The writer Evelyn Anthony, who has died aged 92, was an unlikely pioneering feminist. The daughter of a wealthy naval hero who married a director of an international mining company and became lady of the manor in a hall that had housed Elizabeth I, she was fully involved in country life.
But the author of 50 novels, including The Tamarind Seed (1971), which was made into a film starring Julie Andrews and Omar Sharif ,challenged stereotypes by becoming the main breadwinner of her family and, in 1994, the first female High Sheriff of Essex in 700 years.
Her career began after the second world war with short stories syndicated to women’s magazines. Born Evelyn Stephens, later becoming Evelyn Ward-Thomas through marriage, she chose Evelyn Anthony as her pseudonym as, a devout Catholic throughout her life, Anthony was the patron saint of lost things – “I can’t live without him,” she said – and her first name was gender neutral.
In 1953 she published her debut novel, Rebel Princess, a fictional account of the life of Catherine the Great. More bodice-heaving romances followed, featuring Russian, Tudor and French princesses fighting peril and patriarchy, which quickly built up a worldwide readership. Anne Boleyn (1956) and Victoria (1957) were both selected for the US Literary Guild award. Evelyn produced nearly a book a year for more than 40 years, not even slowed by the birth of her six children between 1957 and 1965.
In the 1960s, with fierce competition from fellow writers Georgette Heyer and Jean Plaidy, she switched to spy thrillers, having spotted a gap in the market for such books that appealed to women. It was a genre she was well-equipped to write thanks to contacts made through her father, Lt Commander Henry Stephens.
The inventor of a top-secret anti-aircraft gunnery simulator, he had worked with British intelligence officers in the war. Among them was Desmond Bristow, who, with Kim Philby, had recruited one of the most important double agents of the war, and his stories inspired among others The Rendezvous (1967) and The Poellenberg Inheritance (1972).
It was then the height of the cold war, and with titles such as The Assassin (1970) and The Grave of Truth (1979), she was a regular in the bestseller charts. The Occupying Power won the 1973 Yorkshire Post book prize and the following year the film of The Tamarind Seed became a box office hit, with Sharif playing the Russian spy and Andrews the British civil servant, lovers divided by the iron curtain.
Born in London to Elizabeth (nee Sharkey) and Henry, whose fortune came from the indelible ink invented by his grandfather, the chemist Dr Henry Stephens, Evelyn was a voracious reader. She escaped a troubled family through reading and storytelling – aged 10, and a boarder at the Convent of the Sacred Heart school in Roehampton, she would terrify girls in her dormitory with ghost stories.
By thethe time she was 12, her parents had divorced. Within two years her father’s health had deteriorated to the point where he had to use a wheelchair and Evelyn cared for him when at home. It was a close relationship and later in life she voiced regret that he had not lived long enough to see her success.
It was during this period that an incident occurred that she said inspired the heroes in her novels. The night before the Dieppe Raid of August 1942, a group of Canadian soldiers were billeted at the family house and a raucous party ensued. At 10.30pm she was ordered to bed. When she awoke the next day, the soldiers had departed. Only one returned from the fighting. Her awareness of the sacrifice remained with her all her life.
Evelyn met Michael Ward-Thomas, a director at Consolidated African Selection Trust, on a double date at the Dorchester hotel in Mayfair in 1955. It was a mutual attraction: like a hero from her books, he was tall and handsome in his naval uniform; she was equally striking, with flame-red, waist-length hair and green eyes. By the end of the evening, they had swapped partners and they were married a few months later.
They bought Horham Hall, a Grade I listed Elizabethan manor house in Thaxted, Essex, in 1968, but it proved a money pit that even Evelyn’s high earnings could not fill. In 1976 they sold up and moved to Naas, County Kildare, where she had relatives.
But Horham was Evelyn’s passion and, with the sales of her books boosted by the success of The Tamarind Seed, they bought it back, fully restored, in 1982. To subsidise upkeep of the hall, the family would show around parties of tourists, entertaining them with invented stories that would earn the teller of the best “whopper” a prize over dinner that evening.
Evelyn could be spiky if her success was not acknowledged: on visiting Horham, a hapless accountant was cut short by the novelist after he addressed his comments to her husband. “Why are you talking to him?” she demanded. “I am the one making the money.”
In later life she concentrated more on her charitable work. She felt a debt of gratitude towards second world war veterans, and did much for their causes. In 1987 she was made a freeman of the City of London, and liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Needlemakers. But professional and personal success was soon marred by private tragedy. In 1995, the year following her appointment as high sheriff, her daughter, Kitty, died of a heroin overdose after struggling with alcoholism and addiction.
The loss affected Evelyn deeply and after Bloodstones (1995), she produced nothing for seven years. Her last book, Mind Games, appeared in 2005, a year after the death of her husband from a stroke. Devastated by this loss, she stopped writing, though fan mail from around the world continued to arrive in the weeks before she died.
She is survived by her children Susan, Anthony, Ewan, Christian and Luke, and 16 grandchildren.
• Evelyn Anthony (Evelyn Bridget Patricia Ward-Thomas), born 3 July 1926; died 25 September 2018
• This article was amended on 23 October 2018. The second world war event referred to was the Dieppe Raid of 1942 rather than D-day, in 1944. This has been corrected.