N ovellist Simonetta Agnello Hornby was born into an aristocratic Sicilian family and brought up in Palermo. She might have continued to live a life of cosmopolitan comfort indefinitely had she not been sent to Cambridge to learn English.

Here she she met and fell in love with her future husband, Martin Hornby (who was studying astrophysics), and started work on a law degree, studies which eventually led to the establishment of a pioneering law firm in London.

Her first novel La Mennulara (The Almond Picker) published in 2002, saw her life take a new direction. The book, which she wrote in Italian, is set in her native Sicily.

But when I first met Simonetta in Kennington in 1970, writing novels was not even on the horizon. She was still working on qualifying in English law.

I can still picture her with a huge volume of The Law of Tort on her knees and her little son, George, playing at her feet.

After qualifying — and the birth of her sons George and Nicolas — she exchanged a glamorous job in a City law firm to work as a childcare lawyer. Not long after, she set up her own practice in Brixton, specialising in childcare and domestic violence cases. Then, finding time from her day job, she wrote her first novel. Despite literary success, Simonetta, now in her sixties, is down-to-earth about her new career.

“I can't understand the fuss,” she said. “I am a better lawyer than a writer!”

Her second book The Marchesa is based on the life of one of her 19th century ancestors.

“When I was a child, I would stay at my grandfather's palazzo in the small town of Siculiana. I was allowed to go up and down between floors, and loved to listen to my great-aunts’ conversation.

“Whenever there was a woman who was ugly, dirty, unkempt, greedy or stupid, one of them would say: ‘She’s like the marchesa’.

Simonetta’s interest was further piqued by Luigi Pirandello’s novel The Three Widows, which was loosely based on the life of her ancestor. “The story Pirandello tells is partly true," she said. “But I got cross about the way he talked about her.

“She was red-headed and considered ugly on account of that. She spoke Sicilian and not Italian. She liked to cook, and did so as a married woman. She liked the company of servants.”

In her novel, Simonetta reinvents the marchesa as a victim of a dynastic system that would not tolerate women who didn’t know their place. Simonetta said she hoped that her portrayal of this remarkable woman would change perceptions about her relative.

Knowing how much Simonetta enjoys contact with her family and freinds (she has four grandchildren), her exile on a desert island will be hard. So I wondered what antique, work of art or antiquarian book she would like washed up on the beach to remind her of her life in London?

“At 19, while I was studying law at the University of Palermo, I used the first month’s earnings from my first paid job (teaching a young man English) to buy an exquisite semi-circular embroidery from Albania which now hangs in my eldest son’s house,”

Simonetta said.

“The second month, I went to an antique shop that specialised in small silver items and my eye was drawn to a delicate 18th century writing set made in Naples. I bought it and have taken it with me everywhere — to Zambia, the USA and England. It has two ink pots, one for the red and one for the black ink, a pounce pot to hold the powder to dry the page, a holder for the quills and a little silver bell.

“On the desert island, I could make coloured inks and should be able to find feathers to write with. But I would enjoy the bell the most. The noise of the birds and the sea on this island would not be enough for me. The bell would resonate with the ingenuity of human sound.”

As you will gather, Simonetta has been a connoisseur of antiques from an early age.

“I like things that appeal to different senses. For example, on the island I would like to be creative. So a Swiss Army knife would be uaseful.

“A well-made knife is a pleasure to handle, and I could use it to cut bark from trees to make paper, to write and inscribe on wood and stones, and to make walking sticks. A traditional craft in Sicily is carving beautiful geometric patterns on walking sticks made out of branches from olive trees. It would bring back childhood memories and smells. The bark of olive trees from our farm, Mose (near Agrigento), retains its perfume for a long time. Carving will thus reward three senses.

‘Sicily is at the crossroads of the Mediterranean, and has been ruled by everyone from the Greeks to the Arabs. The architectural remains in Palermo prompted my interest in Islam. On a trip to Istanbul with Martin (Simonetta’s ex-husband) we bought a pair of old Kashmiri miniature paintings.

“When we separated each of us kept one. Mine shows a teacher and his student, their eyes locked. To me, this is possibly the most profound relationship. Passing on knowledge and ideas is an act of love between the generations. After buying the miniatures I read the Koran for the first time.

“But if I am allowed to take with me only one thing, it has to be the Japanese miniature cabinet painted with flying cranes on a golden background. Its drawers contain lots of tiny boxes. It was given to me by my Aunt Marjory.

“I was very fond of her and she represents to me a certain generation of plucky women. She was engaged to be married but when she contracted TB her fiancé’s family terminated the engagement.

“She remained single and kept herself teaching in a girls’ dancing school. Her life was poor but dignified without ever a word of complaint or regret. She loved beautiful things and her pupils gave her nice presents, such as this Japanese cabinet.

“When my boys were little, I called it ‘the pagoda of dreams’, remembering the Tibetan Buddhist stupas where pilgrims attach their prayers. At first I filled its boxes with sweets and nuts and allowed them to take some each day.

“When they were older I suggested they write their wishes and thoughts on a small piece of paper and fold it up and put it in one of the boxes. I promised I wouldn’t read them.”

“Many of my young clients were sad young things. I recommended that they do the same thing. They were surprised but loved doing it. I would read their notes only if they allowed me, and I respected their wish to keep them secret, always.

“On the desert island the cabinet would remind me of Aunt Marjory, my children and the many children whose lives have touched mine as they passed through my firm. It would also have a practical function. It would help me mark the passage of time.

“Each day I could put a seed in a drawer and after 100 days replace them with a larger seed or pod. This would help me count the days until I am rescued.’’