Award-winning British author Jill Paton Walsh has died at age 83.
Jill Paton Walsh was born Gillian Bliss on April 29, 1937 in suburban London. From the ages of three to five, Walsh lived with her grandparents in the seaside town of St. Ives in Cornwall. Her family had initially taken refuge there during the bombings of WWII, and Walsh stayed on when her mother and younger siblings returned to London. She rejoined her family in London following her grandmother’s sudden death in 1944. In her autobiographical essay, Walsh wrote that she had always held onto powerful memories from this early time in her life.
After attending an all-girls Catholic school, Walsh studied at Oxford, where she met the man who would become her husband. She finished her degree and began teaching English at Enfield Girls Grammar School in Middlesex, England. Walsh left her teaching position in 1962 and was expecting her first child with Antony Edmund Paton Walsh, whom she married in 1961.
As a young mother at home with her infant son, Walsh wrote in her autobiography that she was “bored frantic,” and was compelled to pull out an old typewriter and begin writing. (“I began to write a book. It was a children’s book. It never occurred to me to write any other kind,” she wrote.) Her first effort, a children’s novel, was rejected for publication, but caught the attention of children’s book editor Kevin Crossley-Holland at Macmillan in the U.K., who offered Walsh a contract for her next book. That project became her first published work, Hengest’s Tale.
Walsh was soon juggling motherhood—caring for three children under the age of four—with her burgeoning writing career. She produced children’s novels in quick succession in the late 1960s and early 1970s, many incorporating stories from history or her own memories, with WWII and Cornwall among the backdrops she used as staging for her work. Her 1974 novel, The Emperor’s Winding Sheet (FSG), which follows the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and the end of the Byzantine Empire as seen through the eyes of a young shipwrecked sailor from England, won several accolades, including Britain’s Whitbread Prize.
In 1986, Walsh’s marriage had ended, and she turned her attention to writing novels for adults, inspired by elements of her own life for Lapsing (St. Martin’s, 1987), which she said in her autobiography was about a complex love triangle. Walsh’s catalogue expanded to include a number of children’s short chapter books and picture books as well, which were in part sparked by the grandchildren of her partner, fellow writer John Rowe Townsend whom Walsh eventually married in 2004. She and Townsend founded Green Bay Publications in 1994 to self-publish Walsh’s adult novel Knowledge of Angels, which could not find a U.K. publisher (though Houghton Mifflin published the U.S. edition). The book was shortlisted for the Booker Prize that year. Walsh was awarded a CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) for services to literature in 1996.
By 1997, Walsh notes in her autobiography, “the landscape of my inner world was slowly changing and the ability to write for children gradually left me.” From that point, she focused solely on writing for adults, including two series of mystery/detective novels.