Mother’s Final Gift

When she died, bestselling novelist Diana Norman left behind an unfinished manuscript. Samantha Norman explains what it felt like to finish her mum’s story
They say that when someone dies, guilt is one of the first emotions the bereaved have to contend with. It is also a truth universally acknowledged that mothers are among the finest exponents at engendering it in their daughters. In that respect, then, I got off pretty lightly.

My mother, Diana, and I had always been close, exceptionally so, and I am confident that when she died, she did so in the certain knowledge that I loved her very much. There was little that hadn’t been said between us, both good and bad and so I wasn’t wracked with a great litany of ‘if onlys…’ or regrets; except, perhaps, for one: I had never written a novel.

Mum, on the other hand, had written loads (under her married name Diana Norman and her nom de plume, Ariana Franklin), and very successfully, too. For some reason, she had also maintained a peculiar conviction that I had inherited her talent.

‘You should write, Mamf,’ she would say with irritating regularity. ‘That’s what you’re good at, kid. Why don’t you write a novel?’

Sam-Norman-Oct17-01-590From left: Samantha, The Norman family in Datchworth. Samantha is tending to her horse and her sister Emma is perched on the wall

As if it was as easy as that. Sometimes I’d tell her to stop nagging and at other times I’d pretend to listen – it was often easier to adopt that tactic with my mother – even though I had absolutely no intention of doing anything about it. The trouble was that she cast an enormously long shadow and one I was extremely reluctant to step into. Not to mention the fact that I simply wasn’t like her; I didn’t have her rigour, her diligence or her patience and although, under her tutelage, I had established a decent career as a feature writer for newspapers and magazines, I felt that 1,500 words – the average length of a feature – was about the summit of my capabilities.

Besides, I was much more vain than she was, more the show-off, more an immediate gratifier of whims – as she so often complained – which was why, when the opportunity to become a television presenter came up, I leapt at it and forgot all about writing.

Mum never said anything, she was always supportive and an avid watcher of everything I did, but I think she was disappointed and perhaps, if the truth be told, on some level, so was I. Somehow, my mother’s blind faith and her constant mantra that writing was essentially what I was born to do, meant that, deep down, I too had developed an underlying conceit that, as Lady Catherine De Bourgh put it, ‘If I had ever learnt, I should have been a great proficient.’

But then Mum was dead, and the pressure was off. Or so I thought.

A few weeks after the funeral, my father, sister and I met at the family home to discuss all the dreary, depressing bureaucratic nonsense you have to deal with when somebody dies. We discussed probate, her will and all the complex myriad legacies she had left to various friends and relatives, and then the subject of her last novel came up, the one she had begun when she came out of hospital but hadn’t had time to finish.

‘It’ll have to be completed,’ my father said, before adding gloomily: ‘I suppose the publishers will find someone.’

But then he looked at my sister, Emma, and they both turned and looked at me.

‘Why don’t you do it?’ they asked.

‘Why don’t you?’ I replied. After all, my father is also a bloody good novelist and my sister can write a bit, too. ‘Because you’re the one she’d want to do it,’ they replied simply. ‘And you write like her.’

So there it was, even from beyond the grave, my mother, as usual, was getting her own way.

Of course it wasn’t quite that simple, there were a number of obstacles to overcome, not least her literary agent, Helen Heller, a woman whose reputation for toughness and editorial skill is formidable. Together she and my mother had created an enviable reputation and made a good deal of money, which she wouldn’t be keen to jeopardise on this, the last novel.

‘So what makes you think you can do it?’ she asked rather crisply when I told her the plan. ‘In my experience, only about one per cent of the population can write to a publishable standard and there’s no evidence to suggest you are one of them – magazine features do not count, I’m afraid.’

How, I have no idea, but somehow I managed to convince her to let me give it a go and when, eventually, she had seen and approved a good many sample chapters, her support was invaluable and unstinting. So too was my father’s.

He and I spent many hours thrashing out the plot in his sitting room, trying to second-guess my mother and to work out where it was she had been heading because, frustratingly, she hadn’t left any notes – certainly none that we could find.

And it wasn’t just about deciphering the plot. All my mother’s novels were historically based and most, including this one, set in 12th-century England. But while she had had 30 years of research under her belt and virtually every aspect of the Middle Ages at her fingertips, I had none. Nevertheless, her publishers wanted to see a first draft within three months or all bets were off.

I have never worked so hard – or so happily – but then I was inspired by my mum and the fact that I had been given an opportunity to do this one last thing for her, my Herculean task; my last gift.


In fact, it turned out that it was actually her final gift to me, perhaps even the saving of me. Instead of desperately grieving, I was able to continue a dialogue with her, come to terms with losing her physically by climbing inside her head, thinking her thoughts and writing in her voice which, to me anyway, still sounded so strong.

I followed her around, the shadow of her shadow, heading off to discover the strange, watery half-land of the Fens, a place she had loved and been fascinated by and where many of her novels, including this, were set. I also spent a good deal of time wandering around the beautiful back stacks of the London Library, probably her favourite place in the world, picking up and reading books, many of which, I’m quite sure, had last been picked up and read by her.

After all, how much demand could there be for a title such as 12th Century Wooden Synagogues? And then there were the strange eureka moments, the kind most novelists can only dream of, apparently, when I would wake in the middle of the night convinced that I knew exactly how a certain plot twist she had set up should resolve itself and how it should be written.

People often ask if I found the process daunting, but the truth is that I didn’t have the luxury of the time it would have taken to sit around and be daunted. The manuscript had to be delivered – my mother was nothing if not professional and, to my knowledge, never once missed a deadline – and this was something I needed to do. Apart from anything else, there was that deeply irritating refrain of hers, the one that still echoes around my head: ‘Oh, just get on and write, will you, woman!’

So, just to silence that, if only for a moment, I did.

Winter Siege, by Ariana Franklin and Samantha Norman, is published by Bantam Press, priced £16.99.