Joan Magaret Bagley

The Life and Work of Desmond Bagley - © The Bagley Brief

Joan Bagley on fine form at a Sarnia Sword Club fancy dress party in Guernsey. © & courtesy Graham Jackson.

The following biography was written by Joan Bagley following her husband’s death, whilst she was still living at Câtel House in the parish of St. Andrew, Guernsey.

‘I was born (nee Brown) in Johannesburg, South Africa in July 1934. Both my parents were born there, of mixed English-Polish stock, and we are Jewish. This did not in any way impede my marriage to Desmond, who was by birth a Catholic. Both he and I were practising agnostics.

I was taught at a co-educational day school to university entrance level but did not attain university as my parents could not afford to send me there. I was enrolled by the Johannesburg Public Library, the idea being to work there while studying for my Librarianship degree. Unfortunately, I had to leave after a very short period as I failed the compulsory municipal medical examination, due to having recently had pneumonia.

After spending some time in desultory jobs, including a year as lab technician in a flour mill, I finally got the work I wanted, which was bookselling. I was fortunate in being taken onto the staff of a then small, now leading, South African bookshop. I worked there for 11 years, ending up as a director of the company. The knowledge of the book trade that I learned there was to stand me in good stead in the future, and I remain permanently indebted to my then boss, who is now still active in the London book trade.

In 1959 I met and in 1960 married Desmond. He was then a free-lance journalist, but in 1962 wrote what was to be his first successful novel, The Golden Keel. In 1964 we left South Africa, first to try and live in Italy (a futile experiment), and then came to Devon, where we lived for 12 years. In 1976 we moved to Guernsey.

For all that time I worked as my husband’s partner and secretary, research assistant, file clerk, P.R., and No. 1 critic. It proved to be a totally absorbing life for both of us, and together we made it a point to get to know the book trade in all aspects, something which again has served me well in recent times. We travelled together always, except for the visit my husband made to the Antarctic and the South Pole; I was unable to go with him though I would have given anything to do so.

We had no children, through our own choice. Neither he nor I discovered in ourselves any paternal or maternal urge, and I have never regretted the decision – nor, I am sure did he. From the time we moved to England he always worked at home, and we both found this arrangement entirely congenial. We were never bored in each other’s company.

Since Desmond’s death I have carried on as director of our company, and as manager of his affairs, which still of course continue. To my earlier duties I added that of editor, bringing two of his finished but hitherto unpublished books to a state of readiness for publication. It has been a rewarding but sobering and taxing experience.

My personal interests include the sport of fencing, in which I have been active for 30 odd years; in fact, I met Desmond at a fencing club, as that was his only active sport. As he was, I am a very fast and voracious reader, though our reading tastes differed to a degree (we agreed in many ways, especially in both being avid science-fiction buffs.) We shared an interest in films and classical music, and in keeping abreast of modern developments in science, though he outstripped me here. But I could never show an interest in mathematics or military history, two subjects which absorbed him. We did some sailing but have not done so for quite a few years now.

Combined Royal Navy & Sarnia Sword Club fencing teams March 1979. Joan Bagley back row second from left wearing glasses. © Graham Jackson.I have continued Desmond’s interests in technology in some ways. I took over his Xerox word-processor and after a short course to familiarise myself with it I have used it regularly, for editing the two novels, and for several other purposes. And in October I bought myself a Macintosh computer, which I find both very useful and a lot of fun. Desmond had been using a computer since 1972, but the Macintosh updates his old one.

I enjoy cooking and don’t mind housekeeping, but I neither sew, knit nor use a needle for anything if I can avoid it. I have no artistic or musical talent. We were both interested in what used to be called natural history (our favourite holidays were safaris in Kenya), and I now take an active interest in my local zoo and am both a committee member and a volunteer warden for the local animal shelter, the G.S.P.C.A. I try to keep a dog and three cats under control at home. I have also worked actively for the R.N.L.I. for many years.

I still live in the large and lovely Georgian house which we bought in Guernsey and have no present desire to move.’

Ill-health in later life required Joan to move from her home at Câtel House to a residential care home at Saumarez Park Manor and then on to Summerland Nursing Home at Mount Durand, Guernsey where she passed away on 30th June 1999. Joan Bagley had been an integral part of her husband’s work from the very first novel until the last and faithfully preserved her husband’s legacy until her own death.

Desmond Bagley – Writer: Explore Bagley’s novels, short stories and articles


Images: Joan Bagley on fine form at a Sarnia Sword Club fancy dress party in Guernsey; Joan Bagley (back row, second from left) pictured with the combined Royal Navy & Sarnia Sword Club fencing teams in March 1979. Both images © & courtesy Graham Jackson.

Joan Bagley’s biography from the Desmond Bagley Collection, Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University. Undated, subject to copyright. Reproduced courtesy of Moore Stephens, the Bagley Trustees 2018.

From ‘The Life and Work of Desmond Bagley Exhibition’, first exhibited at the Guille-Allés Library, St. Peter Port, Guernsey – 10th May – 9th June 2018.

The Life and Work of Desmond Bagley - © The Bagley Brief.