Photo: Barry Zeman
As the world looks to the outbreak of WWI in the summer of 1914, we are re-running this interview with Jacqueline Winspear, author of the bestselling Maisie Dobbs series which deals with the aftermath of that great conflict.
Soho Press has recently re-issued this classic novel with a new afterworld by the author.
As Jacqueline Winspear tells it, Maisie Dobbs appeared unbidden, emerging from London’s Warren Street tube station one spring day in 1929. Winspear saw her stop to chat with a newspaper vendor before pulling out a set of keys and entering a somewhat rundown Georgian building on Fitzroy Square. The surprise: This sighting actually occurred in spring 2000, as Winspear was stuck at a stoplight in bumper-to-bumper traffic on her way to her job in the San Francisco Bay area.
“It was like watching a movie,” Winspear says of that first “mind’s eye” vision of her imaginary investigator, who she has since taken through three post-World War I cases, including Pardonable Lies (Henry Holt), published this August. “It sounds rather like meeting the apparition on the Road to Damascus. But I call it my moment of artistic grace,” says the author, who has also worked as a creativity coach. By the time the light changed, Winspear had the details of a first chapter in her head and couldn’t wait to get home to record the history of Maisie Dobbs, her housemaid turned scholar turned sleuth.
Though that beginning remained virtually unchanged, Winspear didn’t get around to finishing the book until more than a year later, when she had come to another standstill—literally. An avid horsewoman, Winspear suffered a horrible riding accident that crushed her right shoulder and landed her in orthopedic “scaffolding” for a month. “My writing buddy said, ‘Well, now you can finish the book.’ I protested, ‘I can’t use my right hand!’ And she said, ‘You still have the left.’” Winspear laughs. She now credits the frustration of one-handed typing with improving her mobility. “I did my physical-therapy exercises religiously! My doctor predicted I might have 75 percent recovery, but I had 85 percent within a year.” It only took two of those 12 months, however, to complete Maisie Dobbs (Soho Press, 2003), which went on to win the Macavity Award, the Edgar Award for Best Novel, and the Agatha Award for First Novel that year.
Even more unpredictable for Winspear was that she was writing fiction. Though she had spent years in academic publishing, she had recently been employed in marketing, in her spare time composing personal essays, articles on international education, and some travel pieces. Going on adventures with a made-up heroine had not been on her agenda.
But perhaps it was not quite as unexpected that her protagonist would inhabit the years following 1914 to 1918. Born and raised in England, Winspear, like many of her generation, was fascinated by what happened during and after that era, when millions of her countrymen had been killed or severely wounded. “I read a comment that the British are obsessed with World World I, which for us has more in common with the devastation during the American Civil War,” she explains. “When I was a kid, your parents might have been involved in World War II, but without exception, everyone’s grandparents had been affected by ‘The Great War.’ Just those words had tremendous impact. Everyone had known immense levels of grief.” To this day, on the date and time the armistice went into effect—November 11 at 11 o’clock—British life comes to a standstill, Winspear notes. “Buses pull over, service stops in the Safeway so that everyone can observe the two minutes of silence on Remembrance Day.”
During the Second World War, Winspear’s mother had been buried under the rubble of a bombed building in London and so, after her parents marriage in 1949, they chose to start their family in a “safe” place, away from the city. Though the rural county of Kent was not far from London, Winspear saw her grandparents only a few times a year. Still she witnessed the scars her own family carried from the First War. Her maternal grandmother was left partially blind by an explosion at the munitions plant where she worked and where others alongside her died. Her paternal grandfather had returned from the Battle of the Somme, fought in the French river valley in July 1916, shell-shocked and wounded. Until he died at age 77, he was still removing splinters of shrapnel from his legs that worked their way to the surface of his skin. “They didn’t really talk about it—the attitude was, ‘You just go on with it,’” Winspear says. But she did learn that, during her father’s boyhood, her grandfather occasionally would be taken by ambulance to a seaside convalescent home for a month at a time to ease the breathing from his gas-damaged lungs.
Growing up, Winspear read WWI poets such as Wilfred Owen and in the country towns saw the markers listing the war dead, with long groups of names often from the same family. In some cases, all of the men from one place had been killed. Winspear found out that this was the result of a government recruitment scheme as the war raged on. “”It was great marketing,” she notes ruefully. “They realized no one would give their life for their country, but they would for their friends and family. They encouraged men to join as a village, as fellow factory workers or bootmakers. Five members of a family would often die on the same day. It was a shock to the community.” Winspear later made this theme the backbone of her second Maisie Dobbs novel, Birds of a Feather (Soho Press, 2004), another Agatha Award winner.
Winspear was always particularly interested in the lives of the women from that era. “More than 60,000 women were involved in war-related activities, and nearly 500,000 more stepped into the jobs men left behind for the battlefield,” she reports. “The post-war period heralded enormous social changes.” She notes that the 1921 British census showed two million “surplus” women—those who had lost sweethearts or other marriage prospects and thus had to make their own way in the world.
“Yet women thrived on that independence, and many women writers really emerged in that time,” Winspear says. She tells of listening to one recollection on an archival recording available at London’s Imperial War Museum. “The lady said, ‘Once they opened the stable door, we bolted and never went back.’ Until then their idea of life had been so narrow; and that one war made everything different. You had to support yourself.”
That’s where the story of the very independent and determined Maisie begins, more than a decade after the Armistice, as she is opening her new business, “M. Dobbs, Trade and Personal Investigations,” in Fitzroy Square. “The mystery genre offered an interesting way of exploring the time and its people,” the author says.
Maisie’s background, detailed in that first novel, mirrors much of the wartime upheaval. Like Winspear’s grandfather, Maisie’s father was a costermonger, selling fresh fruit and vegetables to London households from his horse-drawn cart. After his wife dies, Frankie Dobbs puts 13-year-old Maisie “into service” with the aristocratic Comptons. When her late-night visits to the family’s library brings her to the attention of Lady Rowan, a passionate suffragette, Maisie is put under the tutelage of Maurice Blanche who is often called upon by the European elite for private investigations. A Renaissance man of sorts, Blanche schools Maisie not just in the usual subjects but also in logic, psychology and Eastern philosophy. Sponsored by the Comptons, Maisie later wins a place at Girton College, Cambridge. When war breaks out, she interrupts her education to become a nurse at a casualty clearing station in France. After she herself is wounded and sent home to recover, she resumes her studies and becomes Blanche’s assistant, continuing her mentor’s work when he retires in 1929.
Maisie’s use of psychology, yoga and mind-body techniques may seem ahead of her time, but Winspear points out that Freud and Jung had already published and “The British had a great deal of interest and fascination with India and the Raj.” Readers may even recognize mention of a fitness regimen that’s hot in health clubs today. “Los Angeles thinks it discovered Pilates,” laughs Winspear, “but [the German-born] Joseph Pilates taught these exercises while held at an internment camp in England during the war.” Pilates later became a nurse and developed apparatus and routines used to help rehabilitate veterans.
While the cases that come Maisie’s way seem the usual stuff of crime fiction—a wayward spouse, a runaway heiress, a young girl accused of murder—the underlying motivations and emotions show the aftershocks of war still reverberating in these character’s lives. She must deal with the disfigured and disabled, drug addiction, spiritualists who claim to be able to contact the dead, even those who lost their minds through the horrors they experienced. (Winspear is currently reading Forgotten Lunatics of the Great War, by Peter Barham.) In the latest novel, Maisie also returns to France for the first time, confronting her own suffering.
“Maisie is as shell-shocked as anyone,” explains Winspear. “She is most at home in her professional life; she thinks the way to get over her own heartache is to busy yourself in your work.”
The tentativeness of Maisie’s relationship with a young doctor in Pardonable Lies also shows how keenly aware she is of losing her new-found independence and the status gained from earning her own living. “She still has that lack of confidence from coming from the lower class,” notes Winspear. “She feels she must use the opportunities she’s been given. Yet the tools in her professional kit don’t help in her personal life.” Her creator calls Maisie “a dark horse—she keeps a lot to herself.” Winspear says she herself is more akin to Priscilla Evernden Partridge, Maisie’s former college roommate and close friend. “I’d be telling Maisie she had to get out more, get her nose out of that book!” she laughs.
Though Winspear often returns to the UK for research and family visits, she has lived and worked in California since 1990, and feels that is an advantage. “I’m not distracted by England in the present and can detach, like an astronaut looking back at Earth. I can more readily immerse in that earlier time.”
Ironically, Winspear says she was in London on July 21 when the Warren Street station was the target of a terrorist group; luckily, the minor explosion did not cause the devastation of similar bombings a few weeks before. That’s a poignant reminder that perhaps the tragic lessons from what was once called “the war to end all wars” have yet to be learned.
In her next novel, Messenger of Truth, Winspear has Maisie investigating the death of a painter whose controversial depictions of war may have led to his murder. As Maisie delves into London’s galleries and an isolated artist’s colony on the windswept beaches of Dungeness, Winspear will again explore issues of class and culture, gender and gentility that were detonated by the Great War.
For this emerging crime writer, it isn’t the generals and battles that compel her to keep writing about a turbulent era. “I am drawn to what happens to ordinary people’s lives in extraordinary circumstances,” she says. “Their wounds remain embedded.” And in Maisie Dobbs, she’s given contemporary readers an extraordinary guide into the past.
THE MAISIE DOBBS NOVELS
by Jacqueline Winspear
Maisie Dobbs (2003)
Birds of a Feather (2004)
Pardonable Lies (2005)
Messenger of Truth (2006)
An Incomplete Revenge (2008)
Among the Mad (2009)
The Mapping of Love and Death (2010)
A Lesson in Secrets (2011)
Elegy for Eddie (2012)
Leaving Everything Most Loved (2013)
CHERYL SOLIMINI is a former features editor of Mary Higgins Clark Mystery Magazine and a writer for other national publications. She is a consulting editor for Mystery Scene as well as a frequent contributor. Solimini’s debut mystery novel, Across the River, won Deadly Ink’s first Best Unpublished Mystery Award in 2007, and was published by Deadly Ink Press in June 2008.