So much for first instincts. Winter Solstice, Pilcher's saga of five sad souls who find unexpected renewal in a remote Scottish house during the holidays, soared to the top of the New York Times bestseller list last August and is now a paperback bestseller. Pilcher, 76, says that returning to writing after a three-year hiatus was "like eating something delicious." Adds her friend Rosemary Rome, 79: "I think she wanted to come out of retirement. She's only totally fulfilled when she's writing."
With some 30 novels and hundreds of short stories to her credit, this mother of four has led a fulfilling life indeed. Yet it wasn't until her early 60s that Pilcher became a sudden sensation. The Shell Seekers, a novel about a British family's struggles over an inheritance, "touched a primal nerve in people," says Pilcher's friend and editor Tom Dunne, publisher of Thomas Dunne Books. The novel sold more than 5 million copies and brought its very private author worldwide fame, including, oddly, near-cult status in Germany. Occasionally German fans even show up at Pilcher's three-bedroom bungalow in the tiny Scottish village of Longforgan. "Ros doesn't like it much," says her husband, Graham, 85, a former major in the British army. I say, 'Look here, you mustn't throw them out.' So she gives them a cup of tea, and they're happy."
Pilcher doesn't invariably deliver happy endings. In Shell Seekers, for example, she killed off her heroine. "She writes optimistic books, but there is pain and death," says Dunne. Mostly her stories turn on long country walks, comforting foods and the pleasures of domesticity. A Pilcher novel, a reviewer once wrote, is "like a big mug of cocoa in front of a blazing fire on a winter night."
What Pilcher doesn't write much about is sex. "My children always tease me, 'Oh Mummy, another row of dots!' " she says, referring to her habit of leaving passion to readers' imaginations. "The two most wonderful things in life are money and sex, but the minute you start discussing them, they become b-o-r-i-n-g."
Growing up middle-class in Lelant, a village in Cornwall, England, she learned that there were other things not to be discussed. Her homemaker mother, Helen, a Christian Scientist, was against modern medicine. Pilcher and her older sister Lalage (who died of cancer in 1971) "just thought beautiful thoughts when we should have been wheeled off to the doctor," says Pilcher, whose childhood was plagued with ear-and toothaches. "You felt hopeless."
The girls rarely saw their father, Charles Scott, a naval surveyor in Burma who returned to Lelant only every four years. "It was very strange," Pilcher says. "We didn't know him at all. Not having a father always made you feel that perhaps you weren't quite the same as other people. You felt you weren't complete."
Writing helped her cope. At 18, while a typist for the Women's Royal Naval Service, she sold her first short story—a tale about a lonely young GI—to a British women's magazine for about $20. "And I've been at it ever since," she says. "I just went beavering on." She met Graham Pilcher at a tea party in Cornwall in 1945. "She was very pretty," Graham recalls, "and had very good legs." They married the following year—although at the time, she admits, she wasn't in love with him. "He was a very calm, kind person. I felt I could deal with life easily if I had someone like that—and I've proved myself right," she says. "It was a friendship that very swiftly turned into something stronger. People today expect too much from marriage. Getting married is really like taking on a big new job."
She had her work cut out for her. She reared the couple's children (Fiona, now 53, Robin, 50, Pippa, 48, and Mark, 43) in a Victorian house with no central heating near Dundee, Scotland, while Graham helped run the family's jute business. Amid the hustle and bustle, she wrote. "I thought all mothers had a typewriter in the kitchen," says Mark, now an organic farmer. "I used to sit at her knee and say, 'Don't, don't. I hate the sound of the typewriter.' But the poor woman was just trying to make some money." Still, Pilcher managed to balance motherhood and her work. Says Pippa, now a children's clothing designer: "She never abandoned us for her books." And despite the occasional carping from critics who dismissed her books as romantic piffle, "I'm like Liberace," Pilcher once said, "laughing all the way to the bank."
Not that conspicuous consumption interests her. After the success of Shell Seekers, she recalls, "I looked out the window and thought, 'I can buy anything I want, and what I want is a lawn mower.' Everyone thought that was funny, but it was a frightfully sensible thing to do." She also set up education funds for her grandchildren and donated a significant sum to the village of Longforgan, where she and Graham moved four years ago. "She's a very wealthy woman, but she goes about the village just like any of us," says Peter Mulheron, a neighbor. "She's not flashy."
Recently she and Graham bought a five-bedroom vacation home in northern Scotland. It has plenty of room for her 13 grandchildren, who visit throughout the year, including at Christmas—which, by the way, Pilcher still isn't keen on. "It's dark in Scotland at 3 p.m. [that time of year]," she says. "So if you have a household of people pouring around the place, it makes for a lot of noise and untidiness and TVs blaring."
Quite a contrast to most days chez Pilcher, since she seems to have entered her second retirement and her typewriter has been silent of late. "I've been working flat out all my life," she says. "I rather relish, at my age, not having the pressure." Perhaps. But don't write her off yet. "Last time she said she was going to retire, she had just completed a lovely new writing office for herself," says Pippa. "We thought, 'Well, what's that for, then?' She's not the retiring type."
Nina Biddle in Longforgan