Rose Tremain, born Rose Thomson, began writing at the age of ten, when her father’s sudden abandonment of his family motivated her to express her feelings through the written word. It was only after being encouraged by the novelist Angus Wilson in a university course that she began seriously to consider becoming an author, however; Wilson was very important to, and supportive of, her subsequent development. She studied at the Sorbonne in Paris and the University of East Anglia before becoming a teacher of English, French, and history at the junior high school level in Great Britain. After working as a subeditor and researcher for the BPC Publishing Group, she became a full-time writer in the mid-1970’s and published her first novel, Sadler’s Birthday, in 1976.
Although young authors are often advised to write what they know, Tremain took quite a different tack in creating a body of work that ranges widely over historical periods and human types. The protagonist of her first novel, for example, is a seventy-six-year-old man who is about to have another birthday, but Jack Sadler is not entirely sure exactly when this will occur. Alone and in failing health, he nonetheless carries on with the determination to make sense out of the past events that periodically pop up in his consciousness, and the result is an intriguing story that belies its commonplace materials. Letter to Sister Benedicta, in which a fiftyish housewife copes with her husband’s debilitating stroke, and The Cupboard, whose protagonist is an eighty-seven-year-old writer explaining the reasons for her suicide, also demonstrate a remarkable ability to write sympathetically about the kinds of older subjects who are too often scorned by authors anxious to appear youthful and contemporary.
Tremain’s literary status was significantly enhanced by her selection as one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists in 1983. This special issue of the magazine has achieved cult status among students of contemporary British literature for its perspicacity in selecting writers who usually go on to fulfill their early promise: Martin Amis, Pat Barker, Julian Barnes, Ian McEwen, and Salman Rushdie are among the most prominent in what was a brilliant piece of literary forecasting by editor Bill Buford. Tremain’s inclusion in this select company was a deserved acknowledgment of what she had already published as well as an accurate, and very influential, prediction of her subsequent accomplishments.
Restoration, which won the Sunday Express Book of the Year Award in 1989 and was also short-listed for Great Britain’s most prestigious literary honor, the Booker Prize, is one of her most accomplished novels. Set in the years following the restoration of King Charles II to the English throne in the late seventeenth century, the narrative relates the volatile adventures of physician Robert Merivel, whose vicissitudes begin when he agrees to marry one of the king’s mistresses in exchange for an estate and a title. Although he understands that the marriage is not supposed to be consummated, Merivel nonetheless falls in love with his wife and is banished from court. Following further tribulations in a rural insane asylum and an affair with a deeply disturbed woman, he is eventually restored to his former social position after experiences that have taught him much about society’s demands on the sensitive individual.
In 1991, Tremain’s status as a widely respected writer enabled her to make further acknowledgment of her appreciation of Angus Wilson’s early support of her work. Penguin Books, Wilson’s publisher, was planning to let all of his titles go out of print without making any provision for transferring them to another firm. Tremain and several other writers raised such a public fuss about this matter that a new company, House of Stratus, was funded by arts-supporting agencies to keep Wilson’s books available.
Tremain’s 1999 novel Music and Silence is set in seventeenth century Denmark, and like Restoration, it features an emotionally fragile commoner who becomes entangled in the affairs of a king and his court. Peter Claire is a talented lute player who becomes romantically involved with the favorite servant of the king’s nymphomaniac wife, and the atmosphere of murky plots and ambiguous motives is beautifully rendered. The novel is much more than a page-turner, however, as Tremain also explores the complex relationships between great art and the demands of everyday human existence.
Twice married and twice divorced, with a daughter from her first marriage, Tremain was at the beginning of the twenty-first century living with the acclaimed biographer Richard Holmes in Norfolk and London. She has frequently taught creative writing at the university level and has also written for television, radio, and film. She has been active in PEN’s campaign to free imprisoned writers, and her literary honors include the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1993 and France’s Prix Fémina du Roman Étranger in 1994 (both for Sacred Country) and the Whitbread Novel Award in 1999 (for Music and Silence).