People We Love: Rose Tremain

Gillian Rowe / 03 April 2018

She's among our most successful novelists, but this month she's published her first memoir. Rosie: Scenes from a Vanished Life details her post-war childhood.

Why write your memoirs now?

I’ve used my own biography very sparingly in my fiction – just a scene here or an anecdote there. This means that, after 40 years of writing, I have a thousand memories locked away, unused. So I thought I would try to write them as they were – before it’s too late – and give myself a clearer perspective on my childhood and how it formed me as a writer. 

You were shown little affection by your mother – do you think that was peculiar to you, or were adults preoccupied then by the war?

I think my mother’s generation had a difficult time of it, left alone during the conflict, losing so many of the men they loved. But in my mother’s case, she’d also had an unloving childhood, so she simply didn’t know how to show affection to her daughters, or recognise their needs.

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Anything you would like to tell your younger self?

I feel angry that I didn’t fight harder to defy my mother’s vision for my future. Instead of being allowed to work towards the Oxford entrance exams – as encouraged by my teachers – I was taken away from school and sent to a ‘finishing school’ in Switzerland, which was a royal waste of time and money and which almost, but not quite, snuffed out all my dreams. 

Did you have to learn to be a good-enough mother after your own experience, or did it come naturally?

Though it’s often thought that if you weren’t loved as a child, you’re incapable of loving your own children in their turn, that didn’t turn out to be true for me. I bonded with Eleanor (my only child) seconds after she was born and we have been very close all her life.

What sort of grandmother are you – hands-on?

My grandchildren, Archie and Martha, live in London, so I don’t see them as often as I would if I lived closer to them [Rose is based in Norfolk]. But I love them very deeply and we have hilariously good times all together as frequently as we can.

What do you do to stay fit?

Not as much as I should, but I do like gardening and yoga.

Do you think being mentally active is more important than physical fitness?

For me, yes. And living with Richard [the biographer, Richard Holmes] reinforces my belief in how stimulating and important the constant exchange of ideas is. The ongoing mental workout, leavened by many verbal jokes, is crucial to my survival. Without it, I think I would grow weak and timid and pale…

What do you do to relax?

Watch Tom Hanks movies. Re-read the brilliant travel books of Jonathan Raban. Go walking in the Quantock hills. Meet friends for lunch or dinner and drink champagne. Go to Paris on Eurostar with Richard – and drink more champagne. Play very silly games with Archie and Martha. Dream up the next idea for a story…

Do you have a preference for writing historical or contemporary novels?

I love both. My last novel, The Gustav Sonata, had two time frames – the 1940s and 1990s – and I was equally at home in both worlds.

Is there any particular period you’d like to have lived in?

The position of women in Western society, though much debated today, as it should be, is way better than it was in any other age. If I sometimes feel drawn to the sartorial elegance and the consoling architecture of the 18th century, I only have to remind myself how women were viewed to realise that living then would have been like a kind of slavery. And then there are the baleful questions of high childbirth mortality, bad medicine and rotten dentistry…

Does anyone still call you Rosie?

No. I hate the wretched name. My mother was the last person to keep on forgetting that I hated it. These days,
I have to bash over the head anybody who uses it.

Will you be writing about the next period in your life, where Rosie leaves off?

Absolutely not. That’s all, folks!

Buy Rosie: Scenes from a Vanished Life here.

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