Esther Freud: ‘I didn’t learn to read till I was about 10’

Esther Freud is the author of nine novels, including Hideous Kinky, her semi-autobiographical debut, which tells of her unconventional childhood in Morocco. The daughter of Lucien Freud and Bernardine Coverley, she trained as an actor before becoming a novelist. Freud has three children with the actor David Morrissey, from whom she recently separated. I Couldn’t Love You More is the story of three generations of Irish women: Rosaleen, a heroic, headstrong teenager in the early 1960s who begins an affair with an older man; Aoife, her mother, who recounts her life to her dying husband and wonders what became of her flighty daughter; and Kate, in London, married to the useless Matt, trying to make it as an artist while looking after their daughter, Freya. The three lives intertwine and overlap over the course of the novel.

You say in the acknowledgments that I Couldn’t Love You More was inspired by your own mother, bringing up children unmarried and without the support of her family.
I didn’t start the book with the intention of telling that story. I was thinking how much I’d like to write a book where love was the main theme. So I started with a real rush of energy, writing about it from different points of view, three women from different generations. I began really playfully and freely, writing these short chapters. After a while I realised I needed a story and some kind of plot, and it was then that it occurred to me to think more about my mother and how extraordinary it was that she managed to have two children without her parents knowing, and what it was like to be in such an unsupported world.

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I began to think more about the way I’d been brought up, and the way my grandparents lived, what they were ruled by. They were Catholics, they’d moved back to Ireland when my mother was a teenager, and the church was incredibly powerful for them. So I began to research the life of a young woman in the 60s against this backdrop, and the whole project set off down a very different trajectory.

Kate’s relationship with her daughter is both very close and yet somehow fraught. Is she looking for warmth in her daughter that she cannot get from her husband?
I wanted to show in Freya something that I’ve seen in so many women of my own generation – this excessive investment in children, so that it becomes a kind of frenzy to be a perfect mother. It leads to a kind of exhaustion and neuroticism. It seems to me that women have become almost eager to throw over their relationships with the men in their lives and invest everything in this all-consuming love for their children. It’s not something my mother’s generation would have recognised at all.

Rosaleen is only 17 when she begins an affair with a man more than twice her age. We are living at a time that is hyper-sensitised to such power imbalances. Was this difficult to write about?
I started this book five years ago, so it wasn’t such an issue then. I do feel, though, that I’m really dedicated to telling human stories. Love is something I talk about with my children – that I’m not, in theory, against people of different ages falling in love. Because I was writing Rosaleen from her point of view, she didn’t see that there was an issue that the man she was in love with was 20 years older than her. I think that as long as it’s legal and consensual people should be allowed to love whoever they want. And the age difference between Rosaleen and Felix was the least of their problems.

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You have two artists – one a man, one a woman – and we’re invited to compare them…
I think you have to lose yourself so entirely to excel as a visual artist. That’s why, historically, there have been so relatively few great female artists. You have to give so much of yourself. I wanted to explore that in the book with a male and female artist. One of them has to stop work at three o’clock to collect her child; one does not.

How did you spend lockdown?
This most recent lockdown I didn’t feel quite ready for a new novel, and so I started writing short stories. I was very lucky that I was offered the empty house of the writer Tracy Chevalier when she was away. There were quite a lot of people in my house – my boyfriend moved in during the first lockdown. He’s a writer and lecturer and was often giving seminars to 200 people on Zoom. My daughter was running a business upstairs. My son was doing homeschool. The dogs were barking. So it was wonderful and saving to go round the corner to an empty house and write short stories.

What books are on your bedside table?
Right now I’m reading two books. One is Frostquake by Juliet Nicolson. It’s so, so good. It’s all about the winter in which I was born. I kept thinking about my mother during it. Not only was she faced with the difficulties of being isolated and disapproved of for her single mother status, but it snowed for 10 weeks. I’m also reading Gwendoline Riley’s My Phantoms, which is razor-sharp and utterly brilliant.

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What novelist writing today do you most admire?
I’m always interested to see what Rachel Cusk is writing.

How do you organise your books?
By memory. I would love to say alphabetically. That’s my dream. But I just try to remember where the books I want to find are.

What classic novel did you recently read for the first time?
I reread Middlemarch and it felt as if it were for the first time. I just don’t think I got it when I read it as a teenager.

What sort of reader were you as a child?
I didn’t learn to read until I was about 10. I was read to every single night by my mother, which was marvellous. I was quite dyslexic, and I think quite distracted by having spent two years of my life in Morocco. My head was too full and I couldn’t seem to take anything in. When I was young and being read to, I particularly loved Laura Ingalls Wilder. Many years later, when I started writing, I thought about those books.

I Couldn’t Love You More by Esther Freud is published by Bloomsbury (£16.99). To support the Guardian order your copy at Delivery charges may apply


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