It is two years since Barbara Taylor Bradford lost her beloved husband Bob. I spoke with her just weeks after he died following a stroke at their New York apartment, when she was in the UK to promote her book In the Lion’s Den. She was sad but remarkably perky – a true professional. But she admits that when she returned home to the US, the grief hit her. “I hadn’t been in denial, I was just keeping busy, but then when I got back home it hit me and then I really struggled to write.” For someone as prolific as Taylor Bradford, 88, who has written more than 35 best-sellers, it was something she wasn’t used to.
Her friends rallied round but then Covid hit and she found herself virtually alone in the Manhattan penthouse she had shared with Bob since she moved to America after their marriage in 1963. It means her latest novel, Man of Honour, is a year later than it was meant to be.
She got the idea for the book while she was at Bob’s bedside in hospital. Man of Honour is a prequel to A Woman of Substance, Taylor Bradford’s first and most famous book and the first about her famous heroine Emma Harte.
“I’ve written seven books in the Emma Harte series and I started to wonder more about the character Blackie O’Neill and his life before he meets a kitchen maid called Emma on the Yorkshire Moors. But I was late starting it because I was devastated by Bob’s death. I only had a few very close friends who knew how devastated I was.”
It was actually memories of Bob that got her writing again. “He always encouraged me,” she says. “He said I had a God-given talent and I needed to use it. He also made me promise that no matter what happened to him, I would keep writing.”
Opening five years before the start of A Woman of Substance, A Man of Honour – which Taylor Bradford wrote in longhand – begins with 13-year-old Blackie facing an uncertain future in rural County Kerry. Orphaned and alone, he has just buried his sister, Bronagh, and must leave his home to set sail for England, in search of a better life with his mother’s brother in Leeds. There, he learns his trade as a navvy, amid the grand buildings of one of England’s most prosperous cities, and starts to dream of greater things.
Taylor Bradford had been due to write another in her successful House of Falconer series but as she was stuck at home unable to get out and do her normal methodical research, she turned to somewhere closer to home for inspiration.
“I phoned my publisher and said rather than another Falconer book how would you feel about a prequel to Woman of Substance focusing on Blackie O’Neill. She said: ‘Can I have it tomorrow?’
“I purposefully didn’t reread any of the Emma Harte books as I didn’t want to plagiarise myself. I just looked at Woman of Substance for dates to make sure I had continuity.”
Working from home meant the lockdown in the US didn’t really bother her too much. “The main problem was all my friends who would normally take me out for dinner went to their houses in the country or Palm Beach. I didn’t want to leave New York and as soon as I was double vaccinated I started going out again. I lived through the war and the Germans bombing us, I wasn’t going to let a virus stop me. It was easy to write about Blackie as he comes to Leeds when he was a boy. I grew up in Armley and so I could just write pretty much from memory.”
Taylor Bradford started her writing career as a reporter on the Yorkshire Evening Post after leaving school at 15 and working in the newspaper’s typing pool. However, her dreams of becoming a novelist started much earlier.
She started writing fiction when she was just seven and sold her first short story to a magazine for seven shillings and sixpence when she was ten. By 18, she had become the YEP’s first woman’s page editor and, at 20, moved to London and became a fashion editor and columnist on Fleet Street.
Taylor Bradford has sold over 90 million copies published in over 90 countries in 40 languages, and is one of UK’s most commercially successful authors of all time. She met American film producer Robert Bradford on a blind date in 1961 after being introduced by the English screenwriter Jack Davies. They married on Christmas Eve in 1963, and the couple moved permanently to the US.
And now it seems we may well see the saga remade after Taylor Bradford signed a deal for the Emma Harte books, including Man of Honour. She may be 88 but this shrewd Yorkshirewoman still drives a hard bargain. “I had a very good teacher when it came to business,” she says of Bob.
Negotiations with production company the Forge, took seven months as she was determined to keep control of her work – including script and casting approval. The Forge has credits including Jack Thorne’s Bafta-winning trilogy National Treasure, Kiri and The Accident, as well as Ackley Bridge, The Last Post, Collateral and Roadkill.
Taylor Bradford envisages it being along the lines of the quality of The Crown and says she would love to see Seagrove reprise her role. “It took from March to December last year to get me to sign,” she says. “It has to be filmed in Yorkshire and told in the right way – it needs to be true to the books. But the Forge were lovely and they have found a good screenwriter. People don’t realise that making films is an exceedingly slow process, but I am hoping we’ll see something in a couple of years.”
She may have left here many years ago but she is still a proud Yorkshirewoman and has just been made patron of the Leeds Library – the oldest membership subscription library in the country.
“It is a huge privilege to be asked to be a patron for the Leeds Library, an organisation that shares my commitment to celebrating and supporting creative writing in all of its forms as well as promoting literacy. I am really looking forward to working with everyone at the library on a number of initiatives that will take place in a city that will forever be special to me.”
It is anticipated that to mark her role as patron, the Leeds Library will set up an annual lecture in Taylor Bradford’s name that will coincide with International Women’s Day, as well as an annual literary prize to champion women’s writing both regionally and nationally.
A Man of Honour by Barbara Taylor Bradford is published by Harper Collins.