To Ann and Nicholas Monsarrat, the Sea Is Never Cruel: It Inspires His Fiction and Their Idyll

updated 07/02/1979 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/02/1979 01:00AM

"Marvelous writing country," says Nicholas Monsarrat of Gozo, his island home in the Mediterranean. "Nothing much else to do."

He was saying similar things, "dropping bits of information in a fruity voice like Noel Coward," the former Ann Griffiths remembers, when they met at a London party 19 years ago. Then 49, the dapper ex-diplomat had one best-seller (The Cruel Sea) and two marriages (but only one divorce) behind him: Griffiths, 22, an aspiring journalist who had never lived with a man, "didn't know enough to worry" about his marital affairs—or a succession of extramarital ones either. The age difference didn't matter ("I was born old" Ann says). They wed a year later, in a civil ceremony in Kent.

As the marriage happily endured, their work went on. Monsarrat recently published his 34th book, volume one of The Master Mariner, which follows a mythical seaman through 400 years of British maritime history. Ann just completed a biography of the 19th-century English novelist William Makepeace Thackeray.

The Monsarrats, says a friend, "live an almost magical existence." Nicholas, now 68, rises with the sun and slowly types 600 words a day while fortifying himself with orange juice and beer and Chopin nocturnes on tape. "I know them so well," he says, "that I don't have to pay attention." After lunch Ann reads the newspapers to him, because, he explains, "My eyes are getting a bit old and I want to save them for writing." Husband and wife retreat to separate offices after dinner for more work.

If Ann's production lags behind his, it's because she does all the shopping and cooking. He's the fixer—"One word about a broken coffee grinder or washing machine, and he's there with his tool kit."

Once a month they take the ferry three miles to Malta to see friends, and each year they splurge on a few weeks at elegant Claridge's Hotel in London. Though he once prowled that city as a roguish bachelor, Nicholas' indulgence now is two baths a day—Gozo's water shortage permits only one.

The course to that tiny island was littered with rejection slips (from Punch in his teen years) and middling reviews. Monsarrat's father, an eminent Liverpool gynecologist, was unenthusiastic about his son's literary aspirations. After Cambridge Nicholas in fact tried an apprenticeship in the law and found it "damned dull—all deeds, wills and mortgages, and no juicy divorce cases." Ultimately failing the bar exam, he packed off to London at 23 with a typewriter and wrote for Yachting World. His first two novels caused no ripples, and his only play, The Visitor, starring Greer Garson, folded after three weeks in August 1936. "We said it was the hot weather," Monsarrat says. "Actually, it was a bad play."

He served in the Royal Navy during World War II, eventually commanding a frigate. He then joined the foreign service and was posted to Johannesburg. In 1951 he published The Cruel Sea, his 12th book and first success. Based on his wartime experiences, the tale of Nazi submarines stalking British ships has sold a total of 11 million copies—80,000 last year alone—in 23 languages. It caught on, Monsarrat reflects now, because "I had something to say, which I'd never had before. I hadn't lived much except for acres of love affairs."

Those didn't stop. In 1952 his first wife, Eileen, divorced him. reportedly on grounds of misconduct with Philippa Crosby, who later became Mrs. Monsarrat and moved with him to Ottawa, his next diplomatic assignment.

Monsarrat was now a celebrity, and he and Philippa were not the ideal diplomatic couple. In an overlong game of charades at one party at his residence he pointedly acted out "Go home" as a message to his guests. Philippa refused so many invitations, Ottawa society dubbed her "the Cruel She." Monsarrat resigned in 1956 after three years in Canada, having learned, he says, that writing a bestseller "is not the best way to get to the top in diplomacy. It upsets their sense of order when you have a Rolls-Royce while the high commissioner is driving around in a Humber." On a visit to London he met Ann.

She was an accountant's daughter from Staffordshire whose father vetoed art school for fear of her mixing with "scruffy types." Instead, she edited a suburban women's page, then moved to London at 21 to assist a Daily Mail columnist. She quit that job when she married Monsarrat, and freelanced. Her husband's experience in book-writing left her ambivalent.

"Having watched him," she says, "it seemed far too complicated." (He sometimes rewrites a chapter four times.) Yet on Princess Anne's wedding day in 1973, she published her first book, And the Bride Wore..., a history of nuptial ceremonies and costumes. Encouraged by Nicholas, she began working on Thackeray. (He wrote Vanity Fair and was, says Ann, hardly dull: "His wife went mad, he fell in love with his best friend's wife and he lost his money gambling.")

At 42, she no longer regrets not having children. "If you get on really well with a man, and if you're together all the time, it's much better to be just the two of you," she says. Nicholas agrees. His three sons (Max, 36, who farms in France, Marc, 24, a radio writer in Vancouver, and Anthony, 23, a Halifax photographer) strained his first two marriages, he feels, because he is "jealous of divided attention."

With Ann, Monsarrat shares everything from "opening the mail to publishers' luncheons." She marvels, "I never thought he'd share so much of his life, I didn't think any man would." Monsarrat's view is: "If extremely lucky, you become more entwined instead of less, and become more essential to one another instead of feeling the need to disengage." Since he married Ann, he says, "I have never been unfaithful, or thought of it, or wanted to be."

Ann adds, "Nicholas had learned from his mistakes and taught me all I know about making a marriage work." Still, she commiserates with his first wife, Eileen, who has become a friend. "Back then, he was doing so much—his job, book reviews, The Cruel Sea, radio appearances—how could he have any time left for a wife?"

Though the Master Mariner reviews have been nothing to write home about, even to Gozo, Monsarrat is working on volume two and plans to phase himself out by 75. "There comes a time when one has done enough," he says. "Then I'll lie down and die, because life just pottering isn't worth it."

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