From romance and riches to heartache and dogged hard work… legendary author Barbara Taylor Bradford’s life has been as much a page-turner as one of her mega-selling novels. And, she tells Judith Woods, she’s just getting started 

Ready to type her next bestseller: Barbara at home in New York, 2019

Barbara is ready to write her next bestseller at home, New York City 2019,

 Barbara Taylor Bradford. These three words are full of compelling costumes dramas! Rags and riches, dynasties and feuds, adversity below stairs, unrequited passion above and each epic doorstopper – 35 books and counting – served up with a gimlet eye for historical detail. A Man of Honour looks to be the next in a long line of highly enjoyable bestsellers.

‘There’s a lot of snobbery in publishing, but I no longer have to prove to anyone that I’m not a romantic novelist,’ says the Leeds-born author with crisp dismissiveness. At 88, Barbara – who has lived in the US for many years – remains a sharp-witted, witheringly amusing grande dame who doesn’t suffer fools gladly. ‘I write mainstream novels for women that are rooted in factual history. I have a journalist’s sensibility, so I do exhaustive research because I want my readers to feel they are reading an autobiography – that these people actually lived and interacted with each other in these ways.’

 ‘IDo not be afraid to speak out against covid. Bombs fell on my childhood.

It’s a winning formula – her cumulative sales top 90 million worldwide – which speaks volumes about her global appeal. Is it possible that it has been over 40 years since A Woman of Substance was first published? Emma Harte starts her life at Fairley Hall, a Yorkshire manor house where she is 14 years old. She then becomes pregnant by the father of the house. After being cast aside by him, she flees to Leeds where she gives birth and, determined to take control of her own narrative, works day and night, scrimps and saves before opening her own shop: a proud moment that heralds the start of a sprawling business empire that sees her achieve breathtaking wealth, power – and revenge.

The book was brought to the screen by Barbara’s film producer husband Robert, ensuring that Emma Harte was forever seared on our retinas with the young incarnation played by Jenny Seagrove in a Channel 4 miniseries. It would be an understatement to call it appointment television. Currently, the channel’s most popular programme The Great British Bake Off pulls in around 10.4 million viewers; A

Woman of Substance was watched by 13.9 million in 1985 – the biggest audience in Channel 4’s history. Fast forward to 2021 and Barbara’s dearly beloved husband of 55 years is no longer by her side. Bob had a stroke at their New York home in July 2019. He died in hospital a week later. For the first few days as she kept a vigil by his bedside she’d talk, reassure him and gently squeeze his hand. In the beginning, he was willing to reciprocate. His hand became limp. The machines which kept him alive switched off three days later in compliance with his will. He was now at the age of 94.

‘It was while I sat with Bob during those last days that the idea for A Man of Honour came to me,’ she says. ‘I was due to write the third book in the House of Falconer series [set in Victorian England, it follows the turbulent fortunes of the Falconer and Malvern families] but I realised there would be so much to do after his death that I wouldn’t have the time to do all the research. It was obvious to me suddenly that writing about someone I know would be much easier than trying to research them. I was wrong, of course, and it turned out to be far harder and took me longer than usual – 18 months rather than a year – but it was the story I needed to write; a prequel to A Woman of Substance.’

Bob had always insisted she should continue to write whatever happened, and she concedes she feels ‘lost’ without a manuscript on the go. So, after months of crying alone in her Manhattan home (‘I wouldn’t dream of crying on anyone else’s shoulder’), she pulled herself together and began literally putting pen to paper until the tale was told. Only longhand and a typewriter are her preferred writing methods. ‘People tell me I should write my books on a screen so I can more easily move paragraphs and change the order of things. Never change anything. I might cross out a line, maybe even a paragraph, but it’s all in my head waiting to come out.’

Business as usual, then… but not quite. For a start there was the incendiary issue of her hero’s name. He was christened Shane O’Neill, but everyone calls him Blackie. He’s Irish. He was a Kerry fella with jet-black hair in 1985, so his nickname is not a big deal today. Publishers are notoriously sensitive to the cultural climate – I tell her I’m surprised she got away with it.

‘Not quite,’ she admits. ‘I wanted to call the book Emma and Blackie.’ Noooo! It made me cry. ‘Oh yes,’ she says. ‘When I said so, a woman from my publisher HarperCollins looked stricken and said that it really wasn’t possible to put that on the cover. Apparently some people might have assumed I was mocking a black man, even though I obviously wasn’t. Nonsense, of course, but the world is a very different place to the one I grew up in.’

It is quite true. Today’s cancel-culture activists would simply see red, and as there’s nothing to be gained by stirring up a hornet’s nest of outrage, Barbara lost that fight – but she won the war. ‘There was no way I was renaming him in the novel, and my publishers agreed. Inside, he’s still Blackie and in retrospect, A Man of Honour works very well as a companion piece to A Woman of Substance. It sounds good to the ear.’

For Barbara’s fans, her new book ticks every box. So much so, I’d be very surprised if the full-body immersion into the grime, grit and – in Blackie’s case – gallantry of early 20th-century Yorkshire didn’t have them reaching once more for the original. Perhaps they might even convert the next generation at a time when zeitgeist novels such as Sally Rooney’s Normal People are more about feelings than events – much less politics or overcoming the struggles of poverty and lack of opportunity.

‘Women still write to me now, thanking me for inspiring them to get themselves out there and achieve, despite the odds being stacked against them,’ says Barbara, who was awarded an OBE in 2007. ‘Emma Harte has touched a great many lives.’

Many things have changed since Bob’s passing. In many ways, however, not much has changed. Barbara has been writing diligently, managing his investments, and just recently signed a film contract for her Emma Harte series, which includes A Man of Honour. She won’t say with who, but the hour-long episode format screams Netflix or Amazon Prime. Exciting stuff – and she played hardball, too; negotiating script and casting approval for the A Woman of Substance remake.

Barbara with husband Bob and dog Gemmy in the mid 1980s

Barbara and Bob with Gemmy, their dog in the middle of 1980s

‘I live by the Noël Coward quote: “I find work more fun than fun,”’ she tells me drily. ‘My other adage is Churchill’s – “Keep buggering on”. Both of these mean I’m very busy, which is a good thing. I write, I see friends, I visit restaurants, I’ve had my Covid jabs and I wear a mask when necessary, but I refuse to be cowed by the virus. Growing up as a child, we used to sit in an air-raid shelter and bombs would fall in our backyard. I survived that so I can get through anything.’

Barbara’s childhood reveals an early determination to become a writer; aged ten she sent a story to a magazine which was published, and at 15, after leaving school, she joined the typing pool at The Yorkshire Post before becoming a reporter – by no means a recognised career trajectory, but her star quality shone through. By 20 she was fashion editor at Woman’s Own magazine, then a London Evening News columnist. She met her future husband on a blind date in 1961.

They stayed together almost 60 years after that coup de foudre. They didn’t have children. Robert adored her and showed it regularly, giving her ‘so, so many handbags and beautiful jewellery’.

She sold some of her jewellery at Bonhams in 2013, and in 2019 auctioned 13 handbags – including half a dozen hugely sought-after Kelly bags by Hermès – because, she says, ‘she had plenty left and needed the closet space’.

Barbara is due to head to Britain again soon – she visits every year to promote her newest book, and when in London always stays in the same suite at The Dorchester, where she is greeted with familiarity and home-from-home warmth. It is a common habit for her to return to Leeds where she can enjoy the stunning beauty and historical history of the area. Before she even boards her plane, her thoughts are already developing for her next book. All you have to do is take her out of Yorkshire. ‘I live in the US but I am very much an Englishwoman abroad. I have a British passport, I read British newspapers every day and I drink Taylors of Harrogate tea.’

There’s another badge of belonging, too; Barbara is captivated by Boris. ‘He’s a fantastic prime minister!’ she cries. ‘I consider him to be the real leader of the free world; he is well educated, clever and a former journalist, which gives hi a certain insight into what’s happening. I like a strong, self-confident politician and he’s just that. I’ve met him, most recently at a reception when he was like a breath of fresh air. He spoke with the UN about climate change and his speech was very moving. I haven’t felt this way about a British prime minister since Margaret Thatcher. I’m only sorry that I’m not in Britain to vote for him.’

As regrets go, that’s splendidly niche, but also testament to a life lived well. Barbara looks forward and focuses on the next project.

I don’t go on social media. I’ve far better things to do with my time 

Blackie is her Man of Honour. This should not keep her off the political correct radar. However, the online vigilantes who scan cyberspace looking for causes to be offended, will never forget the fact that Blackie was removed from her book cover. ‘I don’t go on social media,’ she says. ‘It’s not that I don’t understand how it works – of course I do. It’s not that I don’t understand how it works – of course, I do. But why should you? My Facebook friend keeps me up-to-date, and I don’t mind spending my time on sites where bored people start arguments. I have far more important and enjoyable things to do.’

We would be so happy if we could all resist the temptation of Instagram and Twitter. Then again, as Barbara says herself, she’s old enough to have ‘been around the block 150,000 times’ and knows where her priorities lie. Her affirmation – her vindication – comes from her devoted readers who wait on tenterhooks for her latest tome. She’s only 88, for heaven’s sake. It may continue for many more years.

 Barbara’s latest novel, A Man of Honour, HarperCollins will publish the article on 11 November, price £16.99. To order a copy for £14.44 until 25 November, go to us at 020 31762937 Free UK delivery on orders over £20