Anne Perry: LDS British Novelist with “a Commitment to Morality”


Anne Perry has always had a religious hunger. At our first meeting she told me she was “on fire.” Later I came to know what she meant. No one in Anne’s family belonged to any particular religious denomination, but she was taught Christian principles. She was taught to learn everything she could, to seek after knowledge, to stand by her beliefs. Her father often stressed that “the greatest sin of all is the sin of unkindness,” that “we are punished by our sins as well as for them,” that “we are our brother’s keeper.”

Born in England, where she has spent most of her life, Anne was raised in a small family with one brother five years younger. Her father was an industrial engineer and a colonel in the Grenadier Guards, the last officer to be evacuated from the beach at Dunkirk. Her mother was a homemaker and a volunteer social worker.

Anne’s maternal grandfather earned a scholarship to Cambridge University, where he studied theology and became a Presbyterian minister, a significant achievement for one of seven children born to a father who was a coal miner and a mother who was illiterate. He refused to bear arms during World War I and served instead as a padre in the trenches. He was gassed and never regained his full health. Perhaps Anne’s love for religion came from him.

Anne was born just before World War II started. Sometimes she and her family had to seek protection in an air raid shelter two or three times a night, night after night. Although the war continually interfered with everyone’s education, Anne learned to read and write with her mother as tutor before beginning school at four-and-a-half.

The war had its indelible effect on her. One Remembrance Day at British Legion in Albert Hall she watched thousands of poppies loosed from the ceiling, each for a young man dead. She thought of her grandfather; and as she heard several of the same surnames read in sequence, she realized that a woman somewhere could have lost not only her father and her brothers, but also her uncles, her husband, and her sons. Tears streamed down her cheeks.

When she was six, Anne contracted double pneumonia and bronchitis, and her doctors gave her up for dead. She survived, but the illness left her lungs scarred. By age ten she had missed three more years of school because of illness, spending most of her time indoors, where she read and learned to play alone. Her love of the classics and history, along with a deep desire and determination to enjoy life, dates from this time in her life. At thirteen she was forced to leave school again because of a chest ailment. Six months in the Bahamas with an army family aided her recovery.

At eighteen, by then perfectly healthy, Anne began taking correspondence courses to catch up on her schooling. She passed the university entrance examinations but decided not to attend, not knowing yet what she wanted to pursue and feeling she must search elsewhere. She began working at different jobs. She became a department store clerk and rose to the position of assistant buyer, worked as an assistant purser on a ferry boat between Britain and Norway, then became an airline hostess on flights to Europe. These were seeking, wandering years.

In 1967 Anne felt a compulsion to go to California and took several jobs there, one as a domestic housekeeper. It was mostly an unhappy experience, but she got to know her next-door neighbors, Raymond and Chlo Barnes, who she discovered were LDS.

During her youth, Anne had visited one church after another but could not accept what they taught, so she determined for herself what she believed. She began spending her spare moments with the Barneses, discovering that she already believed much of what they taught her. She attended Relief Society and sacrament meeting.

“I knew from the start that my neighbors had something special. Their spirit was great and beautiful,” she reminisces. “I knew they were good, so I asked to learn more about their religion.” She was drawn particularly to the Church’s standards of morality—“like iron filings to a magnet,” she says.

During one of their conversations, Brother Barnes suggested she take time to pray about the Church. That night, she knelt and prayed, then slept. “The next morning when I woke up, it was as if the room was full of the sun,” she says. She felt that was her answer. As soon as she could, she went next door to tell her neighbors she wanted to be baptized. When Brother Barnes asked, “When?” she answered, “Now!” That decision changed her life and gave it purpose. Her parents, who are not members of the Church, say it was the best thing she ever did.

After Anne Perry joined the Church her desire to write awakened. But “trying to keep body and soul together” left little time for it. Then she came into a small inheritance as the result of the death of an uncle in England, and she returned to her homeland, determined to pursue a career as a writer. Ten years, ten manuscripts, and fifty rejections later, in 1979, her first novel, Cater Street Hangman, was published by St. Martin’s Press of New York.

While Anne was still an aspiring young author, her father had suggested she write a story about Jack the Ripper. So much had already been written about him that her mother said no one would be interested. Anne agreed. Then she began to think about the effects of the Ripper’s “reign of terror” on the lives of those who lived in the community where he committed his crimes. What would have happened to families as they began to examine themselves and ask how well they really knew each other, or their neighbors, she wondered. How would that kind of pressure begin to alter their relationships? These kinds of questions intrigued her and resulted in her first published novel, Cater Street Hangman. Since then, with four other published mysteries added to her “Charlotte” series (Charlotte is the heroine of her novels), Anne has become an established, successful novelist.

Anne’s preparation as a writer began early. Her mother, who was an active social worker, spent many hours with youth and the severely mentally handicapped. A little girl during some of her mother’s active service, Anne accompanied her and was exposed to serious human problems at an early age. Anne’s mother taught baby care to mothers in poor areas and visited the housebound elderly until a few years ago, when she turned seventy and was needed at home to care for her husband. In this environment, the seeds of Anne’s finely honed compassion took root and grew.

Years later, as she began researching Cater Street Hangman, Anne came to realize that the Victorian Era offered tremendous opportunities for a resourceful writer to speak out on social ills, many of which still exist. It was an era of startling contrasts between rich and poor, high and low, a time in which few things were actually what they seemed. As she leads her readers step by step to the solution of each crime, Anne exposes pretense and hypocrisy, “layer by layer, like the peels of an onion,” she says. Through her books, she speaks out against the wrongs she perceives, against poverty, against the abuse and abandonment of women and children and other social problems.

“I write to share what I believe,” she says. “I deplore violence. The violence in my books takes place off stage.” But, although the reader never views the violence directly, she hopes “they are left with a sense of horror of it. To write about ugly things and make them seem right and commonplace is ultimately a betrayal.”

One interviewer recently said, “If all her novels [seem to] reek of modern social consciousness, it’s because morals, whether modern or Victorian, are at the core of Perry’s thinking. A Mormon, she has made religion a very important part of her life and has tried to enfuse her characters with a strong sense of morals.” (Jane Widerman, Globe and Mail, 11 Sept. 1982.)

Of her commitment to morality, Anne says, “We are retreating from life and our responsibility if we stay with what is comfortable and nice. We can’t be like the priest and the Levite and pass on the other side of the victim. We must get down and bind up the wounded, whether in flesh or in spirit. Our Lord did. I think many of us are inordinately afraid of doing this.”

She doesn’t merely want to say something; she wants to say something unique, individual, true and uplifting, and to say it well. This may be one of the reasons the Mugar Library at Boston University has established an Anne Perry collection. Curator of Special Collections Dr. Howard B. Gotlieb says Anne has been honored in this way because “she is one of the best living mystery writers in the world today.”

Anne is currently working on a series of four historical novels she affectionately calls “the quartet.” The novels trace the history of a young surgeon (Anne’s younger brother is now a surgeon in Zimbabwe) from the time of the French Revolution in 1789 to the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815. Their theme is the use and abuse of power, a topic which intrigues her immensely.

Anne lives with two pet cats, Copper and Robber, in a four-hundred-year-old cottage in Darshim (Suffolk), England, population 302, where she writes eight hours a day, six days a week. She disciplines herself not to write on Sundays, and by Monday morning is anxious to start again. After two or three days vacation, she says, “I’m ready to explode.”

In the evenings, Anne turns to other creative activities, accepting the exhortation in the Doctrine and Covenants to study all things. She relishes history, art, sculpture, and architecture and has traveled in Greece, Spain, France, Austria, Switzerland, and Germany. In Belgium she fell in love with the Flemish Masters and wishes she had the time to teach herself to paint. She collects tiny handmade porcelain plates.

If it involves creativity, Anne Perry enjoys it. She feels that creativity is one way of praising the Lord and that the desire to create is universal. She likes to embroider and makes almost all her own clothes. As a young girl, she painted and modeled in wax, plaster, and balsa wood.

Anne reserves Wednesday afternoons for shopping and visiting teaching. One of the reasons she feels the Church is right is that it offers everyone the opportunity to give. “I take visiting teaching very seriously,” she says. She also enjoys doing genealogical research and experienced a miraculous conversion to it.

Her maternal grandparents, the Presbyterian minister and his wife, were very devout people, non-drinkers and nonsmokers. Anne is confident that had they heard the gospel, they would have accepted it immediately. One night her grandmother came to her in a dream, saying, “I thought I knew where I was going after this life, but I am caught here and don’t know how to get out. Please help me!” Anne related the incident to a member friend, who described for her the conditions in the hereafter. Immediately Anne recognized these as identical to the situation of her grandmother, promptly completed the research, and had the temple work done for them. Since then she has received more heavenly assistance in doing the work she now loves.

When Sister Perry was told in her patriarchal blessing that she would be a teacher, she thought, “Never!” Then a call came to teach the youth, and she learned to love it. “I don’t teach the lesson, I teach the people,” she emphasizes. “I’m trying to teach the principles of the gospel, but more than anything else, I’m trying to teach youth to love the gospel. I’m trying to teach them that I love them, that I love the gospel, that the gospel is good. If I can teach them that, I believe they’ll find the rest for themselves.”

With Anne’s love of learning and her culturally rich background, it comes as no surprise that she also teaches the cultural refinement lessons in Relief Society. She wishes the lesson period were longer because there is so little time and so much to cover that she wants to “gallop.” It’s like “trying to write the Old Testament on your thumbnail,” she smiles.

Apart from the Savior himself, Moses is Anne’s favorite scriptural character. “Moses was a giant!” she says. “The Savior said, ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.’ (John 15:13.) Moses, when he went back up Sinai, was prepared to lay down his life for the children of Israel. People who must face things alone have a particular appeal for me.” She identifies strongly with them, especially the single sisters of the Church.

“As far as my single status is concerned, I think I am the way the Lord needs me to be at the moment. Now that gets rocked occasionally when I go to Church and someone speaks about the family and motherhood, not recognizing that there are many who are yet unable to have a family and be a mother. Occasionally, I get a little depressed by those talks, even though I know there are many ways of serving the Lord. Though so many single members have no one to hold them back, they also have no one to help them along, at least on a day-to-day family basis. Everybody wants someone to whom he or she is special and irreplaceable. I think that’s part of being human. But we can be just as happy as anybody else this side of celestial kingdom, if we live righteously.”

Anne believes that single sisters can realize a lot of fulfillment if they concentrate on becoming caring, interested and interesting individuals, if they do all they can to magnify their own souls. She feels that the Lord wouldn’t have some wait for a mate (even until after mortality) if they couldn’t do it.

Anne Perry is intensely involved with life and the gospel and relishes every minute of it. And she does seem to be “on fire” with the experience.

[photos] Photography by P. J. Wood

[photo] Anne Perry and her companion discuss the gospel as visiting teachers, a calling Anne takes “very seriously.”

Richard R. Robertson is the Area Office Director for the Public Communications Department in Toronto, Canada. He serves as first counselor in the bishopric of the Richmond Hill Ward and as executive secretary to the Toronto and Ottawa/Montreal Region Council.