Elisabeth was born in May 1930 in London, and grew up in Hampstead and St John’s Wood. From 1939 to 1945 she attended an alternative school based on liberal principles, where she read voraciously, played hockey, sang, listened to music, and gardened. She absorbed little there, she maintained, in the way of formal education but learned much about human nature.
In 1946 Elisabeth went to Switzerland, where she took French. Back in London, she worked in a variety of curious jobs that left her time to wander galleries and museums and expand her interest in modern painting and sculpture. Passionate about music, she appeared as an extra in a Covent Garden production of Verdi’s Aïda, and spent her leisure extending her knowledge of the visual arts in museums and galleries.
Following a brief first marriage in 1950, Elisabeth moved to Paris for several years. She studied at the Sorbonne and learned to live on l’amour et l’eau fraîche with Marcel van Thienen, a composer of musique concrète. When Marcel was invited to work in Haiti, Elisabeth went to South Africa, where she took paid work as a translator and voluntary work with Trevor Huddleston. She left to join a kibbutz in Israel and on the return to London stopped in Florence to look at painting.
For a while Elisabeth sold antiques from a stall in Bermondsey Market. Buying and selling led to collecting, and before long she was designing complete interiors on commission. Some of her schemes were published in House and Garden, House Beautiful, Queen, The Times, and in Alice Hope’s Town Houses (Batsford, 1963). Eventually she became the agent for a group of British sculptors, for whose work she organised exhibitions in North America.
A second marriage ended when she met the painter Tom Fairs. From 1962, Elisabeth shared her life with Tom in a relationship which she has described as ‘passionate, creative and intellectually stimulating, with much laughter’; his death in 2007 devastated her. For purely bureaucratic reasons, they married twenty-five years into their forty-four-year relationship. Throughout their marriage, Tom actively encouraged Elisabeth to write and in the late 60s she began contributing regularly to Woman’s Hour and Morning Story, as well as publishing articles on the women’s pages of various periodicals.
Elisabeth began visiting Holloway in north London in the 1970s, convinced that women in prison should receive an education. The article she wrote on commission for Nova magazine on conditions there was subject to censorship by the Home Office before publication, and publication was prohibited.
In 1982 she took a degree in English at King’s College, London. Later, while preparing for her PhD on the presentation of self in women’s biographical literature, she taught courses on the novel at both King’s and Royal Holloway.
Elisabeth’s early publications were practical in nature: a guide to social services and another to active holidays, a how-to book on potted gardens and a diabetic cookbook. She then began writing fiction for children, and moved on to novels for adults. Influences on her adult fiction included racism, dysfunctional families, psychoanalytic theory, social and financial inequality, and her own varied range of occupations.
Her travels took her to Africa, the United States, the Middle East and much of Europe. Although she would have preferred to live in France, Elisabeth loved England for its landscape, language and literature. Over the years, she engaged in a great deal of literary detective work, walking over Proust’s and Alain Fournier’s territories as well as retracing the steps of Dorothy Wordsworth and her brother William in Scotland. T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets inspired explorations of the garden and landscapes it celebrates in Gloucestershire, Somerset and Cambridgeshire. She roamed Kilvert’s country on the border with Wales and uncovered secrets of location and identity in the diary of the little-known Gay Taylor, who was involved with the Golden Cockerel Press in the 1930s.
A committed socialist, Elisabeth hoped to see the distribution of property thoroughly overhauled, the abolition of public schools and their charity status, and increased access to publicly funded local libraries rather than their systematic closure. Everyone, she argued, is entitled to be warm and dry, with a roof over their head in affordable housing. She was also an ardent supporter of assisted death.
Elisabeth was passionate about her balcony garden, books, concert-going – especially lieder – and above all, her friendships.
She died on 1 September 2020 after a long period of illness.