Sophie Ward, the former Vogue cover girl who’s probably most famous for being the first high-profile British actress to come out as a lesbian, has written a novel. The prospect of reading it does not make my heart sing, since the phrases model/actress and novelist provoke traumatic recollections of Naomi Campbell’s Swan. But this book can’t reach that level of atrociousness, because it was longlisted for the Booker prize alongside the likes of Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light and Anne Tyler’s Redhead by the Side of the Road.
Still – no names – not all Booker choices are necessarily to my taste, so I pick up Ward’s Love and Other Thought Experiments warily. And then follows a very pleasant surprise. The book is terrific: moving and dazzlingly ambitious in scope, exploring Ward’s polymathic fascinations with metaphysics, artificial intelligence and space exploration, yet never deviating from the underlying themes of family and love. Critics, I find when I read the reviews, have compared Ward’s writing to Milan Kundera’s and Doris Lessing’s.
I feel ashamed of my prejudices. Does Ward, 55, often feel patronized by people assuming a model/actress can’t be brainy too? “I could see my agent thinking, ‘Is this going to be any good?’ when I submitted the book,” Ward says wryly. “It definitely doesn’t give you a leg up into the literary world.”
A (Real-Life) Village Affair
It may or may not help that to many Ward’s name will evoke memories of the hoo-ha in late 1996 when the English rose known for her film roles in The Young Sherlock Holmes and Wuthering Heights left her handsome vet husband, Paul Hobson, the father of her two young children, for a Korean-American woman, Rena (pronounced Renee) Brannan. Paparazzi camped outside the new couple’s “love nest” in the Cotswolds for weeks. The fact that Ward, daughter of the actor Simon Ward, had played a Cotswolds housewife who leaves her husband for a woman in a TV adaptation of Joanna Trollope’s A Village Affair made the story irresistible.
When the couple walked the red carpet at the premiere of the film Evita, photographs of them knocked its star Madonna from the front pages. “This has to be the most astonishing sight I have ever seen at a world premiere, or any public event,” decreed one columnist, adding that many would “question whether there was a need for [Ward and Brannan] to flaunt their unusual relationship”. There were headlines questioning how “beautiful” Ward could have chosen “dumpy” Brannan.
“The coverage was brutal,” Ward says. “But when Rena and I got together, Section 28 [banning the “promotion” of homosexual relationships in schools] was still in place. Same-sex couples were still in danger of having their children taken away from them. It doesn’t seem so long ago; it’s amazing how much attitudes have changed since then.”
There were headlines questioning how “beautiful” Ward could have chosen “dumpy” Brannan.
That they have changed is down to the likes of Ward refusing to hide her relationship. In 2000 the couple had a commitment ceremony at the Groucho Club that featured in OK! magazine. “We’d been through a lot of trauma. We were finally over that and we wanted to say, ‘Actually, this can be celebrated.’ I hope that helped some other people.”
In 2005 came a civil ceremony, after such unions were legalized, followed in 2014 by a wedding. “Having the laws changed about marriage has been a huge thing. People no longer see us as illicit. But there is still prejudice out there. If you’re holding hands you’ve got to be careful about where you are. And then there’s this constant coming-out business, because people assume you’re straight, so all the time you’re having to think, ‘Is this the right time and place and person for me to say, “Actually, my partner is a woman”?’ You don’t know how a stranger will react.”
Are the conversations often uncomfortable? “Not often, but I don’t always think, ‘Now I’m going to talk!’ Sometimes you just let it slide.”
We’re sitting in a studio in Hackney, east London, a short drive from Ward’s Islington home, where – at Brannan’s insistence – the couple decamped from Gloucestershire after the boys left home. Ward is the very spit of her late father, best known for playing Churchill in Richard Attenborough’s Young Winston, with the same blue eyes and chiseled features that age struggles to wither. It’s hard to believe she’s a grandmother to a three-year-old and a two-year-old, children of her elder son, Nathaniel, 31, a graphic designer, who lives “round the corner”. “The hardest thing about lockdown was not seeing them for 12 weeks.”
Ward spent lockdown with Brannan and her younger son Joshua, 27, an actor. Her book was published just before lockdown, so all tours and book festivals were canceled. It was something she’d worked on for seven years, while simultaneously completing a PhD from Goldsmiths in the use of narrative in philosophy of the mind. “I finished my PhD and submitted my novel at the same time.”
It’s obvious how each project boosted the other. Each chapter of Ward’s novel fictionalizes a different philosophical thought experiment. The opening chapter tackles Pascal’s wager – that we should gamble on God existing because the potential reward of an eternity in heaven far outweighs the slog of worship in our finite lives – through the story of dreamy Rachel asking her partner, rational Eliza, to believe an ant has crawled into her eye, on which hinges the future of their relationship. Another concept is Descartes’ demon, who fools us into thinking we have a physical body based in an outside world.
It took a while to find a publisher. “There were lots of rejections, lots of, ‘We like it but we don’t know what we’d do with it.’” But Ward has such a lightness of touch it’s possible to enjoy the novel – which starts as a domestic drama and ends as sci-fi – on its own merits. “I hoped people would feel comfortable with the ideas in it and engage with them.”
My wager is that if Ward does start appearing at book festivals, the question on most people’s lips will be, are Rachel and Eliza based on Ward and Brannan? “Hands up, I’ve absolutely mined things from my experience. My wife and I are not Rachel and Eliza, but I’ve mixed in loads of stuff from our lives and things that people have told me over the years.”
My wager is that if Ward does start appearing at book festivals, the question on most people’s lips will be, are the novel’s protagonists based on Ward and Brannan?
If Ward had written a straightforward memoir, there would be a bidding war. The eldest of three daughters (her youngest sister, Kitty, is married to comedian Michael McIntyre – “He’s not always in comic mood, but he’s naturally funny”), she grew up in Islington, north London, and attended an “experimental school”. “There were no lessons. My parents felt it was a good alternative to the rigid educational systems they’d been in.” Yet when she reached 11, her parents were “panicking that I had not learnt anything”, so Ward was dispatched to the all-girls Queen’s College, Harley Street. “That was a shock.”
She still missed quite a few lessons as by now she’d embarked on her acting career, having long been attending drama classes at Anna Scher in Islington. There Ward was a contemporary of Pauline Quirke and Susan Tully. “And Kathy Burke, Gillian Taylforth, Phil Daniels, Dexter Fletcher, the Kemp brothers – all kids from Islington.” Ward’s parents (her mother met her father at Rada but later became a Jungian analyst) were adamant she shouldn’t follow them into their risky profession. “But I was adamant I would go.” Yet she was equally unsure when graduate Joshua announced he was off to drama school. “I don’t know why. I’ve really liked acting but I had the same fears, although when he started working I loved it because we could talk about it.”
The in-fighting abated when one of the casting directors who visited the school cast her, aged 10, in a JB Priestley television play. “Then my parents were OK,” she laughs. The acting jobs continued to flood in and by 15 Ward was jetting around the world on modeling jobs, hailed as “the Face of the Eighties” and appearing on the covers of Tatler and Harpers & Queen. As a schoolgirl, I remember watching her, aged 17, playing the dancer mesmerizing Bryan Ferry in Roxy Music’s Avalon video, convinced adulthood would be all castles and ball gowns and falcons. But this life wasn’t to Ward’s taste. “It was hard to reconcile some of the attitudes towards women. Nothing too dreadful happened to me personally. I was prudish and strong-minded – that held me in good stead.”
So, having failed to win a place at Oxford, from 19 she concentrated on acting. At the same age she started going out with Hobson, seven years her senior and the family’s vet. “Vets are quite romantic figures, especially to me,” she says. “We were both vegetarian. I thought he was amazing. I loved him. I still love him.”
Yet Ward already knew she was attracted to women, even if she couldn’t quite compute this. “I didn’t know any lesbians,” she says. “There were schoolgirl crushes, but lots of people have them whether you’re straight or gay, and I didn’t know if these were more significant to me than to some of my friends who just grew out of it. Of course, there were role models. I think Billie Jean King had come out and Martina Navratilova and there were amazing Bloomsbury writers and loads of ordinary people, but I didn’t know them. So I didn’t have anyone to talk to about how I felt.” So instead, at 23, she married Hobson. “I was very broody and the fact I was lucky enough to meet a lovely guy meant that was the way things went.”
Fixed on living a country idyll, they bought a house near Stroud in Gloucestershire, although Ward’s work was taking her all round the world. Yet by the time Joshua was born, Ward’s feelings for women had grown impossible to ignore. “It all came crashing down on me, the denial I’d been in and being frightened as to what people’s reactions would be [if I came out]. How would it work with my children? It was all very difficult and I got very depressed.”
“It all came crashing down on me, the denial I’d been in and being frightened as to what people’s reactions would be [if I came out].”
Ward tried to talk to friends. “But nobody understood what I was saying, partly because I didn’t know what I was saying – I’d never had an experience with a woman so I didn’t know if what I thought I was feeling was even true.”
In the end, the person who supported her was Hobson. “I was so lucky. I’m not saying there wasn’t hurt and disappointment, but he said you can’t be as unhappy as I was at the time. So we tried to work out a solution.” With his blessing Ward began dating women. “I began to think, ‘OK, maybe this isn’t just something I’m imagining.’ It wasn’t long before she met Brannan, a writer, at a party in Beverly Hills. “And that was that.”
It took a year and a lot of agony for the women to become an official couple. “I’d been a young mum who’d been keeping it all together, and suddenly here was something I was not keeping together. How was I going to make it right without a great deal of heartache? It was like jumping off a cliff.” Ward steeled herself to tell her parents that her marriage was over. “They were worried,” she says. “Was I going to be happy and what was going to happen to the kids? They loved my husband. It is a big deal, the break-up of a marriage, whatever the reason it happens.”
The women moved to Gloucestershire for the boys’ schooling, only to have the paparazzi descend on their village. “We had to leave home for a bit, but it was just an additional headache on top of emotional concerns about the boys.” The boys, then seven and three, appear to have dealt with the disruption well. They warmed to Brannan, while Hobson stayed with them at weekends. “I worried they’d be teased at school – but they’ve always just said they found it harder to be a vegetarian. If someone said, ‘Your mum’s married to a woman!’ they’d say, ‘Yeah.’ That was it.”
Another concern was work, with friends trying to persuade Ward to keep shtum for the sake of her career. At the time she was unique: it took several years before other actresses roughly of her vintage – Fiona Shaw, Saffron Burrows, Portia de Rossi – came out. There was a handful of out gay actors, although everyone knew of A-listers who’d spent their careers in the closet, for fear of the public’s reaction to learning their action hero preferred men. Think of Rupert Everett, who said coming out as a gay man ruined his career in “very right-wing” Hollywood.
“I was worried about my career, but in the end I don’t know if it made any difference,” Ward says. “It was definitely quieter, but maybe there were other reasons for that. People talked a lot about me being brave to come out, but I didn’t have a choice. You have a life and that’s who you are. I understand if somebody thinks it’s not the right thing for their career, although I don’t really understand how that means they can live their life.” In Hollywood today, of millennial megastars, Kristen Stewart is the only out lesbian actress who springs to mind. “It’s the same in sport,” Ward says. “It’s very tricky. I don’t blame someone who just wants to get on with their life. It’s the logistics that would bother me, if you’re well known: how do you go to a restaurant together?”
Unsure initially if the acting was all over, Ward enrolled with the Open University, taking a degree in English and philosophy, then a master’s in creative writing, before embarking on her PhD and novel. Ward’s career never fulfilled its Eighties promise: she popped up in plays and was a regular in Heartbeat and Holby City. With the Booker longlisting, my sense is that, the final part of the jigsaw that makes up Ward is now in place.
“After coming out, I realized I’d been through something that lots of people don’t go through – they are already who they are. I hadn’t known who I was.”
Love and Other Thought Experiments, by Sophie Ward, is out now