My best teacher

19th November 2004 at 00:00
Politics had a tremendous effect on my school work. I didn't bother because it didn't seem to be relevant to anything I was interested in.

I was slightly awkward as a girl; thoughtful, a big reader, curious, not particularly sporty and a bit of a loner. When I was 14 or 15 I got very interested in disarmament, poverty and Third World debt. It was a time when society was very politicised, and it seemed that every Saturday you went out and carried a banner for one thing or another. It had a tremendous effect on my school work in that I didn't bother because it didn't seem to be relevant to anything I was interested in. At A-level I got a B in English and Es in history and geography.

History at school was unbelievably boring, so when I went to Sussex University I read English. But I switched to history after I met a brilliant teacher, Maurice Hutt. He was idiosyncratic and irascible and had no toleration of fools. He came into a seminar one day, picked up an ashtray and threw it across the room. It hit the wall and broke and everyone was absolutely terrified; we all thought he was making some kind of anti-smoking protest. Then he picked up another one and threw it against the other wall and it didn't break. He said: "What do you learn from that? History doesn't repeat itself."

What he cared about was making you think. But he could be irritating. We went to a conference once and he made this speech about how women in the French revolution were there to take the sans-culottes their lunch. He knew that it would kick off a passionate debate about the role of women in the revolution. He absolutely switched me on to history.

After Sussex, where everyone was on first-name terms, and it was free and easy, Edinburgh was much more formal. When I met my supervisor, Geoffrey Carnall, he addressed me as Miss Gregory. I was stunned; no one had called me that before.

Geoffrey's specialism was 18th-century literature and I felt very early on that I would never know as much as he knew. Even if I was to work as hard as I could he would carry on reading so he would always be that bit more knowledgeable. I've never asked him anything that he didn't know something about.

Geoffrey is a Quaker and a pacifist and very restrained, whereas I'm more outgoing. But we had a scholarly meeting of minds.

For my thesis I embarked on an arduous project to find out what was the most popular novel in the 18th century. The way to find out was to research all the library catalogues. That looked easy because there were only eight surviving. In the course of doing the research I found many more than anyone had known existed. By the end of the thesis I had unearthed 27.

Years later Geoffrey said, "We could have given you the PhD for that." I said "Why didn't you?", and he said, "I thought it would be interesting to see what you did with it." He's a hard taskmaster.

My intention was to be a historian and academic. In my third year I had a baby and while I was figuring out what to do I started to write Wideacre. I sent three chapters and a synopsis to a few publishers and one wrote back and said, "This is fantastic, write more." She auctioned it and it became phenomenally successful. And then I became a novelist.

When I'm researching a book I read everything I can about the period and then go on an academic safari to the key places. It's a two-year process. I love doing research. The thoroughness and discipline of doing it to an academic standard is something Geoffrey taught me. If I'm having trouble with a book I'll send it to him and he'll return it with comments. He's just as difficult to work for now.

My daughter is now 22 and doing her masters in psychology at Edinburgh. She didn't have anywhere to live so she stayed with Geoffrey for a fortnight.

It's lovely how everything has come full circle and how long the relationship has lasted.

THE STORY SO FAR

1954 Born in Kenya

1958 Moves to Bristol.Attends Duncan House school and Colston's girls'

school

1971 Studies journalism at Cardiff University. Works her apprenticeship at The News, Portsmouth

1974 History degree at Sussex University

1978 Reporter for BBC Radio Solent

1980 Gains PhD at Edinburgh University

1986 First historical novel, Wideacre, published

1996 A Respectable Trade, about slave industry in Bristol, published.

Adapted for four-part BBC series in 1998

2002 The OtherBoleyn Girl published and adapted by the BBC

October 2004 Latest novel, The Virgin's Lover, published by Harper Collins (pound;17.99)

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