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Jill Paton Walsh, multigenerational writer, dies at 83
After receiving 19 rejections from publishers, Ms. Paton Walsh published “Knowledge of Angels” herself. It was then shortlisted for the Booker Prize, one of the top literary awards.

by Neil Genzlinger

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Jill Paton Walsh was greeted with acclaim in the 1960s when she began writing young adult books that challenged her readers in both plotting and messaging. There was “Fireweed” (1970), a story of two British adolescents who set up housekeeping in a bombed-out building during World War II. There was “Goldengrove” (1972), about two youths who navigate the transition from childhood to adulthood during an eventful summer.

But in 1994 Paton Walsh achieved a whole different level of acclaim, by an unlikely route, with a book for adults, “Knowledge of Angels,” a genre-defying medieval fable about an atheist and a girl raised by wolves. Here she delved into themes of faith and reason and more.

Yet despite her success with books for young readers, “Knowledge of Angels” struggled to assert itself: No one in her native England would publish it.

“British publishers wouldn’t even say what they didn’t like about it,” Paton Walsh told The Daily Mail of London that year, “so I couldn’t even change it to suit them.”

And so, in a move that was rare for the time, she published it herself — and had the last laugh. The book was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, one of the top literary awards in the world, and is said to be the first self-published book to make that elite list.

Peter Lewis of The Daily Mail had a crisp rebuke for all those publishers — 19 was the final count — who had said no to the book.

“To open it and start reading,” he wrote, “is to be appalled by their lack of judgment.”

Paton Walsh died Oct. 18 at a hospital in Huntingdon, England, near Cambridge. She was 83 and also lived in Huntingdon. Oliver Soden, her literary executor, said the cause was heart and kidney failure.

Paton Walsh was a versatile writer whose more than two dozen books included several in the Lord Peter Wimsey detective series, which had been created by Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957). She completed “Thrones, Dominations” (1998), which Sayers had begun in the 1930s but never finished. Then Paton Walsh wrote three of her own Wimsey books, “A Presumption of Death” (2002), “The Attenbury Emeralds” (2010) and “The Late Scholar” (2014).

Gillian Honorine Mary Bliss was born on April 29, 1937, in London. Her father, John Bliss, was an engineer for the BBC who at his death had 363 patents to his name. Her mother, Patricia Paula (DuBern) Bliss, was a homemaker.

As a child, Gillian spent part of the World War II years in Cornwall, on the coast. “A part of me is still rooted in that rocky shore,” she wrote in the autobiographical series “Something About the Author,” “and it appears again and again in what I write.” Several of her young adult books have a seaside setting.

She attended St. Anne’s College, Oxford, graduating in 1959, and recalled listening to lectures there by J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.

“The subject of the lectures and tutorials was always literature or philology — we wouldn’t have dared ask those great men about their own work! — but the example they set by being both great and serious scholars, and writers of fantasy and books for children, was not lost on me,” she wrote in the autobiographical essay.

She married Antony Edmund Paton Walsh in 1961 and had her first child with him. Finding domestic life somewhat drab, she began writing to relieve her boredom. An editor at Macmillan told her that her first manuscript wasn’t good enough but took an option on whatever she would produce next. That was “Hengest’s Tale,” which she described as “a gory epic retold out of fragments of ‘Beowulf.’” In 1966, it became her first published book.

Next came “The Dolphin Crossing” (1967), followed by “Fireweed.” Writing in The New York Times Book Review in 1970, John Rowe Townsend, a British children’s book author and editor, called it “an outstanding novel for young people: original, haunting, poetic.”

Townsend would soon become a much bigger part of her life: They met in the early 1970s and began a relationship, although she remained with her husband until their children were grown. (He did not want a divorce because of his Roman Catholic faith; she had been raised in the church but called herself “a lifelong lapsed Catholic.”)

Her next young adult book, “Goldengrove,” was about two youngsters accustomed to spending summers at their grandmother’s seaside home and how one particular summer changed everything. Writing in The Times Book Review, Barbara Wersba, herself an author of young adult books, praised Paton Walsh’s ability to write “as though she were still 12 years old.” But, she wrote, that didn’t mean that Paton Walsh’s books were juvenile.

“I find it significant that ‘Goldengrove’ will be marketed for children between the ages of 11 and 14,” Wersba wrote, “and never reach their parents. The current division of fiction into Lots of Sex for the grown-ups and Less Sex for the kids is not only silly but wasteful, for the grown-ups are missing some beautiful and highly original work.”

Paton Walsh aged the “Goldengrove” characters in “Unleaving” (1976). In 1979, with “A Chance Child,” she gave readers a compelling look at child labor in the 19th century.

Her goal with her works for children, she told The Guardian in 1994, was to convey to them “that whatever they think of the world, it is actually much more complicated.”

“I hope to show them how difficult it is to make judgments,” she said, “how often the bad person turns out to be good, that life is unexpected.”

She tried her first novel for adults, “Lapsing,” in 1988. A tale about an Oxford undergraduate, the book drew on her own experiences with faith and love and earned good notices. So did a second novel for adults the next year, “A School for Lovers.” But sales were modest, and when she shopped the ambitious “Knowledge of Angels,” there were no takers in her home country — although The Guardian would describe it as “a compelling medieval fable centered on the conflict between belief and tolerance, and veined with a complex philosophical argument about the existence of God.”

With the aid of Townsend, Paton Walsh self-published the book in England, and although it did not win the Booker Prize, its nomination drew considerable attention, and Houghton Mifflin brought it out in the United States.

After the nomination, Paton Walsh chided the British publishers, telling The Times, “They’re all afraid of their jobs, and they make their decisions by committee.”

After her first husband’s death in 2003, Paton Walsh married Townsend in 2004. He died in 2014. She married Nicholas Herbert, third baron of Hemingford, in September. He survives her, as do a brother, Christopher Bliss; three children from her first marriage, Edmund Paton Walsh, Margaret Paton Walsh and Clare Murphy; and three grandchildren.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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