I’m not really one for blogging. I wish I was. I see that blogging is a very good way to reach out and let people know what’s on your mind, what you care about and what worries you. These are all very valid reasons to blog, but I use my fiction for all of that. By the time I’ve finished writing my novels I’m usually pretty spent. I write a book a year and have done for fourteen years and, after a day writing my novel, writing a blog seems a bit like a busman’s holiday. I’ll admit it – I’d rather watch something on Netflix.
So what then, you might wonder, has drawn me out now to write my first blog piece?
Spare Brides, that’s what – my new novel, out February 13th. I think the terms that will be used to describe it will include, ‘my foray into historical fiction’ or ‘my change of direction’, but Spare Brides is not that alone, not to me. It’s not a ‘foray’ (which sounds experimental and unsure, a little whimsical; I’m very certain that this is the novel I have always wanted to write) and it’s not a change of direction per se. OK, so I’ve set my novel in 1921 which is not what I usually do. The clothes are different, the homes, the social, academic and financial circumstances of the women are different from those I usually write but, importantly, the crux of the women remains the same. The women in Spare Brides are scared, truthful, brilliant, flawed, sexy, hopeful, hopeless, lost and found. They are like us.
I didn’t know this was going to be the case when I started to write Spare Brides. If I thought of the women of the 1920s at all I pictured them as either lumpy, glum, and silent, or absolute jazzing flappers, wildly irresponsible, definitely young. After researching and coming to know the women of that period, I quickly gathered that neither stereotype was just or complete. So Spare Brides is about a beautiful, damaged generation irreparably changed by the Great War.
I’ll be completely honest – I never had much interest in World War One. I thought it was remote, masculine, unfathomable. When I was thirteen I went on a school trip and visited some of the graves of the men that died in battle; there were literally hundreds of thousands of them. I was struck by the uniformity but, at the time, I didn’t think of that as interestingly equalitarian (which I do now understand and value). I thought it was overwhelming, and the men the graves honoured remained inaccessible.
It was only four years ago that I started to think about the stories behind the grave stones and, even then, not the men exactly. As a writer who has always been most interested in women’s psychology, women’s stories and experiences, I started to think about the wives, lovers, mothers and daughters connected to the men in the graves. The women the men left behind.
Three quarters of a million British men died in World War One, the same number again were horribly injured, losing their sight and limbs, while countless more suffered enormous, unimaginable mental traumas. I came to wonder what happened after the war when they came home – how did they cope with their injuries? How did their loved ones cope with men so damaged? How was it for the millions of women whose men didn’t come home? The grief must have been like a tsunami wave, drenching everyone; no one could escape. Over a period of four and a half years everyone in the country knew some who had died. One in three lost a husband, son or father. The pain had to have been horrendous. Relentless.
Somehow, however, that damaged generation picked themselves up, brushed themselves off and carried on. Of course they did, because humanity is magnificent. The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to research the lives of these women of the 1920s. I became obsessed, reading contemporary novels and accounts of the war and the aftermath and then reading recently written social commentaries. I wanted to know how those women earned a living, what they wore and talked about, what they wanted out of life, how they stayed warm, especially at night. The stories I uncovered were fascinating. Of course I found heartbreaking tales of emotional and financial poverty as a result of the loss of a loved one and examples of widespread loneliness and regret, but I also found stories of women who saw that the new decade was offering chances and freedoms never before dreamed of, and they grabbed them. It was an exhilarating time. The more I researched the women of this generation the more I admired them and felt for them. They became the foundation of modern women and we have a lot to thank them for.
I had to write their stories. I’ve always written about ordinary people doing extraordinary things so it didn’t seem such a leap. I just placed my characters in different circumstances – the aftermath of a war. Spare Brides is about four friends (because I love writing about friendship which should be an elixir of promise but, on sad and rare occasions, seems like a slow poison). The four women are upper middle class but, in a time of social flux, at least two of them are struggling financially – Sarah because she lost her husband in the war, Beatrice because she lost her chances to marry, and financial security always came from husbands back then. They struggle with their newly straightened circumstances with dignity and buried frustration, the way many women have just got through the recession; holding a family together and holding your head up high has never been easy. Sarah is a single mum now, daunted but coping, again a situation that so many of us can relate to in 2014. Beatrice doesn’t ask ‘Where have all the good men gone?’ the way my single friends do from time to time now. She knows; they were blown to bits in the trenches.
Ava understands that the best men dying out in France is a tragedy, but she also sees opportunity. Now she won’t have to be married off and can have a career, although in-roads into any career were hard won for a woman. Ava has to struggle with deep-seated prejudice against women in the business place and against women who are sexually confident, financially independent and emotionally secure. Sound familiar? That sort of attitude still threatens now. I loved writing Ava; she’s spirited and intoxicating. Women like her forged the way for us.
Lydia is my heroine although, like many of my heroines, she has to come with a health warning: she is not instantly likeable, she is certainly not wise or self-aware. Her husband managed to secure a desk job during the war and so has survived intact; instead of seeing her luck she can only see his cowardliness and she can’t forgive him for not standing up with his generation. Enter Edgar, a damaged, angry soldier. He’s gorgeous, but unknown. Trouble.
I don’t want you to think Spare Brides is all about grief and sadness; it was an incredibly glamorous time and a time of sexual and romantic experimentation. Spare Brides has, at its heart, a profound love affair. It’s about passion, longing and jealousy because it turns out none of that stuff is modern. Who knew?
This novel feels a lot like writing my debut. I’ll admit I’m excited and terrified. I’ve laughed in the face of the trusted idiom, ‘If it ain’t broke, why fix it?’ by changing genre. It’s taken me just under four years to research and write Spare Brides. To try to do it justice. I might have just gone on forever thinking about those women that were referred to as ‘surplus’ in the press of their time but the 100th anniversary of World War One is upon us and I thought that was a good opportunity to publish their stories.
This book is very close to my heart, because I’m trying to tell the stories of not only the four women I’ve invented, but of a generation of women who endured the unimaginable with such beautiful dignity. Hundreds of thousands of them never married as a direct consequence of the war. They didn’t have children or grandchildren so their stories were not passed on verbally, finding life in the head and hearts of their offspring, the way women’s stories so often are. Their disappointments and suffering, their dreams and achievements were silenced. Forgotten. I’m just trying, in my own way, to give those women a voice. I’d be proud if you found you had the time to listen.
There ends my first honest blog.