How would you like to die? Some of us, if we think about this, would choose to die on a beach or a bluebell wood, perhaps, and some when asleep. Some would choose the calm of a hospice. I’ve been thinking about death a lot because last week, my best friend the prize-winning author and former actress Kate Saunders, 62, had the perfect death, despite a life-time of tragedy.
An actress and a writer, Kate was remarkable. Having been unexpectedly diagnosed with terminal cancer just two weeks earlier, she was dying with the grace, humour and dignity that had characterised her in life. Her devoted youngest sister Charlotte had got her back home after a week in the public ward of a local hospital where she was given an agonising and wholly unnecessary investigation to try and find where her three cancers had begun. Now she was back. surrounded by five author friends, in a shabby front room with the blinds drawn, lit by one lamp and still making jokes.
“I keep thinking how interesting this is,” she said to me. “I suppose I should be taking notes, but you’ll do it instead.”
“I shall,” I promised, trying not to cry, and holding her cold, thin hand.
As novelists, we both knew that almost anything is bearable if you write it down. As professionals, she knew I would be using it. As friends, she knew how much I would grieve, then and now.
It was the saddest sight to see the vivacious, beaming blonde whom I’d first met with a drink in one hand, wearing the brightest red lipstick in the bar of the Groucho Club in the 1980s, now so pale and thin. Remembering how she loved good fizz, I suggested.
“Let’s have some champagne.”
“Won’t it be dangerous, with the morphine?” asked one of Kate’s other friends.
“It doesn’t matter a damn,” said Kate, almost gaily. She was glassy-eyed from morphine, but herself. She was always herself, no matter what.
Whether you knew her from her early appearance as Sandra,“the Long Legs of the Law”, playing a policewoman dated by Rodney Trotter in the BBC’s 1982 hit series, or as a stage actress making her debut in a play starring Bill Nighy and Diana Quick, or on the first episode of Have I Got News For You or on Radio 4’s Start the Week, or as a columnist for the Sunday Times, the Telegraph, Cosmopolitan or She magazine, Kate Saunders was everywhere in the 1980s and 1990s.
The eldest daughter of six children, she was born in London, into a devout Anglo-Catholic family of bohemian charm, warmth and eccentricity. Their house in Dartmouth Park Avenue was so chaotic that Kate remarked that “had we not been middle-class, we would probably have been taken into care.”
A star as soon as she stepped onto the school stage with Emma Thompson, at Camden School for Girls, she chose acting instead of going to university. Steeped in Victorian and Edwardian literature, however, she realised that her true calling was writing. At 26, her first novel, The Prodigal Father, won a Betty Trask prize, and her third, the First World War blockbuster romance, Night Shall Overtake Us, got an advance that made headlines. She got a phenomenal six-book deal (over £600,000) to switch to romantic instead of literary fiction.
Tall, blonde, glamorous, kind and hilariously funny, she was a literary lioness, and enjoyed every bit of it.
“For an actor I was quite plain, but for a writer I was GORGEOUS!” she said, characteristically.
Her feminism led her to being one of the founders of the Orange (now Women’s) Prize – at that time it was exceptionally difficult for fiction by women to be taken seriously, as shown one year when every novel shortlisted for the Booker Prize was by a man. She judged the Booker in 1990, and persuaded other judges to vote for AS Byatt’s Possession, one of the few enjoyable reads ever to win.
She seemed to live a charmed life of parties, lunches, celebrity interviews and first nights. She married a banker, Philip Wells, had one son, Felix, and bought a home in Kentish Town.
But it was all to come crashing down.
On the day that Felix was born, Kate discovered that she had multiple sclerosis. (MS) Afraid she would be defined by this, she kept this news secret from all but her family. As her husband had given up his job to try and write too, she became the sole support of her small household.
I had met Kate in 1989, shortly before my own first novel was published, and we found we were close neighbours in North London. A year later, we became pregnant within three months of each other. It was something that cemented our friendship, both with each other and with two other novelists, Jane Thynne and Kathy Lette, also producing their first babies and first books. Each of us writes very different kinds of fiction – Jane’s best-selling Widowland is a dystopia set in an alternative 1950s Nazi Britain, Kathy’s screwball comedies like How to Divorce Your Husband are a blast of Antipodean fun, and I write literary fiction. One day, thirty years later, these three women were to become the inspiration for my own forthcoming novel, The Three Graces, about the friendship between three old women in their eighties, but the experience of simultaneously producing both books and babies forged a deep bond, and closest of all was my relationship with Kate.
We shared a passion for Victorian fiction, children’s books, babies, jokes, feminism, theatre and satire. Kate thought I was posh because I’d been to boarding school, and I thought she was cool because she’d been to Camden School for Girls – where I’d have gone myself, had my parents not moved to Italy. We knew many of the same people (she’d even met my husband before I knew him) and occasionally shared childcare. Her son Felix and my daughter Leonora would bathe in the kitchen sink together.
All friendships are precious, but those between creative people perhaps more so than most, because a critical mauling is so very painful. Nobody else understands the hopeless hopes and mad idealism that drives us. Kate, Kathy and Jane felt like the Three Musketeers of the literary world – Four, with my arrival – up against the misogyny of the male-dominated literary scene of the time. But Kate was the shining star, confident, generous, and afraid of nobody. When I became ill myself with thyroid cancer at 44, she was the only friend who visited me in hospital, arriving with an enormous bouquet of the flowers I loved.
Sadly, over the next seven years, Kate’s marriage foundered, and the divorce settlement meant that she was left financially devastated. She and Felix moved with her eldest sibling Bill, a poet, and youngest sister Charlotte into a terraced house in Archway. Increasingly frail, she continued to work, as she put it, “all the hours God sends.”
As her romances did less well than anticipated, the columns and advances dried up and her confidence withered. We all knew that her time as a literary lioness was over. Her popular Belfry Witches series, which began in 1999 with A Spell of Witches, had been made into a TV series by the BBC, and she now turned to children’s books, such as her delightful Magicalamity, Beswitched and The Whizz-Pop Chocolate Shop. They did respectably, but children’s books are impossible to live on. Although she continued to review, latterly for the Times and the Jewish Chronicle, Kate became so poor that, as she told me, she couldn’t even afford to buy coffee beans. My own star had begun to rise, both as a novelist and a critic, and I did my best to help her professionally (especially once I became a children’s books reviewer.) But it was a grim time, and she never once showed resentment that I had a second child and the happy marriage denied to her.
Then came the killer blow in 2012. Felix, a promising young writer and musician, had been suffering from increasing depression. At 19, he killed himself at home.
The shock of this caused Kate’s health to collapse completely. Her MS was revealed, and in her despair, she even lost her Christian faith. In an anguish beyond all reckoning, she did not even have enough money to give him a funeral – her friends and siblings all made donations.
“The cosmos had turned its back on me,” she later wrote. “No mother on earth should have to know this. If you asked me how I endured it, I can only say I didn’t, really. I was numb.”
We would talk endlessly about her son, and I ignored my discomfort with this because I know how the bereaved want to remember their lost loved ones. I tried to support her in every way, though the real heavy lifting was done by Bill and Charlotte back home. She needed distraction, not moping. Best of all was taking her out to wheelchair-friendly places like Brasserie Zedel. It was always a joy, not a chore. She was my own first reader, as I was hers, and as we both struggled to keep on writing, we could give each other precious advice and encouragement.
“I think you could cut that character, and make the other one bigger,” she’d say, and she was always right.
It was now that, astonishingly, she wrote her great book, Five Children on the Western Front. With the centenary coming up, Faber had commissioned her to write a First World War children’s book. One of the things that she and I had often discussed, as fans of E Nesbit, was writing a sequel to the famous trilogy that begins with Five Children and It (1902), partly because the Five Children in her books live just round the corner from my home in Camden Town. Kate realised that, had they really existed, Nesbit’s children would have been old enough to see the horrors of the trenches, and that furthermore, the third book, The Story of the Amulet, has a time-travelling adventure in which the children go into the future and meet their old friend, a Professor who keeps crying when he sees them. He knows what is going to happen in just ten years’ time, Kate thought. The two brothers, Bob and Cyril would be the same age as her dead son.
When she gave me Five Children on the Western Front, I realised it was a masterpiece – but I also realised that if both the teenaged brothers died, it would be too gloomy for children.
“You can’t kill them both,” I said. “However realistic that might be, and however miserable you feel about your own son, children’s literature has to give hope.”
I’m pleased to say that she listened to me, and saved one brother in the trenches.
Her novel won the 2014 Costa Prize for Children’s Fiction, and was also short-listed for the Carnegie Medal. Her next children’s book, The Land of Neverendings – about a child searching for a dead sibling in a magical land of toys – was also shortlisted for the Carnegie in 2019. A series of detective novels about a Victorian clergyman’s widow, Laetitia Rodd, was commissioned by Bloomsbury. Her career was reborn, albeit in the most tragic circumstances
Kate’s illness and poverty meant that for the last ten years she effectively became a recluse. I took her out every two weeks, while she had just strength enough to heave herself into while I put her folding wheelchair into my little Fiat 500, and we’d be off, to the pub or a local café, talking like mad about mutual friends, scandal, new fiction and politics. Our tastes, though not identical, were always in harmony, especially where literature was concerned, and I would tell her about new productions I’d enjoyed like Guys and Dolls. I always tried to pick a sunny day, because she was as pale as white asparagus – she never went out, otherwise.
“When I meet people who used to know me, they scream and run away,” she said, with a laugh. “They can’t bear thinking that one day, they’re going to get sick and die too.”
She dreaded terminal MS, which causes increasing paralysis of every part of the body, and admitted that, after Felix’s death, she would like to commit suicide, “if I were brave enough.”
But Kate was brave – intensely, formidably so. Her company was brilliantly stimulating, devoid of self-pity and brimming with wit. Like Anne Elliot’s friend Mrs Smith in Jane Austen’s Persuasion, she loved gossip. When we four friends met now, usually at Kathy Lette’s home for lunch, we would have a hilarious time together, discussing Harry and Meghan one moment and The Pickwick Papers (her favourite novel) the next.
Just over a fortnight ago, following increased pain, she’d been admitted to the Whittington Hospital after a scan revealed cancer in her breast, lungs and liver.
“It’s positively rioting all over me,” she said.
One by one, we visited her, bringing flowers (which the nurses threw away, annoyingly), fruit, face cream, magazines like Private Eye, and best of all, news of the literary world. She was full of praise for the doctors and nurses, supporting their strike, and she made us howl with laughter by describing how an official came round and asked her whether she’d like help giving up cigarettes in the last weeks of her life.
“No, but I’m very happy on morphine,” she answered.
Her heroic sister Charlotte, who had given up work so that Kate could continue to write, moved heaven and earth to get her out of hospital and back home, watching the comedies of her youth, like the Carry On films and On The Buses. Kate had four visits a day from lovely care-workers but refused chemo.
“No, thank-you. It’s better to die of cancer,” she said, adding, “I felt envious of my brother Bill when he dropped dead of a heart attack six months ago.”
Remarkably, she had just finished the edits on a new children’s novel, A Drop of Golden Sun, (inspired by The Sound of Music) for publication by Faber next year. She’d written over 20 books, and had just four days left, it turned out.
On the last day of her life, Charlotte rang to tell me Kate was dying. I could see as soon as I came in that this was the case, for her face, which had often been swollen on steroids, was now flayed by cancer to reveal the strong, beautiful bones of her youth. Kathy Lette, who was preoccupied with her other dying friend Barry Humphries, couldn’t make it, but her godmother Jane Corbett, the novelist Joanna Briscoe, Jane Thynne and I all sat round the bed, telling her how much we loved her, and what wonderful books she had written. There’s never a bad time for an author to be told how great they are, and we were determined to surround her with love and admiration, even if the greatest of all came from Charlotte and her sisters, Etta and Louisa.
One by one, we all clinked glasses over her hospital bed. The light sparkled in the bubbles, making the whole scene luminous and we sipped the champagne, crying and laughing in what became the strangest and loveliest party of all. She managed one hug, and then after midnight, fell asleep for the last time, with all the courage, grace and beauty she had shown in life.