I was born in Derbyshire and live in London. The women of my family passed on many stories, along with beaded purses, buttoned gauntlets and cheerful '30s teacups, and fostered my interest in the texture and narrative of women's lives. Research for my books takes me into archives and libraries, but I also love looking at cherished and everyday objects. Clothes, buttons, jewellery, tea sets, a cocktail cabinet and a dolls' house all feature in my work.
My biography, Clarice Cliff (Bloomsbury, 2005) tells the story of this extraordinary woman and the way her designs spoke to the changes in women’s lives between the wars. Lemon Sherbet and Dolly Blue: The Story of an Accidental Family (Atlantic, 2011) explores the three generations of adoption in my family. The Button Box: Lifting the Lid on Women’s Lives (Chatto & Windus, 2016) looks at women's lives in the twentieth century through the clothes they wore.
Work at Virago (1980-94, latterly as editorial director of the Modern Classics series) led me to edit two collections of short stories, Infinite Riches: Classic Stories by Twentieth-Century Women Writers (Virago, 1993), reissued as The Secret Woman (2000) and Dangerous Calm: The Selected Stories of Elizabeth Taylor (Virago, 1995). I abridged The Diaries of Beatrice Webb (Virago in association with the LSE, 2000), and have written critical introductions and reviews.
I taught literature classes at London's City Lit for many years and have taught at the Women’s Library, Charleston and the Geffrye Museum, as well as running independent literature courses. I have appeared at numerous literary festivals and am happy to give talks and readings.
I was a Royal Literary Fund Writing Fellow at Queen Mary University of London 2015-18 and at the British Library January-August 2019 and am currently running a book group as part of the Royal Literary Fund's Reading Round project.