As the historical novelist, Rosalind Laker, her American editor was Jackie Onassis
3rd October 1921 to 23rd November 2012
Barbara Øvstedal was born in Bognor Regis. Her parents had met there during the First World War: her father, a volunteer serving with the Canadian Army; and her mother, a nursing auxiliary with the Voluntary Aid Detachment. Barbara’s father was English, but had emigrated to Canada where he opened a silent cinema in Winnipeg – thus inadvertently initiating a trail which would lead to Barbara’s lifetime love of the cinema.
Jack Geils and Ethel Jenkins married in Bognor in 1919, intending to then emigrate to Canada, but Ethel’s father was one of the partners in the refurbished Picturedrome cinema in Bognor and they invited Jack, with his experience from Winnipeg, to become its first manager. Thus Barbara was born in Bognor in 1921 but, sadly, never really knew her father who died aged 32 – when Barbara was just three – of the Tuberculosis which he had contracted during his service in the Trenches.
Barbara must have retained access to the Picturedrome because the first film she remembered seeing there was Sparrows, starring Mary Pickford, when she would have been four or five. Despite the distractions of the cinema she excelled at Chichester High School for Girls, where she achieved the country’s highest marks in English and won a scholarship to Worthing Art School to study the History of Costume and Dress Design. Her work there must have been distinctive because five of her designs were made up by Norman Hartnell, later the Queen’s dressmaker, and she was delighted when, many years later, the designs she had donated to the Imperial War Museum were featured in its 1997 exhibition and book about wartime fashion.
Following graduation there came the most incongruous period of Barbara’s life when she worked twelve-hour night shifts on a production line at the LEC munitions factory and watched for fire and bomb damage from the roof of Reynolds Funeral Directors. Barbara had such a wealth of stories from this era which were always fascinating – such as her evocative description of leaving the Picturedrome on 5th June 1944 and looking up to see the sky black with transport aircraft, and realising that this meant the start of the invasion of Europe. By VE day, she was with friends in London, dancing in Piccadilly and, she assured us, clearly visible on the Pathe newsreel…
But of course the most important event of those years was that Barbara met Inge Øvstedal. He was a Norwegian, who had escaped the Occupation in 1941 in a small fishing boat and in 1944 was stationed at Pagham with Squadron 332 of the Royal Norwegian Air Force, awaiting the invasion of Normandy. They married in 1945 and moved with their baby daughter to Norway in 1946, where they lived at Gardemøen. Barbara loved Norway from first sight, was warmly welcomed by Inge’s family and Barbara developed especially strong bonds with her sister-in-law, Helga. For many years Barbara & Inge took their daughter and son to the farmhouse where Inge was born until they bought their own small cottage in the valley of Øvstedal which became the second home they loved so much.
So, for the post war decade, Barbara was a full-time housewife and mother. In her spare time, she painted oils, sketched, constantly redecorated her home and wrote copious letters. She was a creative cook and in 1956 she won Margurite Patten’s nationwide television cookery competition with her innovative recipe, Oslo Chops.
The significant transition in Barbara’s life came when she invested five pounds in an old typewriter. Barbara was never good with dates so it’s sometimes difficult to get the chronology right, but the family legend is that her first published piece – for which she won a hair drier and five pounds – was an article in Parent Magazine about the difficulties of having a 13 year old daughter who was already six feet tall. A subsequent piece, “The Village Bus That Nobody Missed”, about the Sussex Silver Queen Bus Service, was taken by Country Life by return of post.
Many other similar, factual articles followed but then, one day at the hairdressers, she read a love story and decided that she could do one too. The result was immediately taken for publication with a request for anything else she had written – and countless magazine short stories and serials followed – many of which were later published as complete books and sold internationally. Barbara was a regular contributor to Jackie and Honey magazines. Having a difficult surname, her agent, Gerald Pollinger of Laurence Pollinger, advised her to choose a pen name. Barbara chose Rosalind Laker, combining ancestral names from each side of her family.
Around 1970, a publisher suggested Barbara write a novel and she chose to base it around the town she knew so well. “Sovereign’s Key” (based on the town’s slogan of ‘Royal Key To Health’) told the story of a girl growing up against the background of Bognor as it expanded from a tiny village into Sir Richard Hotham’s fashionable resort. This was the first of over 40 historical novels. The local historian, Gerard Young, introduced her to the pleasure of historical research and she loved this newfound skill which provided the foundation of many subsequent books about famous creative people, such as the designer Worth, Hester Bateman (the first woman to have her own silver hallmark), Chippendale and Grinling Gibbons.
Her love of Norway prompted a travel book and three novels, including her last, ‘The House By the Fjord’, where she drew on memories of her life in Norway in the late 1940s, after the Occupation.
Rosalind Laker was published all over the world. International success brought new pleasures as she and Inge travelled to both research and publicise her books. In America, she appeared on TV with Ed Sullivan and crossed America to appear on numerous radio shows and give talks to libraries and reading groups. “To Dance With Kings” climbed so high in the best sellers’ list that her American publishers presented her with a leather-bound, gilt-edged copy. The Readers’ Digest published many consecutive titles in their condensed books and, perhaps giving Barbara most pleasure, Jackie Onassis was her editor when she was published by Doubleday – Barbara kept the proofs with Jackie’s comments in the margin.
Elsewhere Rosalind Laker’s books were translated into over twenty languages – “To Dream Of Snow”, her book about Catherine the Great, was so well in received in Russia that her publishers there bought most of her backlist for translation. She corresponded with fans all over the world and helped many aspiring authors with friendly encouragement. Today, Rosalind Laker is read around the world on paper – and increasingly as eBooks…
For all of her international travels and success, Barbara remained rooted in her home town and her splendid network of friends. She excelled at friendship. She made and retained friends all over the world because she cared about them and nurtured those relationships. She was always pleased to see them, loved their visits and corresponded regularly with those living abroad. Every visitor was greeted with a smile, a cup of tea and usually some homemade cake. It was fun to visit Barbara because she always had time to listen and her strong sense of humour meant that there was always laughter. When we think of Barbara, we must smile and remember her words and the legend she printed on her last gift to her treasured agent Juliet Burton, “I love happy endings”.
Barbara died peacefully in hospital following a fall. She never recovered fully from the death of her beloved husband, Inge, who predeceased her in 2010. She leaves a daughter and son.
Susan Keane (daughter)