Pat Kavanagh: Literary agent who inspiredfierce devotion in her writers and commanded publishers' respect

I have known Pat Kavanagh, my friend and literary agent, for 30 years, but until I sat down to write her obituary – a task that would have been unthinkable to me only three months ago – I did not know her date of birth, the city she was born in, her father's name or the date she came to England. These gaps have to do with Pat's character. Though she was gregarious, worldly and hospitable, though she was loved and admired by many, and though she spent most of her working life in the garrulous, nosy, literary world, she was an extremely reserved and private person.

She greatly disliked seeing her name in print. She thought that literary agents should work quietly for their authors like old-fashioned family doctors, keeping their secrets under oath and dedicating themselves to their welfare. She enjoyed gossip as thoroughly as any of us, but she didn't give away private information. With close friends, she might tell candid, painfully funny stories of a troubled childhood, or open the door on glamorous past encounters and liaisons, but she did not give herself away in public. She listened closely and could be very quiet – sometimes dauntingly so – in a group. She was less sure of herself and more vulnerable than her perfectly composed manner led people to believe.

Pat was born to Christopher Kavanagh, a journalist, and to Olive, a health inspector, in Durban, in 1940. (So she was 68 when she died, not 71, as this newspaper and others have inaccurately stated). Her parents divorced when she was young; she acquired a half-sister (on her father's side) and a half-brother (on her mother's). She went to Durban High School for Girls and to Cape Town University for a year, leaving without a degree. She joined a touring theatre company, disliked the ambience, did some work in radio and advertising, and in 1972, in England, was cast in a film of Under Milk Wood with Richard Burton, in which she looks like a sexier version of the young Katherine Hepburn. Anyone who listens to the audiotape of Julian Barnes's novel Flaubert's Parrot, in which Pat reads Louise Colet's chapter, will hear what an actress she might have been.

She left South Africa in 1964, and like other lifelong emigrés who create an existence for themselves elsewhere, she had complicated, passionate,alienated feelings about her native land. Late in the evening, she would sometimes do a very funny and wicked broad Afrikaans accent. In London, where she was a striking new arrival, with her long, flame-coloured hair, green eyes and elegant style, she joined the J Walter Thompson advertising agency. Then she answeredan ad in the New Statesman for a job with the literary agency, AD Peters, in gentlemanly Buckingham Street near the river, which she joined in January 1966. Peters, born at the end of the19th century (he died in 1973) was a traditional, dedicated literary agent, who built up sound personal relations with his authors and was a rock of good sense and moral integrity. Pat, who shared these qualities, liked him very much. He taught her, she used to say, the power of silence in negotiations. And her silences could be formidably effective.

As a young agent, she took on some of the firm's biggest clients, like Rebecca West, Tom Wolfe, SJ Perelman, and Arthur Koestler. Some of them became her good friends; she (and, later, Julian Barnes) were especially close to Koestler. A range of remarkable authors – Dirk Bogarde, Auberon Waugh, John Mortimer, William Trevor, Ruth Rendell – became devoted to her. Why? Not just because they liked an agent who was beautiful, elegant, intelligent and funny, but because they trusted her. She told them the truth, and she negotiated fiercely and shrewdly on their behalf. With one or two notorious exceptions, they stayed with her, and often became close friends.

Though the roster of famous names who "belonged" to Pat is well-known – Michael Dibdin, Robert Harris,Clive James, Blake Morrison, Joanna Trollope, Andrew Motion, Francis Wheen – she took particular pride in helping on some less famous writers, not for the profit they would bring in but for the value of the work: writers such as the poet Alice Oswald, theliterary critic Jane Stevenson, and, at the beginning of her career, her dear friend, the short story writer Helen Simpson.

So, in these last two years, Pat was deeply affected by the ugly, toxic meltdown within PFD, the firm which began life as AD Peters and which she had worked in for 40 years. Her steadfastness and integrity in extremely stressful and unpleasant professional circumstances, and her dedication to her authors, almost all of whom moved with her, were fundamental to the success of United Agents in breaking away from PFD and setting up an independent agency last year.

Pat's work and reputation as an agent has been properly celebrated over the past few days. But my warmest, strongest thoughts of her are as an affectionate friend and a generous host, as a person of wide, rich pleasures and interests. I don't want to idealise her here. Pat could be chilly or impatient or cross. Her famed directness and distaste for gush or falseness sometimes came across as abrupt tactlessness. Though she hated to be thought frightening, she could make anyone feel small. Her sombre phone message from work ("Pat called") could sound, ominously, as if she had some dire reprimand in mind. These manners stood her in good stead in her professional role, but they could be crushing.

But it was different at home. Pat and Julian – who met in March 1978, married in September 1979, and have been together, through storms and calms, ever since – created an exemplary household of two, open to people they liked, full of excellent objects, the most admirable kind of worldly haven. They divided some areas of interest. In her remarkable garden, Pat did the flowers and shrubs, Julian did the vegetables. At supper-time, Pat (as good a chef as Julian, "the pedant in the kitchen", in fact), usually did the salad, which she would devour faster than any guest could keep up with. She liked to dance, he does not. She listened avidly to The Archers, he groaned and left the room. She went bird-watching in India, shopped excellently for clothes with women friends, took Italian lessons and piano lessons, made quilts, collected pictures of women reading. But mostly they worked as a complete team: walking together in Italy and France (their last long walk was in Sicily), going to art shows and the theatre and many concerts (where Pat would sit ramrod still from first to last note), visiting friends in Scotland and Yorkshire and Oxford, Normandy, New England and California, making long adventurous journeys to Brazil, Chile, Argentina, and all around America.

Their life together was private and unbreakably strong, the half-chapter that makes sense of the history of the world. But it was also welcoming to, and including of, other people. Pat gave very good presents, because she was so attentive to what the person might want. But she liked getting them, too. One of the things she was proudest of was the fact that a grower of violas named one of his plants for her. It was called "Viola Pat Kavanagh", and was described in his catalogue as "sturdy, fragrant, and of good habit".

Hermione Lee

* On hearing of Pat Kavanagh's death, writes Francis Wheen, I began scrolling through her emails to me because I yearned to hear her voice again. And there it was – feline, stylish and utterly beguiling – even in the briefest of notes about Brazilian subsidiary rights or South African serialisations.

Our professional association began at a party in 1981, when I told Patthat a publisher had just paid me a flat fee of £300 for a book. "That won't do at all," she said, the last two words scornfully italicised. (She and her husband, Julian Barnes, are the two most skilful exponents of spoken italics I've ever met.) "Who's your agent?" I confessed that I didn't have one. "Well, you do now," she said briskly, and that was that.

Her advice was always spot-on, her words of encouragement perfectly chosen – and not only in the matter of book contracts. A couple of months ago, after being rebuked by Julian Barnes for my portliness, I mentioned in an email to Pat that I'd taken his comments to heart and was thinking of going on a diet. "Don't be tempted to diet, Francis," she wrote back. "It's a waste of time. Whenever I can't button a prize skirt I give up cheese & chocolate until I can. And it's sensible not to have a serious dinner on a day when you've eaten a big lunch. It may seem boring to be thinking about food in that calculating way but it's better than eating nothing but protein & citrus for weeks on end & forcing your friends to sit out of range of your breath. And keep our friend Michael Dibdin in mind. That'll work."

Our friend Michael Dibdin was a crime writer who had indeed swollen alarmingly in the year or two before his sudden death last spring. Soon after he died, she sent me an email exchange they'd had about Italian grammar, which she was learning through weekly sessions with a local teacher. Pat thought the passato remoto a tense too far and was reluctant to learn it; Dibdin, an expert on all things Italian, reassured her that "it's now only used orally in the South by the virtually illiterate".

Re-reading the email now, I see Pat's note at the top: "O god Francis. I've just been reduced to tears again by coming across this, my last exchange with Michael." O god indeed. Now I've been reduced to tears again, as I recall how my spirits soared whenever I answered the phone and heard that voice, with its promise of generous wisdom and elegant mischief. The promise was always kept.

* During the 1980s, when I was Literary Editor of Cosmopolitan, the women's magazines were competing for short stories, writes Emma Dally. I had the luxury of 12 pages to fill each month with stories and novel extracts from some of the best British and American writers. Pat quickly learned what I liked, and regularly sent me work by the likes of Margaret Drabble, Marina Warner, William Trevor, Ruth Rendell, Helen Simpson and Mary Gordon.

She was always straightforward and honest to deal with, and I particularly appreciated the way she would ask me to "go up a bit more" when she knew that a particular writer was short of money. I always obliged, because I knew she wouldn't have been asking without good reason – and I was moved by her evident care for her writers.

Perhaps her most inspired submission was a story by Isaac Bashevis Singer, which she thought was perfect for Cosmopolitan. She was right; I bought the story. But who else could have thought of submitting a story by an 85-year-old, Yiddish-speaking American writer to a magazine aimed at 18-35-year-old British women?

Patricia Olive Kavanagh, literary agent: born Durban, South Africa 31 January 1940; married 1979 Julian Barnes; died London 20 October 2008.

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