British author Joanna Trollope, who is in Auckland next week, talks to Stephen Jewell about her new book and the trouble with raising boys.
If you're married or in a long-term romance, it's hard to read Joanna Trollope's latest novel and not see some aspect of your own life reflected in its turbulent events. Daughters-In-Law centres around Rachel Brinkley, a domineering matriarch who struggles to cope with the lesser role she must play in her three sons' lives after they are wed. When I meet Trollope for coffee near her Chelsea home, the 68-year-old author points out that it is a universal situation.
"Almost every woman here is probably a daughter-in-law or has a daughter-in-law," she says, gesturing around the cafe. "I find that women who have daughters and sons and women who have just daughters are not the same as women who only have sons. It comes out of their reaction to being in this sort of testosterone household where they are the only woman. It seems to me that they can either be supportive and join in, do all the things that the boys do, or they can do a Victoria Beckham and become excessively feminine. I'm making a observation in this book and I'm not being judgmental or critical because it's down to chance how people cope with the hand they've been dealt."
Now single, Trollope has been married twice and is the mother of two daughters. Although she also has two stepsons and several grandchildren, she insists that Daughters-In-Law is not drawn from her own experience.
"Sadly they're both dead now but I had amazing mother-in-laws and I got on very well with them," she says. "I'm absolutely devoted to my stepsons but no matter how much you love them you don't have that visceral, tiger mother feeling that you have if it's your own son. I'm terribly fond of both their wives and I'm devoted to both of my sons-in-law. It's really based on observation and research rather than anything personal. As a general rule, I hope that everything I've been through informs and enriches what I write but I try not to put it straight into the books. There's lots of other people who have been involved in the same situations who don't have the public platform that I have as a writer and it's a bit mean to use a book like that when somebody else doesn't have that chance."
According to Trollope, the shifting of a husband's fealty from his mother to his wife doesn't always come easy. "When a man marries or moves in with a partner who is a woman, his primary loyalty is automatically this new woman he has chosen," she says.
"Some mothers can't accept that. They demand their son's primary loyalty and some sons give in to them. You should be able to say to your parents-in-law, 'sorry we're going to have Christmas at home this year' or 'you're welcome to come and see us for a few days on holiday but we're holidaying with our friends'. It's something of a wretched situation in real life but it's wonderful for fiction because of this exciting tension."
Trollope believes that males often have a hard time in fiction. "I wanted to reflect that because men are so often portrayed in novels as being at the mercy of clever, go-getting girls," she says. "I wanted to show that it isn't always the way."
As the novel's title indicates, Rachel becomes less of a focus as the book progresses. Her three daughters-in-law, Swedish scientist Sigrid, media executive Charlotte and artist Petra take over the narrative just as they assume the most prominent position in their husbands' lives. "I wanted them to be incredibly different characters and to have their own special talents," says Trollope. "I didn't want any stand-up rows, because that's too easy to write and too cruel."
It is the naive, free-spirited Petra who plays the most pivotal part in the book. Married to Rachel and Anthony Brinkley's rebellious middle son Ralph, she refuses to abandon her idyllic seaside existence when financial problems force him to take a job in London. She sets off a chain reaction of domestic incidents, embroiling other members of the extended family and potentially leading to disaster.
"I wanted there to be a reason why she is so malleable and attractive to her parents-in-law," says Trollope. "So I had to remove her family as it were and make her almost an orphan, with this heartless grandmother who has gone off to Canada and left her on her own. She's quite an elusive character and she has no notion of family because she has never had one. That's why she's so passionate about her two little boys. She makes a terrible mistake with the guy from the bird sanctuary because she can't grasp the dynamics of what's happening."
While their children have mostly moved to London, Rachel and Anthony live in Suffolk on England's east coast, a county known for its striking but sometimes bleak landscape.
"If you want to be metaphorical about it, you could say that the tides of being absolutely involved with family life have now pulled away from Rachel," says Trollope with a smile. "This book is about the transfer of loyalty from the boys and the assertion of the girls, which I'm all for. It's also about Rachel realising that she's got an enormous sea change in her life."
The shift is not so painful for Anthony, who has long since retreated to his garden shed, to concentrate on his painting. "He's been a lot more passive in the boys' lives and, as a lot of men of his generation did, he really left it up to Rachel to bring the boys up," explains Trollope. "She even says 'this is my territory'. She's the homemaker and a fantastic cook.
"I remember my sister, who has lots of boys, said that when you have sons you should always have food on the table because then all their friends will come over. So you get to know their friends and you know where they are. That's been Rachel's raison d'etre, to provide this kind of welcoming kitchen, full of wonderful meals."
Trollope also highlights some of the outdated protocols that are still adhered to in the 21st century as Charlotte and her husband Luke, Rachel and Anthony's youngest son, argue over whether the maternal or paternal parents should be the first to be told that she is pregnant.
"It's absolutely bonkers but there you are," she says. "I suppose it's the kind of thinking that believed in prima genera, that a man should automatically inherit. I've worked all my life and I'm of the generation that actually broke stones on the road for women to actually have every kind of opportunity."
Trollope was inspired to partly set the book in Suffolk after visiting her close friend and former editor at Bloomsbury Books, Liz Calder.
Co-founder of the Harry Potter publishers, Calder was raised in New Zealand but has now retired to the Suffolk village of Saxmunden. "Liz was an absolute doyenne and I left Bloomsbury after she did because it was one of those relationships that I couldn't imagine carrying on without her," says Trollope.
"I went out to stay with her without thinking that I'd set a book there but it all just began to grow."
Born in Gloucestershire, Trollope is a distant relation of Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope. "I'm from the same family but a completely different branch," she says. "Anthony's lot came from South Lincolnshire and they were very grand, with the title and the big house. My lot came from a place called Theddlethorpe in North Lincolnshire but they were very much below the salt and very poor. They left Lincolnshire in the 18th century, took a ship up the coast of Britain and sailed up the Thames to London. They set up in Westminster, where they were wallpaper manufacturers and were extremely successful and prosperous. I'm descended from them and I'm probably the first writer in the family since Anthony died but I can't claim to have a wonderful quill in the bloodstream."
Apart from writing 16 novels under her own name, Trollope has also penned numerous historical sagas under the pseudonym Caroline Harvey, the last of which, City Of Gems, was published in 1999.
"I don't think I'll do anymore because they require an enormous amount of research," she says. "It's probably why I still do a lot of research, the habit of research must be deep in me. I always wanted to do one more about the Scottish dynasties, the Jardines and the Mathesons, who went out to Hong Kong. But it would mean going out to Hong Kong for three months and there's never been three months spare to do that. There's always another grandchild being born or some other event. I think that time has probably passed and somebody else will now do it beautifully."
While several of her books, such as 1988's The Choir, have been adapted into television series, nothing is currently in development, which suits Trollope fine.
"I'm ambivalent about [the TV adaptations]," she admits. "There have been some good ones and some not so good ones. At the beginning, when I was starting out as a writer, TV was a very helpful tool for advertising the fact that the books were out there. Now I'd rather people read the books."
Trollope is halfway through writing her next novel although she is reluctant to reveal any details. "I'm not so good at talking about things like that," she laughs. "I'm always so terrified that it'll just evaporate and I won't be able to write it anymore. But I will be delivering it later this year."
The book that changed Joanna Trollope's life
I really love The Towers Of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay. It's an absolute tour de force and the best and the last thing that she wrote. I first read it when I was about 18 or 19 [published in 1958]. It's a travel book and a polemic about female emancipation as well as a tremendous love story that's terribly funny and unbelievably lyrical.
It's rather mythical and romantic, too. It's just a great work of the imagination and just seems to me to be a novel that has almost everything in it. Also, in the great 18th century tradition of something like Tom Jones, it's picaresque and a journey into the heroine's life.
It's also a physical journey, a lot of which takes place on the back of a camel. It's got a very famous first line: "'Take my camel, dear,' said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass". It's a wonderful book. I've since re-read it three or four times and I've written introductions for the new editions. More recently, I like The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal. It's a memoir but it's really so much more than that. It's a history of Europe over the last 150 years. It's beautifully written and it's one of those books that you could recommend for everybody. The Towers Of Trebizond is similar.
Canvas contributor Carroll du Chateau will be in conversation with Joanna Trollope, 11.30am, March 22, Diocesan School. Tickets $25, ph 520 0221.