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).

Some Literary Exhibitions

I haven’t actually visited any of these exhibitions (yet), but they sound interesting and they’re all book-related.
'The Oopsatoreum' by Shaun Tan with the Powerhouse Museum

Firstly, the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney has an exhibition to accompany Shaun Tan’s latest picture book, The Oopsatoreum. The book, about one of Australia’s most fearless (fictional) inventors, features actual objects from the Powerhouse collection, which are on display. There’s also “a magic lantern show, a working printing press and three spaces where you can draw, write, make or build”. The exhibition runs until the 6th of October.

A short walk away is the University of Sydney, which is showing a collection of the art of Jeffrey Smart, curated by his friend, the writer David Malouf, and including some of Smart’s final letters. It’s at the University Art Gallery until the 7th of March. While you’re there, pop across the quadrangle to the Nicholson Museum to see the giant LEGO Acropolis and try to spot the little LEGO Agatha Christie in the crowd.

Finally, to Melbourne, where the National Gallery of Victoria has an exhibition of images and garments, entitled Edward Steichen & Art Deco Fashion, showing until the 2nd of March. Steichen, the chief photographer at Vogue and Vanity Fair from 1923 to 1938, produced portraits of a number of Hollywood stars, including Gloria Swanson, Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford, and these are being exhibited alongside Art Deco fashion, including dresses by Chanel and Vionnet. Cool, you say, but what does this have to do with books? Well, among the photographs is his striking 1932 portrait of actress Loretta Young, which featured on the cover of this book:

'The FitzOsbornes at War' North American edition

Miscellaneous Memoranda

I really liked Erin Bow’s suggestion of a SNOT award for books (“given to STORIES NOT to be read ON TRANSIT, the SNOT shall honor and mark books that will make you ugly-cry while on a crowded cross-town bus”). A SNOT sticker would have warned me, for example, against reading Feeling Sorry for Celia on the train to work one morning and thereby saved me a fair amount of embarrassment (because I have not yet learned how to weep in a neat and dignified manner).

The Guardian recently ran a series of articles on Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, including an amusing one about her incisive parodies of D. H. Lawrence and Mary Webb. There’s also a thoughtful discussion in the comments section of this article about the anti-Semitism in the book (which is definitely there, although I don’t think it’s quite as bad as many other English novels of the time).

As I’ve been talking about Jane Gardam’s novels lately, here’s an interesting profile of her.

And here’s yet another article about how mid-list authors are doomed, which I liked because it actually defined the term:

“A ‘mid-list’ author can be described as any author who does well but not spectacularly for a publisher: someone who might be consistently well-reviewed, will even be shortlisted for major prizes, but will not, or has not yet taken off to become a household name.”

So, I guess I might have moved from Emerging Writer to Mid-List Author, although I suspect I’d have an easier time getting my next book published if I was a Debut Author. After all, if publishers know from sad experience that your books do not sell in large (or even moderate) quantities, they are not going to fall over themselves to publish your next work, whereas if you’re completely unknown, there’s always a hope you’ll turn out to be the next J. K. Rowling. Okay, this is getting depressing. I need a squid to cheer me up.

Today’s squid is from that bastion of scientific accuracy, Popular Science Monthly, circa 1878.

The giant squid, 'Popular Science Monthly, Vol 14,  1878-1879'

Montmaravian Miscellanea

Kate Forsyth very kindly invited me to write a guest post for her blog, so I wrote one about books similar to the Montmaray Journals. Even though I’ve mentioned many of those books before, that post is worth visiting for the fabulous book cover images Kate has found, especially that vintage edition of The Pursuit of Love, with its titillating tagline (“Now Linda’s respectable uncles were sure it was true . . . THEIR NIECE WAS A KEPT WOMAN!”).

There’s also an interview with me on Kate’s blog, plus she’s written a lovely review of the Montmaray books. As Kate explains, she was one of the first people to read the manuscript of A Brief History of Montmaray. This wasn’t because I knew her, but because my editor at Random House had worked with her and thought Kate might enjoy the story. Kate’s comments about the manuscript made me jump up and down with glee (KATE FORSYTH had read my book! And liked it!) and a quote from her subsequently appeared on the front cover of the first edition of the book:

'A Brief History of Montmaray', first Australian edition

Thank you, Kate.

By the way, that cover for A Brief History of Montmaray is one of my favourite Montmaray covers, partly because of the beautiful shades of blue and the tall purple grass, and partly because it’s the only one that shows all three Montmaravian princesses. (What do you mean, you can’t see Henry? There she is, standing on the castle wall!)

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.

‘Dated’ Books, Part Seven: Swallows and Amazons

A note for the benefit of those new to this series: ‘dated’ means ‘of its time, not ours’. ‘Dated’ books can be horribly offensive to modern sensibilities, or they can be charmingly nostalgic, or they can simply be a bit . . . odd. I found Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome fell mostly into the ‘charmingly nostalgic’ category, apart from a couple of cringe-worthy scenes, which I shall discuss below. But first, have a look at the gorgeous old edition I read!

'Swallows and Amazons' by Arthur Ransome

I love how, whenever I reserve a children’s book at my library, they give me the most ancient edition in existence, which I imagine they have to dig out of a wooden trunk in the deepest, darkest basement of Sydney Town Hall. This is a 1949 edition from ‘The Australasian Publishing Co. Pty. Ltd’, with a fraying, faded olive-green cloth binding. It’s so old, it has one of those cardboard pockets in the back, containing an orange card with the book’s details handwritten in blue ink. It’s so old, it has a flimsy bit of paper stuck in for date stamps1. It’s so old, it has an illustrated ‘Ex Libris’ book plate in the front proclaiming the book belongs to the ‘City of Sydney Public Library JUVENILE SECTION’2. This book even smelled nice (not a nasty, mouldy old-book smell, but a nice, dry, old-paper scent).

Anyway, to return to the datedness of the story itself. The main reason I think this book is dated is the central premise. How many modern-day middle-class English parents would allow their four pre-adolescent children to sail off by themselves to a deserted island for an extended camping holiday, when the youngest is seven years old and CANNOT SWIM? True, the island is a short boat trip from the mainland, and they visit a nearby farmer each day to collect fresh milk3 and bread, and their mother sails over a few times to make sure they haven’t drowned, set themselves on fire or died of malnutrition, but STILL!

Of course, the children prove to be sensible, capable and independent, as most children in the 1920s were. The Walker siblings put up their own tents, cook their own meals (often consisting of fish they’ve caught themselves), sail up and down the lake, have a ‘war’ with a couple of local girls and their grumpy uncle, and even manage to outwit some (admittedly, not very bright) burglars. Actually, the detailed descriptions of the children’s life on the island were my favourite parts of the story. Among other things, I learned how to sew and erect a tent, how to turn a pine tree into a lighthouse, and how to build a camp fire. (The very detailed explanations of how to sail a boat were not as interesting to me, but children who can sail would probably love these bits.) I also enjoyed the descriptions of the lake’s wildlife, such as the dipper bird “under water, flying with its wings, as if it were in the air, fast along the bottom of the lake”.

However, the children’s constant talk of ‘natives’ and ‘savages’ quickly became tiresome. Some critics argue that this sort of talk isn’t racist, because the children don’t actually insult or belittle the ‘natives’, and anyway, the ‘natives’ aren’t real. I think that’s rather disingenuous, when it’s made clear that Mrs Walker grew up in Australia4, and the book contains dialogue such as this:

“‘This is where the savages have had a corroboree,’ said Titty. ‘They cooked their prisoners on the fire and danced around them.'”

Her mother goes along with this ‘joke’,

“telling how she had nearly been eaten by savages, and had only escaped by jumping out of the stew-pot at the last minute.”

This sort of talk was perfectly acceptable in 1930, but is not so funny now, especially when there are politicians in Australia who have used the supposed ‘cannibalism’ of Aboriginal Australians to justify racist policies.

The book also reflects the attitudes to class in 1920s England. In one scene, Nancy, the young daughter of a local land-owner, berates a policeman who is, quite reasonably, asking the Walker children if they know anything about a nearby burglary:

“‘Sammy, I’m ashamed of you. If you don’t go away at once, I’ll tell your mother . . . Run away, Sammy, and don’t make those mistakes again.'”

Apparently, it’s fine for a child to chastise and humiliate an adult who’s simply doing his job, if the child is rich and the adult is the mere son of a servant.

I was also a little worried at first that this would be a book where the boys did all the exciting stuff while the girls did the housework, and indeed, Susan does do all the cooking and most of the cleaning on the island (she and her sister also wear frocks, which you’d think would be a bit impractical for sailing). In addition, their mother, a competent and intelligent woman bringing up five children by herself while her husband is at sea, has to write to ask his permission when the children want to camp on the island. However, Nancy proves to be quite good at destroying gender stereotypes. She wears breeches, can out-sail, out-shoot and out-plan John, and generally bosses everyone around. Also, Susan’s unfortunately-named younger sister Titty5 ends up saving the day several times during the course of their holiday SPOILER ALERT! by firstly, capturing Nancy’s boat during the ‘war’ and secondly, finding the treasure buried by the burglars OKAY, SPOILERS FINISHED NOW.

Overall, I enjoyed the children’s adventures, which were exciting but plausible (well, more plausible than anything the Famous Five got up to). I liked reading about such competent, good-hearted child characters, and I know I would have loved this book to bits if I’d come across it as a young reader. (Although I’m pretty sure that even then, I’d have raised an eyebrow at the racism.)

More ‘dated’ books:

1. Wigs on the Green by Nancy Mitford
2. The Charioteer by Mary Renault
3. The Friendly Young Ladies by Mary Renault
4. Police at the Funeral by Margery Allingham
5. Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kästner
6. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
7. Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome
8. Kangaroo by D. H. Lawrence

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  1. This book was in great demand in 1957 (borrowed three times!) but left the library only six times between then and 2003.
  2. It’s been a very long time since the City of Sydney had only one library, and I’m pretty sure the term ‘juvenile’ went out of fashion a couple of decades ago.
  3. Unpasteurised milk, straight from the cow, poured into an unsterilised milk-can! Because I am a persnickety grown-up with a science degree, I kept thinking, “I hope those cows have been tested for TB.”
  4. Slightly off-topic, I was puzzled by one of Mrs Walker’s tales about her childhood, when she described “the little brown bears that her father caught in the bush, and that used to lick her fingers for her when she dipped them in honey.” What is she talking about? Koalas? Possums? But they’re grey, not brown (unless they’ve been rolling in red dirt). She describes kangaroos separately, and anyway, kangaroos are not very bear-like. Maybe wombats? Do they like honey? Would any rational person put his or her fingers anywhere near a wombat’s mouth?
  5. This seemed such an odd name, even for the 1920s, that I had to investigate further. Apparently, three of the Walker children were named after real friends of the author, the Altounyans. Titty’s name, “the nickname of the real life Mavis Altounyan, from Joseph Jacobs’s children’s story, Titty Mouse and Tatty Mouse, has caused titters among generations of children, causing it to be changed to Kitty in the original BBC adaptation of the book”.

Five Books, Five Songs: Doing the Lambeth Walk

“We play a different way
Not like you, but a bit more gay . . .”

Poor Sophie and her family have a lot to contend with in The FitzOsbornes in Exile, what with governesses trying to turn them into young ladies and aunts trying to marry them off to vile bachelors and assassins trying to shoot them. It’s a good thing they have Julia to distract them from their worries. For instance, she tells the FitzOsbornes all about Me and My Girl, which she has just seen in the West End, and then she teaches them her favourite song and dance from the show. Here’s a clip from a more recent Broadway production, starring Robert Lindsay as Bill, the Cockney barrow boy who shows the Mayfair toffs how to do the Lambeth Walk.

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 Exile – Doing The Lambeth Walk
4. The FitzOsbornes at WarWe’ll Meet Again
5. The Work-in-Progress – Through The Large Four-Chambered Heart