jacqueline winspear jacqueline winspear

Jacqueline Winspear talks about her readers, their comments and the questions they pose to her, and why there is an upsurge of interest in The Great War and the years that followed.

When Maisie Dobbs was first published, I thought the readership would definitely reflect what statistics have revealed to be the "average" book buyer—a woman between the ages of 25-65. And I thought that a woman's name in the title might put men off buying the book. Certainly the majority of readers have been women, but as the series continued, so I have seen both attendance at my readings and the source of emails I receive become more evenly divided between men and women—and all age groups are represented, from teens to seniors, and that's certainly heartwarming for a writer.

I receive several letters each week from veterans, whether of the Vietnam war, Korea or more recent conflicts. And I receive emails from those who have experienced war second hand—perhaps there was a father who remained shell-shocked throughout his child's life, or a sister who has never recovered from the loss of her brother. The correspondence is generally the same, that the reader has found some sort of solace, perhaps, in following a fictional heroine who has suffered in wartime, has been shell shocked and, each day, in some way, tries to make sense of her changing world.

One of the most poignant emails I received was from a doctor who had been a young medic in Vietnam. He said that reading about Maisie facing her "dragons" in Pardonable Lies helped him to face up to some of those that had dogged him since he returned from military service—he wrote: "We all have our dragons, we that have served."

At another reading, three women remained behind to speak to me when everyone else had gone—they wanted to tell me their story. The women had not really known each other before joining a local book club. Each month they would meet with others in the club, to talk about whichever book they'd been reading, to have a glass of wine, something to eat and to generally have a convivial evening with newfound friends. When they met to discuss Maisie Dobbs, one of the women, reticent at first, spoke of how the book had touched her, how it had made her realize the impact of her time as a nurse in Vietnam. Then the other two spoke up—they too had been nurses in that same conflict, and had never spoken of it before. They told me that they had simply held on to each other, for at last they felt able to speak about their experiences—it wasn't considered the right thing to do when they first came home.

A gentleman recently asked if I could comment on the reason why there was a current surge of interest in the Great War and its aftermath. That's a big question, and any response must be multi-faceted. First of all, let's take the mystery genre, storytelling that depicts a chaotic situation in which there is loss—of life, property, a future, perhaps—and one person, a protagonist who goes in search of truth and brings calm at the end of the story. It's an archetypal story, and it's part of what so many are looking for—here we are in uncertain, chaotic times, and we are looking for that calm, that peace. And if a story is set against one of history's most turbulent times, then you have something that mirrors today, but at the same time, because it is set in the past, is not immediately terrifying. What it gives is a sense of—for want of a better word—hope. A sense that we managed to get through those times, and we will get through these times. A sense that there will be a collective healing, even though that healing may take time.

From another perspective, there's the link between events of the past and present. A war started by an act of terrorism, a world seemingly gone mad—and there's also the connection between the political decisions that were made about the region known as Mesopotamia following the Great War, that created the Iraq we know today, and all the terrible tensions resulting from those decisions. It was Winston Churchill who, in the early 1920's, bemoaned the situation in Iraq, where British lives were being lost to what we would call today, "insurgency." History is a good teacher.

I receive lots of interest in my research methods, along with questions about the role of women in Europe during the Great War, the twenties and thirties. In Europe, the first generation of women to go to war was a generation before Rosie the Riveter of WW2. Indeed, it was more of a leap for them, and certainly the role of women would never be the same again. Some 60,000 women in Britain went directly into war work, with about 460,000 women taking on "men's work" to release young men for the battlefield. There was no field of endeavor left untouched by a woman's hand—and this was a generation of women whose mothers and grandmothers were in long dresses, corsets and stays, their world as constricted as their dress. Now, in 1914, young women who went to work were often in overalls, in trousers, loose jackets—and they were working for their country. And for many of that generation there would be no husband and children, for so many young men had been lost to war—in fact, the 1921 census revealed that there were two million "surplus" women of marriageable age in Britain—and this figure was reflected across Europe. This was a generation of women who came of age in a terrible time, and now they had to go forward alone, responsible for their financial security, nurturing relationships to sustain them as they grew older, and creating a place for themselves in their communities—is it any surprise that an archetype was created at that time (think of Miss Marple, Miss Jean Brodie, the Ladies in Lavender).

As a storyteller, I wanted the character of Maisie Dobbs to reflect the spirit of that generation, and I wanted to use the years between the wars as a backdrop for the mysteries that my characters are drawn into. What came as a bonus, for me, is the readers of my books—all ages, men and women, and so many of whom seem to be touched on a deeper level by the story itself.