Isabel Allende: ‘Everyone called me crazy for divorcing in my 70s. I’ve never been scared of being alone’

The bestselling Chilean American novelist talks about her foundation for women, laughing too much to write romance – and what she’s learned from her grandchildren

The Chilean American author Isabel Allende was a feminist long before she knew what the word meant. At the age of three, she saw her mother, Panchita, abandoned by her father and left to raise their three small children alone. Panchita moved back to her parents’ house in Santiago, where her father immediately took control of her finances. Following the annulment of her marriage, she was excommunicated by the church. Observing her mother’s disempowerment, the young Isabel railed against male authority. In her new book, The Soul of a Woman, she recalls her resentment as “an aberration in my family, which considered itself intellectual and modern but according to today’s standards was frankly Paleolithic.” Such was her fury, her mother took her to a doctor, suspecting colic or perhaps a tapeworm.

Allende, now 78, says she was frustrated on Panchita’s behalf but also at her refusal to stand up for herself. “She thought you couldn’t change what God had made this way,” she tells me. “When she saw me so willing to go out there and fight, she was scared and thought I would be ostracised. She was also worried I would never catch a husband. In my generation in Chile, if you didn’t have a formal engagement by age 23, you were a spinster.”

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Isabel Allende: ‘Everyone called me crazy for divorcing in my 70s. I’ve never been scared of being alone’