Tuesday 26 March 2019

Obituary: Rosamunde Pilcher

Best-selling novelist whose domestic drama, 'The Shell Seekers', became the most popular paperback in the world

MIDDLE-CLASS COSINESS: Novelist Rosamunde Pilcherell’s. Photo: Adam Berry/Getty Images
MIDDLE-CLASS COSINESS: Novelist Rosamunde Pilcherell’s. Photo: Adam Berry/Getty Images

Rosamunde Pilcher, who has died in Dundee aged 94, was a bestselling novelist specialising in sagas of middle-class cosiness set in and around her native county of Cornwall, exemplified in her record-breaking blockbuster The Shell Seekers (1988), which became the most popular paperback in the world.

After she had spent years turning out modestly successful romantic novels and short stories, The Shell Seekers propelled her to international fame when it sold more than five million copies in 15 languages. In the book, her heroine, Penelope Keeling, was 64. Rosamunde Pilcher was the same age, but maintained that the character was not her. The secret of the book's success, she believed, was that it appealed to women with the leisure to read.

Rosamunde Pilcher's domestic dramas, often set in Aga-heated homes in and around the fictional Porthkerris (her version of St Ives) revolved around strong women coping with the vicissitudes of life, ageing parents, wayward children, ailing husbands and assorted domestic upheavals. The books were entirely sex-free - and Tesco-free: any shopping was confined to trips to the grocer's. Rosamunde Pilcher's novels and dozens of short stories sold particularly well in Germany, Switzerland and Austria. German state television adapted them into a formidable series of more than 100 lushly shot films, shown on Sunday evenings over 18 years.

Pilcher's sanitised Cornwall became part of German popular culture and led to a large influx of German tourists into the county (a phenomenon which led to her winning the British Tourism Award in 2002). To many Germans, the elfin Rosamunde Pilcher was the quintessential Englishwoman. On visits to Berlin she would find herself being hugged in the street.

Rosamunde Scott was born on September 22, 1924 in a boarding house in the north Cornish village of Lelant. Her father, a civil servant, was working in Burma and she was brought up by her mother, a somewhat remote woman who came from Orkney.

Educated at St Clare's, Polwithen, Penzance, and Howell's School, Llandaff, she did well at school, then took a secretarial course at the age of 17 and spent a year working for the Foreign Office at Woburn Abbey before joining the WRNS.

During World War II, posted to Trincomalee in Ceylon on board a submarine depot ship, she wrote her first published short story, These Little Things, which she sold to Woman & Home magazine on VE-Day for £15.

After the war she returned home - and escaped her family by marrying Graham Hope Pilcher, a dashing former major in the Black Watch who had won a Military Cross in the field for his attempts to wipe out a German snipers' nest. "A shell had gone through his backside and come out of his stomach," she recalled.

Pilcher came from a rather grand Cornish family, owners of a jute factory in Dundee, and she had met him in 1945 when he was recuperating from his wounds at his grandmother's house in St Ives. They were married in December the following year in Rosamunde's home church, St Uny's in Lelant.

They returned to Dundee, where Pilcher resumed his work at the family jute business and, over the next 34 years, became an increasingly important figure in the textile industry in the city. In the first stage of their marriage Graham Pilcher had to use a colostomy bag, "but we managed OK, in other departments too, after all we had five children", she told an interviewer.

As her family grew, Rosamunde sat down at her elderly typewriter set up on the kitchen table and hammered out "pink and pure" romances and short stories for Mills & Boon and later Collins, earning a steady £1,000 a year under the nom de plume of Jane Fraser. Early in the 1970s, when the American publisher St Martin's Press bought a couple of her books, she broke into the US market, and writing under her real name saw her earnings rise to £20,000 a year. She sold all her English-speaking rights to the Americans, and found that her stories, set in the misty Scottish landscape of bog and heather, attracted a large and loyal following in the suburbs of middle America as well as the concrete canyons of Manhattan.

"I don't know where Rosamunde Pilcher has been all my life," wrote a reviewer in The New York Times, "but now that I've found her, I'm not going to let her go."

Gradually her gaze returned to her native Cornwall, the county where she had not only met the love of her life, but also his formidable family of eccentric men and strong-willed women. Her observations of the Pilcher clan and their habitat gave her the raw material for her later novels.

The Shell Seekers, at 600-odd pages, was the first of her novels to be written at bumper length. Based on her childhood memories of Cornwall and London, it became the best-selling book in America for 1989, was adapted into a television film starring Angela Lansbury, and made Rosamunde Pilcher rich. In 1994 one newspaper calculated that she was one of the top 10 female earners in Britain.

Yet she remained wary of wealth and what it could do to the balance of a relationship. "For years Graham had kept us all," she recalled. "As my writing sold more I could begin to do things like pay for holidays, but never more than the icing. He always baked the gingerbread. You have to be very gentle when that changes." It was, perhaps, her concern for her husband's feelings that led her to sign over the profits and copyright of her next two books, Coming Home, her most autobiographical work, set during World War II, and September, to her children. Having fulfilled a three-book deal, in 1995 she resolved not to write another novel, but in the event she produced a further four.

Rosamunde Pilcher, who was appointed OBE in 2002, was sceptical about the pleasures of the afterlife, once telling The Daily Telegraph: "I can't see it as anything other than the most hideous cocktail party. All you'd see would be the people you didn't want to see, and all the ones you wanted to see you wouldn't be able to find."

Rosamunde Pilcher's husband Graham died in 2009. She is survived by two sons and two daughters. A fifth child, a girl, died at birth.

Rosamunde Pilcher died on February 6.

© Telegraph

Telegraph.co.uk

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