News article from 2000

"Sex and Money: so life-enhancing"

  October 24, 2000

Bacon is sizzling on the Aga, there's a scent of wax polish, men have manners - Rosamunde Pilcher is back. Elizabeth Grice meets her.

"ELFRIDA, with a basket in her hand and Horace firmly clipped to the end of his lead, closed the front door of her cottage behind her, walked down the narrow path, through the gate, and set off down the pavement towards the Post Office and General Store . . ."

These unsensational words will quicken the pulse of Rosamunde Pilcher fans across the globe. They announce that the long winter of her abstention from romantic fiction is over. Five years ago, the author of The Shell Seekers and Coming Home said she had written her last book, honoured her contracts and intended to spend more time with her family and friends. She was 71 and had made a fortune. There was no reason to disbelieve her.

Suddenly, with the polite click of Elfrida Phipps's gate, we are back among the reliable sights and sounds of Pilcherdom: a world of strong women, well-mannered men, bracing landscapes, big dogs, loyal cleaning ladies and houses that smell of wax polish.

Pilcher's books are about coping with life's upheavals. Sex is strictly between the lines; shopping means getting in the groceries. Whatever the traumas of the previous night - and there are few crises that cannot be met by a large whisky - her characters can look forward to the restorative smell of bacon sizzling on the Aga for breakfast and an endless supply of scalding coffee.

"I am terribly uninterested in shopping," says Pilcher, smokily, "but I think sex and money are two of life's great enhancers. They make life magic. They make the sky blue and the sun shine and everything wonderful. But once you start writing about them, unless you do it quite beautifully, they become very b-o-r-i-n-g. I won't say 'offensive' because I'm not offended, but in so many books they drag sex in by the legs and you want to turn the page because it's so boring. To write very intimately is a great art - and it must be romantic, not just physical."

In this department, she yields to the superior powers of Elizabeth Jane Howard, who "can write a really steamy sexual scene and it feels true . . . I think she is an enormously experienced lady".

Pilcher's strength is knowing what she can do well and writing about what she knows. She doesn't, frankly, give a damn about literary snobs or being called the queen of kitsch. With sales of 60 million from all her titles, why should she? "I am a bit like Liberace: laughing all the way to the bank," she says, reaching for another Marlboro. "You can't please everybody. If you sat around waiting for the critics to praise you, you'd never do anything. You've written the book. You just have to let the brickbats come."

Pilcher comfortably occupies that undervalued middle ground between light fiction and serious literature. There are flashes of the Mills and Boon writer she once was - as in the parodist's dream: "He took her into his arms and she leant against him, her shoulders heaving, weeping into the front of his Barbour" - but she has a way of tapping into the emotional life of her readers and making them care about characters not unlike themselves.

Her definition of her female constituency is recklessly honest. "Mostly, I would say, the older lady, or the family lady. The mother doesn't mind handing my books over to her daughter because they're not full of sex, drugs and shopping. Granny can hand them on to her granddaughter, her sister, her niece. Readers say things like: 'Your new book got me through a bad time when my husband was ill'. The Shell Seekers is still in print and selling like mad everywhere."

This was the book, based on her early memories of Cornwall and London, that toppled Tom Wolfe from number one in the New York Times bestseller list in 1990 and became the highest-selling paperback of the decade. It has sold 5.5 million copies worldwide and was made into a television film starring Angela Lansbury and Patricia Hodge. If for no other reason than that she sells, sells, sells, Pilcher has a huge claim on our attention.

Until Shell Seekers, she belonged to that industrious band of unknown women who tapped out saleable stories at the kitchen table while bringing up children, supporting the breadwinner and running the house. In the words of a friend who knew them way back, she was "the wife of Major Pilcher of the Black Watch, the beautiful woman of the home, writing her little books".

But Major Pilcher's wife was not happy at the way her little books were being treated. "They were being peddled as a very inferior imprint of the Collins publishing house," she says, acidly. "They looked trashy. They were sold in a trashy way. I said: 'Y'know, if you're not going to publish them with pride, don't publish them at all'." So she gathered up her titles and defected to St Martin's Press in America, selling all her English-speaking rights.

It was a smart move. "I don't know where Rosamunde Pilcher has been all my life," the New York Times reviewer crooned, "but now that I've found her, I'm not going to let her go." Americans were entranced by the boggy, heather-clad landscapes of her stories and her reassuring belief in the ability of humankind to cope with whatever life throws at it. She became big in Brazil and Scandinavia and a cult figure in Germany, where she is the bestselling post-war novelist.

It was her American editor, Tom Dunne, who persuaded her to try a longer, more autobiographical book. Entirely without hype, The Shell Seekers became a bestseller within three weeks. Pilcher is convinced that she owes a great debt to those "nice little ladies running dear little bookshops in the American suburbs" who spread the word that here was a safe, engrossing read.

"I don't think anything will have the impact Shell Seekers had. Everything I love was in that book: Bohemian people, painters, paintings, Cornwall, the way London used to be. I was terribly bereft when I finished it. I had walked round the fields talking to all my people for so long and suddenly it was all over. I had nobody to chat to any longer. They'd all gone."

As the cheques started to roll in, Pilcher was overwhelmed by an inexplicable feeling of doom. "I felt something ghastly was going to happen. It must have been a sudden awareness of responsibility. I knew I had to think ahead, plan for the future."

It isn't that they had previously lacked means. Graham Pilcher had been a director of the family jute business in Dundee. They lived in a big house surrounded by nice paintings and taken-for-granted antiques. There was a swimming pool, a tennis court, a paddock and several acres of grass. So paralyzed was she by the need to be sensible that her first, and for a long time her only, extravagance was to buy her husband a ride-on mower. It was six years before she partially renovated her kitchen and installed an Aga.

If anything, she began to scale down. With the four children off their hands, the Pilchers left the family home and moved to a ranch-style bungalow in the village of Longforgan, near Dundee. They even went for smaller dogs - long-haired dachshunds instead of labradors - a kinder solution than the one meted out to her antique furniture: she cuts the legs off stools and tables if the height isn't right.

There is a lingering frugality about Pilcher which probably stems from her family's genteel poverty and a reluctance to take anything for granted. She's sharp, savvy, kind - and nothing like as whimsical as readers who send her flowers and pictures of their homes would like to think.

"Nothing is ever said about money," she says. "I deliberately never talk about it. We never talk about anything beyond the two of us. If the papers say I'm rich, I just pass it off. It's nothing to do with them. It's nothing to do with anybody - not even our children, actually."

Graham Pilcher is 84 and many men of his generation would find it hard to be generous about a wife's sudden fame and fortune. But he is as genuinely delighted for her success, and the security it has given them in old age, as she is careful not to flaunt it.

"I would never dream of belittling all he did for us when we were young," she says. "He kept the family together, went off to work every day, earned a living, paid for the children's education. I wasn't earning enough to do anything like that. Now, if he wants to, he can go and buy himself a big new car, but he doesn't."

They're already well-traveled, Disneyland holds no appeal and they are far too busy to go on a cruise. As for clothes, you have only to glance at Mrs Pilcher's washing line to see where her priorities lie - three identical Marks & Spencer cardigans are pegged out in the sunshine.

When the shock of her success had sunk in, Pilcher bought a five-bedroom flat above the Victorian bank in Dornoch, Sutherland, where she could enjoy the sea air and her husband could play golf. But her defining gesture was to make over the profits and copyrights of her next two books to her children.

"Brilliant move," she says. "All I had to do was live for seven years. My chartered accountant suggested it. But the legal complications were tremendous. I had to have a special patents man from London. Because an unwritten book has no worth, it was like giving away a blank canvas or a blank piece of paper."

Pilcher quickly filled the blank piece of paper with two more successful books - September and Coming Home - and set her children up for life: the greatest satisfaction her money could buy.

"They had struggled for long enough. We've had two divorces and various babies being born at the wrong time - all the usual traumas, but you come through them. At least now they've all got good houses which they own." The eldest son, Robin (also a novelist), and his family live in a farmhouse set in 400 acres near Dundee, inherited from his paternal grandparents. Fiona has just bought a "grown-up" stone house in Somerset. Phillipa lives on Long Island, and has a beach house in Hawaii, and the youngest son, Mark, farms in Cornwall. "They are all sensible and have enough to see them through if they're careful."

Pilcher's new book, Winter Solstice, has what Dunne calls "emotional wallop", dealing as it does with the universals of widower hood, overcoming grief, finding love. Her central character, Elfrida, is childless and "past the age when her heart leapt for joy" on seeing an attractive man. But that doesn't stop her from being surprised by life. "You're lovers?" inquires a young relative. "We are." You cannot accuse Rosamunde Pilcher of cheap thrills.

Central to the story is the violent death of a child. "I can't imagine anything more dreadful," she says.

The Pilchers had a fifth child, Amanda, who died after five days, but she is adamant that the death of a baby does not compare. "Some babies are not meant to survive and she wasn't. She was very sick. The pediatrician, a very godly man, said to Graham: 'I think we'll let this one go', and I've never ceased to remember him and to be grateful to him.

"I never saw the child, never held her, so I wouldn't be so presumptuous as to say I suffered as other mothers did. She was just a little burden I was allowed to put down very early on and walk away from."

Though she insists that her books don't have messages, Winter Solstice reads like an antidote to the counseling industry. In the depths of bereavement, it argues, there is nothing more to be wished for than the hand of a friend. "People are left alone to mouse along, putting one worn gym shoe in front of the other and getting through the days until, gradually, the sky looks blue again."

Pilcher says she believes strongly that "life is part of death and death part of life". With characteristic briskness, she says she doesn't want to think very much about eternity. "There are very few people I want to see again. I'm not a great believer in the afterlife. I can't see it as anything other than the most hideous cocktail party. All you'd see would be the people you didn't want to see, and all the ones you wanted to see you wouldn't be able to find."

But perhaps, when she gets there, someone will accost her with the words that put her on the map: "Rosamunde Pilcher, where have you been all my life?"