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.