Writing ‘Private Lives’

As my readers know, I write fiction set in the 17th Century and World War Two. I enjoy the hard work that goes into writing about both epochs, but my new story set in 1942 has been something of a challenge. Finding the right tone, the right wording for sinister content with a touch of humour and moments of genuine sadness has required multiple drafts.

On the surface, writing a (relatively) cosy crime should have been easier than writing about a wily Genoese secret agent in The Chosen Man Trilogy, for example, but it wasn’t. Ludo da Portovenere’s skulduggery in Europe and India during the 1600s is all based on documented history. Each book includes researched data, plus a few lesser known historical details such as what happened to some of the most valuable Crown Jewels during the English Civil War. But this happened centuries ago, which gives me a degree of poetic licence. Give Ludo an inch and he takes a mile.

What happens to Bob Robbins in Devon and Cornwall during the nineteen-forties, however, is much closer to home and draws on personal memory, which muddies the waters. Not that I lived through the Second World War: I’m not that old! The background to Local Resistance and Private Lives, though, rests to an extent on my parents’ and grand-parents’ anecdotes and life-style.

In my mind’s eye, while I am writing, I can see what is happening in those days: the hand-knitted cardigans and walnut-laminated wireless sets, wooden draining boards and rolled newspapers fanning flames out of a few bits of coal. I was a post-war baby, born while the war and food rationing were a recent memory. Little was said in my hearing about the war itself, but the Home Front was much discussed. Tales about how goods fell off the back of a lorry, reminders to wear something white at night (to avoid getting run over in the black-out), to make do and mend; anecdotes about fire-watch duties and local dances . . .  These must have settled into the back of my mind unbidden the way Abba song lyrics do.

Nobody belittled the difficulties they endured; life was dangerous and unpredictable even in rural areas, where a random bomber might dump unused bombs on the way back to base. This happened. I remember distinctly being told about a primary school where the only child to survive had been at home in bed with a sore throat.

People were stoic, but not passé, although a survey conducted in London in November 1940 revealed only 40% of the population went into air-raid shelters on a regular basis. Most Londoners preferred to risk sudden death in their own beds – until bombing was so intense underground Tube stations became the only place of safety. Down in the south west of England, the inhabitants of Plymouth, an important naval base, pushed blankets and thermos flasks into babies’ prams or garden wheel-barrows and trekked out of the city to sleep under the stars on Dartmoor. It must have been exhausting.

In Britain and Ireland, there was the added, critical risk of imminent invasion. It had happened in Poland and the Channel Islands, it could happen in Britain. The detail about the German U-boat surfacing off the Cornish coast to take on fresh water in Local Resistance was taken from a German sailor’s account. I didn’t invent that.

My fiction, as I said earlier, relies a good deal on stories overheard as a child. It is also influenced by my M.A. dissertation on Social and Political Thought during World War Two, focusing on the implicit propaganda in popular films and wireless programmes such as the mad-cap comedy ITMA, which made fun of just about everything and everyone. The Ministry of Information turned ‘ordinary people’ into heroes and role models, and with good reason – they were.

All this, family anecdotes, academic research, and a particularly English brand of humour has slipped into my Home Front mysteries.

How a Cornish fishing village uses its ancient smuggling tradition to evade rationing while preparing to defend their country when ‘Jerry’ landed forms the background to Local Resistance; how people as diverse as Land Army girls and cosmopolitan actors coped three years into the war underlies the shenanigans and criminal activities in Private Lives.  

Being in action on ‘the Front’ was obviously perilous, but how life went on in unoccupied Britain, how people coped in the face of incessant difficulties and dangers required its own form of bravery, which deserves to be celebrated.

©J.G. Harlond

Read the opening chapter of Private Lives here.

Private Lives is available on Amazon.

Read about ‘Churchill’s Secret Army’ in Local Resistance: http://getbook.at/LocalResistance

Find out more about my books on: www.jgharlond.com

 

A Tribute to Daphne du Maurier

It is 80 years now since Daphne du Maurier’s novel Rebecca was first released. Back in 1938, du Maurier’s publishers were nervous about the novel’s future, but the story has become a classic: a world-wide favourite, a play, a television series, even an iconic black and white movie. For a while, back in the 90s, new editions of du Maurier’s novels were hard to obtain, but with the recent film version of My Cousin Rachel she is very much back in the public eye.

Which is as it should be, because Daphne du Maurier was a very accomplished novelist.

Despite her success, du Maurier would probably make a modern publisher nervous, too. She did not, or would not, stick to one genre. Worse: she wrote books that were the antithesis of best sellers. The Glass-blowers (a fictionalised version of her French family history) was written in direct opposition to the hugely popular Scarlet Pimpernel and Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. In this novel it is the skilled artisan not the aristocrat who takes centre stage: the novel tells not of heroes but of ordinary people striving to survive and make a future for their children during the French Revolution. And this, I think, is why many new readers are being drawn to du Maurier’s fiction. Despite Hollywood casting’s best efforts to the contrary, her protagonists are real people. They are ordinary men and women confused by events, over-awed by more glamourous or charismatic people around them, caught up in situations beyond their control. They may triumph in the end, but it is never a certain or perfect ending.

We may not be like the timid heroine of Rebecca or Rachel’s doubting, bewitched young man, we aren’t the frightened girl in Jamaica Inn or the bored wife in Frenchman’s Creek, but we understand their worries and motivations. Hungry Hill includes extra-ordinary events, but what happens is grounded in normal family life.

Reading the Glass-blowers recently, I was struck by this, and the simple wisdom in the story. Du Maurier understands the difficulties her characters face. Like real people (like us) they may present one facet of their personality to the world, but underneath, inside, they are much more complex. As was du Maurier herself.

There is also a sense that no matter how fantastical or exciting the plot, and most stories are page-turners, there is something very ‘lived’ in each book. Du Maurier was classified as a Romantic Novelist, and I’m not belittling romantic fiction, far from it, but the sum of her writing goes well beyond that genre description. In an article on the anniversary of Rebecca in the Guardian (23rd February, 2018) the writer Olivia Laing says:

‘What really startled (du Maurier) was that everyone seemed to think she’d written a romantic novel. She believed Rebecca was about jealousy, and that all the relationships in it – including the marriage between De Winter and his shy second wife – were dark and unsettling. (“I’m asking you to marry me, you little fool” hardly betokened love between equals.) The idea had emerged out of her own jealousy about the woman to whom her husband, Tommy “Boy” Browning, had briefly been engaged. She had looked at their love letters, and the big elegant “R” with which Jan Ricardo signed her name had made her painfully aware of her own shortcomings as a woman and a wife.’

Many of du Maurier’s books address the past like this, they take on our concerns and confusions related to ‘what happened when’. Her writing examines what Laing calls the ‘oddities of time’. Regarding these ‘oddities of time’, I remember with absolute clarity reading the time-slip novel The House on the Strand during the course of a family Christmas day. The paperback transported me out of a modern household into an ancient house on a tidal reach, out of the 20th century into the 14th century. Listening to the story on the radio some months ago, I was taken back to those three time periods: that Christmas day and the two epochs in the novel. Some weeks later I picked up a battered hardback of My Cousin Rachel and remembered worrying about the laburnum seeds in our garden. I have now re-read most of du Maurier’s novels. On each occasion, opening the first page I have a clear vision of a place and/or moment in the story, and how it affected me the first time I read it. I remember reading the end of Frenchman’s Creek during the last lesson of a rainy Friday afternoon when I was about 16 – I remember feeling the tears on my cheeks. The teacher confiscated the book, naturally. I’ve read that story twice since then, and each time I’ve seen something new in it; I relate to something I hadn’t recognized before, but each time I have been taken back to that classroom. It is a curious experience. A good historical fiction author can take a reader back in time in the space of a paragraph, but I wonder how many can mark their readers for life like this.

Was du Maurier aware that she had this skill, this gift to transport readers through time and into other lives? I don’t know. Accounts of her own life tell of a troubled woman at odds with her gender and circumstances; a woman trapped in a troubled marriage with a man who had a breakdown because he was having two extra-marital affairs simultaneously. She is often linked to the house named Menabilly on the Cornish coast, where she apparently went to escape the real world.

Big houses, full of private tragedies and secret histories, feature in many of her novels. Looking at photographs of Menabilly I wonder if that house stands as a metaphor for her fiction – as full of conflicting emotions, versions of the past and fantasies as the house on the strand. Such thoughts and ideas are only suggested, it is up to each reader to interpret them of course, and as in real life we interpret them according to our own way of thinking and personal experiences. Readers bring their own baggage to any book.

Not all is what it seems in du Maurier’s novels, though, and they can’t be limited by a genre label. “Don’t look now,” we are told in that famous story about grieving parents in Venice, but if and when you do, you will find something disturbing, a theme that is both honest yet fantastical. For me, du Maurier’s novels are like a haunted room full not of ghosts but of real lives from the past – and the present.

This post first appeared in the Discovering Diamonds blog: https://discoveringdiamonds.blogspot.com/search?q=A+Tribute+to+Daphne+Du+Maurier

© J.G. Harlond

 

 

A Cornish backwater near Jamaica Inn.