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Rose Tremain Biography

Rose Tremain comments:

Nationality: British. Born: Rose Thomson in London, 1943. Education: Frances Holland School, 1949-54; Crofton Grange School, 1954-60; the Sorbonne, Paris, 1960-61, diploma in literature 1962; University of East Anglia, Norwich, 1964-67, B.A. (honors) in English 1967. Career: Teacher, Lynhurst House School, London, 1968-70; assistant editor, British Printing Corporation, London, 1970-72; part-time research jobs, 1972-79; creative writing fellow, University of Essex, Wivenhoe, 1979-80. Since 1980 full-time writer and part-time lecturer in creative writing, University of East Anglia. Awards: Dylan Thomas prize, for short story, 1984; Giles Cooper award, for radio play, 1985; Angel Literary award, 1985, 1989; Sunday Express Book of the Year award, 1989; James Tait Black Memorial prize, 1993; Prix Femina étranger (France), 1994. Fellow, Royal Society of Literature, 1983. Agent: Richard Scott Simon, 43 Doughty Street, London WC1N 2LF.



Sadler's Birthday. London, Macdonald, 1976; New York, St. Martin's Press, 1977.

Letter to Sister Benedicta. London, Macdonald, 1978; New York, St. Martin's Press, 1979.

The Cupboard. London, Macdonald, 1981; New York, St. Martin'sPress, 1982.

The Swimming Pool Season. London, Hamish Hamilton, and NewYork, Summit, 1985.

Restoration. London, Hamish Hamilton, 1989; New York, Viking, 1990.

Sacred Country. London, Sinclair Stevenson, 1993; New York, Atheneum, 1994.

The Way I Found Her. London, Sinclair-Stevenson, 1997; New York, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1998.

Music and Silence. New York, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2000.

Short Stories

The Colonel's Daughter and Other Stories. London, Hamish Hamilton, and New York, Summit, 1984.

The Garden of the Villa Mollini and Other Stories. London, HamishHamilton, 1987.

Evangelista's Fan. London, Sinclair Stevenson, 1994; published asEvangelista's Fan and Other Stories, Thorndike, Maine, Thorndike Press, 1995.

Collected Short Stories. London, Sinclair-Stevenson, 1996.


Mother's Day (produced London, 1980).

Yoga Class (produced Liverpool, 1981).

Temporary Shelter (broadcast 1984). Published in Best Radio Plays of 1984, Methuen, 1985.

Radio Plays:

The Wisest Fool, 1976; Dark Green, 1977; Blossom, 1977; Don't Be Cruel, 1978; Leavings, 1978; Down the Hill, 1979; Half Time, 1980; Hell and McLafferty, 1982; Temporary Shelter, 1984; The Birdcage, 1984; Will and Lou's Boy, 1986; The Kite Flyer, 1987.

Television Plays:

Halleluiah, Mary Plum, 1978; Findings on a Late Afternoon, 1980; A Room for the Winter, 1981; Moving on the Edge, 1983; Daylight Robbery, 1986.


The Fight for Freedom for Women. New York, Ballantine, 1973.

Stalin: An Illustrated Biography. New York, Ballantine, 1975.

Journey to the Volcano (for children). London, Hamish Hamilton, 1985.


Most interesting to me is my attempt to communicate ideas through many different forms of writing; this is allied to my belief that a writer who stays working in one form only risks becoming repetitive and stale. Hence, the large output of plays for radio and the three collections of short stories and children's novels.

I have strenuously resisted categorisation as a "woman's writer" and the notion that women should address themselves only to women's problems, as this strikes me as limiting and inhibiting, a kind of literary sexism in itself.

Themes that recur in my work are: dispossession, the effect of religious and exclusive "clubs" of all kinds on the individual's compassion, class antagonisms, solitariness, sexual bereavement, emotional bravery, and, above all, love.

* * *

A highly original, versatile writer, Rose Tremain explores past ages and the present time with equal conviction. The leading characters of her fictions, often first-person narrators, range from young children to the very old, and may be of either gender. At her best, her work combines wit and humor with a wistful, elegiac sadness.

Tremain's early novels are notable mainly for their unusual settings and unconventional leading characters. Of these, the first and most unlikely is Sadler, the decrepit old servant in Sadler's Birthday whose day is spent wandering the empty house willed to him by his gentry employers. Skillfully mingling his recollections with the routine visitors of the day—the vicar, the cleaning lady, a prying estate agent—the author outlines the events that have shaped Sadler's life, not least the repression of his feelings by the strait-jacket of domestic service. Sadler's unacknowledged longings for love and friendship are rendered all the more moving by Tremain's hard, unsentimental style. Sadler's Birthday is an accomplished work whose characters and conversations have the ring of truth, and the blend of incident and flashback is ably achieved. Letter to Sister Benedicta has as its narrator the fat middle-aged matron Ruby Constad. Living in the shadow of a successful husband and beautiful children, Ruby's life changes when her husband has a stroke and her children embark on an incestuous relationship. Faced by the challenge, Ruby emerges stronger than before, able to cope and find a new life of her own. Her experiences are described in her letters to the nun who raised her in India, and reveal not only her inner turmoil but her warmth and self-deprecating humor. In The Cupboard, an ambitious work spanning the twentieth century and both world wars, events are presented from two contrasting viewpoints. The neglected novelist Erica March, old and nearing death, is interviewed by Ralph, a failed hack journalist, and the novel unfolds her past and her innermost feelings in a series of conversations and quotations from her books. The dynamic life Erica has made for herself is contrasted with Ralph's futile, submissive existence, and as she prepares for death her example inspires him to his own kind of rebellion. Perhaps the least accessible of Tremain's works, The Cupboard has a richness of content that rewards a careful reading. In all three novels one feels that Tremain is setting herself a challenge to wring something of value from unpromising material. If so, it is a challenge she is more than able to meet.

The stories of The Colonel's Daughter and the novel The Swimming Pool Season move beyond central characters to encompass a network of inter-connected lives. The novel and the long title story of the collection have strong similarities. Written in a firm, direct present tense, they build to climax through a sequence of brief, sharply visualized incidents. Whether the criminal act of The Colonel's Daughter or the ill-fated venture of a swimming pool in a remote French village, each serves as a central point around which Tremain constructs the interwoven lives of her characters, events unfolding gradually and with deceptive stealth to emerge in eventual tragedy.

Tremain's eagerness to explore other forms—evidenced in her radio plays and her children's story Journey to the Volcano—is matched by continuing experiment and variety in her novels and short stories. The Garden of the Villa Mollini and Evangelista's Fan show a further honing of her talent for the shorter forms, with stories that explore the feelings and responses of her varied characters with brevity and assurance, her thoughtful prose compressing deep insights into a handful of pages.

Restoration, which marks a radical departure from previous work, is a historical rather than contemporary novel, but shares with The Swimming Pool Season the sense of interlocked lives, the slow workings of fate foreshadowed by a series of incidents akin to Joycean "epiphanies." Robert Merivel, her narrator and another unlikely hero-figure, admits early on that "I am also in the middle of a story which might have a variety of endings, some of them not entirely to my liking." Set during the reign of Charles II with its twin catastrophes the Great Plague and Great Fire of London, the novel examines Robert's career as "King's Fool," his ennoblement, his downfall as the King's favor is withdrawn, and his efforts at reintegration. Tremain shows great skill in alternating a past-tense main narrative with crucial present-tense flashbacks, and explores the complex nature of her hero. Merivel mirrors his age in his early excess and later, uncertain efforts at renunciation, and stands at the heart of a fascinating epic novel. Restoration, whose title refers not only to the time but to Merivel's re-ordering of his own broken world, is a deep, many-layered work, and at all levels the author's touch is firm and assured. One of Tremain's most challenging novels, it is also one of her best. Sacred Country has her switching to the modern world. Set mainly in rural Norfolk and spanning the period 1950s-80s, it centers on the realization by Mary Ward that her true nature is male. Her odyssey to gender change and fulfillment as Martin Ward is echoed by the lives of her own troubled family and their neighbors. Their linked stories are tracked to eventual resolution, Martin's fulfillment in the U.S.A. contrasted with the death and despair of Sonny and Estelle in the mean-spirited Britain of Margaret Thatcher. Once again Tremain creates a rich, complex epic, crammed like Restoration with evocative symbols and talismans.

Recent novels show Tremain at the height of her powers, writing with equal mastery of current events and those of the 1600s. The Way I Found Her describes a series of events leading to violence and tragedy in the hot Paris summer of 1994, as seen through the eyes of a young boy in his early teens. The character of Lewis the young narrator is a triumph, the reader drawn into his inner world with its blend of adult fantasies and childhood fears and preoccupations. The mystery that envelops not only him but his translator mother, Valentina the famous Russian novelist and Lewis's secret obsession, existentialist roofer Didier, and others, progresses at speed through a thickening plot with ingenious clues culled from literary quotations in the pages of Crime and Punishment and Le Grand Meaulnes to a final, tragic conclusion. Tremain's superb style hooks the reader from the opening lines, the rapid pace sustained throughout. It is matched by an unforgettable vision of the hot summer city, its landmarks, colors, and scents. Swift-moving and deep, its dark secret leavened by frequent moments of humor, The Way I Found Her is a magnificent creation and arguably its author's finest work. Music and Silence returns to the seventeenth century in an ambitious novel that rivals Restoration in complexity and scope. Lutenist Peter Claire, who takes service with King Christian IV of Denmark, is adopted by the king as his "angel." Claire, in his love for Emilia Tilsen, companion to the King's adulterous consort Kirsten Munk, is dogged by guilt over a past affair, while the King is haunted by the terrible death of his friend Bror Brorson, who Claire closely resembles. These themes are woven into a narrative that also contains incidents from the fraught existence of Emilia and her family, the rampant sex-life of Kirsten, Claire's musings on art and life, and the King's desperate attempts to save his impoverished realm by various ill-judged schemes. Once more Tremain brings the early period alive, action switching from Frederiksborg to Jutland to Norfolk and back again in a series of memorably vivid scenes. The story is told from multiple viewpoints, the author moving smoothly from first-person interior monologue to third-person narrative and from present to past tense without strain. The plot of Music and Silence expands to take in the nature of music and creative art, an examination of sensual pleasure, the dilemma of love versus duty, and references to alchemy, fairytale and miracles. The balanced, sedately paced prose fits perfectly, just as the faster-moving style matches The Way I Found Her. With these later works, Rose Tremain's writing attains an impressive peak.

—Geoff Sadler

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