The house was by a lake with an island. There were 20 children and immense freedom.’’
She may have royal connections and a celebrity sister, but writer Santa Montefiore’s latest novel draws from Connemara, says Sue Leonard
At 43, Santa Montefiore is one of life’s golden girls. Tall and lithe with peachy skin and a perfect smile, she radiates positivity. In Dublin to celebrate the publication of her 13th novel, she’s clearly riding high.
The author has been compared to Rosamunde Pilcher, but Secrets of the Lighthouse is more dramatic and darkly romantic than anything produced by Pilcher’s pen. With the backdrop of the rugged Connemara hills; the derelict cottages, and men on horseback, it owes more to a Victorian romance.
Spirits feature too; principally the late Caitlin who hangs around jealously, making sure her restless husband doesn’t find happiness. It’s not what you’d expect from this member of the English establishment, whose parents have been friends with Prince Charles for the past 30 years.
We’ve all heard of Santa’s sister; Tara Palmer-Tomkinson, the original IT girl who was never out of the newspapers, but the ex-head girl Santa, happily married with two children, has always been the conventional sister. Even if she can see dead people.
“I always could,” she says. “As a child I would see shadows, and know there were people walking about my room. It was normal to me. I talked to my father about it, and we shared books. And when I was in my twenties, I was developed by a psychic and healer, Susan Dabbs.
“I had read every book about reincarnation, and was fascinated, but I didn’t know where to go. Sue said I had a lot of potential. I saw her every month for three years, and started seeing spirits much more clearly. I could pick out their clothes. I can clearly communicate with them, though not out loud. An answer just pops into my head.”
The new novel has been dedicated to Miguel Pando and Nathalie de Montalembert; both are friends from Argentina who died.
“Nathalie died when we were 21, in a canoeing accident, and in the years that followed she never appeared to me. Then two years ago Miguel died from a brain tumour, and he brought her to me, with his father. She said things to me that made sense, and she looked so happy and full of joy.”
Connemara is so redolent, it’s almost a character in the novel, yet Santa didn’t return there to research. “But I did go there as a child. Some family friends rented a huge house there every year; they invited loads of people, and lots of children. The house was by a lake with an island in the middle. We’d row around it feeling like the Swallows and the Amazons. There were 20 children and immense freedom.
“I remember looking out of the car windows seeing rugged mountains and deserted farmhouses with sheep everywhere. It stuck in my mind. The family who hosted it were eccentric. Their daughter later got married in a ruined abbey. It was raining and there was no roof. She walked down the aisle in her gumboots with an umbrella.”
In the novel, the object to inspire the spirit Caitlin’s jealousy is Ellen; a fledgling writer who flees the restraints of London and the expectations of her family. She finds release in Connemara with her aunt, and eccentric uncles, but the course of her romance with the passionate Conor refuses to run smooth.
Santa has a lot in common with Ellen. She, too, feels the need to escape London to roam free in the countryside. She has had a privileged life, but it has not been without its trauma. In 1988 when Santa was 18 and head girl at Sherborne School for girls in Dorset, her mother Patti Palmer-Tomkinson suffered serious leg injuries when she was hit by an avalanche skiing off-piste with Prince Charles in Klosters. Prince Charles’s equerry Hugh Lindsay was killed.
She had a difficult year in Argentina when she returned after the first year of her degree at Exeter University. Having adored her year there at 19, she found she no longer fitted in. The unhappiness eventually sparked the idea for her first novel.
So when I ask her what she wishes for her children, Lily and Sasha, she says she doesn’t just want happiness for them.
“Eckhart Tolle says you should never wish your children were happy all the time, because if they are they never grow in compass and understanding. My daughter had toothache recently. It really hurt her. And when I said I’d had all four wisdom teeth out, she said, ‘Poor Mummy,’ and I knew she felt compassion, perhaps for the first time. We have to suffer to grow. I want them to be wise, and I want them to be healthy.”
Meanwhile, life is good. Santa’s 14th book, The Beekeeper’s Daughter is due out next July, and her early books are being reissued. She’s planning another novel set in Ireland, and this time hopes to come over here to research it.
“I love Ireland. My grandfather was Irish and I love coming here. It’s always such fun.”
She loves writing too.
“It’s a hobby for me. I’m so lucky I’ve made a success of it. I’ve made money from it which is wonderful, because it doesn’t feel like going into work. It’s hard and it doesn’t always come easily, but I do enjoy going into my cottage and inventing this world and these characters.”
nSecrets of the Lighthouse by Santa Montefiore is published by Simon and Schuster at €18.75