‘The Leopard’ by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

I feel slightly foolish rhapsodising about this novel. It’s rather like saying, “I saw this great play last night! You should see it! It’s called Hamlet!” because apparently, The Leopard (or Il Gattopardo, the Italian title) is one of the most famous novels ever published in Italy. However, as I hadn’t heard of it until a few months ago, when I read a reference to it in a travel article1 about Sicily, then I’m guessing at least some of you may not be familiar with it, either, and you ought to know about it because it’s WONDERFUL.

'The Leopard' by Giuseppe Tomasi di LampedusaThe ‘Leopard’ is Don Fabrizio, the head of an ancient noble family of Sicily in 1860, which is not a very good time to be a Sicilian prince. Should Don Fabrizio continue to prop up the disintegrating Kingdom of the Two Sicilies or should he support Garibaldi and his Red Shirts as the rebels attempt to unify Italy? Don Fabrizio’s handsome, charming nephew, Tancredi, has no doubts. “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change,” declares Tancredi. Then he rushes off to join the Red Shirts, gains a heroic (but not very serious) wound, and swaggers back to the family’s country estate, where he falls in love with the mayor’s beautiful daughter, to his cousin Concetta’s dismay. A further dilemma for Don Fabrizio! Should he permit, even encourage, this marriage? The mayor, Don Calogero, is vulgar, devious and violent, the very opposite of a nobleman, but he’s rich and powerful and the marriage would allow ambitious Tancredi to prosper in this new regime. But what about poor Concetta’s broken heart? Will she continue to spurn Tancredi’s friend, the shy but devoted Count? Will the hapless family priest, Father Pirrone, ever manage to convince Don Fabrizio to take religion seriously? Will Paolo, Don Fabrizio’s useless son, ever turn into a worthy heir? And will Bendicò, Don Fabrizio’s affectionate but destructive Great Dane, ever stop digging up the flower beds?

The plot provides no great surprises, but the delight of this novel lies in the rich descriptions of characters and settings and particularly, in Don Fabrizio’s droll, sardonic reflections on life and the decline of the aristocracy. Imagine if Anthony Trollope had written a Sicilian version of Brideshead Revisited and you’ll get some idea of the tone of the novel. Don Fabrizio observes the rebels with mild interest, too intelligent and cynical to believe they will benefit Sicily, but too fatalistic (and lazy) to try to stop them. When they offer him a post as senator in the new government, he turns it down, saying, “In Sicily, it doesn’t matter about doing things well or badly; the sin which we Sicilians never forgive is simply that of ‘doing’ at all”, going on to claim that “Sicilians never want to improve for the simple reason that they think themselves perfect; their vanity is stronger than their misery”. He winces at Don Calogero’s vulgarity but reluctantly comes to admire the mayor’s ability to solve problems, “free as he was from the shackles imposed on many other men by honesty, decency and plain good manners”.

I loved Don Fabrizio’s descriptions of the stark, arid Sicilian countryside where he spends summers at one of his immense, deteriorating palaces, Donnafugata, in which there are “apartments and corners not even Don Fabrizio had ever set foot – a cause of great satisfaction to him, for he used to say that a house of which one knew every room wasn’t worth living in”. There are also gorgeous descriptions of his palace near Palermo and of a grand ball at a friend’s mansion, at which Tancredi anxiously introduces his future wife and father-in-law to Society.

The Leopard seems such a glorious nineteenth-century kind of novel that it comes as a shock to read that the grand ballroom, with its ceiling painted with “eternal” gods, is destined to be destroyed by “a bomb manufactured in Pittsburgh, Penn” in 1943. The author, the last Prince of Lampedusa, wrote this in the 1950s, after his own palace had been destroyed in the war2. The character of Don Fabrizio is based on his own great-grandfather and the settings of the novel are so beautifully, authentically described because they were the author’s childhood homes. As David Gilmour writes in the introduction to the English translation3, “So much of Lampedusa’s life, his wisdom, his learning and his sensibility, were distilled in its pages that it is doubtful whether he could have written a second novel of similar quality and intensity. The Leopard is a masterpiece because its author waited so long before writing it.”

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  1. In which, from memory, the travel writer stayed in a palace belonging to Lampedusa’s family and actually met his adopted son, who served as a model for Tancredi.
  2. Lampedusa died before his novel found a publisher, so he didn’t ever see The Leopard become a bestseller, win the Strega Prize and become an acclaimed film.
  3. I read the translation by Archibald Colquhoun, who seems to have done an excellent job, apart from a couple of jarring phrases coming from the mouths of peasants – but I expect it’s pretty difficult, translating Sicilian slang into English.

The ‘Aha!’ Moment and Three Things That Didn’t Happen in The Montmaray Journals

Working my way through my towers of 1960s research books last week, I finally had an ‘Aha!’ moment – one of those moments when I come across a reference (often a fleeting one, sometimes a mere footnote) to a fascinating real-life event that seems to fit perfectly into my planned story. “Aha!” I cried, clapping my hands in great excitement.1 Ideally, an ‘Aha!’ historical event will involve some bizarre element but not be widely known, because I like the idea of my readers saying to themselves while reading, “I never knew about that! Did that really happen?” On the other hand, it’s helpful (for both me and inquisitive novel readers who want to learn more) if there’s a fair amount of information available about the event. This particular event I’ve discovered appears to fulfil all these conditions, which makes me very happy.

'The Bookworm' by Carl Spitzweg (1850)
The historical novelist may need to read a LOT of books before an ‘Aha!’ moment arrives . . .

Of course, there’s the possibility that this will turn into an ‘Oh no . . .’ moment, which occurs when I dig further into the research, unearth an inconvenient fact and realise that the event is not actually going to fit into my story the way I’d hoped. Sometimes the dates don’t match my planned story; sometimes there’s a complicated backstory to the event that will lead my story somewhere I don’t want it to go. Here are three scenes that didn’t appear in my Montmaray Journals trilogy, due to ‘Oh no . . .’ moments:

1. Fascists Storm the British Embassy in Madrid!

I came across this thrilling tale in the memoirs of Sir Samuel Hoare, Viscount Templewood. Hoare was a fervent appeaser of Mussolini and Hitler in the years before the Second World War2, and so, not surprisingly, lost his ministerial job when Winston Churchill became Prime Minister in 1940. Churchill sent Hoare to Spain to keep him out of the way, figuring Hoare couldn’t do too much damage there and might even get along quite well with Franco, Spain’s Fascist dictator – maybe even persuade Franco to renounce Hitler. Of course, Franco paid no attention to Hoare whatsoever and continued to co-operate with the Nazis whenever it was in his interests to do so, turning a blind eye when his Falangist supporters, with the help of Nazi agents, attacked the British Embassy:

“The attack had in all respects been methodically planned in the true German manner. It was to begin with the burning of the British staff cars standing outside the Embassy. It was at this point that Spanish forgetfulness frustrated German efficiency. Matches were then very scarce in Madrid, and either no one had a match or no one wished to sacrifice one in a street battle. The cars, therefore, escaped burning though several were seriously damaged by stones.
The next move was an attempt to break into the Embassy. At this point we [Embassy staff] were in a strong position. For not only were we protected by our regular force of British guards, but we had within the precincts sixteen of our escaped prisoners of war who were burning for the chance of a battle with the enemy . . .”

Wouldn’t it be great, I thought to myself, if Toby FitzOsborne, recently escaped from Nazi-occupied France, could be one of those men in the Embassy battling the Fascist invaders! With Veronica fighting beside him, knocking out a few Falangists with a well-aimed chair! Alas, the dates just didn’t work out. The Embassy attack occurred in June, 1941, when Toby was still flying in combat as an RAF fighter pilot and Veronica was working in the Foreign Office in London. Anyway, Hoare was not exactly a reliable memoirist, so I suspect the British response during the Embassy siege was a lot less brave and glorious than he described.

2. Sophie FitzOsborne, Lady War Correspondent

I carefully added some references to Sophie writing newspaper articles in the second Montmaray book, so that once war broke out, I’d be able to turn her into a newspaper reporter and send her overseas, in order to describe lots of important battles. But when I started researching the lives of actual war correspondents such as Martha Gellhorn3, I realised this was never going to work. Sophie just wasn’t tough or experienced enough – no British newspaper editor would ever employ her as a reporter, not even to report on the London Blitz. It wasn’t even likely she’d get a job as a women’s columnist – British newspapers were severely curtailed during the war, as a result of both paper shortages and official censorship, with only essential news being printed. In the end, I decided I preferred her to have a humdrum job during the war, to emphasise that war, for most participants, is the exact opposite of a noble, exhilarating experience. And Sophie did get to write some Food Facts, which were published to help housewives cope with rationing. Also, did you know that Eileen O’Shaughnessy, George Orwell’s wife, worked at the Ministry of Food during the war? I tried to arrange a friendship between Sophie and Eileen, so that Sophie could have a discussion about totalitarianism with Orwell, but unfortunately, the two women worked in different departments.

3. The Spy, The Cryptographer and The Poet

During the war, the Special Operations Executive sent Allied agents into occupied Europe, with the agents communicating using codes that were initially based on well-known poems. Unfortunately, these poem ciphers were very easy for the Nazis to break. Leo Marks, a British cryptographer in charge of SOE agent codes, made a number of changes to ensure the codes were more secure, including using original poems. Aha! I thought. Maybe Sophie and her friend Rupert, with their flair for poetry, could meet to write poems for Leo Marks! Unfortunately, introducing another real-life character and his complicated backstory would have made my book even longer than it already was (that is, far too long), so that plot line was dropped. However, I did manage to sneak in a reference to Leo Marks – the Colonel mentions an anonymous friend who is “one of our best cryptographers” but has failed to decipher a sample of Kernetin, the FitzOsborne family code.

Incidentally, Leo Marks was the son of Ben Marks, one of the owners of Marks and Co, the famous bookshop at 84 Charing Cross Road – and an employee of that bookshop just happens to be related, in a very tangential way, to that exciting thing I discovered in my 1960s research. Aha! The plot thickens . . .
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  1. Probably only historical novelists would describe this sort of discovery as ‘greatly exciting’.
  2. For example, in March, 1939, after the Nazis had invaded Czechoslovakia, Hoare stated that he remained optimistic that Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin would become “eternal benefactors of the human race”.
  3. I was also tempted to have Veronica meet Martha Gellhorn’s close friend, Eleanor Roosevelt, during the First Lady’s visit to England in 1942, because I figured those two would have a very interesting discussion. But there were just too many other events going on in the plot at that time.

Adventures in Research: Class in Post-War England

Having ‘finished’ a new book1, I’m now thinking about writing a series set in 1960s England, so I’ve started doing some research. At this stage, my reading is fairly broad-ranging, but I do have a few specific questions in mind. One of them is whether England’s class system changed much after the Second World War. Did conscription, rationing and the Blitz break down social barriers and make England more egalitarian? Did ordinary working people become less deferential and aristocrats less arrogant as a result of their shared experiences during the war? And what about the middle classes – did they end up with more money and power, or less? I am currently reading a serious, statistic-laden sociological history about the period2, but I started off with something that looked a bit more entertaining – Class by Jilly Cooper.

Published in 1979, this is an “unashamedly middle class” description of the differences between aristocrats (“about 0.2% of the population”), the middle classes (divided into upper, middle and lower) and working class people (including the nouveau riche). Jilly Cooper acknowledges that the subject is extremely complex, so that even trying to determine which class an individual belongs to can be very difficult. The Census, for example, used a person’s occupation (or their husband’s occupation, in the case of women) to determine social class, but this put Princess Anne (“athletes including horseback riders”) in the same class as bus-drivers and butchers and ranked the aristocratic Guinness family (“brewers”) even lower, alongside bus conductors and milkmen. Income could also be an unreliable indicator of class, with a lot of aristocrats “desperately broke” due to death duties and capital transfer tax, and some working-class men earning more than self-employed middle-class men. A more useful classification system, this author argues, involves examining a person’s education, house, clothes, language and food, as well as the person’s beliefs about the arts, sport, religion, marriage, child-rearing and death. Accordingly, she devotes a chapter to each of these topics. For example, death rituals of the various classes are described in detail, with the author noting that,

“Although it is more upper-class to be buried than cremated, it is frightfully smart to have to be cremated because your family tomb is so full of your ancestors going back to the year dot that there is no room for you.”

The author has made some attempt to consult a range of written sources, but mostly seems to rely on personal anecdotes of dubious reliability. For example,

“My favourite mini-cab driver has a theory that tall people are good in bed because only they can reach the sex books that librarians insist on putting on the top shelves. But this doesn’t explain why aristocrats, who are generally tall, tend to be so hopeless – maybe they never go into public libraries, or don’t read anything except ‘The Sporting Life’ and Dick Francis.”

'Class' by Jilly CooperSome of the descriptions, particularly of clothes and food, have dated badly (I doubt that respectable lower-middle-class women wear “a navy crimplene two-piece trimmed with lemon” to weddings nowadays or that they decorate their food with radish flowerets) but I suspect quite a lot of the observations still hold true, especially regarding attitudes to schools and universities. There are sweeping generalisations, especially about the working classes, and a lot of terrible, terrible puns, but I found this to be a very entertaining (and occasionally informative) read. I should also note that the edition I read had a very strange cover photograph (see above), depicting what appeared to be a palette knife with some green lumps (olives? uncut emeralds?) balanced on the end of it, but this was explained in an early chapter:

“Not answerable to other people, the aristocrat is often unimaginative, spoilt, easily irritated and doesn’t flinch from showing it. If he wants to eat his peas with his knife, he does so.”3

A more serious and thoroughly researched perspective of 1960s England was provided by Richard Davenport in his book, An English Affair: Sex, Class and Power in the Age of Profumo. This described the various people involved in the Profumo scandal of 1963, including the Conservative Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, certain English aristocrats, slum landlords and property developers, ‘good-time girls’, spies, journalists and corrupt policemen. Old Etonians still ran the country, but there were indications that a new class of rich, ruthless businessmen from impoverished backgrounds (many of them refugees who’d fled Hitler or Stalin) were beginning their rise to power. It was really depressing to read about the status of women, who seemingly had the choice of being a Christine Keeler (forced by lack of other options into working as a stripper and prostitute) or a Valerie Profumo (forced by her husband to end her successful acting career once they married, then required to play the role of adoring wife while he had numerous extra-marital affairs). It was also depressing to see how corrupt and racist the police were and how hypocritical politicians and journalists were about Profumo’s affair with Christine Keeler (who, according to this book, was not the mistress of a Russian spy and in any case, would never have known any important state secrets). Mostly, though, I wondered how England had ever managed to establish an empire when everyone in power was obsessed with such trivia as which old school tie their colleague was wearing and the correct method for eating peas. To this colonial, the English class system appears utterly bonkers – but also full of potential for novel-writing, which is the important thing.

Next in Adventures in Research: An American in 1950s England.

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  1. that is, having sent a manuscript to my agent and asked him to see if anyone might possibly be interested in publishing it
  2. Family Britain, 1951-1957 by David Kynaston
  3. The FitzOsbornes don’t. They use a fork or, in the case of certain junior FitzOsbornes, their fingers. But then, they’re not English.

An Interview With Anne Blankman, Historical Novelist

I was impressed by Anne Blankman’s debut historical YA novel, Prisoner of Night and Fog, and wondered about the research she’d done for it. She kindly agreed to answer some questions about this.

'Prisoner of Night and Fog' by Anne BlankmanCongratulations on your debut novel, Anne. I found Prisoner of Night and Fog to be a thrilling read, but also a fascinating look at one particular period of German history. Why did you choose to set your novel in Munich in 1931?

Thanks so much for having me, Michelle! I’m a huge fan of your Montmaray books, and so pleased to be invited to visit your blog today.

My reasons for setting Prisoner of Night and Fog in Munich were rooted in Hitler’s history. Throughout the 1920s and early ’30s, Hitler lived in Munich. As my main character, Gretchen, initially has a close friendship with Hitler and has adored him for years, it was necessary that they reside near each other.

As for the year 1931, it was a pivotal time for the Nazis–in the previous year’s elections, they had increased their presence in the Reichstag from 12 to 107 deputies and they were poised to become the most powerful political party in Germany. Hitler was campaigning for the presidency; support for the Nazis was finally spreading throughout the country, instead of remaining localized in Bavaria. Everything hovered on the edge of an abyss–including Gretchen. Like most teenagers, she’s caught between childhood and adulthood, trying to discover who she is and what she believes.

There’s also a certain real-life event that occurs near the book’s end, which necessitated the story’s timeline, but it’s too spoilerish to reveal here to people who haven’t read Prisoner of Night and Fog yet.

Can you tell us a bit about your research process? Do you read or speak German? Have you visited Munich or Berlin? Did this help/hinder the process of writing the book?

The research for this book was intense. I felt a responsibility to portray Hitler accurately, not just because he was a real person, but out of respect for his millions of victims. I read everything I could find: biographies, memoirs, psychological profiles, essays, social histories, you name it. I studied Hitler’s autobiography, Mein Kampf, and his early speeches. Understanding his ideas, and his method of presenting them, was vital. Primary sources, such as maps and photographs, helped me envision the setting. I watched lots of old videos, too, including the Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will. There are many videos of Hitler on YouTube, as well, and I watched them over and over, studying the way he walked, how he used his hands when he talked, the cadence of his voice. Those are the little details that can make a story come alive.

I taught myself basic German phrases, but not enough to read any of my sources in a language other than English. My editor, Kristin Rens, is not only incredibly talented, but happens to be fluent in German and used to live in Munich. (When I learned this during the submission process, I was very grateful I’d done so much research because Kristin would have easily spotted inaccuracies!) Kristin helped me make sure that my characters sound like native German speakers. For example, in an early draft Gretchen bumps into a man and says, “I’m sorry.” It seemed fine to me, but Kristin explained that Germans would say, “Excuse me,” instead.

One of my favorite research tricks when I’m dealing with a subject I know nothing about, is to read a children’s non-fiction book on the topic. They tend to be written clearly and simply and hit the high points that you need to know. Then you can dig deeper.

When I started researching the history of psychology as background for Prisoner of Night and Fog, I was clueless – I hadn’t even taken the ever-popular Psych 101 course at university. I started by reading Kathleen Krull’s biography of Sigmund Freud. It provided an excellent starting point.

One of the most fascinating aspects of your book is the psychological study of Adolf Hitler and other members of his political organisation, the NSDAP. At one point, a (fictional) British psychoanalyst claims that “the NSDAP leadership seems to contain an extraordinarily high number of mentally diseased men. Narcissists, psychopaths, lovers of violence and death – something about National Socialism appeals to them on an elemental level.” Did you reach any conclusion about Hitler’s personality? Was he evil or mentally ill? Did he genuinely believe in his own ideas or was he simply very good at telling the German people what they wanted to hear, in order to gain power for himself?

Michelle, you’ve hit on one of the most controversial and hotly debated questions surrounding Adolf Hitler! Not even the major Hitler biographers, such as Ian Kershaw, Hugh Trevor-Roper, John Toland, Alan Bullock, and Joachim Fest, can agree about Hitler’s personality and his motivations.

When I started my research, though, I knew I’d have to come to my own conclusions about Hitler or I wouldn’t be able to portray him at all. The more I investigated, the more I became convinced that Hitler was deliberately evil. I say “deliberately” because I believe that Hitler understood the consequences of his actions.

For the first twenty-odd years of his life, Hitler was casually anti-Semitic, as many people were during that time. After World War One, he even marched in the funeral procession of Kurt Eisner, a Jewish politician. Then, almost overnight, he started spouting anti-Semitic rhetoric. I suspect that his motives were political and he consciously latched onto the Jews as a convenient scapegoat. By focusing on a common opponent, he could band together his followers and catapult himself into power. In fact, Hitler says as much in Mein Kampf when he writes that a great leader can focus his people’s attention on a common adversary.

Whether the Nazi leadership was mentally ill or not, Hitler and his violent, hate-filled ideology had enormous popular support throughout Germany in the 1930s. Other countries – Britain and Australia, for instance – had their own charismatic Fascist leaders, but these men never gained enough popular support to achieve any significant political power. What was different about the situation in Germany, do you think?

In my opinion, to understand why Nazism was so successful in Germany, you need to go back to World War One. Not only had Germany surrendered, but her leaders had signed the Versailles Treaty, which acknowledged their country’s moral responsibility for the war. The treaty’s conditions were onerous: Germany owed millions in war reparations, lost some of her most fertile land, and had her military capped at a measly 100,000 troops. While the rest of Europe was enjoying the hedonistic, freewheeling 1920s, Germany was trapped in a cycle of dizzying inflation, sky-high unemployment, and skyrocketing crime rates. When the stock market crashed in 1929, the Nazi Party surged forward in the polls. People were desperate for change, and Hitler promised to provide it.

The Nazi Party easily could have fallen by the wayside, though, as countless other political organizations did in Germany at this time. The reason why Hitler became so successful is, I think, because he figured out how to reach on people on their most basic level–their faith. He’s known to have that he wanted to appeal to his followers’ emotions, not their intellect.

If you ever watch old Party rallies, you’ll see how eerily they mimic portions of some religious services. The uniforms and pageantry, the flickering torchlight, the shouted liturgical-like responses seem religious. I suspect that Hitler knowingly perverted familiar and beloved elements of the Catholic Mass and Lutheran eucharist. As he wanted people’s unwavering support, he needed them to love him with a deep devotion–as though he were a modern-day savior. It’s incredibly calculated and cruel. And it worked, at least at first.

Prisoner of Night and Fog has a satisfying conclusion, but the story isn’t quite finished yet. Can you tell us anything about the sequel you’re writing?

Ooo, I have to be careful what I say here so I don’t give anything away to people who haven’t read Prisoner of Night and Fog yet! Gretchen and Daniel are still the main characters, and there’s plenty of romance, murder, and danger. This time most of the action takes place in Berlin right after Hitler’s appointment to the chancellorship. Every move Gretchen and Daniel make could be their last, with both the Nazis and the police hot on their trail.

I’ll give you one more hint: Pay attention to everything Hitler says to Gretchen in the first book. His advice becomes crucial for her survival in the sequel.

Many thanks for having me, Michelle! Best wishes for your continued success!

‘Prisoner of Night and Fog’ by Anne Blankman

Complicated Disclaimer: I read this book when it was in copyedited manuscript form. I didn’t know the author, but the book’s editor knows the agent who sold the Montmaray books to Knopf (who is not really ‘my’ American agent, but my Australian publisher’s agent – I did say that this would be a complicated disclaimer). I was asked to read the manuscript so that if I liked it, a quote from me could go on the book jacket. I’ve been asked to do this before, and as always, I made it very clear to the editor that I could only provide a complimentary quote if I loved the manuscript. And this is the first time I’ve actually provided a quote for a book jacket, so there you go.

'Prisoner of Night and Fog' by Anne BlankmanPrisoner of Night and Fog is set in Munich in 1931, as Adolf Hitler begins his rise to power. Gretchen is the perfect Aryan girl, having grown up absorbing Nazi ideology. Her father fought alongside Hitler in the trenches of the First World War and then gave up his life to protect Hitler during the failed Nazi Putsch of 1923, so Gretchen has always been a special favourite of Hitler’s. She’s also close to Hitler’s beloved niece Geli, although her best friend is a sweet young woman named Eva Braun who works in the camera shop frequented by Hitler and his associates. It’s true that Gretchen has some difficulties – money has been tight, her mother wants Gretchen to give up her dreams of attending university, her brother Reinhard can behave very strangely sometimes – but she knows everything will be wonderful once the Nazis are in control of the country, especially as Reinhard seems to have found a sense of purpose among the SA Brownshirts. Then a young journalist called Daniel Cohen turns her life upside-down by a) revealing a terrible secret involving her father, and b) being incredibly handsome and clever and kind, even though he’s a Socialist, a sworn enemy of Hitler and, worst of all, a Jew.

Anne Blankman does an excellent job of weaving real historical events and people into a thrilling fictional murder mystery. She’d clearly done a tonne of research, but it didn’t come across as information-dumping to me. There are also detailed author notes at the end of the book, providing background information about the real-life people in the book and including a long bibliography for those who’d like to read more. I found the setting fascinating, but this is also a really engrossing story. Gretchen and Daniel are brave and believable protagonists, and even the minor characters had depth. Gretchen’s mother, for example, is weak-willed and easy to despise, but she’s also shown to be someone forced by circumstances to make some impossible, heartbreaking choices. I can’t truthfully say I ‘enjoyed’ the book, because the events were so horrifying (if it’d been a film, I’d have watched the second half with my fingers over my eyes, shouting things like, “Don’t go into that cellar, Gretchen!” and “Run, Gretchen, RUN!”). This is not a book full of warmth and humour. It’s dark and grim and occasionally shocking in its violence (although this shouldn’t really be surprising, given that most of the characters are Nazis). There is a bit of romance, but mostly the lovers are too busy fleeing murderous thugs to enjoy their developing relationship. It’s difficult to discuss the plot in much detail without providing spoilers, but I will say I found the conclusion satisfying – even though it’s clear the story isn’t quite over, and in fact, the author is working on a sequel. Recommended to readers who enjoy historical fiction, particularly those craving mystery and excitement, and those with an interest in twentieth-century European history.

Read More: An interview with Anne Blankman about the historical background to Prisoner of Night and Fog.

You might also be interested in reading:

Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood
The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters, edited by Charlotte Mosley

What I’ve Been Reading

'The Death of Lucy Kyte' by Nicola Upson I liked The Death of Lucy Kyte by Nicola Upson, a murder mystery set in the 1930s, featuring a fictional version of the real-life mystery writer, Josephine Tey, as well as several other famous people (for instance, Dodie Smith and Wallis Simpson both make brief appearances). In this book, the fifth in a series, Josephine has to unravel the mystery of her godmother’s death and strange bequest. Could this possibly be linked to the famous, real-life murder of Maria Marten, a local servant girl who’d died a hundred years before? Well, yes, of course it is, but it also ends up being far more complicated and terrifying than I’d expected (admittedly, I am easily spooked). The story reminded me quite a lot of The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters, although I think The Death of Lucy Kyte was more successful at handling the ‘supernatural’ elements of the plot (which may or may not be truly supernatural). I don’t read a lot of murder mysteries, because they so often use violent death as a mere plot device, without much acknowledgement of the terrible suffering it causes to the people who knew the victim. However, in this book, each of the characters was a plausibly complicated person, each violent incident had tragic repercussions, and there was nothing neat or painless about the conclusion. I hadn’t read the previous books in the series and this one worked well as a stand-alone novel, although I did become curious about the background of Josephine’s lover (who presumably is the subject of one of the earlier books). I believe the first book is called An Expert in Murder and it’s now on my To Read list.

Dogsbody by Dianna Wynne Jones was a clever and charming children’s book about Sirius the Dog Star, who is wrongfully accused of murder and sentenced to live in the body of a dog on Earth. I am not very interested in mythology or astronomy (or fantasy), but I loved the descriptions of Sirius’s doggy life and particularly his interactions with the other animals he encountered. Sirius is taken in by Kathleen, a young Irish girl with her own problems, and I liked the way the author didn’t hold back from showing that truly awful things can happen to children – but also that children can be brave and resilient and that hope can be found in unexpected places.

'Goodbye to Berlin' by Christopher IsherwoodGoodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood was a fascinating look at Germany in the early 1930s. The author insists in his introduction that it’s not “purely autobiographical”, but given the narrator is a young Englishman called ‘Christopher Isherwood’ who is living and working in Berlin at the same time that the author did, I think it’s fair to say it’s a reasonably accurate portrayal of his real experiences. Christopher drifts about Berlin, giving English lessons, hanging out in coffee shops and seedy bars and meeting a lot of interesting people. These include Sally Bowles, only nineteen and hopelessly naïve and romantic, even if she does refer to herself as an “old whore”; Peter, an Englishman besotted with a working-class boy called Otto; Otto’s impoverished family, living in a decrepit attic; and the Landauers, a wealthy Jewish family who own a department store. At first Christopher seems quite detached (“I am a camera with its shutter open, recording, not thinking . . .”), but he becomes closer to the people he’s observing, even when he disapproves of them and despairs for their future (“these people could be made to believe in anybody or anything”). He shows clearly how poverty and despair created by high unemployment and the collapse of the banking system after the First World War made it easy for Hitler to rise to power. The film Cabaret is based on the Sally Bowles section of Goodbye to Berlin, but the film doesn’t have a lot in common with the book. Both are interesting, though, in their different ways.

Old Filth wasn’t as immediately warm and engaging as most of Jane Gardam’s novels, perhaps because it was about a snobby, emotionally-repressed old Englishman. However, the story of how Edward came to be that way was engrossing and involved a variety of interesting settings. Edward spends his early years in a remote Malayan village before being sent to an abusive foster home in Wales, then on to several English boarding schools, whereupon war breaks out and he finds himself on an evacuee ship . . . and he hasn’t even made it to adulthood yet. The plot is very clever, moving back and forth in time to reveal information at exactly the right pace, with characters reappearing at strategic points (although occasionally in a way that strains credibility). It was fascinating to watch the decline of the British Empire through the eyes of a ‘Raj orphan’ who ended up a judge in Hong Kong before retiring to an England that was no longer Home. I believe there are several books about the same set of characters, and I’d be especially interested to read more about Edward’s wife Betty, who seemed to have led a very busy life (even if Edward was unaware of most of it).

'Bad Science' by Ben GoldacreFinally, some non-fiction. Bad Science by Ben Goldacre takes aim at the pharmaceutical companies, vitamin pill manufacturers, homeopaths, nutritionists, politicians and journalists who ignore scientific evidence in their quest to make money or become famous. Some of his examples will probably make more sense to UK readers (for example, he devotes a chapter each to Gillian McKeith and Patrick Holford, apparently famous in the UK although I’d never heard of them), but there are also good general discussions about statistics, the placebo effect and how to analyse a scientific research paper. If you’re familiar with Dr Goldacre’s website or you read a lot of sceptic-based blogs, there won’t be a lot here that’s new to you, but I still found this to be an entertaining and interesting summary of some major issues in modern medical science (or at least, how medical science is reported in newspapers, magazines and on television).

My Holiday Reading

I wasn’t supposed to be doing any holiday reading – I was meant to be finishing writing a book – but there’s just something about the week between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day in Australia that forces you to lie about in a hammock, eating grapes and reading novels (and by ‘you’, I mean ‘me’). They were pretty good novels, though, and I guess I could argue that, as a writer, reading novels is an essential part of developing my professional skills. See, I wasn’t lazing about, I was working. Anyway, here’s what I read:

'All Change' by Elizabeth Jane HowardAll Change by Elizabeth Jane Howard was the fifth and final volume of the Cazalet Chronicles, a family saga set around the time of the Second World War. Although I’ve enjoyed this series very much, the fourth volume was the least compelling and I wasn’t sure a fifth novel was really necessary. It seemed to me as though the Cazalets had finally sorted out their lives for good – but no, in this book, everything falls apart, just as it did for a lot of wealthy English families in that post-war decade of upheaval. In All Change, bankruptcy looms for the Cazalets, although I must admit it was hard for me to feel much sympathy for them. The brothers have inherited a thriving timber business and numerous valuable properties from their father, but are too stubborn to accept business advice from their social inferiors (Hugh), too extravagant (Edward) or too indecisive (Rupert) to manage it effectively. Meanwhile, the women succumb to depression, dementia and terminal illnesses, have unhappy affairs and are exhausted by the demands of their badly-behaved children. There’s a whole new generation of characters that had me constantly referring to the family tree in the front of the book and there were quite a few continuity errors (for instance, Simon is described as having a dead twin, when that’s actually Will, who is mostly absent from this book). But I didn’t care! I devoured all six hundred pages in two days, thoroughly engrossed in the Cazalets’ story and sad that this was truly the end, as Elizabeth Jane Howard died last week at the age of ninety. She left behind a number of excellent novels and a lot of devoted fans of her work.

I also read Journey to the River Sea by Eva Ibbotson, an excellent children’s novel about an orphaned girl sent to live in Brazil in 1910. Among the characters Maia encounters are a stalwart governess with a mysterious past, a travelling troupe of actors, a kindly scientist, a missing heir to an English estate, a Russian count and a couple of evil (but fortunately, incompetent) private investigators. As always with Eva Ibbotson’s books, the heroine is a little too good to be true (beautiful, intelligent, a talented musician, a skilled dancer, friendly and kind to all people and animals, etc), but the story and setting were fascinating and I enjoyed following Maia’s adventures.

'A Long Way From Verona' by Jane GardamHowever, my favourite holiday read would have to be A Long Way From Verona by Jane Gardam, a brilliant coming-of-age novel set during the Second World War. Jessica is a bright, imaginative, melodramatic twelve-year-old who is utterly tactless and incapable of dissembling, yet convinced that she alone is able to understand others perfectly (meanwhile, wondering why she isn’t more popular at school). She gets into trouble constantly – for handing in a forty-seven-page essay that is not actually about ‘The Best Day of the Summer Holidays’, for eating potato chips on the train in an unladylike fashion, for hiding out in the library and reading ‘unsuitable’ books such as Jude the Obscure – and her idiosyncratic observations of her world are clever and hilarious. Here, for example, is her description of a stranger’s front parlour, in which she and her friends find themselves after a prank goes wrong:

“We tiptoed over it into a fearfully clean front room with the coals arranged on the sticks like a jigsaw, and the arm-chairs made out of brown skin and never sat on, and a terrified-looking plant standing eyes right in the window, wishing it were dead.”

Jessica is told by a visiting author that she is A WRITER BEYOND ALL POSSIBLE DOUBT, and although there are moments when her self-confidence falters, she triumphs in the end. I can’t recommend this novel too highly – it’s a work of genius. And it’s the first book I read in 2014, which I think is a GOOD OMEN.

Meet The Mitfords

Last week, I was at the library and noticed a new book about Nancy Mitford, this one about her relationship with French politician and diplomat, Gaston Palewski. I opened the book to a random page and not only recognised the anecdote being related, but knew at once where the quotes had come from. At that moment, I realised I’d read far too many books about the Mitfords and didn’t need to read another one. But then I considered that perhaps readers of this blog might be interested in some of the Mitford-related books I’ve read. Hence this post.

The Mitfords were what Wikipedia1 accurately calls “a minor aristocratic English family”. None of the famous Mitford sisters, with the possible exception of Jessica, ever had any effect whatsoever on political events or world history. They are mostly remembered because they were rich, good-looking, opinionated aristocrats who knew a lot of famous and influential people during a fascinating period of history. More importantly, they were writers, so we have detailed records of their thoughts, observations and jokes. But I ought to introduce the Mitford siblings properly, so here they are:

'The Pursuit of Love' and 'Love in a Cold Climate' by Nancy Mitford1. Nancy (1904 – 1973) was the author of the wonderful comic novels, The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, as well as several other novels and biographies, and numerous essays and newspaper articles. She was unhappily married to Peter Rodd, but the love of her life was Gaston Palewski and she moved to France to be with him after the Second World War. There are several published collections of her letters, including The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh, edited by Charlotte Mosley. Life in A Cold Climate by Laura Thompson is a fairly good biography of Nancy, provided you can cope with the biographer’s prose style (sample sentence: “Yet there is a quality to her voice, as she lingers on their paradisiacal images, that reveals what was always there, and what constitutes so great a part of her appeal: the yearning soul within the sophisticate’s carapace: the imagination that can take illusion and make it into something real.” Oh, how Laura Thompson loves colons! And also, hates feminists. But then, so did Nancy.)

2. Pamela (1907 – 1994) was married to physicist and RAF pilot Derek Jackson, but she divorced him to spend the rest of her life with female ‘companions’. Not that you’ll ever hear a Mitford sister using the word ‘lesbian’ to describe Pamela. Pamela seemed the most sensible and practical of the sisters, and enjoyed breeding poultry and cooking elaborate meals.

3. Thomas (1909 – 1945) was the only boy and the heir to the title, and seems to have been adored by everyone. At school (Eton, naturally), he was the lover of Hamish St Clair-Erskine (to whom Nancy was once, disastrously, engaged) and James Lees-Milne, although Tom seemed to have preferred women in later life. He joined the British army and was killed in Burma during the war, having refused to fight against the Nazis in Germany.

'Diana Mosley' by Anne de Courcy4. Diana (1910 – 2003) was the beauty of the family. She married Bryan Guinness at the age of eighteen, but dumped him when she fell in love with Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists. She married Mosley in Berlin in 1936, at a ceremony at which Adolf Hitler was the guest of honour, then she and Mosley were imprisoned without trial in Britain for several years during the war. After the war, she supported Mosley’s various unsuccessful attempts to re-enter politics and they hung out with other rich Fascists. Anne de Courcy’s biography, Diana Mosley, provides a good account of Diana’s life, although it’s a rather biased one (“I came to love Diana Mosley,” gushes the biographer in her introduction, while also describing Diana, despite all the evidence to the contrary, as “the cleverest of the six Mitford sisters”). Diana also wrote a self-serving autobiography, A Life of Contrasts, which is interesting due to the sheer, gobsmacking awfulness of her opinions. Hitler, according to Diana, was a lovely man and the Holocaust wasn’t his fault at all. No, it was due to “World Jewry” and their “virulent attacks upon all things German and their insistent calls for trade boycotts, military encirclement and even war”. Also, the number of Holocaust victims was exaggerated, and anyway, Stalin and Mao killed far more people. She also spends a lot of time boasting about her social life (“At Mona Bismarck’s Paris Christmas dinner parties, I was always put next to the Duke [of Windsor]”) and going on about Mosley’s “brilliance”, and, with an apparent lack of irony, writes of her enemies, “This is typical of many people who reject truth in even the most trivial matters if it conflicts with a prejudice”.

5. Unity (1914 – 1948) was the one who was obsessed with Hitler and shot herself in the head when war broke out. A lot of her attention-seeking behaviour seems to have been due to a childish desire to shock people, but she was in her twenties when she met Hitler, surely old enough to know better. Was she emotionally or intellectually immature, or simply caught up in the political excitement of the 1930s? Her biography, Unity Mitford: A Quest, by David Pryce-Jones, doesn’t really help to answer this question. The biographer has clearly done a lot of research, interviewing more than two hundred of her acquaintances, but the result is a very dull and disorganised account of her life, with little attempt at analysis. I really can’t recommend this book (unless, of course, you happen to be writing a novel that includes Unity as a character).

6. Jessica (1917 – 1996) ran away as a teenager to the Spanish Civil War with Esmond Romilly, Winston Churchill’s Communist nephew. A lot of very sad things happened in her personal life – her baby daughter died of measles, Esmond was killed in action during the war, her elder son died at the age of ten – but these are all glossed over in her memoir, Hons and Rebels, because Mitfords were brought up to put on a brave face in public. Jessica married Robert Treuhaft in 1943, and the two of them were active members of the American Communist Party and passionate civil rights campaigners. Jessica also wrote a number of books based on her investigative journalism, including exposés of the American funeral industry and prison system. Bonus fact: J. K. Rowling so admired Jessica Mitford that she named her daughter after Jessica.

7. Deborah (1920 – ) married Andrew Cavendish, who became the Duke of Devonshire, and then she turned Chatsworth, the Devonshire family home, into a thriving business and tourist attraction. She also had terrible things happen in her life – three of her children died at birth, and her husband turned out to be a philandering alcoholic – but as Charlotte Mosley observed, Deborah was a Mitford, and therefore used to hiding her “vulnerability behind a lightly worn armour of flippancy and self-deprecation”. Deborah is usually portrayed as the apolitical Mitford, but is a proud Tory, was close to Diana, and “adored” Mosley. She has written several books about Chatsworth and her life, the most recent of which is Wait For Me! Memoirs of the Youngest Mitford Sister.

'The Mitford Girls' by Mary S. LovellThere have also been a number of books about the whole Mitford family. I think the best, most balanced, family history is The Mitford Girls by Mary S. Lovell, although it’s been a while since I read it. There’s also The House of Mitford, by Jonathan Guinness with Catherine Guinness, or, as Hermione Granger would call it, A Highly Biased and Selective History of the Mitfords. The authors are Diana’s son and grand-daughter, so Diana is portrayed as a saint and Jessica as the devil incarnate. It also starts with a very long and boring section about the Mitford sisters’ ancestors. Still, it includes a lot of fascinating family photos that you won’t find in other books. However, my favourite Mitford-related book would have to be The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters, edited by Charlotte Mosley. Yes, she’s Diana’s daughter-in-law and she seems to have done some very selective editing when it comes to Diana’s letters from the 1930s, but she has also done an excellent job of writing introductions and explanatory footnotes (which is vital, when the letter writers use as many nicknames as the Mitfords do) and of arranging all the correspondence in a way that makes sense. To quote J.K. Rowling again, “The story of the extraordinary Mitford sisters has never been told as well as they tell it themselves”.

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  1. Wikipedia once noted in its ‘Mitfords in Popular Culture’ section that “Unity Mitford appears as a minor character in the last two books of Michelle Cooper’s Montmaray Journals trilogy”, but this sentence has now disappeared. Wikipedia also fails to mention the most famous popular culture reference to the Mitford sisters – that is, Narcissa, Bellatrix and Andromeda Black in the Harry Potter books, who bear a strong resemblance to Diana, Unity and Jessica Mitford.

Same-Sex-Attracted Gentlemen in English Society in the 1930s and 1940s

I’ve been meaning to write a blog post on this topic ever since The FitzOsbornes in Exile was first published in North America (that is, two years ago, which says something about my blogging habits). I don’t want to give away any plot spoilers to those who haven’t read the book, but let’s just say that it’s set in the late 1930s, in England, and that at least one male character is gay1. A surprising number of readers seemed to assume that any well-brought-up young lady of this time and place would have been shocked, horrified and outraged at the very idea of homosexuality, and that all gay men were shunned by Society and were in constant danger of being carted off to prison, à la Oscar Wilde. So, there were a number of comments from readers about how ‘implausible’ it was that Sophie and Veronica, the two young ladies at the centre of the story, would be so accepting of their gay male relative.

Now, it’s true that any kind of sexual activity between men was illegal in England between 1885 and 19672, but it’s also true that these laws were applied very selectively. In general, rich, aristocratic men were free to do whatever they liked. Yes, Oscar Wilde was convicted of “gross indecency”, but that was an unusual case because he started the whole thing off (by bringing a libel action against his boyfriend’s belligerent father, when what the father was saying about Wilde was mostly true). Anyway, that case was in 1895, forty-two years before the events of The FitzOsbornes in Exile. Consider current attitudes to gay issues, and compare this to how most people thought in the early 1970s, and you’ll see that things can change significantly in forty-two years. The fact is that in the 1930s and 1940s, there were quite a lot of popular, important and influential same-sex-attracted men who were part of English Society. Here are some of them.

First, the obvious ones. In the world of theatre and music, the most famous were probably Ivor Novello, Noël Coward and Benjamin Britten. There was also stage designer Oliver Messel, who was closely associated with the British royals and designed Princess Margaret’s Caribbean house. Norman Hartnell and Hardy Amies held Royal Warrants to design frocks for various British royals (Hardy Amies also happened to be a Special Operations Executive agent who worked with the Belgian resistance during the war), while the crème de la crème of Society queued up to be photographed by Cecil Beaton.

Ivor Novello
Ivor Novello

Meanwhile, the Bloomsbury set was not, strictly speaking, part of respectable Society, but it was influential and included writer Lytton Strachey, economist John Maynard Keynes and artist Duncan Grant.

Those with connections to Oxford included Maurice Bowra (Warden of Wadham College, later Vice-Chancellor of the university and awarded a knighthood), Brian Howard (poet, journalist, supposedly an inspiration for the character of Anthony Blanche in Brideshead Revisited) and Harold Acton (writer, also supposedly a model for Anthony Blanche). Other famous same-sex-attracted male writers were Siegfried Sassoon, Raymond Mortimer and E.M. Forster.

Then there were a whole lot of aristocrats who didn’t do much, but were certainly accepted in Society, starting with Prince George (brother of King Edward VIII and King George VI), whose male lovers were rumoured to have included his cousin Louis Ferdinand, Prince of Prussia, Noël Coward and Anthony Blunt (art historian, cousin to the Queen, Communist spy). There was also Stephen Tennant, who “spent most of his life in bed” and supposedly inspired the character of Cedric in Love In A Cold Climate. However, I think my favourite aristocrat would have to be Gavin Henderson, 2nd Baron Faringdon: “Described by David Cargill as a ‘roaring pansy’, Henderson was known for his effeminate demeanour, once opening a speech in the House of Lords with the words ‘My dears’ instead of ‘My Lords.'”

What is more interesting to me is the number of gay men in positions of real political power, either in the House of Commons or the diplomatic services. For example, Oliver Baldwin, son of Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, had a long career in politics, first as a Labour MP, then as Parliamentary Secretary to the Secretary for War. When he was appointed Governor of the Leeward Islands, a British colony in the Caribbean, he took his partner, John Boyle, with him. Other politicians included Henry ‘Chips’ Channon, Harold Nicolson, Tom Driberg and Robert Boothby. It’s true that these men did not always receive unconditional positive regard from their family and colleagues. For example, Oliver Baldwin never became a government minister, despite his experience and political connections. He was also recalled from the position of Governor after three years (although this was more because he supported socialism and anti-colonial attitudes in the islands than because the white colonials were scandalised by his relationship with John Boyle – and Oliver’s parents did eventually come to accept his partner as almost a son-in-law).

Some of these men had long, happy, unconventional marriages with women (for example, Harold Nicolson’s marriage to Vita Sackville-West); some entered into brief or unhappy marriages in an attempt to placate their families and produce an heir; others were ‘confirmed bachelors’. Some of them were definitely gay, others were probably bisexual, and very few of them were ‘out’ in the public sense that we mean now. But all of these men participated in Society, and other people in Society knew about them and accepted them to varying degrees – which isn’t so different from the way things are now.

So I think Sophie and Veronica’s attitudes in The FitzOsbornes in Exile are entirely plausible – especially as neither of them is particularly religious, and Veronica makes a habit of rebelling against conservative values. And I also think Veronica would have loved a chance to debate Marxism with Oliver Baldwin.

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  1. Yes, I know they probably wouldn’t have used the word ‘gay’ in 1937, but the vast array of words used for male homosexuality in the twentieth century would take up an entire blog post of their own. For those who are interested, A Dictionary of Euphemisms, by Judith S. Neaman and Carole G. Silver, has a good discussion of North American, British and Australian terms.
  2. Lesbians did not exist, according to the law.

Five Books, Five Songs: We’ll Meet Again

“We’ll meet again,
Don’t know where,
Don’t know when …”

The FitzOsbornes at War is about saying goodbye, so the song I’ve chosen today is Vera Lynn singing one of the most famous (and saddest) songs of the Second World War, We’ll Meet Again.

A girl standing in the ruins of Battersea in January, 1945, after a V2 raid. Photograph taken by Toni Frissell, US Women's Army Corps.
A girl standing in the ruins of Battersea in January, 1945, after a V2 raid. Photograph taken by Toni Frissell, US Women’s Army Corps.

More in Five Books, Five Songs:

1. The Rage of SheepHester’s Request
2. A Brief History of MontmarayThe Sea Is Writhing Now
3. The FitzOsbornes in ExileDoing The Lambeth Walk
4. The FitzOsbornes at War – We’ll Meet Again
5. The Work-in-Progress – Through The Large Four-Chambered Heart