Eva Hanagan: Author

Born: 10 November, 1923, in Inverness. Died: 9 January, 2009, in Wandsworth, London, aged 85.

A LITERARY novelist whose work was promoted by publishers of the "Hampstead set", Eva Hanagan had an adventurous life for a girl brought up in 1930s Inverness. Her precocious interests in politics, languages and travel took her to Vienna as a young woman to work on harrowing wartime records before she settled into a successful writing career back the UK. It has been said that Auberon Waugh likened Hanagan to the "Jane Austen of the 20th century".

The only daughter of James MacDonald Ross and Janet Alice Ross, Eva Ross was educated at Inverness Royal Academy. Her father worked as a salesman in Inverness and Hanagan's early years were spent in Tarnash, a house on the banks of the River Ness.

As a child she was known to have a "clever, imaginative mind", although ill health affected her education, childhood asthma keeping her away from school for extended periods. Nevertheless, when she did attend she still managed to appear regularly in the top five places in her school year.

As her health improved, Hanagan and young friends would romp around the Islands, a beauty spot on the Ness, picnicking and enjoying open-air concerts, Hanagan's bright red hair worn in a thick plait.

Later, as her three older brothers set off for university to read medicine or veterinary medicine, a formal education was not seen as a priority for a girl. Hanagan never regretted this and took the opportunity to follow other interests. Around the age of 19 she became involved with the Common Wealth Party, serving as secretary of its Highlands branch.

The party, which existed from 1942-45, was initially chaired by the playwright J B Priestley. It was based on old-fashioned socialist ideals which Hanagan retained throughout her life.

Like her mother, she became an accomplished amateur pianist, under the tutoring of Wilfred Warden. She also picked up French, German, and Russian during this period.

By the end of the Second World War, Hanagan felt an urge to travel and joined the Foreign Office in London. This led to a posting to the Allied Commission for Austria in Vienna in March 1946. She worked for several years in the legal division of the Foreign Office at Schonbrunn Palace.

The Allied Commissions were managing the defeated nations after the war and, among other tasks, they processed the files for the Nuremberg trials. This first-hand experience of accounts of Nazi war crimes, along with visits to Nazi camps, left a permanent impression on the mind of a young woman not yet 24. In an interview in 1998, she said: "It's never really bright morning again. You see the absolute depths of human depravity."

While working in Austria she met Major John Thomas Frederick Hanagan, then seconded to the Foreign Office, and they married at the Kinsky Palace in Vienna in 1947. Her husband's postings led to a life travelling as a service wife throughout Europe and the Middle East.

Hanagan had always known instinctively that she wanted to be a novelist and the couple's return to England in the 1970s and to a more settled life gave her the opportunity to start writing. After several short stories, her first novel, In Thrall, was published by Duckworths in 1977. Her publisher, Colin Haycraft, considered her one of his best literary writers. A second novel, Playmates, followed in 1978.

Duckworths was run by Haycraft and his wife, Anna, who wrote under the pseudonym Alice Thomas Ellis. Anna Haycraft entertained writers in the kitchen of the family home in Hampstead, north London, dispensing "food, sharp wit and encouragement". Among them were Beryl Bainbridge, Oliver Sacks and Jonathan Miller. According to Miller, this was the group originally given the name "the chattering classes".

But Hanagan found Duckworths "possessive" and the Hampstead environment claustrophobic and looked for a new publisher. In 1979, Constables published The Upas Tree followed, in 1980, by Holding On and A Knock at the Door in 1982. After this novel she became depressed by the declining quality of literary publishing, putting aside various ideas until two manuscripts were taken up by Warner Books: Alice (1997) and The Daisy Rock (1998).

Although Waugh had likened her to Jane Austen, Hanagan always said her greatest influence was Thackeray.

A highly independent and intellectually powerful woman, she said she possessed "a man's mind and a woman's heart". Yet, while approving of women writers she had no interest in women's rights, believing that in the pursuit of feminism women risked losing those qualities which made them women.

In the mid-1980s, she found fulfilment in lecturing on writing, becoming the first novelist appointed writer-in-residence, teaching creative writing at Ford Open prison in Sussex. Hanagan also contributed to writing magazines such as the Writers Bureau, and joined the Society of Sussex Authors.

Although she always believed writers are born rather than made, she nonetheless enjoyed introducing the best of English literature to a wider audience.

Hanagan stayed on in Horsham, Sussex, after her husband died in 1992, until ill health forced a move to be nearer her son in London.

She is survived by two sons.