The women are beautiful. Sometimes they are of humble origin, sometimes they are aristocrats but they are always striking. The men are handsome and dashing, often airmen or navy officers, but almost always attractive and debonair. And they are in love. Sometimes it is innocent and naïve, other times passionate and tormented love, but it is never vulgar, crude or explicit.
These are the beautiful people who fill the pages of the 80 novels by Liala, Italy’s Barbara Cartland. Written mainly between 1931 and 1985, they are still in print. Thanks to the sheer volume of their sales, they have made Liala the most successful female Italian writer to date. Her life reads much like one of her own romances. She was born Amalia Liana Cambiasi Negretti Odescalchi, in 1897 in Carate Lario, on Lake Como, which was to become the backdrop to many of her stories. Liala’s mother was an aristocrat but of limited financial means. This is thought to explain why Liala married young. Her husband, Marquis Pompeo Cambiasi, a navy officer, was 17 years older than her. Their matrimonial bliss did not last long: Cambiasi soon returned to his bachelor ways, leaving his young wife alone for long periods with their small daughter, Primavera.
But Liala quickly met Marquis Vittorio Centurione Scotto, an officer in the Italian Royal Air Force, who was the love of her life. Their time together was, however, tragically short. Centuione was killed in 1926 when the flying boat he was test piloting crashed into the Lake of Varese.
To cope with the pain of his death, Liala began to write and, in 1931, her first book, Signorsì (‘Yes, Sir’) was published. It seems that Arnoldo Mondadori of the famous publishing house of the same name was reluctant to publish it but soon changed his mind after its first edition sold out within 20 days. More than a million copies eventually sold.
Many of her books evoked the military life she knew so well and were often set during the last years of World War I, with brave, audacious and morally upstanding officers, like Centurione, as her heroes. Titles like Brigata di ali (‘Air Brigade’), Lascia che io ti ami (‘Let Me Love You’), La sublime arte di amare (‘The Sublime Art of Loving’), Melodia dell’antico amore (‘Melody of an Old Love’), Tempesta sul lago (‘Tempest on the Lake’) paint a clear picture of the style of her novels.
Author Gabriele D’Annuzio, a pilot himself, gave Liala her nom de plume as a play on the word ala (wing). He wrote her: ‘Ti chiamerò Liala perché ci sia sempre un’ala nel tuo nome’ (‘I shall call you Liala so there will always be a wing in your name’).
The literary critics did not particularly appreciate her work, but nonetheless she had millions of admirers, including the last king of Italy, Umberto II.
What was it that made Liala so popular and continues to do so? She grew up in an era when women were expected to be saints, not sinners, ready to sacrifice their own interests for those of their husbands. They were also expected to be patient and resigned to any extra-marital misbehaviour their husbands might engage in. We know that Liala was not—either in her life or in her books—prepared to play that game. Her novels told her readers that not only could they find a ‘prince charming’ but they also had a right to dream of finding their own happy ending.
In addition, she described something only whispered about until she came along: female erotic desire. By no stretch of the imagination does this mean she was a feminist as we understand the term today. All her life, she believed that a woman’s greatest happiness comes from making her man happy. But, in order to do this, she did not need to be a mere doormat, meekly submitting to his every whim. Instead, Liala said through her heroines, in their many different personages, women can have strong feelings, definite personalities and real needs.
After the death of Centurione, Liala returned to live with her husband, with whom she had another daughter, Serenella. From 1968 on, she lived and worked at Villa La Cucciola, in Varese, where she died in 1995, at age 98. A representative from the Italian Air Force attended her funeral and, elegant to the very end, in accordance with her wishes, she was buried in an evening dress designed by Valentino.
Her last book, Con Beryl Perdutamente (‘With Beryl Passionately’), completed after her death by Mariù Safier, is due to be published in late 2007.