Felicity Bryan, one of Britain’s most respected literary agents, died June 21 after a long struggle with cancer. She was 74. Tragically, she and her two sisters, who predeceased her, shared the BRCA gene. Yet while that was not discovered until the mid-1990s, there’s a sense that her sense of mortality led Bryan to live her remarkable life in a rush, for literary agenting was her third career, begun at Curtis Brown when she was 27. She founded Felicity Bryan Associates (FBA) in 1988, when marriage and motherhood made the daily commute from Oxford burdensome.
In those days, few people struck out on their own, certainly not women. To do so outside London was risky, but Bryan’s goal was to become an international agent working from a local base. She made stars of many Oxford scholars, among them: Diarmaid MacCulloch, whose prize-winning A History of Christianity put him on the international map – thanks to the acclaimed BBC TV series that accompanied the book. Bryan, a networker par excellence, had dropped the historian’s proposal through the mailbox of then BBC director-general Mark Thompson, whose home she passed on the short drive to her office.
Bryan had studied art history at London’s Courtauld Institute, where her professors included Anthony Blunt, surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, who was outed as a Soviet spy in 1979. She went on to work for The Burlington Magazine, the celebrated art monthly, finding it “limiting”. Ambition and wanderlust led her to Washington D.C., where she was the FT’s bureau chief. She arrived amid the smoke and dust of the 1968 riots and stayed two years, returning to London to take up a post on The Economist. The invitation to join Curtis Brown came out of the blue. Agenting turned out to be the perfect job for someone of Bryan’s curiosity, irrepressible enthusiasm and talent for hatching ideas and matching them to the right author.
She inherited Rosamunde Pilcher, who followed Bryan to her own agency, transforming her from an author of quiet romances into a global superstar with The Shell Seekers, which dislodged the Bonfire of the Vanities from atop the charts when it was published by Tom McCormack at St Martin’s Press. That book, plus Karen Armstrong’s A History of God, and An Instance of the Fingerpost by Ian Pears, art historian and journalist-turned-novelist, cemented FBA’s reputation and future. In 2001, Bryan lured Catherine Clarke from OUP.
With authors such as Michael Wood, A C Grayling and Meg Rosoff, Clarke helped expand the agency's reach. In 2010 – the year of Edmund de Waal’s The Hare With Amber Eyes which sold in 29 languages – an arranged management buyout (Bryan’s husband relinquishing his shares) saw Clarke appointed managing director of the enlarged company. Bryan was thrilled: succession was assured, she could rest easy. Happily, the agency’s last year was a good one, Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads alone selling some 1.5 million copies. A contract for a book of Pilcher short stories, which she tracked down from decades-old magazines, was the last Bryan signed, just 10 days ago.
“Nothing held her back,” said Clarke, paying tribute to Bryan’s “extraordinary brain” and “knack for loyalty… in the best possible sense, she never let an opportunity go to waste. She was frustrated to have to leave too early but she had put her house in order.”
She is survived by her husband, economist Alex Duncan, and by her sons Maxim and Benjamin.