Bestselling novelist Joanna Trollope has a knack for having her finger on the pulse of pressing social dilemmas.
“All my novels are reflections of what I think is a great universal preoccupation at the time. I try to tap into the zeitgeist of whatever’s going on, a particular dilemma that is affecting a lot of people at the time,” agrees the writer.
Trollope has tackled topics ranging from affairs, blended families and adoption, to parenting and marital breakdown in her many novels, including The Rector’s Wife, Marrying The Mistress, Other People’s Children and Second Honeymoon.
Her books were once dubbed ‘Aga sagas’ – an uncomplimentary nod to their middle-class Home Counties domestic settings and a label which justifiably irks the author. Far from being cosy, her novels can be pretty dark.
“That was a very unfortunate phrase and I think it’s done me a lot of damage,” she says sternly. “It was so patronising to the readers too. Human life has got darker.”
The turmoil and ups and downs her characters face are in stark contrast to the relative calm in her own ordered, uncluttered life today.
“I think I’ve probably mellowed,” says the author, who was awarded a CBE for services to literature in 2019. “I’ve become more detached. Earlier in life, I felt it was up to me to make the world happy, and now I feel there’s nothing I can do about an awful lot of it. You can just step back. I’m happier now than I’ve ever been.”
Trollope, 76, who lives happily alone in London – she is twice divorced and certainly not looking for another husband – has, however, had her share of turmoil over the years.
The Oxford-educated daughter of a rector and distant niece of Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope had two children with her first husband, banker David Potter, before meeting her second husband, TV dramatist Ian Curteis, in her late-30s. They split in the late-Nineties. Did she feel her career success was part of the reason the relationships broke down?
“Yes, I do think that, but on the other hand the men I was married to had grown up in the generation when their expectations socially were quite different from the way they are now,” she says. “They behaved very much like the Prime Minister and dug their heels in and pretended that everything was OK. They resented being undermined.
“My idea of loneliness is being in an intimate relationship where you are actually not in sync. You can’t find the companionship that you thought you had,” Trollope adds.
Today, she wants to discuss the sandwich generation – middle-aged people who are looking after their children and also their elderly parents – a central theme in her latest novel, Mum & Dad.
It sees three siblings (and their various partners and children) come together at their parent’s home in Gibraltar after their father has a stroke, to work out how they are going to look after their mother and keep the father’s wine business going.
The children each have their own dilemmas. There’s mother-of-three Katie, a solicitor and main breadwinner of her family, who is in a troubled marriage and has a daughter who’s self-harming; son Jake, the slick organiser who’s a bit too smug for his own good; and son Sebastian, whose glass is always half empty and who resents his brother Jake’s control-freak nature.
Trollope is adamant she doesn’t want to be a burden to her own children when she becomes less able.
“I’ve done all the classic things, such as living power of attorney, and have various plans about moving, which have nothing to do with anyone except me. To me, the whole point of having earned a certain amount is that I can pay for my independence. I come from a horribly long-lived family of women.”
She and her sister looked after her parents when they were ailing. Her father had dementia for about 15 years. Trollope worries that although medical science may be helping people live longer, it doesn’t necessarily offer them a good quality of life.
“We have got people to live a lot longer but we haven’t given them a quality of life to lead. We are keeping them alive with no value to those lives. We are not very compassionate or imaginative around it.”
She believes in assisted dying but won’t be drawn further on the subject, preferring to focus on staying as fit as she can for as long as she can.
“I don’t worry about getting older – so far. I feel incredibly blessed to have a creative industry in my life. I remember seeing PD James about two months before she died – she was 94 when she died – and she was in the middle of another Adam Dalgliesh even then. One can go on writing forever.”
Trollope has looked after her wellbeing for the last 20 years, she says.
“Living alone, one can really focus on that. I’m slightly in despair about people who continue to live as they’ve always lived, because you can’t rely on your physical self the way you used to be able to.
“Suddenly you realise when you hit middle age that all those aspects of yourself that you took for granted, you can’t take for granted any more. Your body will absorb shocks and difficulties when you’re young, like hangovers for example. And suddenly it just can’t!”
She lives in a tall, thin, London house, she says, which goes some way to keeping her fit. “One of my grandchildren calculated that if I forgot something in my bedroom and I got to the front door, it was 96 steps up and back to get it. I do an hour-and-a-half of Pilates a week, stretching exercises when I get up, I’m very active. I walk everywhere.”
She has nine grandchildren – the oldest is nearly 22 and the youngest 11 – who keep her busy and up-to-date on technological terminology and phrases. But she draws the line at going on social media.
“I’ve a distaste for it and a reluctance. I don’t want anybody to know where I am all the time. I find social media a tiny bit of a yawn. When you think of trolling on Twitter, I would have called that the ‘green ink brigade’ in the old days.
“You always got letters from nutters. I got one written in green ink once, which then gave its name to everything else. Why would you expose yourself to that? Why engage with something so destructive?
“Social media seems to be very harmful and unhappy-making for the young,” Trollope continues. “But if I was 18, would I feel that it was cutting me off from my generation if I didn’t participate in social media?”
Perhaps that’s a topic for a future novel.