Sometimes it is a woman's world novelist Joanna Trollope says

Novelist Joanna Trollope 
Hannah Stephenson

JOANNA Trollope greets me looking the epitome of poise and elegance, her highlighted hair beautifully coiffured, her tiny frame enveloped in an elegant cream shirt and tailored leather trousers, her no doubt meticulously pedicured feet encased in immaculate Chelsea boots.

Famed for her family dramas which always feature contemporary social issues, flawed characters and tangled relationships in bestselling novels including The Rector's Wife, Marrying The Mistress and other People's Children, along with her reworking last year of Jane Austen's Sense & Sensibility, she's used to writing about vulnerable people.

And despite her perfectionist nature, she says she feels empathy with many of her less stoic characters. "I have some sense of anxiety and vulnerability. I don't strike people as vulnerable because since I was a child, I've been terribly good at seeming infinitely more confident than I feel."

She hints that previous personal crises - she's been married and divorced twice - gave her confidence a battering.

"The worst period was my 30s, 40s and 50s," she reflects.

"I was not really getting a handle on my personal life and relationships. But the last decades have been really good.

"I was thrilled to be 60 and I don't mind being 70 at all, but then I think, 'oh God, the next big one's 80!'"

Her latest book, Balancing act, about a family pottery business founded by matriarch Susie who employs her three daughters in the firm, throws up all sorts of complications.

One of the interesting social issues she raises is that of women being the main breadwinners and husbands staying at home to look after the children.

But then, men are so much more hands-on than they used to be, she reflects. "There's a zeitgeist that I sense," she says of her ideas.

"In this case, it was discovering that over 25 per cent of the workforce in this country are now women who live with men they may out-earn."

Her research took her to Stoke-on-Trent, home of Emma Bridgewater pottery, on which she bases the fictional firm.

But she also spoke to successful women. "Very few of them were with men who couldn't handle their success."

Trollope, who brought up her two daughters with her first husband, banker David Potter, while juggling a career in teaching and later writing, says that the choices are so much greater for women these days - and they should be allowed to choose their path without being made to feel guilty.

"For some women, the job and the man are going to be the fulfilment. Having a high-flying job and children isn't for everyone, but it shouldn't make other people feel inadequate.

"I'm all for women having the opportunity not to be berated by other women for their choices.

"You should be at liberty to stay home and make marmalade with the children if that's what you want to do, or go out and run a listed company, or not have children if you don't want to.

"I loathe seeing women slagging off the sisterhood.

The inequalities between the genders are still great enough that we shouldn't be splintering our support base by not supporting one another."

Oxford-educated Trollope, who married her first husband at 22, recalls that when she was a young mother, attitudes were quite different.

"My older generation was very disapproving, because it was felt I should be behind the front door with his slippers in my mouth, wagging my tail. But a lot of my university contemporaries were working, so it was normal."

"My then husband was perfectly all right with my working, as long as it was containable," she continues.

"I don't think either of my husbands were entirely comfortable with any success I had - it made them uneasy. And I'm not going to elaborate on that."

The multi-millionaire author, daughter of a rector and distant niece of Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope, divorced Potter and married her second husband, TV dramatist Ian Curteis, when she was 37.

That also ended in divorce. Did her success affect her marriages?

"There was some threat involved somewhere, because all human relationships are about control of one kind or another. Who knows at what point an idea of control segues into a fear of not having enough?"

She's been happily living on her own for 15 years, and it's a luxury she'll never give up, she says.

"I'm not controlling of other people but I want to have my own liberty intensely. Independence is crucially important to me but it doesn't extend to wanting to control other people. I just want to be free myself."

She has been with the same partner for around 12 years and calls their relationship 'unorthodox', in that they don't live together and he is much younger than her.

"He's never been married. I think it's the right degree of liberty for both of us and I'd never consider living with somebody again. "I don't want anyone to say to me, 'Why can't I see you this weekend? Why are you going to be with the grandchildren?'"

Is fidelity important to her? "You know, I think at my age, loyalty and trust are more important than monogamy, but I think while women are fertile, sexual loyalty is crucial. But as time goes on, you shrug a bit."

In Balancing act, one of the characters happily becomes a house husband looking after their children while his ambitious wife follows her dreams.

Trollope says that house husbands today are increasingly seen as the norm. "This 'men are from Mars, women are from Venus' approach is infinitely too black and white.

"There are vast numbers of men who aren't thugs and brutes, but who are nurturing, cosseting people. I also think a lot of men are truly interested in the upbringing of their children."

The shift between her own generation and that of her daughters and two stepsons has been massive, she points out.

While she remains friends with her first husband, she clearly doesn't support all his views.

"The father of my children still proudly boasts that he's never changed a nappy. I don't think that's anything to be proud of."

She is a grandmother of nine - five by her daughters and four by her two stepsons, with whom she has a great relationship.

"I'm in touch with them all the time, but modern adolescents have unbelievably busy lives. I see them every month."

After writing five books in five years, Trollope will be delivering the next one in two years' time, and is involved in a number of literacy projects, but there's no thought of retirement.

"There's a dominance of women writers on the bestseller list," she enthuses. "Here come the girls!"

:: Balancing Act by Joanna Trollope, is published by Doubleday, priced £18.99.


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