Interview: The fascinating life of the biographer: A troubled childhood, an affair with her lecturer at Oxford, four children by the age of 25, the second marriage to a much older man. Victoria Glendinning's own story has the makings of a real page-turner

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Indy Lifestyle Online
HOW WILL the judge be judged? We shall see on 26 January, when Victoria Glendinning, who chaired the Booker judges this year, will be at the mercy of the Whitbread judges. Her biography of Trollope is on their short list, though naturally she says she hasn't a hope. 'I know I can't win.'

She also knows that such literary prizes are a nonsense, comparing carrots with turnips, salt with pepper; even worse when it comes to the Whitbread, where a biog, a novel, a first novel, a children's book and some verses all fight it out. At least with the Booker, it's novel against novel.

'If I'd known then what I know now, I'm not sure I would have done the Booker,' she says. 'It did bugger up my summer. We were in Ireland and there were postal strikes, and I often had to read three novels in 24 hours.'

What would you do with the pounds 20,000 prize? 'I told you, I won't win.' OK, then if someone gave you pounds 20,000? 'I'd buy a new car. Mine is old, battered and deep in litter. When the boys were young, I blamed them for the sweet papers and rubbish. But it's still the same.'

In her middle years, she has become an established literary lady, one of the liked, one of the good. She can appear very much the part; that is, if you had never met many women who write.

Note her fiercely intelligent expression, the angular face, the lack of interest in clothes, then listen to that upper- class accent. She seems very well bred, daughter of the late Lord Seebohm, went to the best schools, then Somerville College, Oxford.

But then, ah ha, she behaved rather scandalously. This is the real clue to her character. Not any outward blue- stocking appearance.

She has never liked her voice, 'too high, too twittery', and disliked her nose, 'too large, too bumpy'. As a girl, she felt gawky and awkward, till one day a boy told her that she had pretty knees. 'It opened up completely new possibilities. I always loved mini skirts. I can still wear them, though not quite crotch high. You see, I have got good legs. In fact, I'd say I have excellent legs.'

Up to Oxford then, with her excellent legs, in the repressed, inhibited, prehistoric Fifties. In the second week of her first term, she received a strange note from one of her lecturers. 'He mentioned that he knew my family, and was inviting me to the theatre. I wrote back saying I wasn't the girl he thought I was, but yes, please, I'd go to the theatre.'

Thus began an affair with the lecturer Nigel Glendinning, eight years her senior. Her parents were not best pleased. 'They were appalled. My father summoned Nigel to his office and said: 'You are ruining my daughter's life.' That made me see us as Romeo and Juliet, so I moved out of college and went to live with him. Today, in this politically correct age, he would doubtless be accused of sexual harassment.'

She took her finals as a married woman, nine months pregnant. Was the baby a mistake? 'Goodness no. I wanted a baby from the moment I met Nigel. I thought it would be lovely.'

By the time she was 25, she'd had four children, all sons, and her husband had become a professor, first at Southampton, then in Dublin.

'I have no regrets about having my children so young. Nobody ever said childbirth could be hard, so I just got on with it. They seemed to drop out. When they were babies, we took them to parties and left them under piles of coats.

'An elderly neighbour once knocked at the door and said 'Your little boy is peeing in the front garden', and I said 'Oh how awful, how terrible, I'm so sorry.' But I didn't give a damn. It was my garden, and the child was only three. He doesn't do it any more, so he did learn something as he grew up. . . .

'I do seriously think childbirth is more worrying for women today. There are so many experts and authorities, articles and books, warning you about it. Today, many women are having their first baby at 38 - and they're terrified. It's a huge decision for them. What will happen to their career? What will happen to their tidy drawing room with the white loose covers? Should they get a nanny, but then they'll be riddled with guilt about leaving them. Best to have them young. Get it over with.

'But speak not of the teenage parties, the bath awash with sick and cigarette stubs, the landings filled with drunken girls.' Her four sons all went to a local and not very favoured comprehensive, and encountered some of the usual problems. But she didn't wish to go into it. That's their history.

Back to her own life. While they were growing up, she did part-time jobs, bit of teaching, bit of social work. Then in Dublin she obtained some reviewing work on the Irish Times, thanks to the encouragement of its literary editor, Terence de Vere White.

'Perhaps Nigel and I made a huge mistake, spending too much time with the boys. We were always good as a family unit. My mother often said we should go off together, though she never offered to look after the boys. In the end, we didn't attend to ourselves enough. Our marriage became eroded.'

In 1982, she married Terence de Vere White, 25 years her senior, after half-living with him for four years. 'Mostly, when parents split up, the children spend years with their little suitcases, moving between homes. We did it the other way round. We parents did the moving. The children always stayed in their own home and had at least one parent with them.'

It was after meeting Terence that her literary career began in earnest, though she had written one book, A Suppressed Cry, published in 1969 after six rejections. It was a family memoir about one of her aunts. 'There's a prize for anyone who has read it.' Eight years later, she produced her first full biography, of Elizabeth Bowen, followed by biogs of Edith Sitwell, Vita Sackville-West and Rebecca West. Earlier this year came Trollope, her first male subject.

Most professional writers pour themselves into a self-created working mode, going to their blank pages at the same time every day. She has no timetable, no discipline. If she is too tired, too bored, or things crop up, she may not write for four of five days. 'Then it's like the lover I run away to. And I do it best after dark, a legacy of the chidren being young.'

For the last five years, she has created on a word processor. 'I took to it like a baby on a tit. I love being able to write down a sentence from your mind, one you like the feel of, then work backwards or forwards from it. You can't do that in handwriting. I like being able to write 'flamboyant' and then 'extravagant', and decide which looks better. I like going into a semi-trance in front of the screen. It's like being asleep. You're not aware of who you are. Writing is being the thing that you are doing.

'But it is a luxury job. People who see writers only at signing sessions, or on TV programmes, have a totally phoney view. Yesterday, the dustmen left some plastic sacks I'd filled, so I spent the morning taking them to the dump. Writers live ordinary lives. And it's not a particularly useful one, not like being a plumber. There's no greater bliss in life than when the plumber eventually comes to unblock your drain. No writer can give that sort of pleasure.'

Despite the success of her Trollope, now reprinting, she thinks she may have done enough biography. 'The genre may have peaked - and perhaps I have as well. Everyone has been done, the market is shrinking and there is no interest in the secondary figures. I found it most interesting when I was learning how to do biographies. Now I think I'd like to learn something else, but I don't know what.'

On her word processor, she has 30 pages of a novel, neglected these past nine months because of Booker judging and Trollope promoting. 'I have this fantasy that when I go back, it will have expanded to 150 pages, picking up all the thoughts I have had in my head. On the other hand, it could have receded and now be only 10 pages long.'

She gets upset when people talk about a London literary mafia. 'Who are they? Tell me their names?' Well, what about your good self? 'I'm not in any group. Every writer goes their own way, getting on with their lives.' Yes, but you're in the swim, surely, serving on literary bodies, reviewing your fellow authors. 'I don't review books by people who are friends. I only did it once and that was a mistake. I gave it a very poor review. Our friendship has never been the same.'

But what about flavour-of-the- month authors, suddenly picked and praised by everyone - that's what really annoys outsiders. 'It does happen, but it's not a conspiracy. People in all walks of life are dying to be enthusiastic. We're all longing to welcome a Clinton or a Mary Robinson, say this is great, this person will go far, even if it turns out wrong.

'It even happens in gardening. Two years ago, a mallow called Barnsley was the height of fashion, with everyone raving about its delicate pale pink flowers. Now it's running amok, and its colour reverts, anyway. It's turned out to be a thug.'

Gardening has become big in her life these past few years. 'When the boys were young, there was no garden - it was a football pitch or a bike stadium.' In London, she has a cottage garden in rural Kentish Town, repeat rural, hidden away down a little lane, so sylvan no one can ever believe it's not a film set, dismantled at night. They also have a real country home in Ireland.

Terence, aged 80, is not well at present. 'I suppose people did think it was strange, marrying someone 25 years older, but it never worried me. He told me things I didn't know. It's always easy for women to slip into roles, either as daughter or as mother. Not often are they equal. I've been the daughter, and now that Terence is not so well, I have become part mother again.'

Her own sons are now grown up and live away. Paul went to Cambridge, where he read maths and is now a don. Hugo went to Exeter, read English and is now a photographer. Matthew went to Sussex and is now a bar manager and journalist. Simon went to York, did postgraduate work at Oxford, and has just been made a philosophy lecturer at Kent. 'I'm proud of them all, so proud that if they knew, they would drown.' How do you mean? 'Because my pride might be a burden to them.'

One son is married and the others have partners, but there are no grandchildren, much to her disappointment. 'There is a biological time for motherhood, which is when I had my children. Now I'm ready to be a grandmother.'

She takes no exercise, apart from gardening, walking and housework. 'I do it when the dust mounts up and the corners get filled with animal hairs. You always have something to show for housework. You keep fit without having to go anywhere or pay anything. It's very satisfying.'

The animals are a dog called Sophie and two cats called Max and Flora. No, not literary names. She chose them for children she never had. 'I would have had a fifth if I could have been certain of a girl, but I don't regret my boys at all. My brother has four girls. My sister has one of each.'

No mini skirt that day, but a black pullover and trousers, which is what she usually wears. 'When in doubt, I always do the same thing: buy another black sweater. I think I was put off clothes by my mother. She would sit me down beside her with a copy of Vogue, studying it as if it were something frightfully important, like Publishers Weekly.'

She smokes a packet of cigarettes a day, and doesn't give a damn. 'I love going on smoking cures. The best fun was hypnosis, that was brilliant. I learnt to hypnotise myself, going back to being seven, then disappearing down a rabbit hole. It was wonderful. The only trouble was that my hypnotist gave me as my affirmation the sentence 'I can enjoy life as a non-smoker', which I disagreed with. I enjoy my life as a smoker. I'm not at all miserable.

'Yes, I know the dangers, but I see it as my tax to the devil. Perhaps there's an element of a death wish. I don't worry abut dying. It's not a matter I think about.

'I had a frightful childhood with a horrible nanny who used to shut me up and make me eat my own sick. No, I didn't tell my parents. Children don't. They accept, thinking this is normal.

'Since childhood, I've had an amazingly good life, which got better all the time. If I go soon, then fine. I always like to leave the party early. It will mean the boys will get my things quickly.'

You've got money and possessions to leave? 'I was thinking of my pans and spoons, actually.'

(Photograph omitted)

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