- Categories: 21st Century
Diana Norman 25 August 1933 – 27 January 2011 was a British author and journalist. She is best known for her historical crime fiction series featuring the 12th-century medical examiner Adelia Aguilar, written under the pen name of Ariana Franklin. The first book in the series, Mistress of the Art of Death, was published to critical acclaim in 2007 and won the Ellis Peters Historical Dagger award in the UK, as well as prizes in the US and Sweden. Always modest, Norman confessed her astonishment at its reception, saying: “I’m not used to being feted, being married to a TV presenter, Barry Norman. I’m more accustomed to being trampled in the rush to get his autograph than being publicised myself. I’m not complaining, though.”
Born Mary Diana Narracott, she grew up first in London and then in Devon, where her mother took her to escape the blitz. She left school aged 15, but with her keen intelligence and with journalism in her genes – her father had been a Times correspondent – the lack of formal education proved no barrier and by 17 she was back in London, working on a local newspaper in the East End.
Headhunted at 20 by the Daily Herald, Norman became the youngest reporter on Fleet Street, covering royal visits, donning camouflage to go on exercise with the Royal Marines, and missing her 21st birthday party because she was covering a murder on the south coast. When she protested about this to the news editor, she was told: “Many happy returns. Now get down to Southampton.”
Strikingly attractive, stylish, vivacious, well-informed and enormous fun to be with, she married Barry Norman, a fellow journalist, in 1957. In spite of a somewhat shaky start, the union proved enduring and happy. After the birth of their two daughters, she turned from full-time journalism to writing fiction with, as she put it, “a child on either hip”. While writing her early novels Norman was also for a number of years a magistrate at Stevenage, Hertfordshire, and, according to her husband, a “turbulent presence on the bench because she hated fining or imprisoning poor people”.
Rosina Lippi interviews Diana Norman:
Norman started studying history after she was married and found herself living in a Hertfordshire village with two children. Life in Fleet Street had been turbulent but exciting, but while motherhood was often equally turbulent, it wasn’t enough.
She began to write a novel about Henry II, the 12th century king who had always fascinated her as “the instigator of one of those enormous leaps forward that have brought us out of the Dark Ages, a man who gave us the jury system, Common Law and who restored England after an annihilating civil war.” As an aside Norman notes that Henry has taken the blame for the murder of Thomas à Becket on the steps of Canterbury Cathedral despite the fact that he was in France at the time, and beyond that: “Saint Thomas was a very, very trying man.”
After three novels about Henry II, Norman wandered off through the succeeding ages, mainly trying to chart women’s history by means of storytelling. “If you peer deeply enough into the archives you find amazing women, not necessarily the famous ones, but ordinary widows pursuing trades from which, officially, they were banned.”
Norman’s interest in the untold in history comes through in all her work. She creates strong women characters who are put into the situations which test them and their beliefs to the extreme. Norman attributes her inclination to creating such characters to her own family history.
“I come of a long line of strong women. At the age of fourteen, my Welsh grandmother was sent to England to work as a laundry maid in what was then known as a lunatic asylum without being able to understand a word of English. At first she didn’t know who were the staff and who the inmates, but she lived to old age to terrorize and fascinate us, her descendants. Women through the ages have had it so tough that I flounder in admiration at their struggle against prejudice and adversity, especially those who made the path smoother for those of us who came after. So, yes, I suppose all my heroines are bound to reflect that.”