‘I don’t do public displays of grief ’
Romance writer Lesley Pearse’s life has been as strange as any of her bestselling novels — but she’s happy now, writes Emily Hourican
LESLEY Pearse is celebrating 25 years as a bestselling author. In her case, that means 26 novels, and more than 10m books sold. She is 73 — her first novel was published when she was 48 — and looks great, not just for her age but for any age: strong, vibrant, glamorous.
“My editor says I’ve got a portrait up in the attic,” she says with a laugh over tea in the Clarence Hotel, then adds “I’m very happy now.”
What is making her happy? “I’ve moved to Torquay, all my friends are gay — so I’ve got male companionship without any of the mucky bits, or, as my friend calls, it ‘the squelchy bits’, and last year I had a really awful year, but it’s all a distant, dark memory now.”
What was so bad about last year? “In September I broke my ankle, which was really life changing. I slipped on some cobbles. It was wet, I slipped, my ankle went under me funny, and that was it. It was a really bad break, I had to get an operation. I found how helpless you are when something like that happens.
“It’s that feeling of powerlessness. You can’t do anything, you can’t get about. I was living on a cliff top overlooking the sea and it was so steep, I had to rely on other people for everything. I moved into the ground floor flat, which was on a level and I could scoot around in my typing chair. But I felt I was in prison. It wasn’t my home, it was the guest flat.”
At least she could write? “That’s what I thought, but I couldn’t because you have to keep your leg elevated, and when I didn’t keep my leg elevated, it started to swell up. That’s when I had to have another operation.”
At the same time as Lesley was trying to navigate life with a broken ankle, “the guy who owns the land below me decided to build several townhouses right in front of my house. This was my dream home, I’d had it for two years, with a 360-degree view of the sea and bay”. Not only was her view ruined, but “my garden just disappeared into a sinkhole. I was scared to live there because the house was creaking. It was only a matter of time before it came down, or so I thought”.
From there, “everything”, she says, went wrong, and she ended up selling the house to the developer, and losing “£200,000” on it. She moved into Torquay and bought a Victorian house; “it was in a 1950s timewarp and I did that up and it’s really gorgeous now. So I’m really happy. Sometimes”, she says, “things turn out to be a good thing even if it was awful at the time”, then adds “losing that much money wasn’t fun”.
So what does she think when she looks back on the last 25 years? There was a time, she says, “particularly early on, when I thought ‘I’ll wake up one day and I’ll have dreamt all this. I’ll wake up in a grotty bedsit in Earl’s Court with one cooking ring beside a nasty gas fire’. It is like a dream really. I don’t have to worry about money any more. I can treat the kids [she has three daughters] when they need; they’ve got a start in life that they wouldn’t have had. So yes, life is good”.
Life may be like a dream now, but it didn’t start out that way. Lesley’s father was in the Royal Marines and away at sea when her mother developed septicaemia following a miscarriage. She died, with Lesley, then just three, and her elder brother Michael alone in the house. For three days they managed, somehow, until a neighbour saw them playing outside in the snow with no coats. That being the 1940s, the children were put into care, to Catholic institutions because their mother was an Irish Catholic from Roscommon. They were split up — Michael was sent to Gloucestershire, Lesley to London — and spent three years in institutions. Then their father married again and they were brought home, to a new stepmother, Hilda, and two new siblings, an older sister who had been fostered by Hilda, and a new adopted baby brother, Paul.
How much does she remember of those orphanage years? “My memory is incredibly clear. That never goes away. I can see that place now. It was hideous.” The neglect was so bad that her stepmother tried to get both places closed down. Lesley’s feeling for nuns to this day is “hatred”.
Although she had a home again, and a new family, Lesley found that her stepmother Hilda was a “hard woman. There were no cuddles, no sympathy”. Was she cruel? “She could be, beating me with a stick. But a lot of people did that kind of thing then.” And, she says, “I don’t really want to dwell on any of that any longer. I’ve done a complete about-face about my stepmother. My brother, Michael Sargent, became an eminent microbiologist. He died five years ago (his obituary in The Guardian says that “his pioneering work... inspired the field”), and just before he died, we were talking one day and I said ‘you know, she was the best thing that ever happened to us’.”
In what way? “Michael was a very gifted child in the days when people didn’t recognise that. She saw that, and she pushed him so that he passed his 11-plus high enough to be able to pick whatever school he wanted. She sent him to a naval school, which she thought was the best and it turned out to be. I am partially dyslexic, I see that now but it wasn’t recognised back then. That’s why it took me so long to read — I was 10 — but once I got that, she gave me books and I read everything. She’d pick lines from Dickens that were particularly good, and had great expressions. She used to say ‘I have net curtains to keep out the vulgar gaze’. She gave us that edge.”
What about Lesley’s father? Did he ever intervene? “I think he felt he had to take the line of least resistance, and that we were better off than in those orphanages which were horrible.” And, she points out, “They were very happy together even though it wasn’t romantic.”
And, in a strange way Lesley understands the way “a strong personality can be seen as being hard; you’re accused of being ‘ hard’ if you never show lots of emotion”, because the same accusations have been levelled at her. “I don’t do a big display of public grief,” she says. “I wasn’t brought up to that. I’ll go to bed at night and cry. I had hardships all through my life. I lost my mother, I was in care, by the time I was 15 I was living on my own and looking after myself. I didn’t have anybody to run to. You soon develop a spine.”
Having left home at 15 to become a nanny, Lesley wound
‘There was a time when I thought “I’ll wake up one day and I’ll have dreamt all this,”’