Gloucestershire Chronicles: Joanna Trollope's domestic, rural novels, with their big kitchen tables, their vicars and solicitors and craft shop owners, are outselling almost everything else. Is sex and shopping over?

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UNTIL RECENTLY, women's bestselling fiction required a heroine who could power her way to the top of a corporation, screwing everyone in her path, all without falling off her Manolo Blahnik high heels. Thousands of pages of pulpy Eighties prose were devoted to the acquisition of couture clothes, private jets and a place in the boardroom. And then the stock market crashed, moderate, revisionist conservatism arrived, and so did Joanna Trollope.

Trollope's six slim volumes, scenes from contemporary provincial life, have become surprising publishing successes. Hardly known in 1991, Trollope is now one of this country's most popular novelists. The Rector's Wife, the most recent of her books to come out in paperback, was topped in last year's bestseller lists only by Jilly Cooper's Polo and Jeffrey Archer's As the Crow Flies. It outsold Catherine Cookson and Danielle Steele, as well as Stephen Fry, Ben Elton, and Peter Mayle's two books. And, like The Choir, a book that she actually wrote six years ago but which was recently reissued, it refuses quite to go away, popping up persistently on the bestseller lists just when you thought it was gone. In hardback, her sales have doubled with every book: her latest, A Spanish Lover, is, according to her publishers, 'a runaway success'. Channel 4 has just finished filming a six-part adaptation of The Rector's Wife, with a starry cast including Lindsay Duncan, Ronald Pickup, Prunella Scales and Pam Ferris; the BBC has bought the rights to The Choir, to be adapted in 10 parts by Trollope's husband, the playwright Ian Curteis. She is even on sale in Safeway.

This is appropriate, because Trollope believes that real life is lived by those who visit supermarkets. 'In ordinary life,' she says, 'if we're in love, we still have to go and see old aunts in nursing homes, take the children to school, and go to Tesco, and it's that juggling act that the 19th-century novelists are jolly good at, but that we have lacked in fiction now for about a generation.' So, seeing this supposed wrong turn, Trollope has set out to become the chronicler of ordinary life, to pick up where the 19th century left off, to 'do the things the traditional novel has always done: to mirror reality, explore people's emotional lives, but also to involve a great many other dilemmas. I think my books are just the dear old traditional novel making a quiet comeback.'

Trollope makes this staggering claim from a plush banquette in the Basil Street Hotel, behind Harrods. The hotel is home to the Parrot Club, where middle-class ladies of means repair to relax, have a bath, put their feet up, and take tea before catching their trains back to the country. Despite her dramatic outfit - leggings and a stunning burnt-orange jacket (she is in amazing shape for a woman about to turn 50: tall and very slender) - Joanna Trollope is fundamentally at home in this milieu: a well-bred Englishwoman, excessively sensible, with cut-glass vowels, a big house to go home to in the shires, and something simmering in the Aga.

She was born in her grandfather's rectory, into the placid and solid centre of the Church of England (The Choir is set in a cathedral close, and The Rector's Wife in a parsonage). Her religion has the unfussed and pragmatic qualities of rural English worship down the ages: 'I was born into the Church of England, I'm still in it, and I go to church. It's as natural to me as breathing - you know, God's always been there, he will always be there. I don't talk about it elaborately, and I never will, because I'm not that sort of Englishwoman: I mean, evangelism gives me the horrors.'

Stability and continuity of tradition, social as well as religious, pervades her fiction and accounts for much of its appeal. Individuals may suffer terrible upsets in her books: a woman may fall in love with her best friend, or discover that her husband is sleeping with his stepmother; but country life, that picture-postcard, idealised heritage version of England that Tom Nairn has called Ukania, flows peacefully on, like the trout stream in Joanna Trollope's own garden.

Her father was fighting in India when she was born; he came back when she was three, and the family - she has a brother and sister - moved to Reigate, 'which was not really their sort of scene at all, because it's really quite tidy: sort of suburbia. But they chose it for entirely altruistic reasons, to be near a good girls' grammar school.' (Reigate County School for Girls; her brother was at Charterhouse.) I wonder if perhaps her parents were rather grander than Reigate? 'I think they were rather more int'r'sting than Reigate,' she says; 'and although home was Reigate, spiritual home - and it was always the same for my mother - was Gloucestershire. We went back to Gloucestershire most school holidays.'

Gloucestershire is where she lives now, in a large honey- coloured mill house, with her second husband, who is best known for his play about the Falklands War, which was sympathetic to Margaret Thatcher, and which the BBC eventually decided not to screen. And Gloucestershire is the spiritual, if not always the actual home of her fiction. She claims that she writes about 'how most of England lives', but her books are never suburban, which is the real condition of most of England. Trollopian action takes place in large village houses, at vast kitchen tables; her doctors, vicars, solicitors and craft-gallery owners may worry about money, as her own parents did, but they don't have any social anxieties: they are invited for drinks at the big house as a matter of course. The books are as economically prestigious, and quite as aspirational in their own way, as the glitter blockbusters of the Eighties.

Her father ran a building society; her mother, a painter, had enjoyed 'an upbringing in a Bohemian, cultivated country parsonage, which I think led her to expect a little more . . . colour in life than she got.' Respectability with a touch of poetic spirit: this might be an image of the Trollope heroine. Her women are always walking barefoot across the dewy grass, or wearing colourful dirndl skirts and scarves - ineluctably middle-class, but fancying themselves not quite bourgeois. 'Yes, I do admire that kind of Bohemian woman, and I admire untidiness. It seems to me a relaxation of spirit, a sign that someone has got her priorities right, as I fuss on about plumping up my cushions. I'm in my study at the same time every morning, but the dogs are always walked and the washing machine is loaded first.'

Trollope says her childhood was not especially affluent - 'but I liked that, and I do think it's good for children; and being the age I am, I grew up without central heating or television, and there's something to be said for the lack of both.'

There is? What - like chilblains, and boredom? 'Oh, the self-sufficiency it breeds in you physically, and even more importantly, imaginatively,' she says, muscularly puritan. So she spent a great deal of time 'reading in the half-dark,' and acquiring a good girls' school education to see her through to an Oxford scholarship. And yet, despite the character-building privations, she was not an especially happy child or adolescent - 'I was very anxious about the usual things - you know, the way I looked, and my voice.' Her voice is indeed extraordinary: high-pitched, frightfully proper: 'It's just what happens when I open my mithe,' she says, sounding like the Queen.

She is gushing about Oxford, in a rather old-fashioned, unashamedly elitist way: 'It was a complete blossoming. For the first time I felt there were great gales blowing through my mind, the first steps not just of intellectual confidence, but of confidence of personality.' She got an upper second, joined the Foreign Office, and married a year after coming down: her husband was 21, she was 22. 'Girls of my generation were brought up to think that's what you did,' she says now; 'and I suppose I very much wanted someone of my own. Plus there were some other things too personal to talk about.'

Trollope explores emotions ruthlessly in her books, but when it comes to her own, she becomes the archetypal reserved English gentlewoman. 'Curtains over that bit,' she says politely, laughing, when I ask about her divorce - although she does acknowledge that 'it was fraught. When you marry young you either grow together or grow apart. It was terrible. But don't write it, because it's so nice now, and it would just be unkind.' Divorcing, she says, was the most unconventional thing that she has ever done.

Trollope had her first child, Louise, when she was 25, her second, Antonia, when she was 27. One of the great strengths of her books - her greatest strength, I think - is that she writes convincingly about children; her child characters are not vehicles for ideas, or plot devices, but irritating, charming individuals, insistently present, demanding and manipulative. She writes like a mother, who knows that children are all different, and, in their infallible ability to get in the way, all the same.

'All the middle-class people I write about would have had nannies and servants in the past, but now we do everything ourselves and children absolutely dominate our lives. It's their demands, their homework, their nightmares, their insistence on staying down, because downstairs is more interesting than upstairs. I don't think children are particularly sweet, but I think they're absolutely fascinating, and I take them as seriously as they take themselves. I don't think they're dear little innocents in this never-never nursery land; I think they're adults in the making, and they suffer great fears and anxieties and pains. And we give them silly food looking like fish and rabbits all cut up tiny, and dress them up in dolly clothes, and it's profoundly patronising, and I think they deserve more.'

Trollope started writing when her younger daughter was two, and produced six historical novels, with titles like To the Steps of the Sun and City of Gems: they sold, but not in any great quantities. And then she met Ian Curteis, and he convinced her that she was capable of something else. 'You have learnt how to do it now,' he told her; 'it's time to confront the contemporary world, to go to Sainsbury's'

TROLLOPE'S contemporary books have been called Aga sagas, or more accurately (since they are not especially long) Aga novels, suggesting that they deal with a better class of person, in kitchens. And they do: Trollope was recently described as the 'darling of the Daily Telegraph,' and she gives weight to things like cleaning behind the fridge, buying groceries, taking the kids swimming after school. Poor people don't get much of a look in; nor do urban intellectuals: the typical Trollope heroine is a wife and mother of three, living comfortably in Southern England, doing a bit of teaching to help pay the bills and stop her (jolly good) mind going soft. Many of her readers probably see their lives reflected here - or at least, a version of them. Indeed, they write and say they do (although a third of her letters come from men). But the Aga label also perhaps implies that nothing much happens, which may be true by comparison with the screamingly improbable glitter novels, but overlooks her characters' seething emotional lives, as they struggle with disillusionment, or passion for the wrong person: there is always some drama to jolt the complacency. And it also ignores Trollope's facility for dropping in social issues - lesbianism, single parenthood: at least one per book - which flatter you that you are reading about something vaguely serious.

The turbulent plots sometimes strain credulity: middle-class women of artistic bent don't seriously Find Themselves by stocking supermarket shelves, as happens to the heroine of The Rector's Wife; Spaniards cannot really be as wearisomely stereotypical as the hero of A Spanish Lover. But there is enough that is recognisable in her characters for her readers to indulge her. Caroline Upcher, a publisher of popular fiction - not Trollope's, although she is an enthusiast - thinks that much of Trollope's charm lies precisely 'in that she delivers slightly unrealistic situations couched in convincing characters'.

Her characters can become drearily sententious: 'Life certainly never gets any easier. Or simpler,' someone says in The Rector's Wife. 'She unlocked all the cages,' a character explains in A Passionate Man, 'turned the lights on, let me out. How valid that was, I don't know. I don't expect I'll ever know, but it was how it seemed.' Rob in The Spanish Lover tells his wife: 'It's just life that deals us a nasty when we aren't looking, it's life that keeps moving the goalposts.'

But she has a page-turning quality: perhaps it is something to do with her optimistic sense of love - as boundless, and making all things seem possible (not for nothing is she a romantic novelist on the side). And there are flashes of insight: she is good at depicting characters struggling between disillusionment with their marriages and their sense of responsibility (though occasionally she takes this moral muddle so far that it is difficult to identify anyone whom you actually like).

Best of all, readers who fancy themselves intelligent don't have to be ashamed to be seen reading Trollope on the train. This is partly because of the sex: though sex is what the books are all about, it is all implied. Trollope avoids the juices and throbbings so graphically, but usually tediously, described in the bonkbusters. 'So much fiction treats the reader like a randy ape,' she says severely. 'We have quite enough explicit sex; we don't need me. Anyway, I want the reader to write those scenes, to have pleasure imagining the characters in bed, because they will do it better than me. I couldn't do it for toffee. And then think of those 19th-century novels all written in code] - I mean, nobody has written about sexual tension better than the Brontes] Look at Villette - every page drips with frustration.'

She is dismissive of the Aga saga tag: 'The first time I heard it I thought it was terribly funny. Now my smile's got a tiny bit fixed. It's a slightly contemptuous urban cliche for country life. It assumes Women's Institute, green wellingtons, labrador, all those slightly patronising views of how most of England lives.'

Her sense of what her books are offering, though - traditional fiction, 'which has been maintained for most of this century by the detective novel' - not only ignores a whole lot of other middlebrow, mainstream 20th-century novels (what are Barbara Pym or Margaret Drabble if not traditional?) but hugely inflates her own importance. She invoked Anthony Trollope, to whom she is distantly related, not once but six times in the course of our interview. She even - admittedly obliquely and deferentially - linked herself to Jane Austen: 'I really only want to do the things that traditional fiction has always done. I have great diffidence in saying, like Jane Austen, like Anthony Trollope . . . but I want to make 'em laugh, make 'em cry, make 'em feel as ambivalent about the characters as they do about people in real life.'

Actually, the only Jane Austen or Anthony Trollope with whom Joanna Trollope is in competition is a televised version: picturesque, and with the acerbity of the prose smoothed away by adaptation. As Diane Purkiss, an expert in popular women's fiction who lectures at the University of East Anglia, points out: 'Anthony Trollope in particular has been made over in the popular imagination as costume drama, as a branch of heritage. This has taken the edge off some of the social criticism, and I think that is where Joanna Trollope fits in - to an idealised England, and a sanitised version.'

Trollope herself, though, thinks that 'the trauma of two world wars has given rise to a great deal of questioning, experimental and intellectual fiction. And as a reaction to this arcane, recondite fiction, we had the blockbuster rising as the opposite pole, and really those two have held sway for 25 years. And it isn't writers like me spotting a gap in the market, it's the public instinctively making its wishes felt, because the mood of the Nineties is so different. We're more anxious and sober and realistic than we've been probably since the early 1960s. We've come down to earth with a bump.'

There is indeed something about the present, the Nineties, with which Trollope has struck a chord. But it may not be quite what she thinks. It is no accident that Trollope is successful at a time when the wilder ambitions of Thatcherism are discredited, yet it is almost impossible to remember an England that wasn't Conservative. When she talks about politics, she articulates a distinctly Hayekian, anti-revolutionary view, a belief in the importance of evolved rules: 'I believe the traditional values should chug along like a dear old traction engine, but that they should be attacked by progressive notions at every turn. It seems to me that the moral code we have, the social organisation into family, has survived for the best and the dullest of reasons, because it is the thing that works best for most people.'

Perhaps her values can best be gauged by her attitude to women priests in the Church of England: she is in favour, but . . . 'I wish we could have left it . . . I do quite understand how hard it is for those with a vocation to wait - but if only we could have left it 20 years, until most of the objectors were safely in their graves, we might not have had all this bloodletting.' Private turbulence may ruffle public placidity in her books, but somehow you know that the cathedral will still be standing at the end, and there will still be a big house, and the men won't have started fixing the kids' dental appointments.

JOANNA Trollope must have grown better-looking with age. The long face and big teeth cannot have been assets in her twenties; but now, at an age when presentation matters more than careless beauty, she is startlingly handsome. This is partly the effect of money - the striking clothes, the expensive modern jewellery, the good hairdo; but it is also a reflection of her care with herself. She is not, you feel, a woman who would ever behave slobbily, leave rings round the bath or one day just not bother. She wears lots of makeup, but tastefully; she is as disciplined about making the best of herself as she is about producing novels. (In the eight years since she has been married to Ian Curteis she has written not only the six Joanna Trollopes, but three historical novels, under the pen-name Caroline Harvey, 'in more operatic mode'. The latest comes out in November).

When I suggest to Ian Curteis that his wife must be an efficient and tidy homemaker, he is quick to stress that there are piles of books on the floor and pictures all over the walls: 'I would say she is well-organised, rather than neat in the bungalow sense.'

Quite. But she takes homemaking seriously. Reflecting on the fact that the lease on their house runs out in four years' time, Ian Curteis says: 'I have a feeling that Joanna's most creative decade will be between 50 and 60, and I would quite like to get the move over soon, so that she doesn't have to take six months off when she should be getting on with something else.' Only a pretty dedicated homemaker takes six months off to straighten up after a move. But Curteis's remark is also interesting because it reveals his concern for her; they are, you sense, a couple who are scrupulously attentive to one another, who derive pleasure from easing each other's lives.

'When you fall in love quite late in life, you never quite forget the glory of it,' she says. 'My marriage continues to be a most exciting companionship. And Ian has given me huge creative confidence. 'Well, write it]' he will say, 'don't just tell me about it over lunch]' ' At his instigation, she abandoned the historical novels: 'I was writing dutifully, but without any zest. Giving up wasn't easy, because I had become sort of addicted to the research, used it as a kind of crutch. So he suggested that I write about something that would allow for the swot in me.' She went off to Gloucester, studied the cathedral close and produced The Choir. 'They discuss plots a lot,' says her neighbour and close friend Jilly Cooper. 'And they are absolutely devoted to each other; it's very endearing.'

Curteis denies that he has much input to her work: 'I am a sounding-board occasionally, that's all. She'll say, 'What do you think of this?' over supper. She thinks out her books first, so that she has them in her head - often when she's out walking the dogs - and then she writes them out in her wonderfully neat handwriting.' It is absolutely typical of her, he says 'that she refused to be on the church flower rota. She said anyone could arrange the flowers. She's on the scrubbing rota instead. She always puts people before books. The village means a great deal to her.'

He means their village, the one whose fete they are about to hold on their lawn, whose church she attends - though he might just as well have meant The Village, Idea.

Mr and Mrs Curteis appear to lead an idyllic existence, of the kind her readers must long for when they buy her books with their cheerful, bucolic covers. It wasn't always thus: when they first married, they couldn't afford to buy a house, or even heat the rented one for three winters. She says she lay awake worrying about money quite often. 'The house has been a blessing, though, no doubt about it - large enough for all the children to have a room, and for us both to work.'

Ian Curteis has two sons, now 27 and 25 (the younger one is adopted, and black); one is a restorer of frescos and the other a chef. Trollope's own daughters are 24 and 21; one is taking Bar finals, the other is at Oxford. She refers to them all as 'ours' - our son, our daughter; they were teenagers together, 'and the boys were terrifically kind to the girls, and there were some great parties'.

Ian Curteis attributes the success of his wife's books partly 'to their general air of civilisation; it's difficult to define, but you know it when you see it. I feel more civilised when I have read one, anyway. But then she is a very civilising creature.' Trollope calls it dullness. In one of her books, The Men and the Girls, an ageing spinster called Miss Batchelor tells a young man whom she has befriended that he must learn to value dullness - adding, by way of amplification: 'You must learn to value detail'. That means not being seduced by what Trollope calls 'the junk-food equivalent of proper enjoyment, the buzzes and fixes and thrill and sensations and highs'; and it is what, above all, her books preach. They could not be more violently in reaction to the sensation-grabbing pizazz of the glitter novels, or of the Eighties themselves.

'I do think Miss Batchelor's spot on]' Trollope says triumphantly. 'I think you have to learn to make richness out of the ordinariness - taking trouble with self, with domesticity, with the balances and patterns of ordinary life. You know, not eating a sandwich on the run, but sitting down to eat; reading things properly, having quiet times by yourself, and getting rid of this idiotic notion that all days have to have an achievement in them.'

Reading her books, you can believe that there is still time to notice nuances of behaviour and emotion, that you don't have to feel harassed, assaulted by information, out of control. Trollope offers a more settled, less anxious space, in a recognisable, but still idealised world: a world we all think we want, of tea in fine china on the lawn and old-fashioned roses.-

(Photographs omitted)