So far, in this time of enforced isolation, the Dunnetts, the Mantels, the Sansoms and other historical tomes have stayed on the bookshelves.
My need was for something brisk to stand against the media’s outbreak of “war words” and writing that reminded me of the quiet cynicism with which my parents and grandparents – who had had real experience of such things - regarded such “patriotic” stances.
In consequence, I have been reading the novels of Lissa Evans: OLD BAGGAGE, CROOKED HEART and THEIR FINEST HOUR AND A HALF*, set during the first half of the twentieth century, and blessed with a dark, quirky and benign humour.
Evans has a way of creating characters that are slightly at odds with society, people trying to survive in a world that has moved on and not always to their advantage. Her plots are not about dealing with heroic events on a world stage, but about coping with snobbery, prejudice, poverty, petty cruelty, boredom and tragedy during the hard times.
However, bit by bit, despite sometimes doing a wrong or stupid thing, things work out almost right for her main characters - and almost right, Evans seems to suggest to me, might be the best we can hope.
OLD BAGGAGE is set in London in 1928. Women have now been granted the right to vote, so what lies ahead for the Suffragettes, now older and stouter, who were shaped by their experiences of direct action?
Miss Mattie Simpkins will be gathering with her fellow radicals, for Emmeline Pankhurst’s funeral. As she walks, pre-occupied, on Hampstead Heath, she is robbed by a young man. Still adept in lobbing objects at full strength, the furious Mattie throws a bottle after him, striking an ordinary young woman, Ida, in the face.
Partly in retribution, autocratic Mattie sets up The Amazons, a club for young, disadvantaged women, providing opportunities for strong, healthy, physical outdoor activities such as “Javelin throwing. Archery. Use of the slingshot.” along with lectures on feminism.
Her intention is to encourage female confidence and independence, but despite her years of campaigning, Mattie - from a more privileged background - does not really understand the lives of ordinary girls and women:
Now she could see Ida toiling up the hill from Parliament Fields, head down . . “Well done,” she called as Ida came within earshot. “Couldn’t you persuade anyone to come with you?”
“I tried my friend Vesta, but she says today’s her only lie-in,” said Ida, trying to keep the resentment out of her voice, seeing as exactly the same thing applied to herself.
Meanwhile, Mattie’s best friend, Florrie Lea - nicknamed “The Flea”- offers more practical solutions and better employment to Ida. Unlike Mattie, with her wealthy background, The Flea knows what it is to be poor.
While Mattie’s militant energies help the group to thrive, its status is soon threatened by a more glamorous and miltaristic organisation: the well-funded “Empire Youth League” led by an old Suffragette acquaintance who has now become a fervent supporter of Mussolini.
Mattie also threatens the group herself, unwisely favouring a new recruit - the flighty, sly Inez - above her more ordinary Amazons because Inez is the daughter of a fellow Suffragette and a young man that Mattie once admired.
In her idealised pursuit, Mattie breaks her promise to Ida, the original protege and thoughtlessly offends “The Flea”, through whose quietly determined visits we glimpse life in the poorest districts of thirties London.
OLD BAGGAGE, set within the rising shadows of the Thirties, is a study of the gaps between idealism, intentions, practicality and human frailty.
Although this title would come second in a historical time sequence, in terms of publishing, this is the earlier novel of the pair.
The year is 1939, with Hitler actively threatening, London’s school-children are to be evacuated for a second time. Meanwhile, out in St Alban’s, Hertfordshire, Lissa Evans introduces us to Veera.
"Vee", thirty-six, lives with a domineering, ailing mother and Donald her selfish nineteen-year-old son.
Constantly in debt, Vee struggles over rent and bills, surviving by whatever means possible. Unexpectedly offered an unwanted evacuee with a limp, she sees the boy as an extra way of extracting money and sympathy and takes him in. Besides, with Donald working as a watchman, the boy can sleep in her son’s empty bed..
Ten year old Noel, however, is not a simple idiot. He has been trained by his godmother Miss Mattie Simpkins to be observant, self-reliant and suspicious of authority.
Noel surprises Vee, not only with the ammonite he lugs around in his suitcase, but by his responses. Slowly, ill-treated Vee and Noel become a team, even if this involves some petty crime on the way.
Gradually, after her harsh introduction, the reader starts to understand Vee’s behaviour and situation, and to admire young Noel’s single-minded stoicism and determination as well as recognise some of the outcomes of wartime officialdom.
OLD BAGGAGE and CROOKED HEART will be followed soon by VICTORY, the third in Lissa Evans trilogy.
THEIR FINEST (HOUR AND A HALF)
When this earlier novel was bought and made into a film, the original title was adapted in response to other films out in production at that time, particularly a film about Churchill, called THEIR FINEST HOUR.
Both book and film were released around the anniversary of the Dunkirk evacuation, and about the same time as the spectacular film DUNKIRK hit the screens. In many ways, this change almost echoes the storyline of this novel, which is about the making of a “Dunkirk” wartime propaganda film, the lives of some of those involved, and the wider issue of what happens to facts when they meet the needs of fiction.
The book includes passages of typed script, and moves between the writing team’s cramped studio, location filming off the Norfolk coast and the film studio. Although there are many characters in the book, the story mainly centres on three main roles.
The first is Catrin Cole, a young Welsh woman who has run to London with her lover, a war-artist, Initially a copy-writer, she becomes a script writer, creating the “slop”: the pieces of film script that appeal to women.
Searching real-life news for inspiring national stories, she discovers a pair of twin sisters who took a boat across to Dunkirk, but finds, face to face, that their adventure was less heroic but in some ways as bold as the newspaper reports. Returning to work, she witnesses the “film twins” life and adventure altered in almost every respect to suit industry and national needs for a “good story.”
Another is Edith Beadmore, a middle-aged dressmaker, bombed out of her home and her job at Tussaud’s Museum, now living and working uncomfortably with family, but fortunately close to the film location. Unfortunately, ordinary Edith and her story has not leapt from page to screen.
Thirdly, we see the events through the eyes of Ambrose Hilliard, a vain, selfish, elderly actor, who cannot accept he is no longer leading-role material and is forced into the demeaning role of the twin’s drunken uncle. Once again, the needs of the film re-shaped Ambrose, who was played by the much-loved actor Bill Nighy.
This new Ambrose had a far larger role, more interaction with Catrin, and was more kindly drawn, script-wise, than Lissa Evan’s original novel - all of which rather fits the theme of the book, the power of the media and the need for effective images.
These books have been just the right reading for me at this time. What is harder to convey in this History Girls post, is Lissa Evan’s clever sideways look at the society and events of these past times, and, implicitly, at our own too.
For example, at one point, Lissa Evans describes Ambrose, forced to take ownership of his agent's dog, struggling down a wartime street in London.
“It dawned on Ambrose that he’d been mistaken, not only for a dog-lover but for a bombed-out vagrant toting his remaining possessions in search of a nice cup of tea and a chit for a public bath.
He jerked the lead, and Cerberus trotted after him, past the rest centre, where a photographer was loitering – waiting, presumably, for a subject of the requisite crass symbolism. The yellow press seemed permanently plastered with pictures of dusty but defiant grandmothers, and bandaged urchins signing “V” for victory. England, apparently, could “take it”, though whether she could also dish it out was a moot point. . .
It was all an utter disaster, and yet if one were to read certain of the newspapers, one might believe that an invasion could be forestalled by a few pallid bank clerks armed with cobblestones, and that a nation could be fed on allotment carrots and the odd can of beans lobbed over by Roosevelt.”