She may be 85, but Barbara Taylor Bradford is showing no signs of slowing down. As she publishes the first book in her latest family saga, Catherine Scott talks to the iconic storyteller.
After writing 32 novels which have sold more than 90 million copies worldwide you could forgive Barbara Taylor Bradford for possibly confusing some of her characters. Not a bit of it. The 85-year-old recalls her protagonists, especially her heroines – of whom there are many – as if they were her children.
But even after nearly 40 years since her enduring novel A Woman of Substance was published, Emma Hart still seems to be her favourite. Not unsurprisingly if you think A Woman of Substance has sold more than 30 million copies worldwide since it hit the shelves in 1979.
It may be surprising then that the main protagonist of her latest novel, Master of his Fate, is a man.
“There are still plenty of strong women in the book,” Taylor Bradford is quick to point out.
“In fact quite a few people have said it is like a male version of A Woman of Substance.”
It is easy to see the similarity, Master of His Fate is about James Falconer who works as a barrow boy in a flourishing London market owned by Henry Malvern.
“I have made it a covered market very much like Leeds market, as there isn’t one in London.”
But 14-year-old James is hungry for more and dreams of building an empire of stores like Fortnum and Mason. He spends time in Yorkshire and then, you guessed it, achieves his dream but not without many ups and downs along the way.
“Master of his Fate is first in a trilogy,” says Taylor Bradford from the home in New York she shares with her husband of 55 years, Bob Bradford.
“I got a bit carried away writing about James and his life and when I had finished the first book I realised I had written the entire story in the first book, so I had to pretty much start again.” Master of His Fate now follows James from 14 up to 19.
What is also different for Taylor Bradford is that her latest novel is set in Victorian England, a period of time she has not explored before in her books and an era she admits she knew little about.
“We have preconceptions about what living in Victorian England was like, but I did a lot of research, as I do with all my books, and was surprised by what I discovered. The Victorians weren’t nearly as straight-laced as we would like to think.”
It may be Taylor-Bradford’s journalistic background that means she wants to make sure that her writing about a particular period is as accurate as possible.
Her stories and characters are fictional, but as far as possible she wants the time in which they lived to reflect fact not fiction.
Born in Armley, Leeds, she 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 years old and sold her first short story to a magazine for seven shillings and sixpence when she was ten.
By 18 she had become the Evening Post’s first woman’s page editor and, at 20, moved to London and became a fashion editor and columnist on Fleet Street.
It is this journalistic integrity which actually caused her a few challenges while writing Master of His Fate.
“I spent a lot of time researching the Victorian period not just what was happening at the time, but the fashions and the implications that had on what I could do with my characters and also the way they spoke. If I am writing about the Victorian period then I want it to be correct.
“Everyone was terrified of getting pneumonia, which was the killer disease in the 1800s. They were also scared of catching a cold, but they referred to it as ‘caught cold’.
“I read a book called How to be a Victorian and that was really helpful. They didn’t like to take baths as they feared that could lead to catching cold. In London there was terrible smog all the time, as every home had a fireplace.
“The poor were very poor and the rich were very rich and it was definitely a man’s world. They had their clubs where they would go at night and would never take their wives out.
“Also their clothes were quite prohibitive. The women had layers of petticoats and corsets.
“You couldn’t very well write about an illicit unplanned encounter, as it would have taken a long time to get out of all those clothes – so I had to think carefully about the timescales. Also there were no telephones, so everything had to be sent by my messenger, so everything happened much more slowly that it does today.”
But what struck Taylor Bradford, were the similarities. “We always think of Victorians as being very proper, but they weren’t. A young Queen Victoria had a massive crush on Lord Melbourne. She was a very sexy queen. The Victorians were really just like us – there were good people and bad people, they had emotions the same as us, they fell in love, had sex and sometimes terrible things happened to people. Some things are universal.”
Book two in the House of Falconer trilogy is already well under way.
“I don’t believe in writer’s’ block,” says the ever-productive Taylor Bradford. “There are days when I don’t know what is going to happen, but most of my time is spent thinking what the storyline is going to be and what could possibly happen to the character I have created.
“I never start to write a book until I know how it is going to end.” She still writes her books in longhand and then her manuscripts are typed up by her trusted assistant. She has been with the same publishers in the UK, Harper Collins, throughout her career. “I trust my editor completely,” says Taylor Bradford.
The Brotherton Library of Leeds University is the keeper of the Barbara Taylor Bradford Archive. All of her original manuscripts are housed there, and there will soon be more to follow as this doyenne of the romantic novel has no plans to hang up her pen any time soon.
Master of His Fate by Barbara Taylor Bradford is published by Harper Collins and is available in hardback now £16.99.