Relative Values: Amanda Foreman and her brother, Jonathan

Amanda Foreman, 40, is the author of the bestselling biography Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. She is married to a banker, Jonathan Barton, and lives in New York and London. She has five children, the oldest of whom is six. The Duchess, a film based on her book starring Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes, is out now. Jonathan, 42, a former lawyer and war correspondent, is a founder of the political magazine Standpoint. Single, he lives in west London. Their father was the screenwriter and film producer Carl Foreman


AMANDA: Well, my brother was born absolutely brilliant. You couldn’t miss it. So the family dynamic was: “Johnny is brilliant.” My father poured a great deal of his energy into him — whether Johnny wanted it or not. They would have intellectual discussions all the time, from which I was excluded, because I’m younger, I’m a girl, whatever. But the dynamic between Johnny and myself was that he always saw me as his equal, even if nobody else around us did.

My father was taken in an untimely way. He died when Johnny was 18.

He was ill for six to nine months, with brain cancer. It was a terrible illness: loss of faculties, loss of speech, loss of mobility. The medication produced incoherent thoughts and temper changes, plus a very undignified end, which was also shattering.

I was at school, so I was sheltered from a lot of it, but Johnny was at home in his gap year and saw it all, and he experienced a profound agony from which it took him years to recover.

Our father’s death also gave him a sense of anger, and he developed a really explosive hair-trigger temper. So there might have been a possibility for tremendous conflict, but the fact that we were physically separate from each other helped to prevent it. When Johnny was at Cambridge, I was at boarding school. Then he went to law school in America and became a lawyer, and I went to graduate school at Oxford. So our relationship was on the telephone, and we’d see each other during holidays.

And then he had a really profound effect on my life. We had, for me, this seminal dinner one New Year’s Eve.

I was doing a PhD on “attitudes to race and colour in 18th-century England”. It was all very heavy and learned. I’d come across Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, and I was fascinated by her. Johnny said: “Amanda, this is amazing — you should turn this into a book.” And he really encouraged me. His confidence in me, his belief that I could and would do it, was extraordinary. And it sustained me when everyone around me had kind of written me off as a low achiever.

I’m very traditional, and so I’m happy in my marriage, and as much as I try to think outside my little box, my yearning for Johnny is that he gets married and has children. I can’t help it. All my life I thought we’d have children at the same time, and they’d have this wonderful cousinhood. That’s not going to happen now, which makes me really sad.

Johnny and his girls… I used to call him John Giovanni. I’ve always been mopping up after him, consoling some girl — “I know he meant to call you…” He has a girlfriend now, whom he loves very much, and they’re very connected, but she is also a free spirit — she likes to go off for months to India. That suits him, which may be why it’s working,

Johnny has this wanderlust, this desire to experience the world. He’s done two tours of Iraq as a foreign correspondent, and one in Afghanistan. He did a horrendous journey through Chad, and then an arduous trip in Pakistan. That’s where his heart is, doing these incredibly uncomfortable, difficult, perilous, physically demanding things — which is anathema to me, as I’m such a physical coward.

Because we’re so close, I feel as if he’s my twin brother, rather than my older brother. We are close under all the traditional criteria of closeness: we have a total unquestioning trust, great enjoyment in each other’s company, a huge respect, and a profound hope and belief that good things will happen to the other person. I would do anything for Johnny, whatever it takes, if, as and when needed or required. And I think he feels the same way towards me.

JONATHAN: Our parents had a very close, very intense relationship. With the benefit of hindsight and therapy, their relationship came first, and the two of us came second. But it made Amanda and me bond more. We did fight and argue, and I’d tease her, and she’d provoke me, and we’d tell on each other, but we were quite a strong unit from a very early age.

We were set in roles quite young. I was the academic, little-professor person, always involved in conversations at dinner with the grown-ups. Being a couple of years older than Amanda, there were discussions I could have with my father that she couldn’t. I think she resented that much more attention had gone to me, although as a result I was under constant pressure from my father to succeed academically.

Amanda was regarded as the practical one, and to some extent that became true in later life. But she was also amazingly creative at school. She painted really well, she was very musical, she sang, and wrote music, and carved her own non-academic role.

We were having a happy life in London, but then at quite an early age, everything got disrupted. My parents decided to move to California, and we upped sticks completely. I was nine and Amanda was seven. Suddenly we were going to schools in Los Angeles, and it was a big, traumatic break from our previous life. We were both very unhappy there. We didn’t know the TV programmes, or any of the social references that are so important to small children, and the kids made fun of our English accents. Amanda was quite shy, and she had a particularly tough time.

It took a long time for my parents to notice we were unhappy — two or three years, maybe. But the experience brought Amanda and I together more than anything else, and that’s when we became the greatest friends.

When Amanda was finally sent back to boarding school in England, she was full of dreams that it would be wonderful, like in the Enid Blyton books. It wasn’t. She was teased for her accent again — by then she’d picked up an American one — and our parents were miles away in California. But she toughed it out.

Amanda is very brave. My father was wonderfully charming, and very kind, but he was also very difficult to stand up to. Amanda carved her own niche, and that was not an easy thing to do in our family. Then she started going through a rebellious stage, although unfortunately she was in the middle of it when our father died, which was awful, because you don’t ever then get to the other side.

Amanda always saw her life as being about work and career. She didn’t think of herself as a very maternal person. But this whole other side of her emerged when she started having children, and the domestic sphere has given her far more pleasure than she expected.

Having five children is obviously a decision she made with her husband, but she and I used to talk about it well before she married. We both thought our household was very intense, having just two children, and we envied our friends from big families; they seemed to have an easier time. The parents aren’t investing all their hopes and dreams in one or two of their children.

Amanda is much more conventional than I am. She says to me: “You should be married and have children and lead a stable, traditional life.” I think she has a wonderful married life, and it’s not that I’m advertising my own life as so wonderful — I’m my age, and I’m single and childless — but we approach things differently. I’ve spent a lot of time in South Asia and India, and the yoga and philosophy behind it is increasingly important to me as I get older, and it means you live life in a different way.

We’d been confidants for such a long time, it was a big shock when she got married. I gave a speech at her wedding saying that, for me, her marriage meant I was genuinely losing someone, though for the greater good. We don’t talk as often as we did, but the basic bond is so strong. She’s been an amazing support to me. Amanda’s a little lion, completely loyal, and has always been there for me, which is kind of wonderful.

Copyright© 2008 The Times