The novelist Barbara Taylor Bradford on selling off her jewellery, JK Rowling, and why Fifty Shades ‘is frankly not that wicked’
An interview with Celia Walden
Published in The Daily Telegraph on Monday, November 11th, 2013
A throw pillow on Barbara Taylor Bradford’s side of the bed is embroidered with the words: “You are divine.” I know this because I’m standing in the bestselling novelist’s bedroom, being shown a photograph of Chammi, her recently deceased bichon frisé.
“It’s been over a month but I still daren’t take her bed away from beneath my desk,” she admits with a sad smile. “Still, in 17 years she was only ill for that one day, which isn’t bad, is it?”
Stoicism and longevity are qualities Taylor Bradford must have passed on to her beloved dog. The 80-year-old author, who has been writing since the age of 10 – when she sold her first story to the local paper in Leeds for seven shillings and sixpence – is to publish her 29th book in February, and has been married to the same man for nearly 50 years.
Then there’s her face: bright and unlined, with an old Hollywood glamour to those peaked brows and a nostalgic lilt to her mouth, it’s still that of the sassy young Fleet Street journalist in the old pictures on her dressing table.
Taylor Bradford’s world would be just a bit too Dorian Grey if it weren’t all about to change, though. In two weeks’ time, the novelist is moving out of the 5,000 sq ft riverview Manhattan penthouse she and her husband, TV producer Robert Bradford, have shared for 18 years (she’s sold it to Uma Thurman), the Biedermeier furniture is going – “It’s too big and all you have to do is breathe on it for a piece to fall off” – and the vintage Balmain and Pauline Trigère dresses hanging on a set of rails in the sitting room are being given to charity. Finally, on December 5, she is auctioning off a collection of jewellery given to her by her husband over half a century, with the proceeds to be left to three unnamed female heirs.
Is this ferocious downsizing about guilt, I ask, as we wait for her genial Moroccan butler, Mohammed, to bring us some tea. “Oh no,” she flings back, waving away the notion with a bejewelled hand. “I don’t believe in guilt. I think it’s a silly thing. I’m a decent person who does her best in every way. I like myself, you know? But if I’m going to be defined by the building in which I live and the possessions I have, then I’ve accomplished nothing in my life.”
The problem, she sighs, is her over-attentive husband, Bob, who for the past 50 years has insisted on giving her five pieces of jewellery a year. “For my birthday, Christmas and our wedding anniversary; when I write a book, finish a book and when he makes a movie of it – the gifts just keep on coming.”
Bob doesn’t mind her selling off these pieces of her marital history, she swears. “I’m only selling the stuff I don’t wear any more, like these two diamond pins that went together and were OK in the Eighties, but now… I mean they’re big,” she whispers, “and you know: half the world is starving. In any case, I might no longer have the jewels, but I’ll still have the man.”
The Bradfords’ enduringly happy marriage is the subject of as much wonder as her capacity to bash out an international bestseller every 12 months. The pair will occasionally argue, she says, but she makes a point of never berating her husband in public.
“It’s so emasculating when women do that. Equally, talking behind your husband’s back should never be done.”
They boss each other around – “He calls me Napoleon and I call him Bismarck, because it’s like being in the German army sometimes” – but that, she admits, is “mainly because we don’t have anyone else to boss around”.
It has taken decades for Taylor Bradford to talk lightly about her inability to have children, and although it meant she was able to concentrate on her husband more – “I do think that children can come between couples, because it’s another person competing for attention” – the two miscarriages she suffered early in her marriage left her stricken.
“Having a miscarriage is heartbreaking. You think: ‘What have I done wrong? Why has this happened to me?’ You blame yourself because it’s not the man carrying the child: it’s you. But I think you either let those regrets haunt you or you move on.
“Recently I did ask Bob: ‘Do you ever miss not having children?’ He said that sometimes he does, but not really. And we’ve been so happy together,” she falters. “I don’t even want to think about what life would be if he weren’t here.”
Writing is the one area of life from which her husband is excluded. Taylor Bradford gets up at 6.30 every morning and works at her IBM Wheelwriter typewriter without consulting her husband about her work or showing him a draft – until it’s finished. “You don’t need your
husband to be a sounding board. He’ll tell me if he thinks something is not right once it’s finished.”
That hard-working, independent spirit goes some way to explaining how the daughter of Freda and Winston Taylor (her mother was a nurse and her father unemployed for most of her childhood), from the Upper Armley suburb of Leeds, became a reporter at the Yorkshire Evening Post at 16, a Fleet Street newspaper columnist at 20 – and a bestselling novelist at 45.
With 88 million copies of her books sold to date – her first novel, A Woman of Substance, has sold 31 million – and 10 made into TV films or drama series starring the likes of Sir Anthony Hopkins, Liam Neeson, Sir John Mills and Jenny Seagrove, she seems to have found a failsafe recipe for success.
With female fiction having come full circle and reintroduced the sexually subjugated heroine, how does she think fiction’s leading men have changed? “I don’t really read a lot of other people’s fiction,” she murmurs apologetically. “I don’t want to knock other people, but I thought Fifty Shades of Grey was terribly repetitive and frankly just not that wicked. The only bit of sadomasochism is when he smacks her bottom, and that’s the end of the book,” she says, chuckling.
In life as in fiction, Taylor Bradford maintains: “It’s about knowing who you are. A lot of writers don’t know who they are.” Doesn’t she ever want to break free from the shackles of her genre? “No.” She looks appalled. But can she not understand why someone like JK Rowling would choose to publish a thriller under a pseudonym? “I don’t know what to say about that,” she frowns, “because it almost seemed naive in a way. I mean people found out at an appropriate moment in time, don’t you think? Perhaps I’m being too cynical, but it seemed to work out in her favour, didn’t it?”
Taylor Bradford is anything but cynical, which is why, when her publishers urged her to capitalise on the success of Downton Abbey by making her new book, Cavendon Hall, an Edwardian novel, she refused to do it. “I have used Yorkshire, and the whole story does twist on a rape, but I wrote the outline well before Downton Abbey became a success.”
For the first time since we’ve sat down together, she looks ruffled.“I think people might think I’ve pinched things from Downton Abbey when I haven’t. That said, I do think the show is terribly well done and that Julian [Fellowes, its writer] is awfully clever. Over here people can’t get enough of it. Americans are fascinated by butlers and antique furniture and all those things.” Is that the appeal of the ‘‘gravel drive’’ genre? “I think a lot of its success is because it’s about a time when things were nicer.”
I wonder whether the secret of Taylor Bradford’s success, both personal and professional, isn’t a refusal to allow any of the conflicting values and impossible expectations of modern life to permeate her world. If you set your own standards, it occurs to me as she and Mohammed ransack her office to find me a copy of The Women in his Life – the book of which she remains proudest – there’s no one else to keep up with.
Although, of course, Bob would make things a whole lot easier if he stopped showering her with baubles. “Even since we handed everything over to Bonhams, he’s already bought me two new rings,” she says, despairingly. “I can’t stop him. And just imagine what will happen on our 50th wedding anniversary in December!”
Can’t she ban him from giving her any more jewellery? “Oh, I can’t do that,” she replies with a fatalistic shake of the head. “He’s terribly wilful.”
Jewellery including selected items from the collection of Barbara Taylor Bradford will go on sale at Bonhams, New Bond Street on December 5.