To have a first novel published when you are over seventy is, I suppose, a fairly unusual thing to do. Why wait till then? The question keeps cropping up, so I have to make a serious attempt to discover the reasons. Perhaps I am a bit thick. Or is it the lack of education? (She had a governess, you know.) Perhaps I didn’t have the time. Perhaps I didn’t have the confidence. Obviously a late developer. All these reasons? Or none of them? Being brought up in a practically prehistoric era must profoundly affect attitudes in later life. So it was the upbringing. Wasn’t it? Why do I make statements and then immediately question them? Is it because I was born a Libran that I seem to remain in a constant state of indecision whenever I start to ask questions of myself?
One thing is certain, whether it was me or my upbringing, I certainly did grow up accepting, with what could be termed exceedingly good grace, what I was told by my elders and betters. In fact, I positively enjoyed the life that was laid down for me, and had a wondrous, golden childhood. (You know, sun always shining sort of thing.) Did this background influence me to continue to accept later what others decided for me? Was I born with a pliant character that agreed from birth to everything life presented me with, or was I trained into a gullible acceptance of the done thing?
Having been born into the type of family that I was – third generation of one of the trade barons of the last century – and being proud, rather than abashed, at having a hardworking grandfather who was the son of a sea captain, I was unaware, until well into my forties, of being slightly despised by the aristocrats of the day. I learned my place, then, from my elderly daily, who told a friend of mine that she had at first thought I was one of the gentry, and only later discovered that my father was Trade. So it was not this disgrace that sowed the seeds of inferiority in my young mind. Quite the opposite really, because I loved being rich and privileged, even if I did take it a bit for granted. No, the lack of confidence with which I grew up came primarily, I think, from being the youngest (by a considerable gap) and therefore, naturally, the silliest of my family. This seemed to mean that I was always in the position of knowing a great deal less than anyone else, a fact that my consequent lack of serious education did nothing to put right.
Certain assumptions were plain from the very start. There were at least two things you were never going to be – indeed, it would have been in extremely bad taste even to aspire towards them: one was clever and the other was famous. These two attributes were the preserve of other people: the clever and the famous. You did not presume, especially if you were young.
I did write and draw from an early age. Could never pass Woolworths without buying an exercise book in which to start a story (the exercise book came first, the story being inspired by the lovely proliferation of clean pages inside it) and a sketch pad on which to draw the illustrations. Drawing and painting was considered quite all right. The best people often grew up to be amateur painters, but the writing of stories, while being tolerated as the charming foible of a childish mind, was later frowned upon. Only famous people, or bluestockings living in Bloomsbury, wrote books. These were people, along with girls who went to University, about whom you made jokes. You did not emulate them.
So it was towards art that my way was inevitably directed. It was the one thing I was good at, and the art school my mother chose for me was one advertised as being ‘A Paris Studio in London’. This meant that you could come and go as you pleased, and that there were no exams to pass. My mother thought Qualifications, along with Commercial Art, were common – not things to be encouraged. I acquiesced with my usual gusto, because she obviously knew about these things and I did not.
After three years of haphazard attendance at Heatherley’s School of Art in George Street (mornings only, because they did Commercial Art in the afternoons), I set off on my long career of Enthusiastic Amateur. Enthusiasm was, and probably still is, both an advantage and a drawback, I feel. Though it has meant that I have enjoyed everything I ever did, it also meant that I frightened off all those wonderfully cool and sophisticated upper classes I was supposed to get along with and eventually marry. Enthusiasm was, after all, such very bad form, and led to things like showing off and unseemly behaviour. But I was absolutely full of it, though quite devoid of confidence, qualifications, subtlety or discretion. It probably was this advantageous drawback that hurtled me through my life with such rumbustious pleasure, and helped me to fling myself into everything I did with splendid abandon. I found life in the late Twenties and early Thirties Such Fun, as long as you didn’t aim too high or expect too much.
I was presented at Court and became a very unsuccessful deb. I got drunk at the first smart party I was asked to and never got asked again. I painted portraits, some good and a great many bad, and charged between £5 and £10 for the few I sold, because of course I could never be as good as the professionals, so could not dream of charging what they did. It would have made me thoroughly uncomfortable and guilty. In fact, I felt guilty charging anything at all because I didn’t really need the money, did I?
I wrote continuously and copiously all this time: diaries, letters to friends and letters to lovers, and three full-length novels before I was thirty. The third one, which was called Sapling Apostle, I even submitted to an agent, who was interested because, as the reader’s comment pointed out, ‘there was plenty of jumping in and out of bed.’ But then war broke out, and I took it away from the agent because he was having no success in placing it. I told myself that this was because of the wartime paper shortage. Everyone knew that it was impossible to get books published in a war unless you were famous or very clever, and of course I wasn’t.
I then bounded with my accustomed zest into a controversial marriage and four children, boosted, this time, by my husband’s brilliantly intellectual encouragement, assurances and undoubted sex-appeal. In the gaps between nappy-washing (you did this in those days) and child-rearing, I painted the occasional commissioned or uncommissioned portrait, exhibited at the occasional gallery, and helped to run the Hampstead Artists’ Council. The diary writing went on, one on each of the children and another on my hectic, turbulent married life. Politics, Asian music and dance, concert-promoting, entertaining the influential, accounting, publicity-driving – all jumbled themselves, rather frighteningly, into my life in an amateurish and unorganised way, resulting in disastrous financial chaos and anxiety.
Fifteen or so years into my married life, I wrote another book, because to write about one’s own seemingly insurmountable problems as though they were someone else’s was therapeutic, and meant that you could make it all end happily. The resulting book was morbid and self-indulgent, but I was, this time, shattered when it was rejected by all of six publishers. One could say that the good fortune of the moment was that the money ran out, and I had, finally, to consider the dreaded step of becoming professional in order to keep myself and the family. At the time, teacher-training colleges were calling out for mature students, and even though, at fifty, I could have been considered slightly over-ripe, I was accepted for a two-year course at Trent Park College, and subsequently taught at Highgate Primary School as a class teacher. It was at the college, and later among my small pupils, that I finally discovered I was as clever as, and knew more than, quite a few people. I was amazed and exalted. It was a great discovery.
When I retired, 13 years later, I was able to say, with this new-found confidence of mine, that I now intended to do exactly what I liked, when I liked, and with whom, that I was no longer going to rely on what others decided for me. I had enjoyed my protracted dependence; if there had been some bad times, then good things appeared often to be born out of adversity; but I knew, at long last, that I did not want to paint or teach any more. I wanted to make use of some of those nostalgic, gilded moments from the diaries I had been storing for so long. To write yet another book. I also wanted to make amends for taking my own, much-loved governess for granted over forty-odd years. The fact that the story emerged very differently from my own, casts no aspersions on the faultless character of the real governess. Her influence on me, strong and lasting, was full only of benevolence, good humour and kindness. And I had really been completely dependent upon her, hadn’t I?