Obituary: Sarah Gainham
This work (the first part of a trilogy which included A Place in the Country, 1968, and Private Worlds, 1971) overshadowed not only the several novels that followed, but also Gainham's highly regarded journalism in such magazines as The Spectator, The Economist, Encounter and Atlantic Monthly. The novel was remarkably successful, managing somehow to catch the mood of the time - especially in the United States, where it remained top of the New York Times bestseller list for several months - and it was translated into many languages.
All bar one of the dozen novels that Gainham wrote were set in central Europe, a region she knew intimately, having moved to Vienna in 1947 - initially to work with the Four Power Commission - never to live in England again. She also lived at various times in Berlin, Bonn and Trieste before returning to Vienna. Such experiences were invaluable when, in urgent need of earning her own living after the collapse of her marriage in 1956, Gainham became the Central and Eastern European correspondent for The Spectator, largely due to the efforts of Cyril Ray - whose plea that she needed the money became a catchphrase in the office.
The magazine, then enjoying a golden age under the editorship of Brian Inglis, was an ideal place in which to hone her skills, and it wasn't long before Gainham produced her first novel, Time Right Deadly (1956), a largely autobiographical work written in an effort to get an unhappy emotional affair out of her system. Four other European-based thrillers followed before she hit the jackpot with Night Falls on the City.
Gainham's last novel, The Tiger, Life, was published in 1983; an autobiography in all but name, its 400 pages were largely impenetrable except for the closest of her friends and the most devoted of her fans. In 1984 she was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, an honour in which she took immense pride.
Gainham, who loathed talking about her early life, was born Rachel Stainer in 1915 (not 1922 as she liked to claim) in Islington, north London. Her father, Tom, died in the First World War, and she and her brother and sister (who survives her) were brought up in straitened circumstances by their mother May in Newbury. When she started writing fiction she took as her nom de plume the name of her maternal great-grandmother - Sarah Gainham.
Whilst the success of Night Falls on the City ensured that Gainham was financially secure for life ("It is vital to have money," she would shout. "I know, I've been poor!"), her emotional and private lives were far less satisfactory. Gainham had immense sex appeal, was highly flirtatious - skittish, even - and well aware of the appeal that she had for the opposite sex. She once remarked in late middle age: "I know that I am no great looker, but I've always had a magnificent pair of tits." Indeed, until well into her eighties she would wear dresses with heroically plunging necklines.
An impulsive and unsuccessful wartime liaison was followed in 1947 by marriage to the journalist Antony Terry, the then German correspondent for the Sunday Times, but this ended in divorce. In 1964 she married Kenneth Ames, the Central European correspondent of The Economist. Gainham claimed privately at the time that she was marrying him so that she wouldn't have to spend her old age on her own. Cruelly, however, the combination of Kenneth's suicide in 1975, her failure to have children after a disastrous miscarriage and the fact that the true (and reciprocated) love of her life remained married to another condemned her to just such a fate.
In 1976 Gainham moved from Vienna to a small house in the shadow of Schloss Petronell on the banks of the Danube. Attended by a succession of grossly over-indulged cats, she became in her later years reclusive and somewhat eccentric, in stark contrast to her gregarious and sociable former self. Although she had lived in Germany or Austria for over 50 years, she remained resolutely English, reading The Times, and taking afternoon tea, every day.
Like many self-educated people Gainham was fiercely dogmatic, and her declining number of visitors was apt to be treated to lengthy and highly provocative monologues invariably beginning with the phrase, "Of course, as everyone knows . . ." - and to find curious scraps of paper lying around, clearly written in a fury but referring to heaven knows whom, which said such things as: "he was profoundly subversive!"
Happily, the literary reputation of this gifted, spirited and once greatly lionised woman is strong enough to withstand the frailty of her final work, A Discursive Essay on the Presentation of Recent History in England, a rambling treatise which she was obliged to have published privately.
Under her pseudonym of Sarah Gainham, Rachel Ames achieved a reputation as a perceptive chronicler of the immediate post-war years in Germany and in the German- speaking parts of Central Europe, writes Robert Elphick. Her weekly reports in The Spectator in the late Fifties and Sixties attracted particular attention for their incisive dissection of the growing pains of the newly emerging democracies in western Germany and Austria, as well as of the travails of the countries behind the Iron Curtain.
Fellow journalists especially savoured her reports of the early days in Berlin before the death of Stalin and well before the wall went up, when the espionage and propaganda battle with the Communist dictatorships was in full swing. She was in her element, knew all the main players, and was well connected with the murky world of espionage and counter-espionage. A lot of this experience found its way into her novels.
Journalism was very much still a man's world in those days, but she was capable of more than holding her own. Indeed she enjoyed the clash of personalities in late-night disputes over the meaning of this or that twist in the highly charged political circles in which she moved so effortlessly.
Alas, she was less successful with the men in her life, a matter that she freely acknowledged. Her last letter to me, in March, centred on her days in Berlin and referred to her first husband, but not her second. But the main part of the letter recalled a lost love with another, which survived for 50 years until his death a year ago.
She was oddly sensitive about her appearance. She once confessed to me that she had always wanted to be pretty and felt she wasn't. Her intellectual strengths, though, were formidable, and she was delighted in her eventual success and recognition as a novelist. It gave her financial security and made her a little more serene as she grew older.
Rachel Stainer (Sarah Gainham), writer and journalist: born London 1 October 1915; Central Europe Correspondent, Spectator 1956-66; FRSL 1984; married 1947 Antony Terry (died 1992; marriage dissolved 1964), 1964 Kenneth Ames (died 1975); died Petronell, Austria 24 November 1999.
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