The secret life of fabric

ED: The descriptions of Ada’s dressmaking—the fabrics, the draping, the details—are some of the most evocative moments in the book. Did you have to do much research, to capture this world so vividly? How did you go about envisioning those creations, and writing those scenes?

MC: My grandmother was a seamstress and my mother, though not a professional, made her clothes, and mine, and taught me how to sew. I grew up imbibing the mechanics of dressmaking, and the qualities of fabric. One of my daughters is now a costume designer so I had another generation to advise me. Not much research was needed on the practical side! Animating material was pure invention, and a lot of fun. I used the internet for finding period fashions and coupled these with memories from a misspent adolescence watching old movies on TV from the 1930s and 1940s. But I wanted to give Ada depth, to suggest that her passion for dressmaking was more than a passion for finery. She was well aware of the transformative power of clothes, on herself and others. This also enabled a human link, woman to woman, across the political divide of war. Her anthropomorphising of fabric provided a foil to the denaturised world around her and a metaphor of survival in the midst of brutality and destruction. At the same time, it emphasised the human cost of adornments, the superficiality of the women who demanded these luxuries and their indifference to the plight of Ada and other exploited labour.

Wells Literary Festival.004Who could resist?

Class then and now

ED: How much has this notion of class changed, from the England of then versus today?

Britain’s class system was (and is) by no means monolithic. Rankings and gradations existed which were finely and acutely observed and class snobbery, often morally charged, could be found both within and across classes. Among the working class, this ranged from skilled workers and their families who lived comfortably, discreetly and ‘respectably,’ to the rough and tumble of casual and unemployed workers in sub-let rooms. The Poor Law (abolished in 1932) classified the working class into the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving.’ The Trade Unions, on the other hand, helped to instill pride in the working class and their institutions, to secure a living wage, and to ferment the demand for, and the practice of, democracy.

Social disadvantage still exists, but ‘class’ as a concept has lost its political potency and its conceptual clarity. The discourse has changed, but attitudes remain morally charged. The ‘deserving’ or ‘respectable’ working-class are now lauded in the political rhetoric as ‘hard-working families’; the undeserving as ‘benefits scroungers.’ The reality is very different: low wages mean ‘in-work’ poverty. Many of those hard-working families rely on benefits to survive. The Trade Unions have been decimated. The so-called ‘scroungers’ are often mentally, physically or socially disabled, or live in regions where unemployment is endemic. Class, as a term or a concept, is rarely used either by politicians or social analysts, least of all as a banner of pride. Poverty still hits women the hardest and the social world seems a harsher, more cynical place.

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A small extract from Charles Booth ‘Maps Descriptive of London Poverty’ (1897), showing the area where my character, Ada Vaughan, grew up. Charles Booth was a social reformer and colour coded his maps so that, at a glance, it was possible to see the class composition of a neighbourhood. Light blue was ‘poor’, dark blue ‘very poor’, purple – the colour of Theed Street – was mixed, some poor, some more comfortably off – but all a far cry from ‘yellow’ which was the colour of the upper class neighbourhoods. This extract came from the LSE. See (and for further details) http://booth.lse.ac.uk/static/a/4.html

Ways forward

ED: For a woman like Ada, growing up in that era, were there many career options available to her? Was dressmaking a way to transcend class divisions, or would they ultimately have constrained her?

Lack of education constrained most working class women and men from social advancement. A few won scholarships to high school which offered one route to social mobility but most working class children had an elementary education only, and left school at fourteen – the school leaving age was raised to fifteen in 1936. There was a real hunger for further education and Ada was typical in her desire for self-improvement. Institutions arose to satisfy this desire providing evening classes in a range of vocational, academic and recreational classes. Career avenues for working class girls were limited to service, shop work, or the factory floor. A few acquired skills such as typing or shorthand which brought them into clerical work. Ada was lucky. She had a trade and secured a job with a ‘modiste’ which elevated her above the sweatshops of the East End. She was ambitious, talented, and hard-working. Perhaps, with luck and financial patronage, she could have fulfilled her dream of owning her own atelier but opportunities would have been limited and the chances are she would have married, started a family and perhaps, to make ends meet, bought a sewing machine on hire-purchase and ran up the odd garment for a friend or family member. She did, after all, dream of marrying Stanislaus…

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The Borough Polytechnic Institute (now part of South Bank University) opened in 1892, offering training in trades, as well as classes in arts and sciences, literature and general knowledge. Elocution was also included in the syllabus.

A woman’s world: double standards

ED: Throughout most of The Dressmaker’s War, Ada Vaughan is tenacious in her ability to stay alive. But even after surviving Nazi imprisonment and wartime Europe, Ada is ultimately defeated by the justice system of her own country—unfairly, it seems! Why did they prosecute her so zealously? Would a woman like Ada have ever gotten a fair trail, at that time in England?

MC: Ada did murder Stanley/Stanislaus. That was why she was prosecuted. Nowadays, a defense would plead extenuating circumstances and probably convict her of the lesser crime of manslaughter. But post-war Britain was a society divided by class, gender (and, increasingly, race.) The political and justice system reflected the prejudices of the time. Universal suffrage was secured in 1928, less than twenty years before the end of the Second World War. There was no gender equality. Parliament was dominated by men. Similarly, the judiciary. There were no women judges (the first was appointed in 1962), very few women lawyers. Women could sit on juries but there was a property qualification which in effect barred them, for few women owned or rented property in their own name. Furthermore, lawyers cost money and the poor could not pay for a good lawyer. The legal odds were stacked against Ada.
So were the civil odds. Women who murder transgress social and gender norms. The cases of Edith Thompson, hung for murdering her husband in 1923, and Ruth Ellis, executed in 1955 for the murder of her lover are examples of what would now be considered gross miscarriages of justice. Ada’s abuse at the hands of Stanislaus was historic. Today, the court would have a more sympathetic understanding of the role of long-term abuse as a motive in murder, but then there was no such defense. Ada was sexually loose, which again transgressed acceptable behavior and would be enough to discredit her evidence. She was working class, in a society riddled with class division and snobbery. She was independent, at a time when women were being forced back into the home as part of the post-war drive to ‘normality’ and the reclamation of employment for discharged servicemen. Finally, the post-war narrative of victory had no tolerance for traitors, and stories of survival such as Ada’s blurred the lines between survival and collaboration. She became, in effect, a scapegoat.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/thumb/8/86/Ruth_Ellis.jpg/220px-Ruth_Ellis.jpg

Image: Wikipedia

Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be executed in Britain, in 1955, for the murder of her lover, David Blakely. She had suffered violent abuse from him which was not taken into account at her trial, and was poorly represented by her legal team.

The view from below

ED: How did your background and knowledge of history inform the way you wrote The Dressmaker’s War?

MC: South London seemed the natural location for my novel. My parents originated there and my childhood was filled with a repertoire of family stories set in the docks and markets, houses and streets of what they called the real London. I knew that historical and urban landscape, and its social topography. My academic specialism was the middle decades of the 20th century so setting my novel in that period came naturally, too.
I am passionate about history ‘from below,’ so it was natural for me to make my character representative of two historically disenfranchised groups – the working-class and women. There are other communities too, passed over by historians for being the wrong race, gender, ethnicity, faith or sexuality, or the wrong side of struggle, so I do feel that history – and/or its ally, fiction – can help reclaim these hidden pasts. We need these correctives to enhance our understanding of the complex, varied, volatile and fragile social world we inhabit.

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Cleaning the pavement like this, in front of the threshold, was a mark of working class pride and respectability.

Transitions

ED: Mary, you were a professor of history for many years before you turned to writing fiction. Did you always know that you wanted to write fiction?

MC: History and literature have been my two great passions and I have wanted to do both since I was a child. History promised a more realistic career to support a family, so I chose that passion first. Despite being widely published as a historian, I never felt I could call myself a ‘writer’ until I had published a work of fiction. I wanted to be up there!

ED: What was that transition like, from writing history to writing fiction?

MC: I was (and remain) on a steep learning curve. On the face of it, there are crossovers between history and fiction. Both operate with prose, narrative, characters, with mentalities and context. But a historian’s approach is omnipresent, forensic and cerebral, a novelist’s partial, fluid and involved. Historians have evidence to support their characters and context, and to present an authentic interpretation of what happened in the past. Novelists have to invent everything: characters, evidence and context to create that aura of authenticity. They need to inhabit the world of their novel and its people in order to portray the illusion of reality, to invent detail that historians have no concern with. On the other hand, a novelist is not constrained by the evidence in a way that a historian is, can invent and circumvent, lie and speculate.

Published in 1989, my study of Lambeth was one of the source books for my novel.

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Inspirations

ED: What gave you the idea for this story? Were Ada, or any of the other characters, inspired by real people?

MC: The starting points for my novel were two of my aunts. Ada, whom I never knew, left her husband and young children to be cared for by my grandmother. In any age, that was a shocking thing to do, but in the 1920s it was unforgiveable. The family never spoke of her again – a silence amply filled by myth. Aunt Ada, we learned, had – depending on the time and the source – variously married the heir to a manufacturer’s fortune, run off with a Hungarian count, been rescued from behind enemy lines and smuggled out from the Iron Curtain. For me, as a child, this was high octane glamour and excitement. She was, by all accounts, uncommonly beautiful. But Ada was a working class girl from Walworth, and the stories say more about the family imagination than the truth. Nevertheless, I wondered why she abandoned her family, and what happened to her.

And then there was Violet, another aunt, a linen maid from Southwark, plain as a pavement, in sensible shoes and horn-rimmed glasses. Known as Viley to my mother, Auntie Bernadette to us children, she was a nun. I must have been twelve or thirteen when I first learned that this soft-spoken, lisping, aunt had been interned by the Germans and spent the war caring for their old people. I was old enough to know of the atrocities the Nazis had perpetrated, not old enough to understand the complexities of war, especially for prisoners. She never mentioned it again, nor did I ever ask. Trapped in the motherhouse in northern France and rounded up by the Germans, she was shipped by cattle truck across France – a journey that took days without water or rest – to an internment camp, from where the nuns were isolated and sent to look after the elderly, either in Germany or Vichy France.

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(Ada on the right, Violet on the left. My mother and a cousin in the middle)

In the mill of my imagination, these aunts morphed into one and became my protagonist, Ada Vaughan, who ran the story in directions that would have both the sinning aunt and the saintly aunt turning in their graves. But I wanted to write about the real Ada’s drive, about Viley’s wartime survival, about women during and after the war, about post-war Britain and its problems.