Obituary: Nina Bawden; author who wrote as beautifully and intelligently for children as she did for adults

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Born: 19 January, 1925, in Essex. Died: 22 August, 2012, in London, aged 87.

Many of Nina Bawden’s works became familiar to families throughout the UK. Her children’s books were widely read and her adult novels, such as Carrie’s War, published in 1973, was an international best seller. It was serialised twice on the BBC, the second film starring Edward Fox. She published 23 adult novels and 20 children’s books in a career that spanned five decades. Many had a political or social undertone that reflected her own challenging attitude to society. Bawden memorably confronted Margaret Thatcher, a fellow undergraduate at Oxford, about the social divide in society.

Bawden was an imaginative wordsmith who was a master storyteller. Little was predictable in a Bawden novel and her subtle change of pace, rhythm and tempo held the readers’ attention. Circles Of Deceit, her most admired novel for adult readers, was shortlisted for the 1987 Booker Prize.

Nina Mary Mabey attended Ilford County High School for Girls but the school was evacuated to Aberdare in Wales during the war. She was a bright girl and in 1943 went to Somerville College, Oxford, to read politics, philosophy and economics.

Bawden’s life was beset by tragedy. In 1981, her eldest son Nicholas – from her first marriage to Harry Bawden – died at the age of 33. He suffered from schizophrenia and had tried to overcome personal addictive problems but after a period in prison his body was found in the River Thames.

One of Bawden’s last books, Dear Austen, was an open letter to her second husband, Austen Kark, who was killed in the Potter’s Bar rail crash of 2002.

In that accident her ankle was smashed, and she needed to be in pins and plates for the rest of her life. She also broke her arm, leg, shoulder, collarbone. She could not remember much about the accident and later said: “The psychiatrist says that’s the best way – you have plenty of self-protective defences.”

With typical tenacity Bawden campaigned for compensation for the survivors and those left bereft through injury from the crash. In Dear Austen she wrote plaintively: “I am not a victim, I am an angry survivor.”

In a further cruel blow, her daughter, Perdita, by Austen Karp, died earlier this year.

In 1946, after Oxford, she married Henry Bawden, a scholar and ex-serviceman considerably older than herself. They lived in London but the marriage had an unfortunate start as his mother committed suicide after their engagement. They had two sons and she started writing at night.

She had met Austen on a bus and the two found an instant rapport and love. They married in 1954 and had a most happy marriage.

Bawden’s first book, a crime novel called Who Calls the Tune, was published in 1953, and her first children’s book, The Secret Passage, came out in 1963. That caused quite a stir among critics as it was centred on a family whose mother was dead and the father often away.

This reflected Bawden’s own youth as her father was an engineer with P&O.

Many of her books echoed events or personalities in her own life. One of the characters in Circles of Deceit was, unintentionally, based on her son Nicholas. “I couldn’t keep him out,” she once said, although in the novel the character does not die.

Bawden was also a distinguished literary critic – mostly in the pages of the Daily Telegraph – and was often heard on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour and Kaleidoscope.

A month after the Potter’s Bar disaster Bawden appeared on the Today programme pleading for an immediate public inquiry into the disaster and deploring the government’s mismanagement of the rail network.

She was so disgusted by the official response that she, a life-long Labour supporter – cut up her membership card and returned it in bits to Labour Party headquarters.

There was eloquence about Bawden’s writing and elegance about her personality that ensured she was much admired both professionally and personally.

She hated injustice and fought to uphold right throughout her life. After coping with her disappointments Bawden showed remarkable resilience. Her marriage to Kark, head of the BBC World Service, was a happy one and the two much enjoyed travelling especially on their annual visits to their home in Greece.

Speaking yesterday at the Edinburgh Book Festival, the children’s author Eleanor Updale said of Bawden that “she wrote without patronising or hectoring, treating her readers as clever people who demanded, and deserved, the best”.

Bawden, who was awarded a CBE in 1997, won an international PEN award for lifetime achievements and was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. Her husband died in 2004 and she is survived by a son and two stepdaughters.

ALASDAIR STEVEN