From romance and riches to heartache and dogged hard work… legendary author BARBARA TAYLOR BRADFORD’s life has been as much a page-turner as one of her mega-selling novels. And, she tells Judith Woods, she’s just getting started
Barbara Taylor Bradford. What compelling costume dramas those three little words conjure up! Rags and riches, dynasties and feuds, adversity below stairs, unrequited passion above and each epic doorstopper – 35 books and counting – served up with a gimlet eye for historical detail. Her latest, A Man of Honour, looks set to continue the line of immensely satisfying bestsellers.
‘There’s a lot of snobbery in publishing, but I no longer have to prove to anyone that I’m not a romantic novelist,’ says the Leeds-born author with crisp dismissiveness. At 88, Barbara– who has lived in the US for many years– remains a sharp-witted, witheringly amusing grande dame who doesn’t suffer fools gladly. ‘I write mainstream novels for women that are rooted in factual history. I have a journalist’s sensibility, so I do exhaustive research because I want my readers to feel they are reading an autobiography– that these people actually lived and interacted with each other in these ways.’
It’s a winning formula – her cumulative sales top 90 million worldwide – which speaks volumes about her global appeal. Can it really be over four decades since A Woman of Substance first gripped the nation? The blockbuster novel features Emma Harte, who begins her life in service at Fairley Hall on the Yorkshire moors aged 14 where she becomes pregnant by the son of the house. After being cast aside by him, she flees to Leeds where she gives birth and, determined to take control of her own narrative, works day and night, scrimps and saves before opening her own shop: a proud moment that heralds the start of a sprawling business empire that sees her achieve breathtaking wealth, power – and revenge.
The book was brought to the screen by Barbara’s film producer husband Robert, ensuring that Emma Harte was forever seared on our retinas with the young incarnation played by Jenny Seagrove in a Channel 4 miniseries. Calling it appointment TV would be a woeful understatement. Currently, the channel’s most popular programme The Great British Bake Off pulls in around 10.4 million viewers; A Woman of Substance was watched by 13.9 million in 1985 – the biggest audience in Channel 4’s history.
Fast forward to 2021 and Barbara’s dearly beloved husband of 55 years is no longer by her side. Bob suffered a stroke in their New York apartment in July 2019 and died a week later in hospital without fully regaining consciousness. For the first few days as she kept a vigil by his bedside she’d talk, reassure him and gently squeeze his hand. At the beginning he would reciprocate. Then his hand went limp. Three days later, the machines keeping him alive were switched off, in accordance with the wishes of his living will. He was 94.
‘It was while I sat with Bob during those last days that the idea for A Man of Honour came to me,’ she says. ‘I was due to write the third book in the House of Falconer series [set in Victorian England, it follows the turbulent fortunes of the Falconer and Malvern families] but I realised there would be so much to do after his death that I wouldn’t have the time to do all the research. It suddenly occurred to me that it would be far easier to write about a character I knew. I was wrong, of course, and it turned out to be far harder and took me longer than usual – 18 months rather than a year– but it was the story I needed to write; a prequel to A Woman of Substance.’
Bob had always insisted she should continue to write whatever happened, and she concedes she feels ‘lost’ without a manuscript on the go. So, after months of crying alone in her Manhattan home (‘I wouldn’t dream of crying on anyone else’s shoulder’), she pulled herself together and began literally putting pen to paper until the tale was told. She only writes in longhand or on a typewriter. ‘People tell me I should write my books on a screen so I can more easily move paragraphs and change the order of things. I never change anything. I might cross out a line, maybe even a paragraph, but it’s all in my head waiting to come out.’
Business as usual, then… but not quite. For a start there was the incendiary issue of her hero’s name. He was christened Shane O’Neill, but everyone calls him Blackie. He’s Irish. His nickname, no big deal in 1985 for a fella from Kerry with jet black hair, terrifying and triggering today. Publishers are notoriously sensitive to the cultural climate–I tell her I’m surprised she got away with it.
‘Not quite,’ she admits. ‘I wanted to call the book Emma and Blackie.’ Noooo! I cry. ‘Oh yes,’ she says. ‘When I said so, a woman from my publisher HarperCollins looked stricken and said that it really wasn’t possible to put that on the cover. Apparently some people might have assumed I was mocking a black man, even though I obviously wasn’t. Nonsense, of course, but the world is a very different place to the one I grew up in.’
Quite so. Today’s cancel-culture activists would simply see red, and as there’s nothing to be gained by stirring up a hornet’s nest of outrage, Barbara lost that fight– but she won the war. ‘There was no way I was renaming him in the novel, and my publishers agreed. Inside, he’s still Blackie and in retrospect, A Man of Honour works very well as a companion piece to A Woman of Substance. It sounds good to the ear.’
For Barbara’s fans, her new book ticks every box. So much so, I’d be very surprised if the full-body immersion into the grime, grit and – in Blackie’s case – gallantry of early 20th-century Yorkshire didn’t have them reaching once more for the original. Perhaps they might even convert the next generation at a time when zeitgeist novels such as Sally Rooney’s Normal People are more about feelings than events – much less politics or overcoming the struggles of poverty and lack of opportunity.
‘Women still write to me now, thanking me for inspiring them to get themselves out there and achieve, despite the odds being stacked against them,’ says Barbara, who was awarded an OBE in 2007. ‘Emma Harte has touched a great many lives.’
With the loss of Bob, of course, much has changed. Yet in many respects, very little has altered. Barbara is still writing assiduously, managing his investments and, having taken over business affairs at his production company, has just struck a film deal for the eight books in her Emma Harte series (including A Man of Honour). She won’t say with who, but the hour-long episode format screams Netflix or Amazon Prime. Exciting stuff – and she played hardball, too; negotiating script and casting approval for the A Woman of Substance remake.
‘I live by the Noël Coward quote: “I find work more fun than fun,”’ she tells me drily. ‘My other adage is Churchill’s– “Keep buggering on”. Both of these mean I’m very busy, which is a good thing. I write, I see friends, I visit restaurants, I’ve had my Covid jabs and I wear a mask when necessary, but I refuse to be cowed by the virus. When I was a child growing up, actual bombs were falling in our garden as we sat in the air-raid shelter. I survived that so I can get through anything.’
Barbara’s childhood reveals an early determination to become a writer; aged ten she sent a story to a magazine which was published, and at 15, after leaving school, she joined the typing pool at The Yorkshire Post before becoming a reporter– by no means a recognised career trajectory, but her star quality shone through. By 20 she was fashion editor at Woman’s Own magazine, then a London Evening News columnist. In 1961 she met her husband-to-be on a blind date.
It was a coup de foudre that saw them stay together for almost six decades. They didn’t have children. Robert adored her and showed it regularly, giving her ‘so, so many handbags and beautiful jewellery’. She sold some of her jewellery at Bonhams in 2013, and in 2019 auctioned 13 handbags including half a dozen hugely sought-after Kelly bags by Hermès– because, she says, ‘she had plenty left and needed the closet space’.
Barbara is due to head to Britain again soon– she visits every year to promote her newest book, and when in London always stays in the same suite at The Dorchester, where she is greeted with familiarity and home-from-home warmth. She often goes back to Leeds and revels in the exhilarating beauty and history of the surrounding countryside. By the time she boards the plane home, the contours of her next novel are already forming in her head. You can take the girl out of Yorkshire and all that. ‘I live in the US but I am very much an Englishwoman abroad. I have a British passport, I read British newspapers every day and I drink Taylors of Harrogate tea.’
There’s another badge of belonging, too; Barbara is captivated by Boris. ‘He’s a fantastic prime minister!’ she cries. ‘I consider him to be the real leader of the free world; he is well educated, clever and a former journalist, which gives him a certain insight into what’s happening. I like a strong, self-confident politician and he’s just that. I’ve met him, most recently at a reception when he was like a breath of fresh air. When he spoke to the UN about climate change his speech was absolutely stirring. I haven’t felt this way about a British prime minister since Margaret Thatcher. I’m only sorry that I’m not in Britain to vote for him.’
As regrets go, that’s splendidly niche, but also testament to a life lived well. Barbara herself is always looking forward, focusing on the next project, the next plotline, the next publicity tour.
The fact that her eponymous Man of Honour, Blackie, has been expunged from the cover of her novel ought to keep her below the politically correct radar, but the reaction of online vigilantes, scanning cyberspace for reasons to take offence, can never be second-guessed. ‘I don’t go on social media,’ she says. ‘It’s not that I don’t understand how it works– of course I do. But why would I? I have a person who keeps my Facebook page up to date, but the idea of frittering my time away on platforms where people are so bored they deliberately start arguments with one another is completely alien to me. I have far more important and enjoyable things to do.’
Would that we were all so content, purposeful and able to resist the siren call of Twitter and Instagram. Then again, as Barbara says herself, she’s old enough to have ‘been around the block 150,000 times’ and knows where her priorities lie. Her affirmation – her vindication – comes from her devoted readers who wait on tenterhooks for her latest tome. She’s only 88, for heaven’s sake. Long may it continue.
Barbara’s latest novel, A Man of Honour, will be published by HarperCollins on 11 November, price £16.99*