Mary Barbara Hamilton Cartland was the only daughter and eldest child of a British army officer, Major Bertram Cartland, and his wife, Mary (Polly) Hamilton Scobell. Though she was born into an enviable degree of middle-class comfort, the family's security was severely shaken after the suicide of her paternal grandfather, James Cartland, a financier, who shot himself in the wake of bankruptcy, an incident that was followed soon after by Major Cartland's death on a Flanders battlefield in World War I. Her enterprising mother opened a London dress shop to make ends meet -- "Poor I may be," Polly Cartland once remarked, "but common I am not" -- and to raise Cartland and her two brothers, Anthony and Ronald, both of whom were eventually killed in battle, one day apart, in 1940.
After attending Malvern Girls' College and Abbey House, an educational institution in Hampshire, Cartland became a successful journalist and a gossip columnist. Her first novel, "Jigsaw," was published in 1923.
According to an obituary published in the London Telegraph on May 22, 2000, Cartland reportedly broke off her first engagement, to a Guards officer, when she learned about the facts of life and subsequently recoiled. Eventually, she got over the shock of the physical mechanics involved and was married, from 1927 to 1932, to Alexander George McCorquodale, a former Army officer who was heir to a British printing fortune (he died in 1964). Their daughter, Raine, Countess Spencer, became "Deb of the Year" in 1947 and much later the stepmother of Diana, Princess of Wales. In 1936, after their divorce, which involved charges and countercharges of infidelity, Cartland married one of the men Alexander McCorquodale accused her of dallying with, his cousin Hugh McCorquodale. She and her second husband, a former military officer who died in 1963, had two sons, Ian and Glen.
Barbara Cartland's image as a self-appointed "expert" on romance led to her being much ridiculed in her later years, but her novels were undoubtedly very successful. Her publishers estimate that she produced a total of 623 titles.