Isabel Colegate: 'I don't think you go about feeling proud of your own books'

Rachel Cooke

Isabel Colegate, 88, is the author of 13 novels, most famously The Shooting Party (1980), which is set on a country estate in 1913 and was made into a film starring James Mason. Born in 1931, Colegate’s first job was as an assistant to the literary agent Anthony Blond. She then became a writer, and for 45 years lived with her husband, Michael Briggs, the chairman of the Bath Preservation Trust, at Midford Castle in Somerset, where they brought up their three children. (Briggs died in 2017.) The trilogy of novels that began with Orlando King (1968) is now to be republished in a single volume. A reworking of the Oedipus myth, their hero arrives in London in the 1930s, where he begins his rapid rise to power… 

Are you pleased that Orlando King is coming back into print? 
I’m perfectly pleased. If you write books, on the whole you want them published. I started in 1958 with The Blackmailer, and wrote one every few years until 2002. Altogether, there are 14 [her last book was a nonfiction study of hermits and solitaries]. But once they started being published, I stopped worrying about them, really. I was just thankful someone wanted them, and was going to give me a tiny bit of money for them. 

Why do you think Orlando King might have particular resonance now, half a century after it first came out? 
I don’t know. That’s not a very interesting answer, but it’s the truth. I did put a lot of emotion into those three books, though. I found myself possessed by the story. I was extraordinarily interested in the history of that time – the period after the war – and with all the ways in which life changed. Perhaps it’s that as time goes on, people seem to get more interested in that period, not less. This is curious. It’s possible that its importance is still sinking in. 

Were you rather in love with your hero, Orlando? 
A little bit. But it’s more that I was so interested in him as a man: with the way that his views changed, and the mistakes that he made. 

Did you always want to be a writer? 
I sort of just always was. I was the youngest of four girls, and because of the war, we didn’t have much social life at all, which was a disadvantage because it made me terribly shy and awkward as a young woman. It was easier to turn away, and read and write. We moved about a bit. We started off in Lincolnshire, then we were evacuated and went to stay with our cousins in Yorkshire, and then my father [Sir Arthur Colegate] became a member of parliament, so we went to live in his constituency, The Wrekin, in Shropshire. The war was on, and he was at a lot of debates with Churchill. He was absolutely enchanted by it all. I’m sure that my interest in everything that was happening then came from him. One was aware of the drama of it, though he was a fairly distant father in many ways. He started off passionately Labour; he joined the Fabians and was a friend of Beatrice and Sidney Webb. But he ended up as a Conservative, which is something that happens to a lot of people. 

What about after the war? Did you go to university? 
No. I’ve no education at all. Girls didn’t go to university as a matter of course. I learned to drive a car, so I could move about, and then I went to work for my great friend Anthony Blond. He’d been at Oxford with Michael, who I married. He was very amusing. My family were rather serious; we didn’t joke much. So when I met him and all his friends, I thought they were brilliant. It was lovely to work in the little back room where he set up. Off we went. The agency was called Anthony Blond (London) Ltd. The brackets were my invention, to make sure everyone knew we were important. There were only two of us, but we had a lovely time. We picked up [as authors] a number of eccentric people who’d been prisoners of war and escaped – that sort of thing. 

Did he trust your taste and judgment? 
I have to admit that he did. 

Many of your books are preoccupied with social class. Why? 
It was so powerful, then. If you were the wrong class, that wouldn’t do. I believe this has gone now, and I’m glad. There is still all sorts of snobbery, in all sorts of directions, but not like in those days. 

The Shooting Party was made into a film. Was that thrilling? 
I wasn’t involved in it, and I didn’t expect to be. But I was extraordinarily lucky. On the first day of shooting, there was an accident. Paul Scofield’s horse ran away with him, which was a terrible drama – and that was the end of that, everyone thought. But the director [Alan Bridges] wrote to James Mason, and he said: “I’ve read the book, and I really enjoyed it.” So he took over. 

Who are the writers you admire? 
One book that I read as a young woman, and recently reread, is The Garden of the Finzi-Continis by Giorgio Bassani [published in 1962, Bassani’s novel chronicles the lives of two Jewish families in Ferrara from the rise of Mussolini until the start of the second world war]. What a strong atmosphere it has. But I read less fiction now. I’m happy with a nice, fat history book like The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan. 

In your novel Statues in the Garden, someone says: “We have to cling to love. Our one talent, the shaping spirit of our imagination, our one hope.” Is this something you would go along with? 
That sounds very over the top. But fundamentally, yes, that is what I believe. 

Are you proud of your books?
Oh, no. Come on. I don’t think you go about feeling proud of your own books. You just hope for the best. Then again, you don’t want to start thinking: I wonder if I could have done it better. Because then you get terribly depressed. 

Orlando King by Isabel Colegate is published by Bloomsbury (£9.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15