Norah Lofts, and why you should read her

Norah_LoftsI had a massive Norah Lofts binge over Christmas. Lofts is a deeply unfashionable writer who people in the know keep saying should be rediscovered. Alison Weir has been plugging away at it, and, brilliantly, was instrumental in getting some Lofts books back into print, while the availability of ebooks and the possibility of finding out-of-print books on ABE or Amazon means that there’s never been a better time to discover her.

Lofts was born in Norfolk, in 1904. She came from a farming family, something which had a lasting influence on her writing, as you will see, but worked as a history teacher before she turned to writing full time. Over a long and busy career she wrote more than 60 books, mostly historical, but with a good handful of excellent psychological thrillers too (the Hammer horror film The Witches was based on one). The Oxford Book of Historical Stories calls her ‘one of the undisputed queens of historical romance.’

I first came across Norah Lofts at thirteen, when I was making my first forays into historical re-enactment and was advised by the organiser to read Lofts for her incomparable grasp of historical detail, and because many of her books are set in Suffolk, where the Tudor house we were re-creating, was. Her ability to handle historical detail, work it effortlessly into a story and endow it with great emotional charge, is certainly second to none. I came to Lofts for the research. But I stayed for the storytelling. How’s this for an opening?

‘At the age of seven I was a skillful pickpocket. I could also sew neatly, write a tolerable hand, make a curtsey and a correct introduction, dance a little and play simple tunes on the harpsichord.’

It’s the start of ‘Felicity Hatton’s Tale,’ the first story in the third book of her fabulous Old Vine trilogy. Lofts had a particular liking for taking a house and tracing its residents through history. Other people have done this with towns (notably Edward Rutherfurd, in Sarum, London and others) but no-one has done it as convincingly as Lofts.

The house at Old Vine is built by Martin Reed, a runaway serf at the turn of the fifteenth century, who takes his own destiny into his hands after his lord refuses him permission to marry the girl he loves. The rest of the first book, The Town House, takes place over Martin’s lifetime. But the fabulous thing Lofts does is to shift viewpoint with each chapter, to the old woman who comes to look after him, then his daughter-in-law, Anne, daughter of an impoverished knightly family who marries beneath her, then his grand-daughter Maud, then his secretary. They’re all such different people, in motivation, life-experience and style of thinking, and the fresh perspectives allow us to see the characters we have come to know intimately, as other people see them. Thus we see them change and grow old – young, hopeful, Martin keeping stoically on, Anne who we first knew as a teenager becoming bitter, alcoholic and cruel.

The second book in the trilogy takes us through the sixteenth and seventeenth century, and the third book from Georgian times to the modern day, when the house is no longer lived in by Martin’s descendants. Throughout the series there are incredible stories, and, I should add, incredible TEENAGE stories. Ethelreda Benedict, forced out of the island home she shared with her father when it was flooded by the draining of the Fens. Felicity Hatton, who has to survive in Georgian London after her father’s gambling addiction has beggared her family. And (perhaps my favourite), the dreadful Anne, who calculates that marrying the woolmaster’s son and living in a town house with glass windows might be a come-down for her family but it will lead to a far more comfortable life for herself than staying in her parents’ isolated hall forever unable to afford the dowry for a respectable match.

Like Alison Weir, I rate the House trilogy the most highly, but the prolific Lofts produced many more books worth reading. Broadly speaking, her historical fiction falls into two categories – historical biography, and Suffolk books. The historical biography is not confined to England – there is a splendid book, Crown of Aloes, about Isabella of Spain – and includes one of the most sensitive fictions written about Anne Boleyn, The Concubine.

The Suffolk books, which include the House trilogy, all take place in or around a fictional town called Baildon, which is similar to (though not identical with) Bury St Edmunds. One of the joys of being a hardcore Norah Lofts fan is the way places and families recur across the books, so the fictional world becomes deeper and richer than anything that could be achieved in one book alone. We know which family has a streak of gambling addiction, which breeds the best horses, which local in is best and who built the Assembly rooms. One particular strength of Lofts as a writer, in a genre which can often focus on the rarefied and privileged lives of the wealthy, is that she is as interested in the lives of the ordinary people as those of kings or queens. Even her Anne Boleyn book is told from the viewpoint of a serving maid. Lofts’ farming background comes into this in a big way, writing as she is about a rural country through centuries when most people were closely tied to the land. Martin Reed first meets Anne Blanchfleur when he is visiting his sheep, and her mother lets him heat his tar pot on their fire. Lofts understand the economics of farming: what it means to have a farm of a certain size, or to carry out the work yourself (as another knight’s child, Henry Tallboys, does in the Knight’s Acre trilogy).

There is another sense, too, in which Norah Lofts’ books are realistic, and it is one of the things I like most about her work. Despite her designation as ‘historical romance’, which would conjure up images of happy endings, for Lofts the world is a brutal, unfair place. Good deeds go unrewarded, and, often to a very disturbing extent, bad ones unpunished. Murders are regularly concealed, and criminals live on benefiting from their crimes. This lack of idealising makes her world feel very real. When I used to borrow Norah Lofts books from my local library, their spines would be stickered, seemingly at random, with either a black castle to designate ‘historical fiction’ or a pink heart with a crown on top for historical romance. I wonder how many readers picked them up expecting to be transported to a delicious tale of swooning damsels, only to find they had been sucked into a gritty story of murder and medieval farming practices. Sometimes there is supernatural, and there is often evil – the Gad’s Hall books involve Victorian girls and devil worship – but the down-to-earth nature of her style adds to the plausibility and creepiness, as, for example, in the one I have just finished, The Devil’s Own (also called The Witches, Catch As Catch Can and The Little Wax Doll), published under the name of Peter Curtis, in which the prim heroine is horrified by the sight of the unattractive bodies of her middle-aged neighbours as they dance naked at the Halloween meeting of their coven.

So, where to start with Norah Lofts? To begin with, she did write two books specifically for teenagers, both based on characters from the Old Vine trilogy, Rupert Hatton’s Tale and Maude Reed’s Tale. I would recommend these to younger readers, but really these date to a time before Young Adult fiction had reached the no holds barred place it is in today. Older teens will be perfectly comfortable reading her adult books (and their parents/teachers should be happy with most of them too – if delicate you might want to give the Peter Curtis ones a miss, and The Claw should probably have an advisory sticker but mostly there’s nothing more shocking than you will find in Jacqueline Wilson). The Old Vine books are a good place to start, as is Bless This House, which uses the same ‘house through history’ technique but in a single volume. The first Knight’s Acre book is eventful, and interest in the characters will probably carry you through the second two, even if they are a bit heavy on the farming. Of the biographical books, I have already mentioned The Concubine, and The King’s Pleasure is a sympathetic portrait of Katherine of Aragon, and Crown of Aloes a fascinating book about Isabella of Spain. For those who like their history earlier, The Lute Player is about Richard the Lionheart, or, earlier still, Esther fictionalises an Old Testament book. Lofts is equally comfortable in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and The Lost Queen is a moving book about George III’s younger sister. Goodreads has plentiful reviews, and there is a thriving group there for the hardest of hardcore fans – a group which, I suspect, is destined to grow and grow as a new generation of readers discover the Queen Of Historical Romance. Or rather, Of Gritty, Dark, Agricultural Histfic With Lots And Lots Of Murders….

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30 thoughts on “Norah Lofts, and why you should read her

    • Thanks Ayah, glad you liked it! It’s interesting how many lifelong Norah Lofts fans started at around that age.
      I think she would need to have a revival of some kind of before anyone would write a biography, but I would absolutely love to read one.

  1. I love what you wrote about my favorite author! It expresses my feelings exactly. I’m rereading The Town House for the third or fourth time and it still keeps me interested. I particularly like what you wrote about the realism. These are not romance novels. They are historical fiction at its very best.

  2. Hi Katharine,
    Thanks so much for this – always good to have more people love Norah’s work. I’m her agent … and her books are all, slowly, being republished and are selling wonderfully well.

    Interesting what you say about Alison being instrumental in getting them republished – neither Clive Lofts nor her publisher have any idea about that! Neither seems to know of her at all. But there was an abortive attempt to get her back in print about 2000 which may have been linked. And her work (and yours) in promoting Norah is very much appreciated.

    We’ve also got some preliminary interest in TV series of a couple of her books so fingers crossed that she’ll be back in mode again soon.

    Best wishes, Maggy

  3. Did Norah have any children? If so, can you tell me anything about them?

    I had a note in my 2005 diary that I enjoyed The Homecoming, so I found I have it and Knight’s Acre (which I just finished re-reading) on my home library shelf.

    • Norah has a son, called Clive, who still lives in the same street as where Norah used to live – Northgate Street, Bury-St-Edmunds. He’s devoted a lot of his life to getting her re-published and now, slowly and steadily, it’s happening πŸ™‚

      • I just discovered this great little page and couldn’t resist a reply. I discovered Norah Lofts ‘way back in the mid-1960s when I was barely out of high school and corresponded with her about her work, as well a that of a friend of hers, Anya Seton. I often told Norah that I would love to see the Old Vine series turned into a mini-series, back then she despaired of having anyone be interested in it but I still think it’s a helluva idea. I now have a friend in the UK who lives about an hour from Bury-St-Edmunds, knows of my Love of Lofts, and frequently sends me little trinkets from there. Even all these years later, nobody holds a candle to Norah’s historical fiction. I bless her memory and am grateful for having known her just a little. Her handwritten letters are my special treasures.

  4. I started reading Norah’s books in 1988 after discovering one at a Library book sale. The book was “Knight’s Acre”, and I was hooked from Page 1. Since then I’ve read about 30 or so of the novels. I would have read more but was unable to find them. I hope this article and the one on Alison Weir’s blog are instrumental in beginning a huge revival of this wonderful author. Thank you for writing this.

  5. I am from Bury St Edmunds and although I knew about Norah I had never read any of her books. I have just finished Suffolk Triology and absolutely loved all three books. I shall now go on to read more of her books. She was a very good writer.

  6. I adored reading every one of her books I could get my hands on. At the same time, I learnt an awful lot about the way people lived. I was particularly enthralled by The Luteplayer and the lessons I learnt about King Richard. I even went to see the cave where he was supposed to have been held captive. I was in awe. I also loved the series of books about The House at Old Vine. I have just asked my local bookshop if they have any of her books, but they don’t. (I live in Australia). I would love to know the name of the publisher or how I could get hold of some of her books. I found all the books I have read at the library.
    Regards
    Claire

  7. I’ve just re-read “The House (at old vine)” series and I must agree, what a cracking read! So very under rated, readers of historical fiction who aren’t already a fan don’t know what they’re missing!

  8. I read The Little Wax Doll as a teen and even then knew I was reading a book by someone who could really write. I read it again not that long ago and was swept away again, this time with an even greater appreciation of Norah Lofts. I am going to continue with The House at Old Vine (and lots of happy reading hours ahead). Thanks for a great article.

  9. It is so nice to see other people who LOVE Norah Lofts. I think the best introduction to her writing is and always will be Bless the House, though the Old vine Trilogy is my favorite.

  10. I’ve adored Norah Lofts since I first read “The Little Wax Doll” at 16 when I was in high school, in the early 80s. I’ve always been a sucker for Victoria Holt and Phyllis A. Whitney, and I was told that Lofts was similar to them, but I have to disagree. I think she has a genre all to herself. Thanks to book sales, the local Goodwill, and Amazon, I now have most of her books, and I’m working my way through them. I, too, believe that everyone should read her, particularly if they want a ripping good story that doesn’t leave your mind long after you read the last page and close the book.

  11. Pingback: Desperately Dramatic in Long-Ago Indonesia: Norah Lofts’ Silver Nutmeg | Leaves & Pages

  12. I am another big fan, Norah Lofts is my favourite author too. I have all her books and my daughters have enjoyed them too. I don’t understand why she isn’t more popular today, but I suspect this may be because too many readers want a happy ending, and it doesn’t always happen that way. (“White Hell of Pity” for example, or “A Calf for Venus”). Fingers crossed for a revival.

  13. Norah Lofts is my very favourite author. I have loved her books since way back in the 1960s. She bring the people alive, and I love the writing in the first person. My books are now very old and tatty, having been read so much. I have some on my Kindle, but still would never part with my “book” books!

  14. The Little Wax Doll/The Witches – I read this in sixth grade, and then recently re-read it (in my 50s), and…this book definitely influenced several gothic horror books that came out within about ten years of this one.

    I’m currently reading The Claw, which I missed in the early 1980s, though it seemed to be everywhere then. I’ve been hesitating picking up her historicals simply because I wasn’t sure if her gothic sensibility followed her there, but it sounds like it did. She definitely is under-appreciated. A very fine writer.

    Good piece you wrote here. Thanks for doing so.

  15. I discovered Norah Lofts in the late 70s when I spent a lot of time in a small town library. The library was about half cookbooks, but there was a good collection of Lofts — and I read them all. My favorite is The Lute Player. I also especially liked To See a Fine Lady and the Old Vine trilogy. I just finished re-reading the first two of Old Vine — but I don’t have a copy of the third one. I need to find it!

    • House at Sunset is available at Amazon books. When I originally read the series in the early ’60s it was love at first read. Later, when the t.v. mini-series productions came along, I wrote Norah in practically a case of high dudgeon that the Suffolk Trilogy hadn’t piqued anyone’s interest, as I thought it would have made a fine mini series (still do). She responded and we kept up an occasional correspondence for many years. I have a friend who lives a little more than an hour from Bury St. Edmunds and she often travels to the area and sends me little trinkets from there. Norah’s books are still near and dear to my heart, but none moreso than the Suffolk Trilogy.

  16. Just spent this summer re reading, (again!) my collection of Norah Lofts books. I can’t understand why she’s not more widely known. I think her books would make excellent films. I think the last three I have read, Blossom like the Rose, Out of this Nettle and I met a Gypsy deserve a mention. Let’s hope she can find a whole new generation of readers. Wonderful storyteller.

    • I of course absolutely agree (and have thought so for over 40 years), with all the “potboiler” series’ on t.v. it would be refreshing to have a period piece we could rely on as having been thoroughly researched and historically accurate. I said the same thing in a letter to Norah in I think the late ’70s. She said she assumed her agent would have pressed to put her work on film if that were an option, but since this was right about the time of “The Thorn Birds” on t.v., I wonder about her agent’s efficacy. I would dearly love to see the Suffolk trilogy on film, surely as worthy of it as Thorn Birds. We do at least occasionally have “Jassy”.

      • We’re still trying! Hi Alana, I’m Norah’s agent and am working with three TV producers at the moment to try and get one of the books filmed. Fingers crossed!

      • YAY!! At last, at last! I’m so happy to see your post, I have read and re-read and re-re-read Norah’s books for years until they fall apart (I always buy them whenever I’m anywhere near used bookstores that carry her work, even if I already have multiple copies). Gosh, is there anything we Norah fans can do to help? I read my first Lofts book when I was about 17, picked one up at a local used book store on my (daily) walk to the beach after school and was immediately hooked. So much so that seven years later when I had my son, the bookstore owner (who’d become a good friend) presented me with a stack of Lofts first editions instead of a baby gift. I really think the Suffolk trilogy on film could be bigger than Thorn Birds. Can’t think of anything that would be more satisfying to Norah’s fans than to be able to help get Norah’s work on film. Please, if we can’t help, at least post updates!!

      • Indeed I will post updates – there are a few above this post. We are still waiting for responses though the producers are looking at treatments for several books – including the House Trilogy. We think that would be magnificent as a TV series.
        I have no idea what you could do to help – but thank you. Any ideas?!

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