Hard though it is to believe, Thursday's re-issue of Shirley Conran's Lace marks the 30th anniversary of its publication. Since then, it has sold 3,000,000 copies in 35 countries, and changed many women's lives. "There was life before Lace and life after Lace, and nothing was ever the same again," says India Knight. "Lace gave me prolonged pleasure", adds Helen Fielding. Will the same be said of the current crop of bonkbusters in 30 years time?
Lace tells the story of four school friends, Kate, Maxine, Judy, and Pagan, who have reached the tops of their professions: war reporting, fashion, interior design, and PR. Then, in 1980, they "are forced to look back at their lives: their wicked behaviour in school, the building of careers and the breaking of hearts…" It is best remembered for the career women, the bonking, and the scene in which a woman comes into a room and shouts: "Which one of you bitches is my mother?"
Lace preceded Jilly Cooper's Riders (1985) by three years, and paved the way for a generation of smutty books written with style, attitude and a sense of humour. It was originally conceived as a sex manual, to offer advice to confused teenage girls who often wrote to Conran in her role as a newspaper women's editor. She recalled in a recent interview that "every time someone said that young girls shouldn't read Lace, I thought, 'Good-oh! That means they will'", and added that the current literary smut obsession 50 Shades of Grey is "infantile – like baby porn. You have to wait until page 200 for any sex at all. She doesn't get her bottom spanked until page 400."
The popular TV mini-series of Lace, which was broadcast on ABC in 1984, starred Angela Lansbury as aunt Hortense Boutin. It was followed by a sequel, by popular demand.
"Most of the characters in Lace exist in real life," Conran reveals in her new afterword. The school, headmaster and chauffeur are all real, "and so is a lot of the action: in fact, I watered it down a bit".
Among other revelations in the afterword, Conran claims that Maxine's first lover, Pierre, was based on a real life boyfriend of the author's, Henri Roussel. Conran and Roussel eventually broke up because she grew tired of painstakingly writing love letters in French and having them returned, corrected in red ink. He later married, and his son Thierry Roussel grew up to marry Christina Onassis. Pagan is based on a childhood friend of Conran's called Phoebe Atkins, who for some time was courted by King Hussein of Jordan while Conran acted as chaperone. Often he would bring along a minister from his government as a double date.
Conran grew up in south London, the daughter of a dry cleaning baron. She studied dress design and sculpture at art school in Chelsea, and later married the designer Terence Conran – the owner of a café where she worked as a waitress. They have two sons – also designers – Sebastian and Jasper. She divorced Conran after, she says, he had an affair with his secretary while she was pregnant. She went on to write the 1970s woman's bible Superwoman, in which she famously wrote that life is too short to stuff a mushroom.
Lace, by Shirley Conran, is reissued in paperback by Canongate (inset above, £7.99), with a new afterword ("Lace: The True Story") by the author. It is dedicated to her sons, Sebastian and Jasper Conran.