Mavis Cheek: Women on the verge of HRT

Mavis Cheek's comedies of middle-aged manners have won her legions of adoring fans. Emma Hagestadt talks to her about love, sex and the older woman
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The Independent Culture

Mavis Cheek is on the hoof. In between getting dressed and sorting out the nibbles for a Christmas party, she's anxious to warn me that the local hunt will be streaming past her drive-way between 10 and 11 in the morning. It sounds like a denouement from one of her novels, fraught with the possibility of muddy mayhem and romantic disaster, preferably with a man in scarlet.

Mavis Cheek is the kind of writer you read in your thirties for a spot of light-hearted romantic relief. But read her again in your forties and fifties and you realise what she's saying about men and women is an altogether darker affair. Her novels are often described as "Bridget Jones 20 years on", but unlike Bridget and her ilk, Cheek's heroines (adulterous wives, single mothers) are unafraid to name the unmentionable: they've "reached the door, turned the handle and entered the room marked 'Single and Middle-Aged'". In fact, her novels strike such a chord with her readers, that most fans (and journalists) who come to talk to Cheek aren't so much interested in cross-questioning her about her oeuvre or work in progress, but in getting some well considered advice on matters of the heart.

In post-party mode the next day, it's not broken hearts but smashed mince pies that concern Cheek. "Every house I've ever lived in has been crap", she announces, plonking herself down in a freshly spruced up sitting room. "In fact 'Crap Houses' might be the title of my next novel." But since she exchanged West London for an Aga-warmed cottage in Wiltshire, it's clear that the days of "dim lighting" and make-do furniture are long since over.

As poised and candid an interviewee as her name suggests, Cheek is as much buoyed up by the forthcoming publication of her 11th novel as by the prospect of being, at last, the châtelaine of a two-bathroomed house.

Mention of Agas and hounds is, however, to give quite the wrong impression about Mavis Cheek. Joanna Trollope or Jilly Cooper she isn't, though she has all their qualities in spades. The predominant theme of Cheek's novels may be the pitfalls of romantic folly, but this isn't the kind of middle-brow women's literature that comes populated with slobbery Labradors and hairy sofas. Cheek's sense of humour and literary allusions are too urbane for that - making her the kind of writer marketing departments find hard to pigeon-hole. Male critics like to dismiss her work as comedies of manners for the peri-menopausal (sexually active 50-year-old women give them the heebie-jeebies), but the same might be said about the novels of Barbara Pym, Nancy Mitford and Stella Gibbons.

The closest Cheek ever gets to Aga Saga-land is in her 2000 novel Mrs Fytton's Country Life, though only by virtue of its bucolic setting. Mrs Fytton is a typical Cheek character, plucky, determined, sexy and almost nice. Having devoted her life to helping Mr Fytton build up a successful business, brought up two children and been a enthusiastic companion in the bedroom department, she's left for a petite blonde called Belinda.

At 40 she finds herself alone in Chiswick with two teenage children. Rejected by the local dinner party set as a loose cannon (red meat to husbands, dead meat to wives), her solution is to up sticks and move to a wisteria-clad cottage in the country.

Did Cheek write the novel from her own personal experience of country living? "No!" gasps Cheek in a voice that would have served her well if she'd decided to tread the boards. "Mrs Fytton was written to stop me moving... I knew about all that romantic claptrap about living in the country. But I had to get out of Chiswick." The two turning points for Cheek were the constant stream of vacant-eyed au-pairs pushing buggies past her window, and the sight of a marquee going up in a neighbouring garden the size of a postage stamp. That, and being asked around to admire someone's gazebo.

For all her novels about the perils of middle-class married life, Cheek says that people are often surprised by her own more humble antecedents. It's a subject that she tackled in her most recent novel, The Sex Life of my Aunt - a book which started out life as an autobiography, but turned into fiction when the whole thing threatened to dissolve into a self-pitying puddle of maudlin reminiscence. Cheek's maternal grandmother was a cleaner from Islington, the youngest of ten children. Her own mother was married to a gambler and drunkard, who turned out to have another wife and two children secreted away in another part of London. "My mother was left having to slave in a factory to support my younger sister and me when we were aged two and five." Cheek has few memories of her father but would still like to track down her half-brother and sister.

After leaving school with no qualifications, Cheek was one of the few non-debs to land herself a job in the art world: "I wasn't up all night at Hunt Balls". She worked as a receptionist for art publisher Joe Studholme, and spent the next few years mixing with old Etonians, Harrovians - and David Hockney. "The Sixties and Seventies were brilliant for girls like me," says Mavis. "That little blip of democratisation made a huge difference." At 21, she married Chris Cheek, a physicist. Divorced a few years later, she was left like one of her characters, Janice Gentle, with her strangely apt name.

Once her marriage fell apart she started seeing and moved in with the artist Basil Beattie. It was getting pregnant with her daughter Bella (now 24) that proved the unlikely spur to creativity. "Writing was the only thing I was qualified to do." She sent her first novel to Carmen Callil, who wrote back in snooty vein, asking for the cost of return postage. Cheek meekly sent on the money, but went to tap on the door of the then-agent, now-novelist, Imogen Parker. Parker suggested that Cheek wrote as she spoke. "She said I was funny," remembers Mavis fondly. Her response was Pause Between Acts (1988), a story based around her own disappointment on discovering that Ian McKellen was gay. She won the She /John Menzies Prize for a first novel.

Cheek admits that her novels are largely inspired by incidents from her own life. "Anyone who knows me well could point to the bits that are me". Unlike her previous novels, however, Patrick Parker's Progress (Faber, £12.99), published this month, is free from all autobiographical shades. The book, says Cheek, is really about the "randomness of women's lives".

Opening in 1940 as Coventry burns, the new novel traces the progress of two babies born into lower-middle-class gentility: one male, one female. Patrick Parker, his path smoothed by mother love and adoring women, will become a great architect, the builder of bridges; Audrey Wapshot, his intellectual equal (and superior in matters inter-personal), will end up the mistress of a Parisian businessman. Cheek's novel charts with characteristic honesty (and nerve) how a man shapes a life to avoid emotional dependency, while a woman cleaves to it at the cost of all else. A story featuring horrendous mothers, calculating gold diggers and women who realise their power too late, it's Cheek's most trenchant novel to date.

She says she could just as easily have set the novel in the world of artists and painting, but was drawn to architecture on discovering that a woman had never designed or built a bridge. Her research for the book has made her an unexpected expert on Isambard Kingdom Brunel, but an even bigger fan of the work of the female architect Zaha Hadid. "Women are not allowed to be visionaries."

Given that life's playing field is such an uneven one, does Cheek, like many of her heroines, ever wish she'd done the conventional thing and married a nice solicitor? "I think about it often. A lot!" says Cheek. "I could have done it at 20 - he was rich, lovely and in love - but I didn't think about security in those days."

After her long relationship with Beattie (11 years) Cheek had a four-year affair with a divorced man she refers to as the "love of her life". It ended when he found himself unable to commit to a future, but she says "I grew up in that relationship, even though I was 40. I learnt I could make choices." Like Mrs Fytton, who rejects a suitor on the grounds he doesn't "do" holidays or children, Mavis has "done baggage".

So what now for the increasingly successful Cheek? Though what I really mean is, tell us more about grown-up romance. "My faith in myself has been destroyed by relationships, but the real truth is you just have to hold your nose and jump. While being single has its moments of sadness, it is not, as such, sad. Having my daughter and my work are huge and wonderful things. I came home the other night to find an email saying would I like to be author on board the QE2 going to New York. Now that's as good as a lover turning up with flowers..."

As I try very hard to seek solace from this crumb of comfort, Mavis concedes: "OK... if Jack Nicholson turned up naked on the door step and said 'It's just for one night, baby', I'd say 'Yes', and hope he'd stay for two."

Biography: Mavis Cheek

Mavis Cheek was born in Wimbledon in 1948. She received a basic state-school education, failed her 11-plus (twice) and was put in the B stream of a secondary modern school before leaving at 16 with no qualifications. She worked for 12 years for the contemporary art publishers Editions Alecto before leaving to go to Hillcroft College for Women, where she graduated in arts with distinction, before beginning her writing career in earnest. She moved on from journalism and travel writing to short stories before writing her first novel, Pause Between Acts (1988), which won the She/John Menzies First Novel Prize. Since then she has written a further 10 novels including Janice Gentle Gets Sexy (1993), Aunt Margaret's Lover (1994, Mrs Fytton's Country Life (2001) and The Sex Life of My Aunt (2002). She now lives in a lime-washed house on the Wiltshire-Berkshire borders, where she is frequently visited by her friends and daughter Bella. Her new novel, Patrick Parker's Progress, is published this month by Faber.