THE DEATH of Sarah Baird-Smith and her younger son, Archie, as the result of a road accident last Saturday has left the publishing world in a state of profound shock and loss. The wife of Robin Baird-Smith, Publishing Director of Constable, Sarah distinguished herself in the same profession, most notably as a commissioning editor of religious books. She had recently embarked upon a highly promising new career as a writer: at the time of her death she had completed a novel and had started a book for children.
The daughter of a businessman, she was born Sarah Hedley, in an air-raid shelter in 1940. Her parents separated when she was a child, and in 1947 her mother married Sir Regina1d Verdon-Smith, chairman of the Bristol Aircraft Corporation, who became a much-loved stepfather. She was educated at Sherborne School for Girls (once described as the 'potting shed of the English rose'), which she loathed, and at Somerville College, Oxford, where she read English. Her first job in publishing was with the production department of Longman Green, and one of her great skills, apart from spotting potential authors, was in putting books together. She subsequently worked for a number of other publishers and eventually ran Geoffrey Chapman, Cassell's religious imprint. It was here that her own interest in religion was stimulated, and she converted to Roman Catholicism shortly before her marriage.
While bringing up her three children she did part-time editorial work for Collins, and in 1981 took charge of the company's religious division, including the paperback imprint, Fount. She had the prescience to commission books from both David Hope, before he became Bishop of London, and George Carey, before he became Archbishop of Canterbury. Fount was refreshingly non-denominational, and Sarah brought both Rachel Billington and Rabbi Lionel Blue to the list. She also worked closely with Malcolm Muggeridge, but the principal mainstay of the imprint was CS Lewis, whose backlist she assiduously promoted, not least by having the inspiration to commission AN Wilson to write a biography, published in 1990 to great acclaim.
She remained with Fount until January 1989, when she became, for a little under a year, Editorial Director of Darton, Longman and Todd. She took early retirement in order to write fiction and spend more time with her children, for whom she was a devoted, imaginative and tireless parent. Her one novel, as yet unpublished, is a sophisticated comedy set in a religious community. Like many people of firm religious convictions, Sarah had no qualms about treating the subject humorously.
Indeed, one's chief memory of Sarah Baird-Smith is of laughter. Wholly unconventional, she was naturally and unconsciously witty and a rich source of extraordinary stories, which she defied one to disbelieve. There was an understated stylishness about everything she did, characterised by the cheroots she occasionally smoked after dinner.
Her assessment of people was acute but unjudgemental: someone who disappointed her might be regretfully described, in that distinctive deep voice of hers, as 'a fearful pill'; those she found sympathetic became friends at once and for ever. Her 50th-birthday party, held at a packed Travellers' Club in 1990, was an appropriately lively testament to the widespread love and esteem in which she was held.