Novelist best known for The Shell Seekers

Born: September 22, 1924;

Died: February 6, 2019

ROSAMUNDE Pilcher, who has died aged 94, was one of Britain’s most successful romantic novelists, best known for domestic dramas set in her native Cornwall, most famously The Shell Seekers, which sold millions of copies around the world. She sometimes ascribed her romantic nature to her Celtic blood: she grew up with a father who was working in Burma for the civil service, leaving her Scottish mother to bring up the two children. She was also a descendent of Walter Scott.

Rosamunde had left school at 16 at the beginning of the war. She worked for the Foreign Office, then went into the WRNS and was sent out to Trincomalee, Ceylon, to watch for submarines. On VE Day the editor of Woman and Home magazine received a short story called These Little Things, Pilcher’s first effort at fiction. Her father cabled to inform her: “Story accepted. £15.”

“It was just a wartime story; there wasn’t a love affair in it,” she recalled. But there was love in real life when she married Graham Pilcher, who had been badly wounded with the Black Watch. He had a good job in the jute industry in Dundee, but she had no money of her own, so she wrote romances for Mills & Boon as Jane Fraser.

"They used to buy illustrations from the big American magazines, like the Saturday Evening Post. They sent me the illustrations and asked me to write a story to go with them, which is actually a very good exercise in just writing. I did anything." The £1000 she was making a year went on herself and the children, with her husband meeting the living expenses and the school fees.

It should be a measure of encouragement to other aspiring writers of romantic fiction that Rosamunde Pilcher was in her fifties before the big royalty cheques started to arrive, by which time the family was comfortably off. "It was the creative urge. It was also a form of escapism, and a show of individuality. I didn’t want to be pulled into the social scene and to be Graham Pilcher’s wife. I wanted to be my own person.”

The big break came when an American publisher bought a back-list of about half a dozen books that Pilcher had written. One of them received an “incredibly good” review in the New York Times, allowing her to realise her dream of selling short stories to the big American magazines, the kind that kept Scott Fitzgerald in lots of dollars.

In 1988 The Shell Seekers was published and became a landmark in romantic fiction. It is the story of artist’s daughter Penelope Keeling who discovers that her most treasured possession, her lather’s painting The Shell Seekers, is worth a fortune. The novel became a publishing sensation, ousting Tom Wolfe in the New York list and selling several million copies.

Many so-called literary writers despise romantic novels in the Pilcher mode, dismissing them as “aga sagas,” a term that did not offend Pilcher. "Even if you are living a middle-class life, and you have a warm aga in the kitchen, you still have all sorts of ghastly problems with your children and things happening. Those sorts of people are my friends. You could look around at any collection of women and every one of them has a really bad problem which they just have to deal with.”

Pilcher said she knew there was a public waiting for her novels. “Before The Shell Seekers was published I used to say to the publishers: there is an enormous reading market out there that nobody’s tapping into; that is, the older woman who’s retired, with hopefully a bit more money to spend on books, time to read them, well educated, and has done a lot in her life. She’s probably had a job and brought up a family.”

Pilcher's novels did not rely on sexual explicitness for their success. She thought that she avoided this because she was brought up in an era when people were “quite private”. Another explanation related to her mental profile of her mature reader.

“Explicit sex isn’t something she actually needs to read about; she knows about it; it’s in the past for her. What are far more important to her are the actual relationships leading up to or after a tremendous sexual encounter; how it affects a relationship. It’s not because I’m prudish; people in my books all go to bed with each other: I don’t describe in total detail the act of sex, but it’s very much part of the book.”

September, Pilcher’s Scottish saga, was set in the Highlands and in 1991 she participated in a three-hour television satellite link-up with 20 American cities, coast to coast, to spread the word about the book. She sat in her dining-room on Tayside, with anchormen and journalists from all over America firing questions at her. A mini series of September, shot in Ireland and starring Jacqueline Bisset, Edward Fox and other heavyweights, attracted big ratings.

Rosamunde Pilcher left sound advice for aspiring authors. “You have to have tremendous self-discipline and great application. You mustn’t mind being lonely; it’s probably the loneliest job in the world. Everything’s inside your head. Sometimes your head feels like a balloon because you’ve got so much going on in it, and there is that moment when it’s a beautiful day, and you’ve got to thump upstairs and get down to work.”

Rosamunde Pilcher was like a character in one of her best-selling romantic novels: tall, elegant, impeccably dressed, a charming woman dispensing hospitality and humility in her home in the Carse of Gowrie. Her son Robin followed her by becoming a novelist.

Rosamunde Pilcher’s husband Graham died in 2009. She is survived by two sons and two daughters and was pre-deceased by a fifth child.