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Santa Montefiore, The FT Weekend

“I’m not writing Tolstoy, I write a good yarn.”

According to the veteran publisher and party-giver Lord Weidenfeld, “There is really no one else in London now who is at the nexus of so many worlds” as Santa Montefiore. The worlds she connects are literary, intellectual, social and royal. She is a romantic novelist with sales of 3m books; her sister is the socialite Tara Palmer-Tomkinson; her father, Charles, a former Olympic skier, owns and farms the Dummer Grange estate in Hampshire; and Prince Charles is a good family friend.

Then there’s her husband, Simon Sebag Montefiore, the award-winning author of such historical biographies as Stalin: The Court of The Red Tsar and Young Stalin. A noted foreign correspondent during the unravelling of the Soviet Empire, his ancestors were bankers and diplomats.

It is just after 11am in a calmly chic Kensington hotel near the couple’s home. Water slips down a glass fountain. Through the window, daffodils bob in Kensington Gardens. She arrives suddenly, striding across the lounge, her back catwalk-straight, nearly 6ft tall in low, clicking heels: an attractive, striking 38-year-old in light jacket and jeans. Her greeting is a democratic, “Hi!”

In conversation, her voice booms, her hands wave gleefully, she laughs and jokes, long legs stretched out. Exuberant rather than domineering, she looks at you uncertainly, searching for confirmation. Her voice is slightly husky, her accent more “Yeah” than “Yah”.

March, she explains, is a particularly busy month. Every March 1, she delivers the first draft of a new novel to her publisher, to appear the following March. She has just delivered her ninth novel, while this week sees the publication of her eighth, The French Gardener. Like its predecessors, it is an entertaining look at love in its many guises – romantic, familial, platonic. But she, at least, doesn’t classify her novels as romances. “When I think of romance I think about national days of compulsion like Valentine’s Day. I hate that. They [the books] are more ‘sentimental’. I’m not writing Tolstoy, I write a good yarn.”

Her first “yarn”, Meet Me Under The Ombu Tree, was published in 2001. She had previously turned down an agent keen to exploit her sister’s fame, who had asked, “Can’t you write a book about a yacht or skiing?” Wanting to be published on merit, she sent the manuscript out under the name Miss X. The day the novel was accepted, she resigned from her events position at Ralph Lauren to write full time. These days she writes during term-time: holidays are reserved for her children, Lily, seven, and Sasha, five.

Does this mean, I ask, two writers working under one roof? “Sebag writes in the conservatory below me. But I can still hear [from his CD player], ‘Grown control tuh Mayjuh Tom!’ I’ve just moved my office to the top floor. It’s a bore when the doorbell goes and I’ve got to run down five flights. Anyway, firm buttocks – that’s what I’m hoping for.”

It’s a self-effacing image at odds with Lord Weidenfeld’s “nexus of so many worlds” comment. What does she make of it? “Well, that’s very sweet of him.” She hesitates, laughs and draws a deep breath. “I wouldn’t look at myself in that light. I mean, what worlds?”

Her writing world, his intellectual world… “Yeah, Sebag has brought into the marriage a lot of interesting worlds. When I was growing up, my world was very Sloaney, and I still have that side, but I’d never met anyone who’d written a book and suddenly we’re friends with Antonia Fraser. How wonderful is that? If we wanted to social climb, we’d be out every night and we’re not. I’m in the world that I live in and I don’t analyse it.”

The couple met and started going out in 1995. She was working in marketing for the luxury goods emporium Swaine Adeney Brigg on Bond Street; he was a footloose journalist. After two years, a green-hued (her description) Sebag Montefiore proposed. They married at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in St John’s Wood, North London, in October 1998, with Conrad Black, Stephen Fry, Sir David Frost, Prince Charles and the then Camilla Parker-Bowles among 400 guests.

In a Vanity Fair article earlier this year, Montefiore was quoted as saying that she only has eyes for her husband, he can’t help eyeing other women. Is that worrying?

“No, not at all. If he turned up and said, ‘I’ve got a mistress’, I’d definitely say that’s a no-go area. But, in terms of flirting, we don’t own each other. I know when he sits next to two beautiful women at a dinner he is going to fancy the pants off them. I can’t change the beast and I wouldn’t want to.”

He has said that without the discipline she gave him, he wouldn’t have written his biographies. What did he give her? “A huge sense of fun. We laugh all the time, our children laugh all the time. There are people who meet and diminish each other and people who meet and bring the best out of each other, and that’s us.”

Before they married, she underwent the year-long conversion to Judaism. “I suggested I do it because I knew it was important to them [his family]. I’m more spiritual than religious in that I grew up in the Church of England but never dared find Christ. Judaism is a very pure religion: you don’t have to pray through a priest to get to God.” Its domesticity appeals too. “You do the Friday night lighting of the candle with the children, put their fingers in the wine, you do the bread, they do the prayers.”

A firm, unfussy belief in “the spirit world” runs alongside her Judaism. “As a child I used to see spirits at night. I’d wake up in this sort of half sleep and see people walking round my room. It would always terrify me. I’d turn on the light and then they’d go. And my grandmother I saw about three times. The last time I saw a spirit at night was probably about three years ago. It was a man in my cottage staring in my face. In meditation I see spirits and that’s when I do it wilfully.”

Somewhat sceptical, I ask if that is with her eyes open. “Eyes closed, whether it’s somebody I know or who died or something like that. It sounds a bit hocus pocus but I love the spirit world.” She believes we originate in that world, are incarnated here to learn and, on death, “We shed our bodies like an old coat. We go on to spirits, from where we can come and visit the people we love. I think there are [spirit] people around us all the time.”

And the Montefiores’ incarnations? In Sea Of Lost Love, Pamela, the heroine’s mother, categorises people as different animals. What are she and her husband? “That’s Sebag’s idea. He always categorises people on the food chain. I would see myself as a big cat or something. But he says I’m like a deer or Great Dane. Charming. He’s definitely a wolf. ”

She was born in Winchester, Hampshire, in February 1970 to Charles and Patricia Palmer-Tomkinson, the second of three children (James is the oldest, Tara the youngest). “We had an Enid Blyton upbringing: watching the combine harvester, riding a tractor. When I was 18 I was building camps [on the farm] while girls in my boarding school, who lived in London, were drinking cappuccinos and smoking Marlboro Lights in Sloane Square. All three of us shared this innocent, wonderful childhood.”

Montefiore was Deputy Headgirl at Sherborne Girls, a Dorset public school. “I was good at school, conscientious. I’ve always been 38.” Her younger sister Tara, with whom she was at school, “hated” it. “Looking back at the times when she was sobbing and I was putting my arms around her, the relationship was always me looking after her.” The three siblings remain close. “It’s a lot to do with my mother. She’s Anglo-Argentine, she’s very much ‘Blood is thicker than water.’ ”

In March 1988 her mother was severely injured in a skiing accident. Prince Charles was in the party and the story made headlines. “I was 18,” recalls Montefiore. “Having grown up in this Enid Blyton setting, it was a place where people close to you didn’t die, didn’t get hurt. It made me appreciate her much more and taught me life is fragile.”

What about her family’s connection to the Royal world? She stresses that Charles is not her godfather – “I’ve said so countless times but they still print it.” Neither is he Tara’s. Nor was her father Charles’ ski instructor. Do they see the prince though?

She becomes a little awkward, diffident. “Yes, we do. That’s a dodgy subject. It’s a great privilege because they are part of British history. To have a window on to that is fascinating. After that I crawl into a ball [of no comment].”

Trying to coax her out, I ask how she would justify a hereditary monarchy in 2008? Initially thrown, she rallies, suggesting the prospect of President Gordon Brown (“How ghastly is that?”) before praising the Queen’s “dedication and consistency” and the royals’ charity work.

Santa Montefiore is loyal and likable, but her image (successful writer, glamorous, a reputation as a great beauty) can invoke jealousy. Does that bother her?

At ‘beauty’ she looks down, embarrassed and mumbles, “Bit of make up this morning, covering a wealth of sins, ha!” Then says, “There is always jealousy, there’s nothing you can do. Some person does an interview and writes horrid things. That’s awful but I just throw it in the bin.”

In her books social class is no barrier to love, although she realises that’s easy for her to say. “It shouldn’t matter. Certainly, in the Santa Montefiore novel world, I don’t feel it should matter where you have been to school.”

And in Santa Montefiore’s real world? “Absolutely not. Whether you are incarnated as a dustman or prince, you are still human beings who are learning. I don’t think it makes one person better than the other.”

22 March 2008

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