Parenting

My father was famous as John le Carré. My mother was his crucial, covert collaborator


A little while before she died – when it seemed she might have almost any amount of time left, from days to months – I screwed up my courage and suggested to my mother that, given that she was 82 and suffering from significantly terminal cancer, it might not be too early to give some consideration to retirement, or, failing that, a week off. On her sickbed, she continued to search through her notes from late last year, looking for anything my father David, who wrote as John le Carré, might have written that would otherwise be missing from the body of work he left behind. It was an unnecessary labour; we have everything, and we had it then. While I didn’t want to take away something that was a mainstay of her life, I was concerned that she was growing unhappy in the search for new material that did not exist.

She looked back at me as if I’d said she should grow wings.

“But what would I do?”

I suggested a short list of diversions: talk, eat, watch cricket or snooker – they both loved sport – or some of the films on her endlessly postponed watch list.

She gave it some thought. “No,” she said at last.

For as long as I can remember, my parents have been defined by the work they did together, and by a working relationship so interwoven with their personal one that the two were actually inseparable. David’s first report of Jane, long before I was born, was that she had rescued his novel A Small Town in Germany when it was literally in pieces on the floor. Some of my earliest memories are of him reading, handwritten pages or typescript with annotations in black pen, sometimes physically cut and pasted in the days before computers, and her listening, absorbing, only occasionally responding, but always with immediate effect.

It was easy to misunderstand her as just a typist – and many did – not only because she also typed everything, as he never learned how, but also because her interventions were made in private, before the text was ever seen by anyone else. I was witness to it as a child and then as a teenager, but by and large only they knew what passed between them and how much she reframed, adjusted, trained the novels as they grew. She was adamant that her contribution was not writing, that the creative partnership they had was uneven. She declined interviews and stepped out of photographs – even family ones, so that as we were looking this week for images for the order of service at her cremation, we had very few, and those were stolen moments gleaned before she could practise her invisibility trick. It was part of how it worked: he produced, they edited; he burned, she fanned. It was their conspiracy, the thing that no one else could ever offer him, in which they both connived.

David Cornwell at his desk at home in 1974.
‘It was part of how it worked: he produced, they edited; he burned, she fanned’ … David Cornwell at his desk at home in 1974. Photograph: Ben Martin/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

Very few, very wise people saw through them both, of whom the most recent and the most absolute is Richard Ovenden, who examined the papers my father loaned to the Bodleian library in Oxford and observed a “deep process of collaboration”. His analysis is a perfect match for my recollection: “A rhythm of working together that was incredibly efficient … a kind of cadence from manuscript, to typescript, to annotated and amended typescripts … with scissors and staplers being brought to bear … getting closer and closer to the final published version.”

Exactly that: at each turn, fresh problems to be solved, fresh insights and flourishes of invention. And all along, at every step, was Jane, recalling the first moment of inspiration to refresh a tired passage, or asking whether a given phrase really reflected the intent she knew was behind it. She was never dramatic; she was ubiquitous and persisting throughout the body of work.

As they both became ill in their later years, it only revealed the extent of the mutual support and mutual dependency. They might struggle, as everyone does after 80, to remember things in casual conversation, but in work each could rely on the other to make the connection, to pick up the slack when a brilliant but ageing mind suddenly stuttered. As a team – more, as a single process functioning between two people, defining them both – they were immune to the halting state.

It was a wonderful thing, but the more painful, when he died rather abruptly in December, to see her deprived of the other half of her way of thinking across five decades. She was casting around for who might be holding the part of herself that she had vested in him, looking for the rest of the process that was trying to continue in her – hence the search for the missing material, the determination to keep going, because to stop working was to die again.



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