Best-selling novelist Wendy Holden, a favourite among chick lit fans and former ghost writer columnist for ‘It’ girl Tara Palmer-Tomkinson, talks about the tips she picked up mixing with the rich and famous as she lifts the lid on social climbing and snobbery in her latest hilarious novel Marrying Up. The Yorkshire lass retains more humble aspirations – to continue making readers laugh. By Hannah Stephenson
As a former ghost writer for ‘It’ girl Tara Palmer-Tomkinson’s Sunday Times column, best-selling author Wendy Holden knows more than most about the art of social climbing.
The Yorkshire lass, whose debut novel Simply Divine was inspired by her partnership with the celebrity socialite, went on to write a string of comical chick-lit novels including Azur Like It, Fame Fatale and Filthy Rich.
“I’ve always been interested in social climbing as a comic subject,” says the writer once dubbed a ‘modern day Jilly Cooper’.
When she was writing Palmer-Tomkinson’s column, the celebrity would tell Holden amusing snippets, like ‘Champagne makes your breath smell’, and ‘Never eat canapes because if they’re dropped on the floor in the kitchen, they’ll always be put back on the tray’.
“She had a little ditty about aeroplanes too,” Wendy recalls. “In first class you make friends, in club you make comrades but in economy you make enemies. How can you not find that amusing?”
The column, she says, formed the foundation of her career, which is something she’s eternally grateful for. They don’t keep in touch, but Palmer-Tomkinson attended the launch party of Simply Divine and was extremely gracious about it.
Wendy’s experience working at magazines including Tatler, Harpers & Queen and The Sunday Times’ Style section has also given her a lot of material for her fictional tales.
“I’ve had the greatest fortune to work in glossy magazines and newspapers, and have had the inside track on upper-class and glamorous lives through my job,” she says. “We all seem to want to be posh now. That’s something that’s changed in the last 20 years.”
Social climbing forms the basis of her latest novel Marrying Up, which sees a humbly born, scheming social climber Alexa fighting to reach the top of the gold-digging tree, with her sights on a title, mansion and a very rich prince. However, there’s a Cinderella-type fly in the ointment.
Wendy, 46, admits there was a time in her teens when she could also see the merits of improving her social status.
“I was desperate to marry a public schoolboy, get a tiara and live in an ancestral home. I was 18 and couldn’t wait to get my hands on somebody with a hand-tied bow tie. But then I realised there’s slightly more to life than that.”
But it hasn’t stopped her fascination with the subject.
“There was a time when every sitcom on the telly featured it. I’m sure people have social climbed from the Stone Age. I’m sure there were people who had a slightly posher cave in Neolithic times and a better cut of animal skin.”
Wendy herself has remained a keen observer, rather than participant, of the upper class world, she stresses.
“I was brought up in Yorkshire by a very ordinary family who laughed at anything like that. I’ve carried that with me and it’s been a great advantage because I was able to be part of that world, and yet be able to see the funny side of it at the same time.
“I did feel like an outsider, but not in a bad way. I knew I was different but I also knew most of these people weren’t as posh as they were making out to be.”
Wendy’s Yorkshire working-class roots have kept her feet firmly on the ground.
Growing up near Haworth, home of the Brontes, her father was a printer and her mother a secretary who loved her job. She showed the young Wendy how much fun you can have in the world of work.
“Holden read English at Cambridge University, where she met her husband Jon, who was studying French and Russian, and was also in a student rock band whose high point was supporting New Order.
They now live in Derbyshire in a former Victorian gardener’s lodge which resembles a mini castle, with their children Andrew, eight, and seven-year-old Isabella.
“It’s a fanciful bit of Victorian architecture,” she explains. “It’s tiny, with three bedrooms but is built like a castle. I like to say it’s my starter castle.”
She works from her garden shed, a rather smart affair housing a chaise longue, a turntable, a bust of Shakespeare and a pink telephone.
While her home may be in Derbyshire, where her in-laws live, Wendy’s heart remains in Yorkshire.
She’s now working on Gifted And Talented, her next masterpiece, which centres on pushy parents.
“It’s a type of snobbery that you rush to get your child to achieve and do as much as possible - it’s a reflection of yourself,” she muses, admitting she’s one herself. “Everybody’s doing it!”
The novel, however, won’t be a heavy read. Wendy is adamant she wants to continue to make people laugh.
“I want to make people happy. You won’t find anybody being murdered or beating children in my books. They are a refuge from that sort of thing.”