Victoria Glendinning

Victoria Glendinning is a novelist, biographer and journalist.

She was born in 1937 and educated at St Mary’s Convent School in Wantage and Somerville College, Oxford, where she read Modern Languages.

She became editorial assistant on the Times Literary Supplement in 1974 and published her first biography, Elizabeth Bowen: Portrait of a Writer, in 1977. This was followed by biographies of Edith Sitwell, Vita Sackville-West, Rebecca West, Anthony Trollope and Jonathan Swift. Her novel Electricity was published in 1995, Sons and Mothers in 1996, Flight in 2002, Leonard Woolf in 2006, and Raffles and the Golden Opportunity in 2012.

I interviewed her in November 1999.

I knew Victoria well through my close friend Auberon Waugh, when he and I founded the Academy Club in Beak Street in 1989 and invited her to join us in becoming a member of its governing body.

You describe yourself as having been ‘a thin, dark, difficult and secretive child’ who suffered pain and injury in silence – no running to parents or siblings, even when your collar bone was broken. This is so very different from the behaviour of most children as to be almost incomprehensible. What lay behind this attitude of secretiveness and awkwardness, would you say? 

I would say that I wasn’t very successful at being a child. It’s a career like any other, and most children understand quite early on that the job of children is to please adults. I didn’t try to please adults, so the adults weren’t very pleased with me. Also I had a cruel nanny, something only the English could have, and she used to shut me up in a cellar. I sometimes had trouble eating, and if I was sick, she would then put me with the sick in the cellar and tell me I had to eat it before I got out. Small things like that made me feel that grown-ups were not much to be trusted. And this in the context of a very comfortable middle-class family – I cannot plead deprivation.

Why do you think the nanny was so cruel to you? 

How would one know? I think it was probably pathological. She covered up all the mirrors, for example, because little girls should never look at themselves in the mirror, so she said. Various things like that were designed to bring me down, so it took me a little while to get confidence. But it’s very good having an unhappy childhood, because life gets better.

Did you report the nanny to your parents? 

Children don’t do that. They think it’s normal, they think that’s what nannies do.

Apart from the nanny, how else do you remember your childhood? What was the relationship with your parents like, for example? 

My father was a very good man, a Quaker, a banker and a philanthropist. He was always very busy so he wasn’t at home much, but when he was there I really liked him. I don’t know what love means in that context, but I liked my father very much and I continued to like him in adult life too. What I admired about him was that he was always doing something. If he wasn’t doing his professional work, he would be doing embroidery, petit point, or he would paint in watercolours or he would be planting his lettuces. He used his life very well.

What about your mother? 

My mother was very pretty at a time when if you were pretty you didn’t bother going to university, and her tragedy was that she was very clever, cleverer than my sister or me. She had read all the classics, she could do The Times crossword in ten minutes, but she never did anything with it, except wait for my father to come home. All her energy was wasted in a domestic setting, which made her slightly difficult. My sister’s experience was perhaps different, but I probably wasn’t the daughter my mother would have wished to have. I was thin and dark and she would have like somebody much more bubbly and sociable, a little girl whom she could have dressed in little pink frocks.

Do you think that one ever really gets over the wounds inflicted in early childhood? 

You do up to a point, but they remain little pinholes on the surface, and occasionally some event or some relationship can get into the pinhole and reactivate the anxiety or grief or uncertainty, whatever it is. But mostly it doesn’t occur, because you are so grateful to love and be loved and to have a good time and do your work.

It is almost a clichéd observation that pain and unhappiness in childhood actually seem to inspire writers. Do you think that if you had had a carefree, happy time then your creative side might not have developed in the same way? 

That’s very hard to say. I have a lot of natural energy, so it would have had to go somewhere, but I think I might have done something different perhaps. Yes I think there is an instinct to write down what you don’t quite understand, in other people’s lives and in your own.

Do you think that we inevitably repeat the pattern set by our parents, at least to some extent, or can the chain be broken if we set our minds to it? 

The chain can be broken, absolutely.  I think if your experience of childhood was strange enough, you almost go the other way completely. I relived my childhood with my children, that is to say I feel I had my real childhood in my children’s childhood. What is terrifying every now and then is to find yourself making a gesture, or doing something, which is just like your mother or your father. I think there are genetic patterns and conditioning that you can’t escape. When we were adolescent my mother used to go to bed before we did, and she used to annoy me by always plumping up the cushions in the drawing-room and saying, remember to turn the lights out. I have found myself doing exactly the same.

Your father was Lord Seebohm, a descendant of Frederic and Henry Seebohm, historian and ornithologist respectively, and both famous writers in their fields. I wonder why you did not use the family name professionally instead of taking the name of your first husband, particularly in view of your feminist feelings. 

For a start you never think your own family is famous. Of course, I knew about grandfather and Uncle Henry and all that, but I didn’t connect them with any advantage to myself whatsoever. They were simply the authors of books on the shelves. And when I got married and started having my children, I disconnected myself from my family quite a lot. I was Victoria Glendinning then, and having started as Victoria Glendinning, I felt I had to go on being Victoria Glendinning, even though I have been married not once, but twice again. It’s like not being able to give a racehorse a different name once it has begun to win a few races, so Glendinning remains my work name. I have now had so many names – Seebohm, Glendinning, de Vere White, O’Sullivan – that I answer to almost anything. Victoria is what I regard as my name, and the last bit is a flag of convenience for whatever purpose.

The Seebohm family were Quakers and your mother was part Jewish, yet your education was in a High Anglican convent, complete with all the trappings of Catholicism: incense, veils, confession and communion. Whose idea was this and why was it thought suitable for a child from your background? 

Two things. My parents thought the thought that nuns would be kind to children, which of course they weren’t, and they thought St Mary’s Wantage was one of those OK girls’ schools, the equivalent of an OK public school for a boy. They thought I would meet nice girls there, and that it would be a happy place.

At what point in your growing up did you reject all institutionalized religion and cease to believe in God as other than a metaphor? 

When I discovered the opposite sex. When I was at the convent I used to have terrifically religious experiences. If you are surrounded by good religious art, or even bad religious art, and inspirational sermons from inspirational priests, and you say your prayers, and you’re bursting with hormones and you are at the foot of the cross, religious experiences are very easy to bring about. Then I realized that with boys, after dances in the holidays, I was having experiences which produced much the same effect. I thought perhaps sexuality was another way of doing it, and somehow it seemed more interesting.

So you replaced God with sexuality? 

Yes, with being in love, which is somehow transcendent; it is sexuality made golden or magic or somehow special. Now I think more and more that you must take any gate you can into any magic you can. There is something to be got from everywhere – I would certainly go to a Buddhist church if I was in a Buddhist country. 

With the passage of time, are you leaning more towards religion? 

Not in any sense of believing that Jesus Christ was God, or that God has any identity, or that God gives a damn about me if he is there. But sometimes one can harness the power to endure something, or to help something to happen. It’s not exactly the power of prayer, but I do believe if you are thinking deeply or carefully about somebody it does make a difference to them too. It’s the old Hamlet thing: ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’

In the second week of your first term at Oxford, you were invited out by your tutor, Nigel Glendinning, and began an affair – something for which you have said, ‘in this politically correct age he would doubtless be accused of sexual harassment’. Did no one mind in the 1950s? Was it not frowned upon by Somerville College? 

Somerville College were worried that I wouldn’t finish my degree. Indeed they were not certain that I should be allowed to finish my degree if I married him – that was all they bothered about. But as for sexual harassment, that had not been invented.

Your father accused Glendinning of ruining your life. With the passage of time, and after you became a parent yourself, did you come to have any sympathy for your father’s feelings? 

I had sympathy for his feelings, but I think he went about things in a completely crazy way. He should have thrown us together, he should have invited Nigel Glendinning to every family party, every theatre, every cinema, and then maybe I would have seen the light. But he went about it in the old-fashioned way of separating us, like Romeo and Juliet.

Did your parents’ attitude or that of the college have any influence on your decision to marry? 

I can’t remember, but I think I wanted to marry Nigel. And my parents’ displeasure naturally made me want to defend him. The college was not so important because in the end they let me complete my degree anyway.

In your novel Electricity you end a chapter with an unforgettable sentence: ‘And so I married, and fell off the edge of the known world.’ Was that your own experience when you married Nigel Glendinning, I wonder? 

It is so funny that you should pick out that sentence, because after I wrote it in my house in Ireland I got a complete block and didn’t know what happened to my heroine, didn’t know what happened in her marriage. I wasn’t able to write any more for about two months until suddenly a cinema reel started going in my head again and I saw exactly what happened. But whether that was anything to do with me getting married, I really don’t know. What happened was that I had a baby at once, another baby, another baby, another baby…and for quite a long time I was very contented. I fell off the edge of the known world only in that it changed my life.

You had four children to whom you were both devoted, and many years of happiness, yet the marriage eventually ended, and you said once that it may have been this very preoccupation with the children, so much time spent with them rather than alone with each other, that brought about its erosion. This is perhaps an unwelcome idea to other devoted parents…do you still believe it to be true? 

Yes, I do, because the relationship between two people can easily get eroded. Actually my mother, to whom I should give credit, was always saying, ‘Why don’t you and Nigel go off on holiday on your own?’ and we always said that we preferred to be with the children. That was because when we were left alone we had nothing much to say; all the energy was going the way of the children. Couples should remember that the first relationship is between themselves. My mother also used to say that a woman is either for the children or for the husband, she can’t be for both. In her own case she was for the husband in that during the war she went to be near him in his barracks, and we were left somewhere else. I think probably I was for the children. Every woman will know what you mean if you ask her if she is a woman for the husband or a woman for the children. And it is always a tricky one to have to decide.

In Sons and Mothers, edited by you and your third son Matthew, he described his ‘cracking up’, which you call his depression, and you point to its connection with the long-drawn-out break-up of your marriage to his father. He has made a complete recovery, but if you could have foreseen this effect, would it have prevented the split? 

If you ask divorced people: ‘Would you have embarked on that path if you had known there would be all that blood on the carpet, all the agony, all the hurt?’ many would say no – even those who have made happy second marriages. When you hear about a ‘compatible’ divorce or a ‘very amicable’ divorce, you don’t believe it. There is always pain, there is always grief, somebody is always the loser, and it doesn’t stop. However happy and right the second relationship is, you are leaving behind a mess.

Do you think staying married for the sake of the children causes more problems than it solves? 

I think it depends how you do it. If you can do it with a good will and make it work, that’s fine, but not if it’s all resentments and silences and nobody touching anybody. Two people living in the same house as if they were living separate lives is a very bad example of lovelessness. A child does not like to see no love.

How important is love in your life? 

Hugely. I have learned to be a whole person by loving other people; absolutely without a doubt.

You were educated at expensive private schools, but your boys went to the local comprehensive. Was this a difficult decision? Did you ever have any doubts about it? 

No, though I’ve had doubts about it since. At the time, I thought if I’d sent them to private schools, I would have been sending them out into the world with a terrible impediment, in that they would only be able to relate to the people who had been at those same sort of schools. I wanted my children to be able to relate to all kinds of people, to be able to relate to all kinds of people, to be able to move in and out invisibly in all kinds of society. And I think they can.

I have read that your boys encountered what you describe as ‘some of the usual problems’ – which must have been testing for you as well as for them. It is often said by parents who send their children away to boarding school that the experience is character-forming and therefore worth any pain and suffering involved. Did you tell yourself something of the same vis-a-vis the local state school? 

No, not at all. I was just very pleased they were able to come home for tea. Of course, there were some difficult things, like big boys in the playground waiting to get you, but that’s part of life. At least they were coming home. I certainly didn’t send them because it was going to be so bad it would build their character; I was sending them because I thought life would actually have a better unity if they had breakfast at home, tea at home, supper at home, and coped with life in between. There was no idea of hardening them up, no. I don’t want to harden anybody up.

Would you have treated a daughter differently, do you think? 

I don’t know. I wouldn’t know how to bring up a girl. I would love to have had a daughter, but I might have loved her too much. I’m very keen on my sons’ girlfriends.

How do you feel about Tony Blair’s choice of school for his sons? 

I think he is completely within his rights, but it just makes it rather phoney that he is leading the Labour Party. I would have thought the first thing we ought to do is somehow make our education equal. I don’t know how you would do it, but I don’t like the argument which goes: I see there is privilege, I do not like privilege , but while there is privilege, I am going to avail myself of it. I think that’s pretty weak, and I don’t respect it.

You must have been delighted by Labour’s overwhelming victory at the last election, but many supporters are now expressing disappointment in the government’s performance. Do you share this feeling? 

I’m terribly disappointed. It’s partly because ‘education, education, education’ seems to have gone on the same, and housing doesn’t seem to be any better either. And ethical foreign policy, don’t make me laugh! Then little things come out in the papers like the fact that we are still manufacturing torture instruments in Birmingham for export to other countries. You see, as soon as people are in office they lose all their integrity, and attention is paid only to how to get in next time. Yes, I’m disappointed, but I suppose it was childish to think it would be different – though we all did.

You have described writing as being ‘illicit like a lover, not a duty’. Can you elaborate on that? 

I never have thought I am a writer in a kind of holy, special way. Writing is something I do in combination with many other things, and it is rather anti-social. When you are writing you remove your care and attention from the other people in your life, so it is rather like stealing the time, and I find it suits me that way. If I were given all the time in the world, and a blank sheet of paper, and all the day to write in, and a country cottage to do it in, I wouldn’t be able to write a thing. I can only do it because I think I’ve only got two hours, and then my mind is wonderfully concentrated, and there is a kind of focus and excitement.

Is there suffering involved in the writing process, or does it come easy? 

What doesn’t come easy is sitting down to do it, so I would say I suffer in the beginning. I’m like a dog walking round and round its basket and not lying down. What I’m frightened of is this big concentration I can go into, which is quite exhausting when I come out of it. It’s like a tunnel where I see nothing else but what I’m doing, but it’s difficult approaching the tunnel, and it’s also quite difficult emerging from the tunnel. 

You’ve always maintained that life is more important than art, but your art has played a very important part in your life. Do you think there are dangers in elevating art too highly? 

I think there’s a danger in elevating second-rate art too highly. With the great emphasis on access to everybody of artistic endeavour, which is correct, there is a lot of bad art that gets treated as if it is good art, and I still think there is a difference between them. To praise everything equally is to treat everybody as small children doing their little cut-outs at school. I think art will always find the place in society that society wants it to have.

You are celebrated for your biographies – Elizabeth Bowen, Swift, Trollope, Vita Sackville-West and others – so I am interested in your views on biography as an art form. Bernard Malamud famously said: ‘The past exudes legend; one can’t make pure clay of time’s mid. There is no life that can be recaptured wholly; as it was. Which is to say that all biography is ultimately fiction.’ How do you react to that? 

I quite agree. I am completely off biography as a genre. Having worked on it for a quarter of a century, I now think it is an extremely dodgy exercise. The more you know about anything the more you see the mountains behind the mountains behind the mountains. I don’t believe it any more. The kind of authoritative tone that reckons to give you the whole picture of somebody’s life is a complete cod. Equally, if you’re going to say, well, I don’t know but it might this, or it might be like that, then although it’s not a complete cod, it’s a piece of self-indulgence. A lot of it is quite pointless. I also think Americans who write huge collections of every single piece of information that could ever come into the world about an individual are wasting their time. Biography has had a very good run in the last thirty years, but it has done what it can do. Everybody in the field now has this feeling that the game is up, and you cannot say any more, this is how it was. You only have those bits of paper, those letters, diaries, documents that have been preserved, and of those you’re trying to make a whole. How do you know that all the really interesting ones haven’t quietly been torn up? How do you know that there isn’t a box over there that you haven’t seen?

Doris Lessing put it slightly differently in saying, ‘There is no doubt that fiction makes a better job of truth than biography.’ Do you think she is right? 

I think they are different truths. There is something called fictional truth, which works in a novel. For example, if I were to put our encounter in a novel, it would be dead on the page if I put exactly what happened. I would have to give it some form, some slant, and then it would be true in a different way. But it would be fictional truth which is not the same as historical truth.

Your novel Electricity was written while your second husband Terence de Vere White was dying of Parkinson’s disease. One critic has said that the book read like ‘a marathon of grief’…do you see it like that? I know your husband’s death hit you very hard and both your parents died shortly before in a car crash… 

I didn’t see it as a marathon of grief, it was more like an alternative world for me. I used to go into the world of the novel, which was very real to me, and though I didn’t perhaps know it at the time, it was a sort of strategy for survival.

Did the experience of such anguish bring about any change in your attitude to religion…was there not a desperate need to believe that death was not the end? 

There was no change in my attitude to organized religion. I think when somebody dies, you feel at the beginning that they have not quite got away; they are still around, and then after a bit you think, yes, they’ve got away now. You can of course talk to the dead and they will answer because you know what they would say if they were there, so in a way it’s easy, and often places have the spirits of the people who used to be there. Life is more than it seems, but it’s nothing to do with religion; it’s a much wider, more diffuse, vaguer thing than a Church of England bishop would claim.

In Electricity, after Charlotte’s husband dies, she wonders where he is now and says: ‘I believe, now, that he is in the hands of the Power that people glimpse and then diminish and distort into rival notions of God.’ Does that reflect your own view to any extent? 

Almost exactly, yes. I don’t know what the Power is; it’s just that you go back to where you came from.

And we don’t know where we came from? 

Of course we don’t. That’s the mistake we make all the time. People keep saying, it’s like this, and then others say, no, it’s like this, and then they have a battle and people are killed. Nobody knows why it is.

The other constant refrain in Electricity is: ‘Nothing lasts, nothing is for ever.’ Is that something of which you have been painfully aware in your life? 

It was one of Terence’s phrases…nothing is for ever. And it’s such a good motto for life because in good times it keeps your feet on the ground, and it also works in bad times because when you’re very low you can think this is it, but it isn’t. Everything moves along, nothing is for ever. I have it written up above the fireplace in Ireland.

Are you by nature an optimist? 

I’m quite a happy person by nature…my glass of wine settles at a sort of cheerful contentment. Naturally, if there are genuine problems and life is horrible and difficult, then I am as shaken as the next person. But left to myself I’m not unhappy.

You have lived for long periods in Ireland and you have a house in Cork. We know from your biography of Trollope how he became with the country and the people, making them the setting and the characters of so many of his novels. Have you ever been tempted to follow Trollope’s example? 

No, because I think in Trollope’s day the Irish were seen as a sort of tribe that you could use in that way. It would be rather like an English person writing American dialogue – you might get it wrong. And although I am fairly at home with and in the Irish psyche, I wouldn’t presume to be able to write as an Irish person, certainly not from the inside. Cultural differences are very subtle.

Terence de Vere White’s novel, The Distant and the Dark (1973), is said to take the middle ground with respect to the Troubles, and it satirized the ignorance of so-called observers. Were you able to form your own opinion of the Irish Question and did you come to share your husband’s views, or at least those expressed in his novel? 

Well, he was Dublin born and bred, so he would have had an endless amount of references and bits of information in his genes, in his bones, in his blood, which I wouldn’t have, so I don’t think I can compare. He was the sort of man who would have wished for a united Ireland while loathing everything the IRA did and stood for. Most Irish people would wish for a united Ireland; it’s just the way you go about it that divides people.  I’ve certainly gone through phases of being more lenient, if you like, to the Republicans and phases of thinking they were untrustworthy, and I’m sure that happens to everybody else that has anything to do with the place. And I have very little patience with Unionist bigotry and Unionist bullish stubbornness which seem to me deeply unattractive. Only you have to keep hoping…

In Sons and Mothers, Matthew tells us that his stepfather was very much loved, his death came as a relief to everyone who had watched his suffering, not least to you. A man who loved to write and to talk was trapped inside a disintegrating body. If he had begged to have been allowed to die earlier, how would you have reacted? 

He didn’t. He was a Catholic, raised a Catholic, and even though he had lost his proper faith, nobody who is raised a Catholic can believe in suicide, because it’s so embedded in you that life is a gift from God. He did say to me once, ‘I suppose I should kill myself, but I can’t.’ His morality wouldn’t have let him.

But what would you have done if he had said to you, ‘I want to go now…’? 

Well, he did say, ‘I wish I could die, I wish I could die…’

But would you ever have agreed to help him die? 

No, I couldn’t have, I couldn’t have. With my mind, of course, I believe utterly in euthanasia in those circumstances. It’s so easy to believe it in your head, yet when actually you’re faced with it, with somebody you love, you can’t do it. At least I couldn’t.

Your son speaks with total admiration of how you behaved at that time. While mourning your parents and caring for your dying husband, you finished off the Trollope biography and continued to write your novel, whilst remaining sane throughout, at least until after your husband died. Was it the writing that sustained you? 

I don’t think so. The writing was just one of various strategies. When you have something very difficult to do, you do it, and the elastic is stretched tighter and tighter, but you still do it because you have to. I was very lucky that I had the writing. I found it all very difficult, and I think I never really recovered from it. The elastic snapped back, but not quite all the way.

After your husband died, you experienced a period of solitude. When your sons were growing up and life was very busy and fraught, it was solitude that you longed for. When you got it, did it disappoint…in the way that something you want very much is sometimes a bit of a let-down when you get it? 

Good question…but no, it was heaven. I went on my own to the Irish house, which is very remote, for quite a long time. At times I couldn’t see people at all, I just couldn’t, and then gradually that changed and I began to go back into the world quite happily. But I needed that solitude very much.

Your relationship with Matthew has not been easy. He says in the book that he put you through hell, but in your own contribution to the book you do not reproach him with this. ‘There is no love without pain,’ you say, and that is the message of the book. Is that an absolute truth, would you say? And if there is no pain does that mean that the love is not real? 

I think it means it’s not quite so intense and engaging. If there are no difficulties, no pain, and everything is smooth, then it’s probably very sensible, rational, good behaviour, but if in fact you get quite close then you start speaking and the closeness can turn black on you. If you want to have a very serene, easy life you would never get close to anybody; there are times of such happiness, but you have to pay for everything, there’s no free lunch. I’ve got plenty of friends, close friends, that I’ve never fought with, because there is no need – we’re not emotionally dependent on each other. But with lovers and husbands to whom one is very close there are always fights.

You once said in an interview that one consequence of your non-judgemental view of life is that you don’t feel enough guilt. ‘I feel remorse,’ you said, ‘I’m sometimes sorry I didn’t do things better, but I don’t feel guilt.’ But in Sons and Mothers you confess ‘huge guilt’ as the reason for not talking to our sons about the break-up of your first marriage. Were you ‘in denial’, as they say, when you made that first statement? 

I didn’t deny it, I just probably forgot. You see, I don’t feel that guilt all the time; it’s only when I come to focus on the time when I was getting out of the first marriage, and I think, my God, that was terrible, yes. But I don’t have it on me as a daily weight. I wouldn’t even think about it from one year to the next.

In connection with that book you expressed the opinion: ‘Mothers and daughters can seemingly rabbit on endlessly about one another without difficulty, however fraught the relationship.’ Isn’t that quite an odd remark from a feminist? 

You seem to have a funny idea of feminism, as if everything about a woman has to be positive. It’s like being a Communist and never being able to criticize policy, because you have a kind of totalitarian vision. Well, I don’t have a totalitarian vision of women. I think there are as many bad women as there are bad men. I am a complete feminist in the sense of equality, and thinking that anything a man can do a woman can do, except lift a piano, but it doesn’t mean they are let off all their sins and crimes, for God’s sake.

At the end of his chapter in Sons and Mothers, Matthew describes how his father, Nigel Glendinning, came to share Christmas dinner with the family for the first time in twenty years. It seemed to me that there was a note of hope there for some kind of reconciliation…did you feel that too? 

It could have happened; it didn’t happen.

It could have happened? 

It didn’t happen.

In an article you wrote for the Daily Telegraph you describe the older reader as someone forever bemoaning the decline in standards – ‘the more distinguished the elder the more extreme his distaste’. And yet in the same article you say, ‘I know people – women mainly – well over eighty, who have more fun and who are more open-minded than people a quarter their age.’ How do you reconcile the two views? Are women somehow exempt from ‘old-codger syndrome’? 

I don’t think they’re so bad at old-codger syndrome. If you do hear people complaining about the decline in standards, it tends to be blokes. Women are actually more anarchic at heart than men, and don’t mind the rules being broken. They keep the rules when it suits them, but they don’t make them; men do. And therefore when rules are broken and standards fall it’s men who mind. Women are more adaptable, more flexible.

Coming back to religion, if I may, would you say that your Jewish blood has had any influence on your life? 

My mother was half Jewish, something she dealt with by not telling us about it until we were adolescent. There was some family matter that she had to talk to us about, and she said, ‘We don’t need to make much of it, darlings, but you’d better know that grandfather was Jewish.’ My sister and I were actually thrilled and went about being very Yiddish indeed for quite a long time. I was overawed when I heard that my grandfather and his brothers had carried cyanide pills in England in the 1940s in case there was an invasion. We had Jewish cousins, of course, and I knew that some of their families had experienced tragedy in the war, so it has made history closer to me than it might otherwise have been. But I think my attachment to my Jewish blood now, in the year 2000, is really more romantic than anything else.

You once said: ‘My Jewish bits are my best bits.’ What did you mean exactly? 

Being a Quaker and English and a Protestant…while they may all be decent things, they are a little flat and too much in good taste. I like a little bit of flash, and being part Jewish just breaks up the pattern nicely.

I’m interested in your view that God is just another metaphor…presumably God is a metaphor for good as opposed to evil, an opposition universally recognized regardless of religious allegiance. Is that what you mean by metaphor? 

I think probably God and the Devil are the same person. It is a wonderfully comforting construction of the human mind to split them apart, saying, this one is good, we like him, and this one is bad, we don’t like him. But this sort of binary system of the universe is rather childish. It’s a bit like electricity – very good if it’s a nice heating system, very bad if it’s lightening or a bare wire that’s going to electrocute you.

One thing that puzzles me is your refusal to be judgemental ‘about good and bad’ – you say you simply can’t handle it. I don’t think when you said this you were referring only to books, but even if you were, is this a sustainable position? 

I think I said originally I was not judgemental about the actions or behaviour of the subjects of biographies I’ve written, because I don’t think that’s the biographer’s job. It’s more interesting for the reader to think ‘Wow!’ or ‘Good God!’ or ‘How could he do a thing like that?’ without underlining it or pre-empting it. It is my job, however, to explain if possible how the subject came to be the sort of person he or she was.

Are there any moral absolutes, would you say? 

An awful lot of ‘moral’ absolutes are culturally determined. They would be different in the same society at different periods and in different societies at the same period. My own moral absolutes would be large and vague – to do with kindness, hospitality, truthfulness; in which, however morally absolute I may consider them, I naturally fail daily.

Terence de Vere White said of you that you lacked ‘the tragic sense of life’, which sounded like a reproach, but you think it is ‘morally better to be contented when you can’. Are you sure you meant ‘morally’? 

Yes, I did and do mean ‘morally’, because discontent spills over on the people round you and poisons their air as well as your own. Also discontent is often connected with selfishness or greed or childish expectations of life. But I did say ‘when you can’. Sometimes circumstances are intolerable and should not be tolerated. And clinical depression is another matter.

In Dante’s Inferno there is a circle of hell specially reserved for those who are wilfully sad…is that perhaps something you would go along with? 

I don’t know if people are really ‘wilfully sad’, though sadness or melancholy or discontent can become a habit it’s hard to renounce. And then the person feels ‘happier’ feeling sad, because it feels normal.

What might be called ‘the tragic sense of life’ has inspired men to great art, whether in painting, literature or music. This can’t be morally wrong surely? 

Of course that’s not morally wrong. Creativity that come out of being unhappy or having a tragic sense of life is turning dross into gold, a marvellous alchemy and a permanent gift to the world. Nevertheless, there’s a price to pay, for other people. Living with a genius is notoriously difficult.

In 1996 you married Kevin O’Sullivan, and in March of this year you wrote to your husband’s former wife, Shirley Conran, rebuking her for libelling him and threatening her with ‘hell to pay’ if she did it again. Am I right in saying that this was rather out of character for you? 

It wasn’t out of character to write the letter – I write all sorts of things when I am upset or enraged, to get it out of my system. And I would leap like a tiger to defend people I love. But maybe what was a bit uncharacteristic was actually posting the letter.

Do you regret the exchange of letters? 

I don’t regret writing the letter, or even posting it. I very much regret that Shirley Conran in her desire for personal publicity sent it to the newspapers, and then gave interviews about it. Mine to her was a personal letter.

In an interview you told Hunter Davies: ‘Since childhood I’ve had an amazingly good life, which got better all the time. If I go soon, then fine. I always like to leave the party early.’ At your present age, and in a new marriage, do you still think it would be fine to go soon? 

No, I don’t want to go just yet – there are too many things I want to do, like making another garden. I made a good garden in North London, which I left when Kevin and I got married. I have a garden in Ireland but it’s much too far away to give daily attention, and Kevin has a small terraced garden in France. I think I should swap the Irish house for an English house, and have a green field site, like a paddock, in which I would make another garden. I probably wouldn’t move out of London altogether, but from Thursday till Tuesday I would like to go and see my lettuces.

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