Yorkshire-born author Wendy Holden speaks to Yvette Huddleston about her latest novel Honeymoon Suite and why it’s important to see the funny side of life.
Queen of the supermarket bestseller and a gifted social satirist, author Wendy Holden is also a warm and funny conversationalist with an engaging line in self-deprecation.
Born in Cleckheaton, where she attended Whitcliffe Mount School before going on to read English at Cambridge and then a successful career as a journalist before turning to novel writing, Holden puts down her ability to “see something funny in almost any situation” to her Northern upbringing. “I just think that if you are from the North you are more aware of the humour in things.”
Her latest book, Honeymoon Suite, is published in paperback next week and it is a winning combination of triumph over tragedy narrative, sly humour and biting social satire.
The story sees jilted-at-the-altar bride Nell giving up her struggling copywriting business and making a new life for herself as a wedding organiser at the fictional stately home of Pemberton. For the setting Holden was inspired, she says, by the grand houses near where she now lives in Derbyshire.
“I am not far from Chatsworth, Hardwick Hall and Haddon Hall and I’m really interested in how those places work these days,” she says. “It is a bit Downton Abbey but in the modern day. There is still an upstairs and downstairs division going on but in a different way. Now it is commercial concerns that keep these places up and running. So you have the owners and instead of servants there are the volunteers, visitor welcomers, farm shop workers and wedding organisers. I thought there was a lot of comic potential in that – and it was ripe for satire.”
Holden’s dry and spot-on observations of the English class system are a recurring theme in her work and much of the comedy comes out of her good-natured puncturing of snobbery and pomposity. She worked on society magazines such as The Tatler and Harper’s Bazaar –before moving on to the Sunday Times, The Mail on Sunday and the Sunday Telegraph – and she still writes a regular column for Country Life. This has proved to be a fertile training ground. “It was a bit like being in MI6, I was a stealth working class person,” she says of her time at The Tatler, laughing. “But it was really interesting and fun and I learnt such an incredible amount. It is part of what made it possible for me to be a novelist.”
She talks about growing up in the 1970s and 80s and how much more optimistic that time seemed to be when there was more social mobility through education. She herself is an example of this as the first person in her family to go to university.
“Now it almost feels like we have gone back to the Georgian era,” she says. “The class system is still very much with us, so, I will always have plenty of material.” Holden’s books are unashamedly feelgood and positive, for which she makes no apology – and why should she? With world events being what they are at the moment, we need as much positivity as we can get.
“Comedy is absolutely crucial and has never been more important,” she says. “I grew up in a working class Yorkshire family and my parents laughed at everything, but particularly social pretension. They definitely taught me to see the funny side of life.”
And she is absolutely fine with the chick-lit label being applied to her work. “I really don’t mind what they call it,” she says. “As long as people are entertained by it and they buy the books. And I generally get lots of positive feedback.”
She is incredibly prolific – this is her 14th novel since her debut, Simply Divine, in 1999 – and it doesn’t look as if she will be slowing down anytime soon. As well as this month’s publication of Honeymoon Suite, in March she will be launching a new series of novels featuring the character Laura Lake, a glossy magazine journalist, kicking off with Laura Lake and the Hipster Weddings.
She admits that she is driven. “I think partly it’s because if I didn’t do this I would have to get a real job,” she chuckles. “I just keep at it and I really enjoy it – it is wonderful to be in charge of your own destiny. Also it is like a curse in a way – you have to write, it’s a compulsion.”
She writes in a summerhouse at the end of her garden – a stylish-sounding Virginia Woolf -style ‘room of her own’ – where she sits down to work every day. “Being a writer isn’t very interesting or glamorous,” she says. “You basically have to sit there and write – there is no way around it. But when you’ve done a good day’s work you feel so pleased with yourself.” Holden credits an inspirational English teacher – Mrs Symons, who she still visits every Christmas – with setting her on the path to becoming a writer. “Without her I would never have done any of this,” she says. “I had always enjoyed English but she really brought the subject alive. She was amazing – she made it so completely relatable. I wouldn’t have achieved anything that I have without good teaching and the Northern sense of humour.”
Honeymoon Suite, £8.99, by Wendy Holden is published by Headline Review on January 26.