Barbara Cartland and Danielle Steel: The queens of romance fiction

Any discussion of the romance novel’s history would be incomplete without a proper allotment of props given to Barbara Cartland and Danielle Steel, the queens of romance fiction – if only by the sales numbers alone.

Cartland, Steel and the Top 10 Best-Selling Authors of All-Time

And about those sales numbers: Dame Cartland and Ms. Steel are far and away the biggest sellers ever in the genre, while Barbara may be the indisputable most prolific fiction writer of all-time in any style; among her feats of literary prodigiousness is her still-held record set in 1976 for most published novels in a year at 23 (!!!!!). During most of the 20th century’s latter bit, Barbara was known as The Best-Selling Author Alive; today, Danielle holds that title.

Though the exact number of copies each has sold is ultimately unknown, the names Cartland and Steel unquestionably make a top 10 list which also includes (in more-or-less ascending order) Enid Blyton, Georges Simenon, Sidney Shelton, Harold Robbins, Dr. Seuss, J.K. Rowling, Agatha Christie and, yep, Shakespeare.

Barbara Cartland: The writing machine

Barbara CartlandUltimately, by her sheer output, Barbara Cartland forged the template for British romantic fiction at least through to her death in 1999. And through her 761 novels, we may also see Barbara’s stories and themes becoming more and more conservative despite the ever-liberalizing social mores about her.

Barbara happened upon romance writing by way of society reporting. After graduating in 1922, she worked as the society reporter (read: gossip columnist) for the Daily Express; within a year, she’d finished her first novel, entitled Jigsaw. Done somewhat in the style of her major influence, Elinor Glyn, Barbara’s Jigsaw was thought to be quite racy at the time. For several years thereafter, Barbara’s novels were mostly of the suspense subgenre first explored in Jigsaw.

Like all good popular novelists, Barbara had her run-in with censors: Her 1926 play Blood Money was officially banned by government officials. Her notoriety in high society as a hostess nevertheless ascended through the 1930s and 40s, and this fame translated well into the burgeoning era of television in the 50s. AT about this time, she became famous for wearing her trademark pink dresses designed by Norman Hartnell.


Accusation of plagiarism and turn in theme

In 1950, Barbara dodged a legal bullet fired by author Georgette Heyer, wo publicly claimed that parts of the 1949 novel A Hazard of Heartshad been lifted from Heyer’s Friday’s Child and The Knave of Hearts, both published in the 40s. Nothing ever came of this accusation of plagiarism.

It is interesting to note, however, that this was the point at which Barbara began writing more works set in chaste Victorian Era locales and other historical backdrops from the days of the British Emprie, while cranking out ever fewer suspense stories.

The Barbara Cartland Pink Collection

Barbara Cartland died at the age of 98 years old in 1999, but even then continued publishing. Novels left with traditional publishing houses continued to see release through 2011, and she reportedly willed some 160 unpublished works to her son. These first saw release in e-book format as the “Barbara Cartland Pink Collection” in 2004, and all were released on a monthly basis thereafter; the last of the 160 was published in late 2017 and all are currently available for download online.


Danielle SteelDanielle Steel: Four divorces, 141 novels (and counting)

In terms of American romantic fiction, Danielle Steel is analogous to Barbara Cartland in influence, productivity (well, to be honest, no one can match Cartland in this area) and popularity. Danielle has amassed a half-billion in sales and her works have been translated into 43 languages – as opposed to “just” 38 for Barbara Cartland’s books.

Additionally, according to Publishers Weekly, *everyone single one* of the 141 novels through 2017, including hardback-only editions, has been a best-seller in the United States. Additionally, 30 of these have been adapted for teleplays for American TV.

In terms of loving the limelight, however, these first ladies of romance novels are diametrically opposed.

Danielle Steel’s background

Danielle was born into an upper-class background. One her paternal side, she is descended from the Lowenbrau Brewery owners; on the maternal side, she’s the granddaughter of a Portuguese diplomat. Danielle’s parents were divorced at age eight, and this event is always cited as an early inspiration for the family trauma-dominated novels to come.

Three short marriages, early successes

Things happened quickly for Danielle in her late teens. While finishing her studies in literature at New York University, Danielle got married, became pregnant, had a baby and finished her first novel. After a brief turn in public relations after joining the “real world” post-graduation, Danielle decided to focus on fiction writing, divorced Claude-Eric Lazard and finally got publication in 1972 with her novel Gong Home.

Steel’s second husband entered her life by way of a reporting gig she was on. While interviewing inmates in a California prison, Danielle was quickly smitten with Danny Zugelder. She married him literally *in prison* in 1975. Two of Danielle’s best-ever sellers, Passion’s Promise and Now & Forever, were said to be inspired by this tumultuous (to say the least) three-year marriage.

Danielle married William Toth in 1978, some two weeks before due to give birth to his child. In parallel, her 1978 novel The Promise became a no. 1 best-seller. Danielle’s marriage to Toth was over in 1981.

That same year, she married vintner John Traina, and for a long while, this appeared to be Danielle’s true soulmate. Together, they would have five children. The eldest of these, Samantha, was born in April 1982, right about the time that Danielle’s Pink Floyd-like run on the New York Times Best-Seller List began. By 1989, the Guinness Book of World Records established her as having enjoyed the all-time longest run on the list at 381 consecutive weeks.


Court case and son’s suicide

In 1993, Steel fought to block publication of an unauthorized biography which was set to reveal that her son Nick had in fact been adopted by John Traina. The judge in the case somehow ruled that, as a celebrity, Danielle Steel did not enjoy the same rights to privacy as did others. Nick committed suicide in ’97, with those close to the situation always blaming the biography and its revelations, and Danielle’s non-fiction work His Bright Light as well as establishment of the Nick Traina Foundation.

The 2000s: Danielle goes beyond writing

Beginning with the first Star Ball fundraiser for the Nick Traina Foundation in 1998, Danielle Steel has been more participatory in the San Francisco social and art scenes. In 2003, Danielle opened the Steel Gallery in San Francisco, a space for contemporary visual artists; this closed in ’07. Since ’03, though, Danielle has remained active in curating shows in the Bay Area and regularly sponsors shows.

The 2010s: New productivity

Although we can hardly expect Danielle Steel to ever match the productivity of a Barbara Cartland, Danielle has in the 10s opened up the throttle on her mental assembly line. Whereas she’d never produced more than four novels in a single year through 2010, she has written some 40 novels between 2010 and 2018 (the last of these is set for 2019 publication), an average of just under 4½ per year. And she shows no signs of stopping…