Sunday 21 January 2018

Matters of the heart

Josephine Hart was the author of six novels, including the best-selling Damage, and wife of Maurice Saatchi. Born in Mullingar, she counted Harold Pinter and Princess Michael of Kent among her London friends. We chart her fascinating, sometimes tragic, life

Enduring voice: Josephine Hart believed that the 'journey through life is a very lonely one, and it is through Eros that we both find and lose ourselves'. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Enduring voice: Josephine Hart believed that the 'journey through life is a very lonely one, and it is through Eros that we both find and lose ourselves'. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Josephine Hart with Maurce Saatchi to whom she was, in her own word 'blessedly, happily married'. Photo: Andrew Stuart.

Emily Hourican

When novelist Josephine Hart sent a message to say she couldn't attend the opening of the Josephine Hart Poetry Hour at the Donmar Warehouse on Tuesday May 31, 2011, her friends were immediately concerned. To not show up was very unlike her. To not to show up for something she cared so much about, had put so much work into, was so unlike her as to be a cause for alarm. They were right to be concerned. Two days later, Josephine died, of a form of ovarian cancer called primary peritoneal cancer. None of her friends had known she was ill; "Josephine was always a pale creature and an intense creature," said Ed Victor, her close friend and long-time agent, and one of those who had expected to see her at the Donmar Warehouse. "She just looked the same Josephine, black, white, and what I call red-red lips."

Her death was a blow to literature, to her friends, but chiefly of course to her family. Her husband, Maurice Saatchi does not bother to hide or deny his grief. Four years on, he still sets a place at the table for Josephine every day ("Queen Victoria did it for Prince Albert for 42 years" he points out) - and, until a year ago anyway, had breakfast at her tomb in their country house in Sussex nearly every morning, something he described as "a most important pleasure." He still talks to her, as he admitted recently, in an interview with Anne Harris for The Gloss magazine. "I talk to her, of course. But she doesn't answer. I might tell her 'this wicked person is trying to do me down.' And then sometime later, the solution pops into my head and I know it would have been her advice."

But who was the woman he so misses? The woman who has inspired such a strong emotional connection, even four years beyond the grave? Glamorous, passionate, a woman who wore only black and white, with a slash of deepest red lipstick, Josephine Hart was beautiful and charismatic, but also kind and funny. A famous Irish writer who rather escapes the net of Famous Irish Writers, perhaps because she wrote little about Ireland - only one of her six novels, The Truth About Love, is set here - perhaps because the novels themselves are so readable that they fall foul of some kind of absurd literary standard, perhaps because she moved in such a very glamorous and established London artistic world, friends with Ralph Fiennes, Harold Pinter, Iris Murdoch, Charles Dance, Princess Michael of Kent; perhaps all of these. In any case, it is an oversight that is steadily being corrected, most recently with a festival devoted to her work, in Mullingar, where she was born.

Maurice Saatchi's desire to stay close to his dead wife, his refusal to 'move on', as modern psychology might encourage him to, is something she would have understood very well. In fact, it is something she almost pre-approved for him. In an interview from 1998 with Diane Rehn for NPR (National Public Radio) in America, Josephine talked at length about "the desire for complete possession," of another, saying "when people die, we have possessed them, and we rewrite their story." This, despite society's need to "encourage the bereaved to move on. We are very committed to life - this is a primitive and a correct instinct. But the instinct of the bereaved is to hold on. Here," she said, "you have one of the great battles of life."

It is, like so much of Josephine's reflections and writing, a profound and deeply held view, intellectually sustained by her reading, but forged first in the tragedies of her own experience. The intensity with which she clearly lived was no pose or accident, instead it was a response to her early life, the childhood that seems to have lasted barely at all.

Born in Mullingar, where her father was a mechanic, Josephine was the eldest of five children, from a deeply loving home; she once said her parents taught her the virtue of love. She was educated at two convents, winning a scholarship to the academically rigorous St Louis, a boarding school in Carrickmacross - and, despite later lapsing in her Catholicism, remained very impressed with the work of the nuns. "I know it is not fashionable to praise nuns any more," she once said, "but these women gave me a brilliant education . . . My education left me with a disciplined mind, deep powers of concentration and so many beautiful memories."

When she was six, the fist of many tragedies struck the Hart family. Jospehine's baby brother, Charles, died at 18 months old. At the time, her mother said that giving up the body was the most appalling thing and that "Nothing worse can happen to me." But it did, an onslaught of further horror that would send any intelligent, enquiring mind to Greek tragedy for a measure of understanding. When Josephine was 17, her younger sister Sheila died (at the age of two she had already been brain damaged and paralysed as a result of meningitis). Six months later, her brother Owen was killed in an explosion while he was experimenting with chemicals. All that remained of the Hart children were Josephine and her brother Diarmuid, who later moved to Australia, leaving Josephine at home alone with her parents.

Throughout her life, Josephine mostly avoided speaking directly about that period, the heavy weight of loss upon loss, but she did once describe, "the rage I felt the night my brother died. I felt I wanted to tear myself to pieces. I remember that as a physical desire, to wound myself, to express my unbelievable rage." Somehow, she said, she found a different path, something that left her with great respect for the tenacity of the teenage mind. "I felt 'no, I will live.' I lived through that with a kind of ferocity of will . . . I thought my mother would literally die from grief," she said. "It was only later that I started trying to work through the ways in which this had changed me."

She was almost shockingly honest about the range of possible responses to great grief - "It is an escape route," she acknowledged. "The way in which, perhaps, people can say 'this terrible thing has happened to me,' and they excuse themselves from life on that basis, and they use it as an excuse for all sorts of other things." Later, she added, "telling yourself lies and hiding behind a tragedy is seductive. It is the most seductive landscape in the world, grief. But it will destroy you, and destroy those around you."

It is a sober, and most poignant, warning, delivered by Josephine 12 years before her own death, 12 years before her husband, Maurice, would chose to live, with such dignity, so close to his own grief. It is almost as if she created a blueprint for him, through the undoubted many years of conversation and intellectual analysis they had together. "When somebody you love dies, it is a mini death for you," was another of her reflections. "The person you were is dead . . . There's a lot you have to offer if you survive that."

Josephine did survive, somehow, those years of loss, although clearly they altered her forever. "When I was 17, I was drowning in grief. There is no escape from those lines 'he is dead', 'she is dead.' There is no negotiation. It doesn't matter whether you weep or resign yourself. That broke something in me, but it also taught me something, that I wasn't able to look at for a long time," she said. She didn't go to university as expected; instead she stayed home in Mullingar for four more years, reading obsessively and widely. Her conversation was sprinkled with references - to TS Eliot, Aristotle, Sophocles, Auden, Conrad, Larkin, the Bible - from all of which she could quote liberally. "For a girl with no sense of direction, reading was a route map through life," was how Maurice described this approach of hers. Later, he would buy her a Matisse drawing of a girl reading, a reminder of those years, as formative intellectually as the years of loss had been emotionally.

She moved to London in 1964, aged 22, working in the telesales department of Thomson Newspapers while taking acting classes at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama at night, until she feared that inhabiting other roles, particularly those she was most drawn to - Medea, Hedda Gabler, Lady Macbeth - would bring her too close to "the scary stuff". So she moved into publishing, with Haymarket Press, set up by Michael Heseltine in the 1950s, where she became the firm's only woman director and launched several trade magazines, working alongside the publisher and fellow Haymarket director Paul Buckley. They married and had a son, Adam. The marriage lasted seven years. Maurice Saatchi, fresh from studying sociology at LSE, where he got a first, came to work in the firm, and Josephine was briefly his boss.

The two eventually fell passionately in love, and married in 1984. Together, they have a son, Edward.

By then Josephine was fully formed, as a woman and a human being; intense, brilliant, uncompromisingly intellectual, and determined not to play down any of these things. She may have been good fun - generous, with a ready wit and kindness - but she clearly refused to undercut the fundamental seriousness of her nature with easy trivialities. "Josephine was a true eccentric and a wonderful intellect. You could see the originality of her mind in her writing," said Jeremy Irons after her death. In this he was backed up by Ed Victor, "I think of Josephine as one of the most fiercely intelligent people I've ever met. She has an amazing mind, and yet there's a fundamental shyness about Josephine."

She was also someone who believed strongly in morality, and respect for others. "To live with profound morality is the only happy way to live," she once said, "you learn humility and to live your life with great care for other people." It is an admirable code, and one she must have struggled with during the end of her first marriage. Because in a fundamental way, that code - later expressed most simply as "understand that other people are as real as you are" - cannot but come into conflict with another of her most profound beliefs: "Live life magnificently. That doesn't mean you are promiscuous, or foolish or unwise. Live it magnificently on the basis that it will not last forever . . . living and experiencing your life deeply is a challenging, thrilling and terrifying experience. But worth it."

Reading into these things, it is not difficult to see that Josephine took her duty to live as seriously as her duty to learn, even when it came into conflict with her belief in "great care" for other people. Love will cause that conflict, but love, she believed, could not be denied. "The journey through life is a very lonely one, and it is through Eros that we both find and lose ourselves," she once said. This understanding of and belief in love, obsession and eroticism - as demonstrated so clearly in her novels - was a serious thing, not based in light flirtation but, one gets the impression, a matter of life and death, and it clearly infuriated her that the world sometimes refused to acknowledge these things in the way that she did. "We must remember that Eros is a god . . . the idea that erotic life is funny and a joke is one of the great tragedies of our time."

Marriage to Maurice was a productive thing for Josephine. She described herself as "blessedly happily married", and those who knew the couple talked of their intimacy, the entwined way in which they lived, in London during the weeks, very socially, both entertaining and being entertained, in a magnificent house, decorated in many shades of cream, then retiring to Old Hall in Sussex, where she is buried, at the weekends, to walk, read and watch films quietly together. It was a life founded on passion and maintained through love, affection and deep common interests. "Marriage is a long conversation," she once said, "and our conversation ranges over everything - my shoes, my hair, the children, Ireland, how Maurice can't stand Connemara and, yes, work and politics."

It was Saatchi who generated the spark that led to the publication of Damage, Josephine's first, possibly best, novel, when she was 44; a brief, devastating account of the erotic obsession of a middle-aged government minister with his son's damaged, dangerous girlfriend, described by Ted Hughes as "really a poem". The book sold more than a million copies and was translated into almost 30 languages. Louis Malle turned it into a film with Jeremy Irons and Juliette Binoche. The book was written in just six weeks, after Maurice told her gently to stop being "a whirling dervish" and write for two hours every day. It was also he who first mentioned the book to literary agent Ed Victor, over dinner in Scott's. "Maurice said that Josephine was writing a novel," Ed recalled. "She told Maurice to hush, but I said 'let me see it.' I read the first 60 pages and the rest is history. I just thought they were fantastic." Josephine, Ed insists, "didn't write the book to be a bestseller. She wrote the book because it was in her and she needed to get it out of her. She was as surprised and dazzled by its success as anyone."

From there, she wrote five more novels, each of them soaked through with her philosophies of love, death, grief, obsession and responsibilities. She was once asked why she didn't write non-fiction; straightforward books about how to live. He response was "I find I can go to the edge when I am speaking in another voice."

Going to the edge, perhaps even a little beyond, was crucial for Josephine.

For some writers, this kind of approach, that range of interests, could signal dysfunction or addiction. Josephine however, as well as being creative, was highly organised and efficient. In the late 1980s, greatly encouraged by Saatchi, she founded the Gallery Poets group, which later became Poetry Hour at the British Library, the National Theatre and even the New York Public Library, because she wanted poetry to be experienced as it should be - spoken aloud, by great actors. And so the works of WH Auden, Sylvia Plath, WB Yeats, Philip Larkin and Emily were read by a who's who of voices, including Juliet Stevenson, Edward Fox, Roger Moore, Harriet Walter, Bob Geldof, Bono and Dominic West.

Josephine was diagnosed with primary peritoneal cancer in December 2009, and died on June 2 2011. "Her end," said Ed Victor, "was like a Josephine Hart novel. It was very dramatic and very shocking. It was the dark secret she carried with her."

Since that untimely death, and in an attempt to "continue Josephine's life as Josephine", as he puts it, Saatchi has launched a free Josephine Hart Poetry Foundation app, and promote a controversial Medical Innovation Bill that would allow doctors to use more advanced, cutting-edge treatment on cancer patients. Both are fitting tributes.

In one way, Josephine travelled far from her youth in Mullingar, marrying into rather fabulous wealth with Maurice - the couple had homes in Mayfair, Sussex and France - and becoming Baroness Saatchi when Maurice was made a peer in 1996. But in the important ways, she remained entirely true to herself, the self she became through tragedy, grief and a determination to survive, and live.

Hart to Heart; the Heart of Ireland Festival takes place July 10th-12th in Mullingar. www.heartofireland.ie

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