The children of families in the diplomatic service can appear to enjoy an enviably exotic existence. Harriet Lane’s childhood, skipping from Turkey to Rome via Belfast and Trinidad, certainly afforded her a window on the world that is granted to few of that age. It also played havoc with her education, particularly in maths, a subject in which she says she was “absolutely diabolical” and in which she fell exponentially further behind with each move.
Enough was enough. “I’d read lots of Malory Towers and St. Clare’s,” Harriet recalls, “and I thought that looked like fun. I was tired of constantly moving around, changing friends every few years, and so I asked if I could go to boarding school.”
Bedales, when Harriet arrived there for the entrance assessment, seemed to have much to offer. “I have great memories of those tests,” she says. “There was a lovely air of freedom and experiment – I can’t remember sitting any exam papers but I remember we had to make costumes out of newspaper and Sellotape.”
The reality of boarding school life, however, came as a bit of a shock: “I’d never lived in the UK for any length of time so my immune system was in meltdown. For the first few years, as well as being constantly hungry - the food was terrible - I was always, always ill. Colds in the winter, epic hay fever in the summer.” There were other shocks too: “The social aspect was rather overwhelming; you were always with people, and I think I was quite a solitary child, so I found that rather exhausting. For the first few years, I wasn’t exactly miserable but neither was I totally happy. I don’t think I felt particularly safe or comfortable in the system until I got into the fifth or sixth form.
“When I look at my own daughter, who has just left primary school, all I can think is: but she’s so young. And that was the age at which I started at Bedales. I see how hard my children’s schools work to ensure that kids understand how to behave, how to treat each other with respect, and I really don’t think that was the case back then. I don’t remember anyone in a position of authority saying, ‘Look here, this is dreadful, you really must be kinder to each other.’ You’re always going to find terrifyingly complex social hierarchies forming at any school but this was an era when we really were left to get on with it. We probably needed a bit more structure, perhaps a few more rules.”
By her own admission an “indolent child”, Harriet had little interest in Outdoor Work and even less in sport. “There was one report in which the games teacher said she hadn’t seen me for 12 months,” she says. “I was pretty bookish, a big reader, attached to the library.” Her maths was never better than dreadful, but no one seemed to mind too much: “It was OK to be a specialist then. I doubt I’d get into university now. I always loved English, and at Bedales the English teaching was so good, so inspiring, from Alastair Langlands’ famous Observations in Middle School all the way though to Larkin and Keats and Portrait of a Lady with John Batstone in the sixth form. I read so much at school, I really filled my tanks. When I was growing up I suppose I always felt painfully shy, conscious of not being particularly interesting, but at least when it came to English I began to feel I might have something to say.”
By the time she reached the sixth form at Bedales, school life was much easier. “Everyone seemed to grow up suddenly in the summer after O levels,” she reflects. “There was an influx of new pupils and the old hierarchies started to fade. I was no longer part of a system in which I was scrapping for survival. It was such a relief.”
She and a friend, Rachel Thomas (godmother to Harriet’s daughter), were given funding to start an alternative school magazine, Haphazard. “We had to submit it to a fairly relaxed official read-through, I think Graham Banks was the censor, but I can’t remember him ever making us take anything out. It remained a faintly scurrilous combination of Just Seventeen and The Sun, full of coded gossip. We used to distribute it at teatime and it was such a lovely sensation to go into the dining room and see people bent over it, trying to spot their names in it, laughing.”
Haphazard was a clear pointer to Harriet’s future. She went to university in Leeds (“The standard of English teaching there was a bit of a disappointment after Bedales - not nearly so involving or exacting”) where she started writing for the student newspaper. After a post-graduate diploma in periodical journalism at City University, she began her professional life as a sub-editor on Tatler.
“It was still a good time to be thinking about a career in journalism,” Harriet says. “The pay was fine, there were lots of opportunities.” Quickly rising through the ranks, she was promoted to features editor before being poached by The Observer, becoming commissioning editor on the magazine and subsequently a staff feature writer perhaps best known for her interviews (everyone from Lord Snowdon and Philip Pullman to Michelle Pfeiffer and Richard Gere). In 2005, she went freelance, writing for publications including The Guardian and Vogue. “Every day was different and that suited me. I’m fairly solitary by nature but I’m also interested in people. Journalism gave me bursts of intense sociable activity punctuated by the opportunity to spend time on my own, writing. It was always the writing that I loved best: finding the right words, creating an atmosphere, shaping a narrative.”
In 2008, when on holiday in the Lake District with her husband and two children, her eyesight started to crash. Back in London, struggling to get a diagnosis, she took the pragmatic decision to park the journalism, hoping the break would only be temporary. “As a freelancer, you have to be reliable, and I was no longer reliable. I could see my future now revolved around neurology appointments and MRI scans. Keeping the career going alongside that was too much.”
What now? Harriet had never considered life beyond journalism and yet her compulsion to write remained as strong as ever. A few months later, she saw a flyer for a creative writing course near her home in north London and, full of desperation and anxiety, signed up. At first, she felt “like an absolute idiot, sitting around, inventing things - but pretty quickly, I started to love it. I wasn’t thinking about writing a novel at that point. I just wanted a way back to the happiness that writing had always given me.’
The course didn’t teach Harriet how to write fiction but it did give her permission to think differently. It made her see stories everywhere. A few months later, on a Saturday, “I had an idea which I really couldn’t argue with.” The following Monday, after dropping the children at school, she threw herself into writing with such fervour that the book was completed just eleven weeks later (“It almost wrote itself”).
Alys Always, the complex tale of a manipulative newspaper sub-editor insinuating herself into the lives of a charmed family, was published to universally positive reviews and was longlisted for the Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award and shortlisted for the Writers’ Guild Best Fiction Book award. In the summer of 2014, Harriet’s debut was followed by her second novel, Her, which has similarly delighted critics. A literary psychological thriller about a toxic friendship, Her features another superficially unassuming, yet creepily dangerous, female protagonist. “My crazy ladies,” Harriet remarks fondly. “I have to say that most of my female friendships are entirely straightforward but there’s something deliciously exciting about creating characters with a bad streak. It’s also a counterpoint to my own life, which is really quite a routine one; you know – husband, kids, sociopathic cat.”
As Harriet’s eyesight continues to deteriorate (she has been diagnosed with CRION or Chronic Relapsing Inflammatory Optic Neuritis, a rare auto-immune disorder affecting the optic nerve) she can at least take satisfaction from her success as a novelist. “Yes, two fingers to the old eyesight,” she agrees, “although I would really rather none of this had ever happened.... But I do feel fortunate in many ways. The whole process of finding out that I can write fiction has been a great thrill, pure pleasure really - I’m never happier than when I’m writing. I’ve been so lucky to find this amazingly enjoyable new career in my forties. The illness has given me a new degree of perspective so I try hard now not to look too far ahead, but when I saw my consultant recently I said, ‘Help me to get to book three’ - so that’s what we’re aiming for next.”
Harriet Lane was interviewed by James Fairweather in September 2014.