Barbara Cartland: queen of the romantic novel with a passion for pink and traditional values, or a go-getting gel in the 1930s who raced cars and flew gliders?

However unlikely it sounds, even cursory biographies of Cartland often mention that she was a “regular” at Brooklands, either as a driver or pilot or both. The Brooklands Museum itself has a “Barbara Cartland Ladies’ Reading Room”, complete with tasteful decor and portraits of the leading lady racers of the day.

Sounds like a mistake, doesn’t it?

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Digging even just below the surface of the story of Barbara Cartland and Brooklands brings up contradiction after contradiction.

The question of whether Cartland could be called a racing driver is a relatively easy one to answer and that answer is “no”. Her name does not appear in any entry or results list for Brooklands, even under her married name of McCorquodale.

Mrs A McCorquodale AKA Barbara Cartland
Source: Leeds Mercury – Friday 12 June 1931 page 7

The only on-track action that Cartland ever experienced was something called “The Society Ladies’ Private Handicap”, held at the end of November in 1931. Our chief piece of evidence for this is a film produced by British Movietone, beginning with Cartland announcing that “a man” had claimed that men were better drivers than women, at a party at her house. Standing at the end of a row of women in racing overalls, she tells the camera that she has gathered nine women who can drive “very well indeed”, who would race for “I believe, and hope, a good prize.”

Scenes of the ladies driving a fleet of MGs follow, some of which are filmed on the Brooklands banking. One of the cars is seen taking a pitstop. Princess Imeretinsky and her riding mechanic are announced as the winners and Cartland herself excitedly describes going into a spin on-track.

Some smaller newspapers reported the event as if it were an actual race, but a letter in The Motor from one of the entrants, Joan Chetwynd, told a different story. She claimed to have “misguidedly” agreed to take part in a film about women drivers on an anonymous basis and to have been shocked by the terrible driving standards.

Chetwynd, as the only experienced driver on the grid, was meant to have been given a considerable handicap. It is true that the Movietone footage shows no evidence of the staggered start usual in a handicap race. The track itself was closed for maintenance according to a Motor writer, meaning that cars were only able to proceed in single file through parts of it and actual racing was impossible. Some sequences may not have even been filmed on the circuit itself and were possibly shot on the service roads.

Chetwynd was recorded as the second-placed driver. The others were Cartland herself, Princess Imeretinsky (the former Avril Mullens) with Dorothy de Clifford, Clare Dean, Paddie Naismith, Elizabeth Makins, Mrs Wardrop, Kathleen Meyrick and Hilda Banks.

The claim that Chetwynd was the only driver with any motorsport experience was not quite correct. Naismith, an actress, had competed in trials organised by the Women’s Automobile and Sports Association since 1929. Despite the criticism the “society ladies” received, she went on to have a relatively successful career at Brooklands between 1932 and 1934, driving a Salmson.

Competitors in the Women’s Motor Race at Brooklands
L-R Miss Hilda Banks, Mrs Wardrop, Princess Imeretinsky, Lady De Clifford,
Mrs Kathleen Mayrick, Miss Clare Dean, Miss Elizabeth Makins, Miss Paddy Naismith, The Hon Mrs Chetwynd, Mrs Alexander McCorquodale [Barbara Cartland]
Source: The Sketch – Wednesday 02 December 1931 page 14

A couple of the others appear to have enjoyed their experiences in the borrowed MGs and gone on to enter some genuine races. Dorothy, Lady de Clifford, entered an MG into the Duchess of York’s Race for Lady Drivers at the Brooklands “Guy’s Gala” in 1932, as well as competing in the RAC Rally. Elizabeth Makins, as Lady Makins, shared a Frazer-Nash BMW with Kay Petre for the Light Car Club’s Relay in 1936.

Kathleen Meyrick was Dorothy de Clifford’s sister. Both women were daughters of the notorious nightclub proprietor Kate Mayrick. Kathleen had no further involvement with motorsport. Mrs Wardrop, Clare Dean and Hilda Banks remain obscure.

Cartland herself remained curiously silent about her role in the debacle. What her motivations were, we can only speculate. She never disclosed the name of the man who had irritated her at her party and he may well be apocryphal.

Was the Handicap originally meant to be a genuine race or was it always meant to be a stunt?

Chetwynd’s remarks suggest that Cartland attempted to recruit a number of female drivers and that not all of them were inclined to take part. Some sources suggest that Kay Petre, Elsie Wisdom and Gwenda Hawkes were approached, but this is likely conjecture. Petre would not begin her racing career until the following season; Hawkes was based in France at the time. It is not impossible that Cartland originally wanted to organise an actual race and fell back on the film when she was unable to get enough appropriately-experienced female drivers involved.

According to Chetwynd, it was framed as a film from the very beginning. We do have to be mindful that Chetwynd was angry at the time and trying to save face.

Naismith certainly had motorsport experience but she was also an actress. Officially she was third in the Handicap, although she apparently claimed to have been the fastest driver on the day. She had certainly been active in rallies in 1931, but she had also embarked on promotional tours for Nu Swift fire extinguishers and Demon stoves, extinguishing car fires for a live audience for the former. She had far less to lose.

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Female motor racing driver Kay Petre pictured at the wheel of her car in the pits at Brooklands

We do not know how seriously Cartland and her friends took the Handicap. They may have considered what they were doing as a prank rather than deliberate deception. After all, elaborate practical jokes had been a favourite of the Bright Young Things in recent years and Cartland would have been party to many of these, such as the exhibition of an obscure German artist called “Bruno Hat” in London in 1929. There was no Bruno Hat; he was the creation of writer Brian Howard, who had painted all of the exhibits on cork bath mats. Such spoofs can take on lives of their own which were never intended by their creators. It is possible that Cartland got carried away with her own cleverness and failed to stop the film producers from framing the Handicap as a genuine attempt at a race.

We now think of Barbara Cartland in her hot-pink later guise as a romantic novelist, but in the early 1930s she was rather a sparkier sort of woman. Her early novels and plays raised eyebrows due to their racy nature and she wrote some rather naughty gossip columns. She was also interested in technology.

In the summer of 1931, she was involved in a series of experimental glider flights. Gliders had existed in some form for around 75 years but Cartland funded a project to develop long-distance gliders that could be towed into flight by aircraft. Previously, a glider had to be launched manually from a high place or more commonly, towed along a runway by a mechanical winch.

Cartland congratulating a gilder pilot
Source: Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer – Wednesday 08 July 1931

Many sources describe Cartland as a glider pilot herself or even a designer of aircraft, but perusal of contemporary newspaper reports does not support this. She had no engineering training and did not claim such a thing herself. The craft was a commercially-produced BAC VII with some modifications to allow for aero-towing. Her involvement in the glider project was as a financial backer and a media figurehead.

The first major flight of the “Barbara Cartland” glider was on the 20th June 1931. A bag of letters was flown from Detling Aerodrome near Maidstone to a destination near Reading. The journey took just over an hour and the glider itself was piloted by Flight Lieutenant Edward Mole. Its tow aircraft was flown by Flt Lt Ewen Wanless with Cartland as a passenger. This was possibly the first use of “glider mail”.

Barbara Cartland [Mrs A McCorquodale] ‘christening’ her new glider at Detling Aerodrome
Source: The Bystander – Wednesday 24 June 1931 pg 12

The Barbara Cartland glider’s next achievement came in July, when it raced a steam train from Blackpool to London. When the glider’s two-hour stop at Birmingham is disregarded, both journeys took around five hours. Cartland did not ride the tow aircraft herself this time, although Flt Lt Mole was still at the glider’s controls.

The project was intended to lead to a cross-channel flight for the “Barbara Cartland”, in response to a £1000 cash prize offered by the Daily Mail to the first glider crew to achieve this. Unfortunately for Cartland, Mole and their team, the prize went to another glider very quickly. According to Mole, Cartland accepted her defeat good-naturedly and the team continued to fly the glider at air shows, sometimes with Cartland riding along. Mole also describes Cartland taking the loss of the glider itself in a crash in good humour. He had been flying it at the time.

Aero-towing of gliders continued to grow and would later become important during the Second World War, when gliders were used for troop movement.

Cartland retained some interest in aviation, meeting trans-oceanic pilot (and husband of Amy Johnson) Jim Mollison in November. This was not long before her interest in motor racing was piqued.

Cartland is an easy figure to mock and she did become prone to making rather silly pronouncements on what women should and should not do. However, this was in the future. It is after 1931 and its attendant drama that she settles into her familiar role as prolific churner-out of formulaic, chaste romantic novels. She also cornered a market in feminist-baiting etiquette manuals, featuring such wisdom as ‘Unless she is ill, a woman should get up and cook her husband’s breakfast before he goes to work in the morning’ and ‘It is very wrong for a woman to chatter with other women across the table unless it is on a subject likely to interest their male partners’.

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How does a lady glider enthusiast and over-eager society prankster become such a reactionary figure?

Social changes which swung women’s role back to a caring, supporting home-based one were several years in the future as the Second World War was only a distant threat in 1931. Could disappointment have played a part? Cartland’s Brooklands escapade was ridiculous and probably deserved the ire that rained down on it, but her glider project was relatively successful and sensible. Modern observers rightly point out the misconception that she flew gliders herself, but when newspapers of the time are consulted, she claims nothing of the sort, clearly stating that she intended to fly as a passenger in the tow aircraft.

They young Cartland was casting around looking for a niche in life. Had she taken a better approach to becoming a high-speed, high-flying Bright Young Thing, perhaps her life would have turned out very differently. Her later rejection of modern womanhood may have been shaped by that world’s rejection of her.

Article © Rachel Harris-Gardiner