Ruth Rendell's eyes exert a fascination on those who meet her. Glacial, piercing and unforgiving are adjectives used by interviewers. Yet as she greets me in the entrance to the House of Lords, I find them oddly warm, like those of a strict but fair schoolmistress. At 78, she is trim and elegant. With an expression that hovers somewhere between a smile and a reprimand, she guides me through the security checks and on into the Peers' Family Room. My preconceptions are dismissed in a moment.
She was made a Labour peer 11 years ago, and as Baroness Rendell of Babergh she campaigns against practices such as female circumcision and ethnic discrimination in the arts. When the House is in session this is her second home, but today it echoes like a prep school on summer break. We meet to discuss The Birthday Present, Rendell's 13th novel written under the pseudonym Barbara Vine, in which parliamentary power play forms a backdrop to a tale of human fallibility. Ivor Tesham, a young, seemingly amoral Tory minister in John Major's administration, finds his life unravelling when a foray into "adventure sex" results in the death of his married lover. While no crime has initially been committed, things snowball over the years as Ivor's ill-conceived cover-ups fail to ease his fear of blackmail or "the long watches of the night".
The period setting was not politically motivated. "I wanted to set it quite a long way in the past," she says. "I like to show what happens to people in the past and how it affects their present." However, she notes that there was a certain hypocrisy to all those sleaze stories that coincided with the moral absolutism of Major's "back to basics" campaign. The roll call of disgraced MPs from that time is legend, including Archer, Yeo, Aitken and Mellor. "Any politician of his sort of level and his sort of ambition," she says of Ivor, "would know what the media would do to him. He doesn't want to be made to look ridiculous. You know the three criteria for libel: hatred, ridicule and contempt. People would far rather be despised and hated than made to look ridiculous."
Rendell recently gave advice to a married friend who was blackmailed over just such a sexual matter. She told him to go straight to the police. Why, I ask, did he come to her? "People do," she states. "I don't know why. I wouldn't come to me ... they know that somehow it's going to get itself into a book. People tell me the most extraordinary things. I've noticed it for years. Perhaps they know I won't be shocked. Or judgemental."
She thinks that in the wake of the Max Mosley case a lot of politicians will, and should, breathe easier. "It's funny that it happens to have come along at the time of the publication of my book," she acknowledges, while pointing out that "Ivor and the girl don't beat each other or anything." The judgment, believes Rendell, was both "tolerant and sophisticated", which makes me suggest to her that she is perhaps more sympathetic to men than women. "Yes, I think perhaps I am," she replies. Most of these cases are, in her opinion, sad, foolish mistakes. As a maxim, The Birthday Present uses a line from King Lear: "The gods are just and of our pleasant vices make instruments to plague us."
She laughs when I ask if sitting in the House of Lords has changed her opinion of politicians. "I had a fairly good idea about them – I was married to a man who was lobby correspondent in both houses for quite a while. I feel great sympathy for politicians." She disapproves of the "funny system" in which refusal to toe the party line can end in a loss of livelihood, and talks fondly of the MPs of Trollope's day who weren't paid and therefore didn't lose a salary if ousted. Caution and compromise are now paramount.
Has she, I enquire, ever had a relationship with a politician? "What do you mean by a relationship?" she returns swiftly. Romantic, I clarify.
"No," she states baldly, then: "Oh, well ... I suppose I sort of have. Mmm ... yes!"
I'm taken by surprise. Was this a recent coupling? "No. Oh no, no. Yeah, but I'm not going to say any more about it," she wavers and roars with laughter. It explodes from her, a real guffaw. And then she tells me more about it. "A very small politician," she says and then, as I raise my eyebrows, she qualifies the statement. "In stature, of place in the world and position." More than that she will not reveal.
Rendell's love life has always been a shadowy subject. After marrying Donald Rendell, her boss on the Chigwell Times, Rendell left him in 1973, only to return and remarry him four years later. It's a period she is reluctant to discuss, along with the details of a traumatic youth caught between her warring parents. Such psychological, sexual and familial secrets form the basis of her Vine novels, though she's cautious about expressing a direct influence. "Things are more subtle than that."
In 2005 she admitted that she had received two proposals of marriage since becoming a widow nine years ago. She accepted neither. Instead she found plenty of companionship through her peerage. The Lords, she tells me, "has the qualities of a good club". PD James, a Tory peer, is one of those club friends. To readers, they are the Judi Dench and Maggie Smith of the murder game. She never discusses politics with James, saying that to do so would be pointless. "We would disagree," says Rendell. "It's something you accept. She's a very nice woman, Phyllis. It's not necessary with your friends to discuss something you know you will disagree profoundly on. People in here get very amused if they see us go and have tea together."
Some critics have made links between Rendell's upbringing as an only child and the way she explores the formative years of her characters. Several Vine mysteries have child abductions or cuckoo-in-the-nest scenarios at their core. "I think I'm an unusual only child because I didn't want any siblings and I've only got one child myself and didn't want any more." Why not? "Well, I don't think I want to talk about that," she says. Later she returns to the subject: "I have always made a lot of friends, perhaps because I felt I always needed friends. That may be a symptom of my only-childness."
She sees herself above all as a London writer and enjoys exploring the "little corners" of the capital. "I look at things; I look up at the roofs, which Betjeman says people don't do but should." Eccentric fictional homes are frequently slotted into these forgotten crevices. "I love houses. When I came down here this afternoon I saw some people moving into a house in Hamilton Terrace in St John's Wood. I thought: Oh, I wish I were moving into that house. I love moving."
Her next book is a stand-alone Rendell title, Portobello (out in November) and then a new Wexford episode. For all the sinister retrospection in her fiction, in life looking back is not her forte. Neither is having a bleak outlook. "People always tell me my books are so dark; I don't think they're particularly dark. I'm not like that. I'm quite a cheerful soul," she smiles.
I leave Rendell with the photographer, happily staging a shot in the gloom of a Westminster afternoon. I turn and see her search me out among the throng of tourists. Rendell gives me a wave: a little figure of friendliness under the graphite sky. Not at all what I was expecting.
The Birthday Present, By Ruth Rendell writing as Barbara Vine (Viking £18.99)
'... I started writing this down because I had a premonition. It was when Hebe asked me to give her an alibi. She has been asking me to give her alibis for a long time, but this one ... was more important than any I had given her in the past. For one thing, I would have to provide it for longer than usual and the occasion was her birthday. I mean that where she was going and what she was doing were her birthday present'Reuse content