Prolific journalist, writer and novelist who drew on her own life experience for much of her inspiration
Friday 28 September 2007
Angela Maria Helps, writer and journalist: born Beckenham, Kent 14 April 1940; married 1962 Martin Lambert (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1967) (one daughter with Stephen Vizinczey); died London 26 September 2007.
Angela Lambert was a writer, feminist, mother, grandmother and friend to a wide and disparate circle of people. An insightful and prolific journalist, she was also a hugely accomplished author with seven novels and three historical books to her name.
She was born Angela Maria Helps, a year into the Second World War, a period that she was to write about in her 1989 book 1939: the last season of peace. She was of German extraction herself, her mother having been born there, and she spoke the language and relished researching The Lost Life of Eva Braun, her final book, published in 2006.
Angela was bright and intellectual from the outset, something that did not sit comfortably within the family in which she grew up. She regarded her father, a civil servant, as an "imperious" husband to her "deferential" mother. She was sent away to boarding school – an experience that resurfaced in her second novel No Talking After Lights (1990) – and later recalled "the memory of being dumped by unfeeling parents". Nevertheless it was at school, when barely a teenager, that she set her heart upon becoming a writer.
Only when Angela reached St Hilda's College, Oxford to read Philosophy, Politics and Economics, did she begin to savour the liberation of her age. She regarded her date of birth as "an extraordinary piece of luck, since it meant that I was one of the first wave of women to benefit from the Pill, feminism and equal (if still far from perfect) opportunities".
The boisterous Oxford that she encountered swirled with ideas, drama, art and politics. She was part of a gregarious Bohemian set that included my cousin Peter Snow, through whom I was later to come to know her. Angela even then was awash with ideas.
She met her husband, Martin Lambert, in her final year at Oxford and they married in 1962. Five years later he left her, rendering her the single mother of four-year-old Carolyn, and 18-month-old Johnnie. This was in the only period in her life when she did not live to some extent by the pen. She had taken a job as private secretary to Lord Longford when he became a cabinet minister in 1964, and stayed with him until his resignation in 1967. She represented a thread of order in Longford's chaotic political and charitable life. Through him she met many of the great political, social and cultural figures of the day, some of whom were to provide wonderful material for her later writing life.
Tempted in part by the money, and in part by the prospect of becoming one of the first female television reporters, she joined ITN in 1972. She was the only woman in a line-up of 18 male reporters. She found television news, and "writing to pictures" an exasperating compression of her talents, although she enjoyed the camaraderie of Thames Television, to which she moved in 1977.
Throughout, this time the writer in her was bursting to get out. In 1988, she finally gave in to the muse, and joined Andreas Whittam Smith's newly launched Independent. He, too, had been in her set at Oxford. This was the beginning of her most prolific period of journalism. She went on to work for the Daily Mail and the Telegraph. She wrote columns, features, and extraordinarily textured interviews. One memorable victim was Nicholas van Hoogstraten, described then as "one of Britain's most notorious landlords". As so often in her work, she was able to lull him into a false sense of security, and he spoke far too frankly. She later said she thought he was one of the most evil men she had ever met.
Lambert was in her early forties when she published her first book, Unquiet Souls: the Indian summer of the British aristocracy (1984). It was an original work that explored a rarely discussed group of late-Victorian intellectuals and aristocrats, "the Souls" – Asquith, Balfour, Curzon and others – who intersected with each other in both their London and country houses between 1890 and 1914. The book was shortlisted for that year's Whitbread Prize.
As with much of her fiction, her first novel Love Among the Single Classes (1989), utilised much material derived from her own experience. For in truth she was never at peace with her life as a single mother. She talked of regretting "my busy-ness, my poverty, and my infatuations". One such obsession was to bring her a third child when, in 1971, she met Stephen Vizinczey, the Hungarian author of the best-seller In Praise of Older Women (1965). Marianne Vizinczey was the happy outcome of an otherwise nigh-broken heart.
Her other novels include The Constant Mistress (1994) and A Rather English Marriage (1992), which Andrew Davies adapted into a BBC drama starring Tom Courtenay, Albert Finney and Joanna Lumley.
Lambeth's adult years were dogged by ill health. Her frequently life-threatening bouts with illness centred on portal hypertension which she first came down with in 1979 and which recurred for the rest of her life. Sickness and illness play a considerable part in many of her novels.
Although it is her books, and her writing by which the wider world will remember Angela Lambert, I shall remember her as a constant and indulgent friend, both in London and in France, between which she lived for the last two decades of her life with her resourceful partner, the television director Tony Price. If she feared that her singularity and remorseless writing career had deprived her own children, she never let it stint her devotion to her seven grandchildren who were each her pride and joy. A rare and stimulating force, she died far too young, leaving too many books unwritten.
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