Richard Adams’ home in rural Whitchurch, Hampshire sits at a squirely remove from the appalling contradictions of contemporary London, just as his latest work of fantasy keeps a reassuring distance from the facts of modern life. “I am a country man,” says the author of 1974’s Watership Down. “Birds, flowers and the march of seasons are everything to me. I am,” he adds self-righteously, “a very Wordsworthian character.” Maia, the strapping peasant lass who is the heroine of Adams’ new novel, is presumably born of the same romantic tradition. “I wanted to write a book about somebody with no assets at all except sort of goddesslike beauty,” says the 64-year-old. “Maia is really about my belief in the natural and intrinsic purity of the female spirit.”
Maia is set in the same fictional world mapped out by Adams in his 1975 best-seller Shardik. Seduced by her stepfather, the 15-year-old Maia is sold as a “bed-girl” in a seamy capital city called Bekla. As concubine to a lubricious glutton of a government minister whose parties make goings-on at the Playboy mansion look like prayer breakfasts, she becomes ensnared in Bekla’s Byzantine plots.
Although his literary posturing is sometimes off-putting—his conversation is punctuated with repeated references to Flaubert, Zola and the like—Adams has few pretensions about Maia. “It is an erotic extravaganza,” he says. “I said to my New York publisher that it is really going to be Conan Doyle sexed up a bit, and it is meant to be like Sir Walter Scott, a darned good objective read.” By an “objective read” Adams means one in which the main character is not unduly troubled by conscience, but leads a life mainly concerned with “bed, blood and adventure.”
Although Maia is gamey stuff, Adams points out that his protagonist does ultimately choose “to marry the right bloke, have kids, have a nice home and live a plain, honest-to-good life.” His writing, he insists, is nothing more than “entertainment, with no mighty messages except that the grass is green—and it is nice to push girls down on it and life is very difficult and there are often enemies to be overcome.”
Not every critic has been as approving of Maia as its author. “This is not a book to be tossed aside lightly,” wrote the London Times of the 1,062-page saga. “It should be thrown with great force.” Retorts Adams, “I always fall back on that old crack of laughing all the way to the bank. Whatever these chaps think of Maia, it has made me more money that they will ever earn in their lives, probably.” He adds, “And that’s what it’s all about.”
Adams’ books have, in fact, made him millions, though he insists that his actual worth “must remain my own affair.” Benwells, his 18th-century home, is modest except for the library, which, according to John Chidley of Sotherans, the prestigious London antiquarian booksellers, houses “one of the finest private collections in Britain.” There Adams peruses his own first editions of Jane Austen, Emily Brontë, Samuel Johnson and Charles Dickens, a second folio of Shakespeare and a Bible that once belonged to King Charles II. The shelves also contain the complete works of Richard Adams in every edition ever published, while an annex shelters the original manuscripts: reams of foolscap on which Adams has written and rewritten with ballpoint pen. His current novel about the American Civil War will probably be published in 1987.
Apart from writing, Adams relishes country walks, and can identify most birds by their songs. This love for wildlife and the outdoors led to his 1980 appointment as president of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. In that role, he spoke out against vivisection, a subject he had researched for his 1978 novel The Plague Dogs. He resigned in 1982 after a stormy tenure, denouncing the inertia of the RSPCA.
The youngest child of a doctor and a nurse, Adams grew up in Newbury, Berkshire and entered Oxford in 1938. A year later, when war broke out, he joined the army and eventually served in the paratroops; in 1945 Adams participated in the liberation of Singapore.
After the war he completed his studies in history at Oxford, married secretary Elizabeth Acland and joined the Ministry of Environment, where he remained for the next 25 years. He found the work “intellectually rewarding,” he says, and “very good training for a novelist, really. You sort out masses of material and select and reject and produce something that a busy minister can assimilate quickly before presenting the case to the House of Commons.” It was during his days at the ministry that he created the lapine characters of Hazel, Bigwig and Fiver to amuse his daughters, Juliet and Rosamond, who prodded him until he eventually put the tale on paper. Watership Down won the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian newspaper award for children’s fiction, launching Adams’ new career.
The subsequent financial success of Shardik forced Adams into tax exile on the Isle of Man, where he lived and wrote, while traveling widely, until 1982. One trip to the polar continent to research his travelogue Voyage Through the Antarctic led to rumors of an affair with the ship captain’s wife and purser, Anne-Marie Nilsson. Adams dismisses the whole episode as “a flash in the pan, ancient history. I’d rather not talk about it.” He stayed married to Elizabeth, who lent her expertise on ceramics to her husband’s 1981 novel The Girl in a Swing. The erotic tale of the love between a ceramics dealer and a mysterious, beautiful German girl also caused a scandal in Britain. Some 20,000 copies had to be withdrawn under threat of a suit by an unnamed woman on whom Adams had based his sexually inventive female character.
“I have always been of a pretty erotic disposition,” Adams concedes. “I mean I love pretty girls. You know I am a real sucker for a leg show or a Miss World competition.” Then he adds matter-of-factly, “There are worse obsessions, after all.”