important later.  Really.  I hope you're taking notes.

To return to the subject of the charming young McCorquodales' marriaged, it was, alas doomed whether Alexander kept his mouth shut or not; both partners were less than faithful, and after Barbara took up with her husband's cousin Hugh, it was simply a matter of time.  They divorced in 1936, the same year that American socialite Mrs. Edward Simpson dumped her second husband thanks to her close, intimate friendship with Edward VIII.  Whether the two unhappy couples ever met is not clear, but the coincidence is to, say the least, coincidental.

Barbara and her second husband quickly produced two sons, and despite the loss of both her brothers during World War II, the family weathered the 1940s with style and courage (especially Barbara, who used her position as Chief Lady Welfare Officer in Bedfordshire to assemble 1000 used wedding dresses that could be rented for a low cost by war brides, WRENS, WAAFS, and other deserving worthy women who wanted to wed without spending their families' entire allotment of precious clothing coupons).   She was honored by the Eastern Command in 1945 for her work in making war weddings romantic, and when her own daughter was named Debutante of the Year in 1947 and soon married the Earl of Dartmouth, it was only fitting.

By the time of Hugh's death in 1963, Barbara was a noted philanthropist, active in local politics, and active on behalf of such worthy causes as nursing home reform, higher salaries for midwives, and educational rights for the children of the group known then as Gypsies (now called Roma or Travelers).  She was instrumental in founding several communities where Gypsies could settle down and own their own homes, including one named "Barbaraville" in her honor.  There were fourteen such places by the time of her death, and whether or not the residents had actually wanted to settle down and own their own homes does not lessen the magnitude of this accomplishment.  She even found time in 1978 to record an album of favorite love songs with, I kid you not, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and if anyone out there has a copy of her tuneful song stylings of classics such as 'I'll Follow My Secret Heart' and "A Nightingale Sang in Berkley Square," I would be obliged if you'd link to the WAV file in the comments.

Did I mention that throughout this busy, busy period, she still had time to write at a pace that would make the average prolific author drop dead on the spot with envy?  Or that after Hugh's death she wrote even faster?   And that these books sold in forest-destroying quantities despite being formulaic to the point of verging on being literary Mad Libs, with only minor alterations to time period, plot, and name of the (aristocratic) hero and (respectable) heroine?  Or that these books may well have played a part in bringing about the Fairytale Romance of Royal Charles and Virginal Diana?

Yes, really.

Raine, Countess of Dartmouth, was not a happy woman despite her glittering debut and equally glittering marriage.  She eventually followed her mother's sterling example, divorced her first husband, and remarried in 1976 to a man who had been abandoned by his first wife, leaving him with a son, three daughters, a huge estate.

The man was Hugh Spenser, father of Diana.  And though Diana and her siblings thoroughly despised their father's new bride (whom they called "Poison Raine," usually but not always behind her back), Diana, a dreamy, romantic teenager with a talent for dance and no liking for school, took refuge from the pain of her parents' divorce and her dislike of her stepmother by devouring her new stepgrandmama's novels of blushing virgins, daring lords, and love as true as a certified pre-owned luxury automobile from U-Neek Motors, Home of the Guaranteed Thousand Dollar Trade-In as if they were chocolate candies.   Worse, since she was a blushing virgin who'd been sheltered and cosseted her entire life, she was ready to believe that nothing but happiness lay before her when the older, wealthy heir to the greatest title in Britain would came a-courting, just like in the books she so loved.

As Barbara, who wasn't overly fond of the Spensers, later admitted, "The only books Diana ever read were mine, and they weren't awfully good for her."  

At the same time, these books, plus the Spenser/Cartland connections to royalty, made Diana a prime candidate for marriage into the royal family.  Not only was the naive kindergarten teacher completely ready to believe in lasting love with a much older bachelor who liked all the outdoorsy things that Diana hated, one of her sisters had dated Charles so she already knew him, sort of.  And her stepgrandmother, even though she'd inflicted Poison Raine on the world, had been extremely close friends with Lord Mountbatten, who in turn was very close to Prince Charles and had advised him to marry a nice young gel of good family, preferably - you knew this coming - a bit on the inexperienced side so he wouldn't have to worry about the legitimacy of the next generation of British monarchs.

Don't blame me for this all being just a bit too cozy.  I'm just the chronicler here.

As much as her fictional worldview prepared the young Diana for a disaster that became a legend, Barbara herself continued to prosper as the 20th century neared its end.  She set a record for "most books written in a single year" by churning out 23 novels in 1983, all of them singing the joys of pre-marital virginity and lifelong fidelity between shy, inexperienced girls and bold, dashing men.  Ten years later she'd sold over a billion copies of some 723 novels, the vast majority of which followed the same pattern.  She dressed almost entirely in pink (including her astonishingly plumed hats), lived in a home with a pink boudoir and a pink writing office where she dictated her masterpieces, gave pink-covered copies of her novels to visitors, and was a popular guest on talk shows.  There she argued against the removal of prayer from public schools, tsked about the promiscuity of the young generation, and urged girls to stay pure until marriage and faithful thereafter, despite not doing either herself.  Soon she was as famous for pithy quotes as for her writing, as the following examples amply attest:

To sleep around is absolutely wrong for a woman; it's degrading and it completely ruins her personality. Sooner or later it will destroy all that is feminine and beautiful and idealistic in her.
Note that she said this after her affair with Prince George of Kent.
A woman asking 'Am I good? Am I satisfied?' is extremely selfish. 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.
Whether it's to a man or his cousin?
After forty a woman has to choose between losing her figure or her face. My advice is to keep your face, and stay sitting down.
If anyone knows what she's talking about, please say so in the comments, because I got nothin'.
The right diet directs sexual energy into the parts that matter.
I would give much to see her grocery list.
As long as the plots keep arriving from outer space, I'll go on with my virgins.
Or, why she wrote historical novels, not science fiction.
I'll keep going till my face falls off.
That sounds painful.  Really, really painful.

She was also knighted by Queen Elizabeth, allegedly for her contributions to British literature, politics, and society, although it's hard not to wonder if her dignified silence on her stepgranddaughter's wedding-day snubbing may have factored in somehow.  If that weren't enough, Dame Barbara became such a pop culture legend that she was done the signal honor of being lampooned as "Amelia Nettleship" on Rumpole of the Bailey AND as "Dame Sally Markham" on Little Britain.  She was even honored by that doyenne of good taste and candlelight suppers, Hyacinth Bucket of Keeping Up Appearances fame, when the lady of the house chose one of Barbara Cartland's books to read on vacation.

Barbara Cartland, still be-faced, still clad entirely in pink, still indomitable, passed from this life to the next in 2000, aged 98.  She'd seen amazing technological changes (many of which she enthusiastically embraced), two wars (which caused her much pain, little to none of which made it into her work), and dramatic social changes (which she originally embraced and then rejected once she got too old to enjoy them).  She had just finished a series of interview for a documentary telling the story of her life, titled (of course) Virgins and Heroes, and had just launched a new website house on, I kid you not, pink computers.  Unique to the end, she was buried in a cardboard coffin because it would cause less environmental damage than a wooden or metal casket, beneath a tree that had been allegedly planted by the greatest virgin of all, Queen Elizabeth I.

As for her effect on the culture…in addition to developing aviation technology that helped win the war for Britain…founding communities to house the despised and rejected nomads of her beloved homeland…providing guides to worthy war brides…and publishing over a billion copies of her 723 published novels, Barbara Cartland left behind 160 unpublished novels (she'd gotten way ahead of her publishing schedule and had stockpiled these titles in case she ever lost her mojo, which of course she didn't), all of which  are now being made available in e-format as The Barbara Cartland Pink Collection.

And then, of course, there's the little matter of her stepgranddaughter's marriage.  Although it failed in an exceptionally nasty, public divorce, it produced two children, the elder of whom is now himself married and expecting his first child in July.  That William, Duke of Cambridge, spent his sweet time getting to know his bride (who is roughly his age, and came from a wealthy family in her own right), lived with her for several years before actually proposing, and seems to be nearly as glowing as his beloved Kate as they prepare to welcome their firstborn even though Kate was most emphatically not a virgin when they got married, speaks volumes about the true value of Barbara Cartland's favorite literary plot:  

As a cautionary tale of how not to prepare for a happy and lasting marriage.

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Do you remember the royal wedding?  The amazing selection of tchotchkes one could buy?  Do you have a Barbara Cartland novel (or two, or three, or sixty-five, or three hundred eighty two, or....) in your attic?  A pair of Charles & Diana underpants in a dresser drawer?  Come over to the non-pink boudoir and share....

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Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Sat Apr 20, 2013 at 06:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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