The Woman of Substance by Piers Dudgeon is in part an authorised biography of A Woman of Substance writer Barbara Taylor Bradford, and part analysis of how Barbara’s own family history features in her books. The story of Emma Harte’s journey from Edwardian kitchen maid to globally successful businesswoman is well known. Less known perhaps are the connections with Barbara’s own family history. Connections she did not know herself.
Starting with a meeting at the Bradfords’ New York apartment at which he is surrounded by the great and the famous, eating amidst the glittering décor, Dudgeon realises this is the world of the successful Emma Harte at the height of her powers. And then he tells Barbara’s story from her birth in 1933 in Upper Armley near Leeds, born not into the family of a kitchen maid like Emma Harte, but a tidy working class family who were neat and always made ends meet. Barbara is an only child and spoilt by her mother who takes her at every available opportunity to visit the Studley Royal estate where she learns this history of the house, the estate and the family. ‘My mother exposed me to lots of things,” said Barbara. ‘She once said ‘I want you to have a better life than I’ve had.’’ Barbara did well at school and, wanting to write books, decided her best chance was to train as a typist and find a job as a journalist. Which she did, joining the typing pool at the Yorkshire Evening Post and then, through dogged perseverance, moving to the women’s page.
At each significant point throughout Barbara’s story, Dudgeon provides a reference from one of her novels of fiction mirroring fact. A case of Barbara’s sub-conscious curiosity about her own origins finding their way into the backstory of her novels. It is an encyclopedic exercise of genealogy which lovers of the Harte series will enjoy. It is many years since I read the novel, but it made me want to revisit it. At the time when Piers Dudgeon was writing this book, Barbara did not know the true story of her grandmother Edith’s life or the mystery surrounding the birth of her own mother, Freda.
This is a long book which could have been made shorter by cutting some of the extraneous history and for that reason I gave it 4* rather than 5*. But if you are a writer interested in how your real life sneaks into your own novels, you will be fascinated.
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A Woman of Substance was made into a television mini-series in 1984 [above] with Jenny Seagrove playing the young Emma Harte and Deborah Kerr the older Emma. The series was filmed mostly in Yorkshire, including Brimham Rocks where Emma first meets Blackie O’Neill [played by Liam Neeson] on the moors. Series of the other two books in the trilogy would follow.
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A prequel to the Emma Harte trilogy, called Blackie and Emma, will be published in 2020. Read more here.
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