I just didn’t think there were any serious novels about women and work,” says Joanna Trollope. “There were a few novels about women in the City, on the trading floor, behaving like men, getting drunk and having sex with clients. They were tough-girl, ladette novels. But I couldn’t find one about the way women work – because I don’t think they work the same way as men.”
So the 73-year-old writer has set about redressing the balance. Her new novel, City of Friends, focuses on four 47-year-olds, who first met studying economics at university and are now City high-flyers. And it’s an impressively diverse group. “I wanted to include a marriage that had no children, a marriage that had children, a gay relationship and a single mother, because that sort of covered everything.”
City of Friends is Trollope’s 20th novel. The Oxford-educated daughter of a rector (and distant relative of novelist Anthony Trollope), she was dubbed the queen of the Aga saga because her early bestsellers, A Village Affair, The Choir and The Rector’s Wife, all of which were made into TV series, had a Home Counties domestic setting.
But actually Trollope is far more subversive. Fay Weldon once said admiringly that Trollope “has a gift for putting her finger on the problem of the times”. Her books have tackled adoption and adultery, contested wills and post-traumatic stress.
Kerry Fox and Sophie Ward starred in the 1955 adaption of A Village Affair
Researching her last book, 2014’s Balancing Act, about a family business, she visited the Emma Bridgewater ceramics factory in Stoke-on-Trent, and became fascinated by how modern women take working for granted.
“I was born at the very end of 1943 and for my generation there were almost no women who worked. I knew I wanted to, and I did. Then you get my daughters’ generation – I’ve got one of 48 and one of 45, the same age roughly as the characters in City of Friends – and they all work. And by the time you get to the generation of my 18-year-old granddaughter, they wouldn’t think of not working.”
City of Friends is “a sort of sequel” to Balancing Act. To research the new novel, Trollope met women working in the finance industry and even lived in London’s Canary Wharf for a while (“a fascinating place, completely unreal”).
She was very impressed by the women she met. They struck her as the sort who “might have gone into politics” if the culture of the House of Commons was “less laddish and uncivilised”.
The reason we know little about these women, she says, is that they prefer to go under the radar. “They’re very powerful and very quiet. And they want it to stay that way.”
But in the novel we also see the sacrifices alpha women make for their love affair with work. Part of the problem is that women don’t compartmentalise their lives into work and play, as men do, Trollope suggests. And also women’s love affair with work still makes society feel uncomfortable. “If women work, then we become more random, we become something of a threat.”
Before becoming a writer in 1980, Trollope worked in the Foreign Office and as a teacher. Her first husband was a banker, with whom she had her two daughters. When she married her second husband, the television dramatist Ian Curteis, she became a stepmother to his two boys. Now a divorced grandmother of nine, she lives in Kensington. The jacket of City of Friends (above) features the four doors where her female characters live, from the gritty East End to the townhouses of Islington.
Getting that sort of detail right is essential. “A man needs to know what another man does for a living so he can put him in a hierarchical pecking order. Women need to know where people live, do they live alone, have they got a cat?”
Almost all women need a personal life – whatever form it takes, she says dreamily. “Women need a real, solid personal life, from which they all sally forth to slay dragons.”
In conversation with Prince Charles
Trollope is great company. One minute she’s talking about Sarah Waters, whose 1940s-set gay novel, The Night Watch, inspired the lesbian relationship in City of Friends. “I just thought we know a lot about gay betrayal, but we don’t know very much about lesbian betrayal,” she says. The next moment she’s marvelling at the success of the lifestyle blogger Zoella Sugg, whose debut novel was revealed to have been penned by a ghostwriter. “I think: hats off to this girl in her Essex bedroom with its G-plan furniture pulling off this extraordinary commercial stunt.”
The appeal of Zoella is that she’s a fantasy older sister for young girls. “I remember before my 11-plus, when I was at prep school, I was obsessed by the tennis captain. She was 17 and I was completely addicted to her. It still happens, but now they do it to a distant object, a Kim Kardashian, a Zoella.”
The fact teenagers would rather text than speak face to face alarms her. “I think the ‘Snowflake’ generation – this kind of ‘Don’t say anything horrid to me because I might not be able to bear it’ – is a reaction to the pressures of social media. I don’t think it’s because they are pathetic little wimps. It’s because they’re the first generation who’ve had this completely relentless avalanche of information, criticism and bullying, and they’ve retreated to a place which says: ‘If I’m here in the corner with a shield in front of me, you can’t get at me.’”
By contrast, Trollope is a modernist who believes in progress. Researching City of Friends she met academics and business psychologists – “so many people thinking outside the box about how to make life better, make humanity more productive, how to link humanity in a way that isn’t pathetic little Instagram snaps,” she beams. “There are so many people working for the good of their fellow man.”
You can order City of Friends by Joanna Trollope from the RT Bookshop for £15 (usually £18.99)