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Barbara Cartland (1901-2000) was well known for her dress sense (pink) and her staggering output of romantic novels. Her early life was not easy: after an unfortunate investment, her father, Captain James Cartland, over-extended himself and was declared bankrupt. He killed himself, and the family had to move from a 12 servant house to a rented one with two. Barbara’s mother, Polly, was a spirited and determined woman who managed to keep the family’s head above water, even managing to give Barbara a modest London season. Barbara had to fund herself to some extent through this, persuading the young Norman Hartnell to dress her for free, and earning money by drawing menu cards for parties.
She sold society gossip to the Daily Express, through which she met Lord Beaverbrook. She started to write romances, and her first, Jigsaw, was published in 1923. In 1927, she married Alexander McCorquodale, and after divorcing him for adultery, married his cousin Hugh McCorquodale. During her career, Barbara Cartland wrote over 700 romances. They were prolifically bought and borrowed: between 1988 to 1994 between 500,000 and 1 million copies of her books were borrowed from British libraries.
In this vast output, at least one had some horsey input: The Pretty Horse-Breakers, based on the beautiful girls who sold horses, and other things in Victorian Hyde Park. Rotten Row, in London’s Hyde Park, where the upper classes rode and showed themselves off, would not allow tradesmen or trade vehicles. A livery stable owner in Bruton Mews wanted a way to sell his horses, so arranged with Liverpool girl, Catherine Walters, for her to ride his horses in the Park, dressed in the finest habits. It worked like a charm: Catherine Walters, who became known as Skittles, was staggeringly good looking, and a fine horsewoman. The model was copied by other horse dealers and the pretty horse-breakers were born. Catherine became what Jeremy James called “the most celebrated hooker on horseback”.
Barbara Cartland’s book featured a reluctant recruit to the Horsebreaker ranks. I actually had a copy of The Pretty Horse-Breakers. It had a horse on the front, and so I assumed in my infant ignorance that it was a pony book. I remember being rather more impressed with Skittles than in the heroine, and being rather mystified at my mother’s never explained reluctance to let me read the book.
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