My childhood home (musings, perhaps, on novel #3…having overcome acute case of Second Novel Syndrome)

There are pictures of me as a young child in my parents’ house. My mother moved there in 1941 after her Walworth home had been damaged in the London blitz. My parents had married in 1940 and, with my father away in the war, my mother continued to live in her mother’s house, in a street coloured ‘pink’ – Fairly comfortable: good ordinary earnings – in Booth’s Map Descriptive of London Poverty of 1898-9. My maternal grandfather was a printer. Although he died in 1926, his trade union provided well for his widow. She continued to rent the whole house, and brought up six children there, along with two grandchildren. They had a lodger, Uncle Jack, my grandmother’s brother. My family, on both sides, can be traced at least as far back as the 18th century in London. South of the river, Bermondsey and Shad Thames, Borough and Walworth. My father’s street was dark blue in Booth’s memorable map. Very poor, casual. Chronic want. My paternal grandfather was a docker on London’s corn wharves and died early, of pneumonocosis. My social, and political, DNA is rooted in the skilled working class of the inner city.

After the bombing, my mother and grandmother sought refuge in the suburbs. My mother refused to let my grandmother bring her furniture, claiming it was too large. ‘Can’t be much of a house,’ was my grandmother’s verdict. But my mother was paying the rent, and this was her first home as a married woman. She was calling the shots.

I look at pictures of the house now and what strikes me about my childhood home was how new it was. When I was born, in 1947, it was ten years old, if that, part of the straggling ‘ribbon’ developments of outer London which the inter-war London County Council hoped would be one solution to the chronic overcrowding of the inner city. But you had to be affluent to afford the rent, and the commute. London’s overcrowding was, by contrast, among the poorest: the unskilled and semi-skilled, for whom these private developments were unaffordable, and would do little to help. It needed state involvement to solve the slums and the post-war housing crisis, but that’s another story. My mother was a primary school teacher, and could afford the rent.

When I lived there, the pebbledash was fresh, the gardens full of builder’s rubble, the hedges rudimentary. A few years earlier, it had been countryside, farms and lanes and woodland. There was still woodland of sorts, scrubby remains of land gone to seed.  There were no shrubs or trees in the gardens, no lawns or borders.  The woodwork was painted dark green or brown, the pebbledash a dull, sandy beige. Black and white photographs compound its gloom.

Everyone else in that road were newcomers, too. What could that have been like, moving to a neighbourhood of strangers? Where had those other people come from? The men home from war had to find work, learn to live with wives whom they hadn’t seen for years, or had never lived with, children they’d not met. What went through their minds? What secrets and horrors did they suppress, what dreams did they embrace? Where were the tension points in those quintessentially and very new suburban lives, those uprooted, rootless families?

My parents never moved from that house.  They couldn’t believe their luck.

Why stories of war?

ED: How do you account for our continued appetite for stories from World War Two and stories of survival?

MC: Wars generate extremes–heroism and cowardice, generosity and selfishness, death and survival, and so on. Those extremes fascinate, but they raise fundamental issues. We all ponder, at some time, how we would behave faced with unimaginable danger or hardship and those thoughts touch our moral core: would we kill/betray/connive for our survival or those of our loved ones? How far would we go? Stories of war – of other peoples’ heroism or brutality – allow us to make those decisions vicariously and let us off the hook for the time being.Wells Literary Festival.009
War could so easily happen in Europe again, if we are not careful.
ED: Are you working on another novel? If so, what are its themes?

MC: My next novel is set in the Channel Islands under the German occupation and in it I am exploring themes of betrayal and survival in the war, and their reckoning after the war. But I am also trying to invert – or subvert – some of the usual stereotypes, and tell the story through two very different characters and perspectives. Watch this space…

Discussion questions

  1. From the very beginning of the story, we learn that Ada Vaughan is ambitious and driven: “Ada would go far, she knew, be a somebody” What are the upsides, and downsides, to Ada’s ambition? How does her ambition affect the decisions she makes, at various junctures in the story? Does Ada ever lose her ambition?
  2. When Stanislaus appears, near the beginning of the story, Ada falls for him almost instantly. Why do you think she is so susceptible to his charm? What are some of the possibilities that Stanislaus represents, to Ada? Is she changed by him, and if so, how?
  3. Ada describes her employer, Mrs. Buckley, as someone who is “crafted through artifice.” Throughout the story, there are many instances of people attempting to look like something they are not; people changing their appearances. What are some of these instances, both good and bad? How does dressmaking, and clothing in general, relate to this theme?
  4. We learn that Ada is good at improvising. When she meets Stanislaus, she is “out of her depth. But she’d learn to swim, she’d pick it up fast.” Ada’s skill at improvising is a theme that runs through the book. Do you think this knack is ultimately a good thing, something that keeps Ada alive? Or is it more harmful than helpful?
  5. Why do you think Ada ignores the warnings of war, when Stanislaus invites her to Paris? How might her life have turned out differently, if she hadn’t gone?
  6. As a dressmaker, Ada is always attentive to the way people dress, the clothing they wear. Is clothing an important signifier, a way of learning something about the person who wears it? What are some of these noteworthy outfits in the story? What are some of the moments when Ada discerns something important from the way someone is dressed? What role does Eva Braun, and her vanity, play in this story?
  7. Ada calls the teddy bear she finds at the Belgian border her good luck charm; she says it has “kept her alive so far.” Later in the book, back in London, Ada also calls her blue dress lucky. What is the role of luck and chance in this book? What events does Ada think of as “lucky” in the moment, that might appear different in hindsight?
  8. During Ada’s trial, near the end of the book, the question of Ada’s sanity during wartime starts to come into question. How much of Ada’s decision-making in wartime seemed like a rational choice to stay alive? Did any of her choices seem irrational, in the moment? If you had been in the same situation as Ada, during the war, what would you have done the same, or differently?
  9. How does hope keep Ada going, throughout the story? What are some of the ways that she remains hopeful, even in the darkest times?
  10. Back in London, Ada finds that most people don’t want to talk about the messy or complicated parts of the war. There is a notion of a so-called “good war”—what do you think this means? Why would Ada’s war not be considered a “good war”?
  11. After the war, Ada becomes, in effect, a prostitute, operating beyond acceptable social and sexual mores. What part does this play in her downfall? How do we see double standards—one law for women, one for men—at play in the way she is treated? Why were her ‘clients’ so keen to talk to her, but not to defend her?
  12. At the end of the story, Ada’s version of events clashes with the prosecutor’s version. She observes how the facts can be twisted, but wonders where is the in-between: “the truth, that connected one fact to another.” What are some instances where you’ve seen this happen in real life, where two narratives are spun from the same set of facts? The jury ultimately accepted the prosecutor’s narrative, not Ada’s. Why do you think some narratives are more acceptable than others?
  13. There are many novels and stories now set in World War I and World War II. Why do you think stories of war endure? Is there something about a war that reveals the strengths and frailties of human beings?  How have stories of war—the way we write, talk, and think about them—changed over time?

Hidden histories

ED: You write so beautifully about the notion of “the twilight” in history, the real stories of what happened, stories of women like Ada: “Ada’s war would be forgotten.” Do you think it’s a problem we still face, today?

In the immediate aftermath of World War Two, the public narrative that prevailed in Britain was one of victory and valor and stories which did not conform to this template were often ignored, not listened to, or believed. The subjugation and imprisonment of British subjects was one such. Male prisoners of war held a heroic place as resisters and survivors in the narrative. But women? There is for the most part silence. Collaboration was another toxic theme. This was not the pressing issue in mainland Britain that it was in other parts of Europe, with the exception of the Channel Islands (although this remains contentious and controversial.) But I wanted to raise some of these questions in my novel: what happened to women subjugated by the enemy? How were they regarded? What is collaboration? What is choice under these circumstances? Where does gender sit in this murky arena? Women charged with collaboration in Europe (and in the Channel Islands) – usually for sleeping with the enemy – were regarded particularly harshly and often the victims of a brutal rough justice. The nature and forms of collaboration with an enemy may take many forms, gradations of co-operation which may have little or nothing to do with sympathies for the occupying power and much to do with survival. Equally, the ethics of resistance are not so clear-cut: how right is it to carry out an act of sabotage knowing that the reprisals would be savage?
In the years following the war people were desperate to put the hardship and suffering behind them and look to the future. The political environment had also changed as the Cold War bifurcated the world bringing with it the potential for nuclear annihilation. These were cosmic issues of survival which contributed to an amnesia of the war. I think many writers of my generation, born during or just after the Second World War and growing up in its aftermath, are still trying to make sense of our lives and the turbulent century into which we were born. Other tales now are beginning to be told, which examine a more ambiguous and ambivalent past. This is a rich seam to mine.

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.

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)

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.

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.


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.