I thought you might like to know more about some of the story threads you'll encounter in A Sunlit Weapon, the next novel featuring psychologist and investigator, Maisie Dobbs.
Somewhere in the pile of book boxes yet to be unpacked (I've recently moved house), there's a "topic" book I created when I was nine years old. In primary school, from age 8 to 11, we were tasked with creating a topic book each year. We had to research and write the content, and in our art and craft classes we had to design and make the cover of our book. We'd add the pages before finally stitching the spine. My book that year was entitled "Famous Women." The topic we chose had to be personal, something we were interested in, and we had to do our research and writing during the weekly session, plus it was also our weekend homework. At the end of the term we had our finished book to display at the school open day. A boy named Ronald chose motorbikes, which led to a good number of boys copying him. Another boy wrote about mountains, and if those early choices direct us, it should come as no surprise that the lad became a professor of geology. As I grew to adulthood, my childhood curiosity regarding women's history from the late 1800's onward became a more adult inquiry. I wanted to know what happened to ordinary people in extraordinary times, especially a time of war. Many years the two eventually came together, as you know!
The first woman I wrote about for my topic book was Amy Johnson, the famous aviatrix and the first woman to fly solo from the UK to Australia. Amy later became a ferry pilot with the Air Transport Auxiliary during the Second World War, but she sadly perished while ferrying an aircraft. The cause of her death has been the subject of intense speculation ever since. Johnson's life fascinated me, as did the notion of women and flight.
I was about twenty-one when I met a woman who had been a ferry pilot during the war—the thing I remember most was her description of the bitter cold on those flights, because initially the women didn't have warm Sidcot suits and were flying only open training aircraft. After I became a published author, I met fellow writer Twist Phelan, and learned that her mother had been a ferry pilot, bringing bombers across the Atlantic from Canada to the British Isles.
The seeds of a novel are often sown long before crafting of the story begins. I had the idea for The Mapping of Love and Death swirling around in my mind for a good four or five years before I wrote the novel. In the case of my standalone novel, The Care and Management of Lies, the story first came to me some thirty-odd years before I made the leap and began to write. I always knew that if I took Maisie Dobbs into the nineteen-forties, I would write about the ferry pilots, not only because they were doing a very tough job in what was considered a man's world, but because in most cases they had more experience flying different aircraft than the RAF pilots—and sometimes those women had to climb into the cockpit having had only twenty minutes to read the manual for that particular aircraft.
The Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) was a civilian organization, not part of the RAF, and in 1943 the women ferry pilots—the "Attagirls" as they were affectionately known—were the first government employees to achieve pay parity with men, a rarity in those times. They not only flew 'planes straight off the production line to RAF bases around the country, but they also flew aircraft to engineering depots for maintenance and to the breakers yard—which was one of the riskier parts of a job, because an aircraft bound for the breaker's yard could be far from airworthy. One woman was killed when the propeller dropped off in mid-air. The ferry pilots had no radio, no weapons and no radar, so they were on their own in every sense of the word. If a "lone wolf" Luftwaffe pilot caught sight of them, they depended upon their skill to get them out of trouble. And they didn't fly just one aircraft per day—sometimes it was three or four, from a bomber to a fighter, to a training aircraft.
The actor Ewan McGregor and his brother, Colin—himself a former RAF fighter pilot—made a couple of terrific documentaries on flight in wartime. I loved the segment where Ewan and Colin meet two former women of the ATA, Mary Ellis and Joy Lofthouse. I've read both their memoirs, and they were wonderful! Mary was very funny, rendering the actor almost speechless when he helped her from an aircraft and she immediately told him she needed to go to the loo! This link is only a clip and unfortunately does not show the conversation they had about the work—though you see them come in on the Anson air taxi, the type of aircraft that took them to and from their assignments during the war.
Mary died at age 101 in 2018, and Joy passed away in 2017 at 94. One of the things that stayed in my mind from another interview with Mary, was her description of going up in a Spitfire again—I think on her 100th birthday. She commented on the noise of the radio and other equipment on board during her flight, because when she was a ferry pilot, she flew among the clouds with only the sound of the engine for company.
In A Sunlit Weapon you will meet Jo Hardy, a formidable aviatrix who comes to Maisie Dobbs for help. Not only does she believe an armed man tried to take down her aircraft—at the time she was having some fun in a Supermarine Spitfire, flying low over farmland before delivering the aircraft to Biggin Hill Aerodrome—but days later another woman ferry pilot was killed in the same area. Jo is also concerned for the safety of an African American soldier she found bound and gagged when she searched the barn where she had seen a man outside aiming a gun toward her Spitfire. Another ferry pilot, Elaine Otterburn, directed Jo to Maisie. Readers of the series will know exactly who Elaine Otterburn is, and how her actions not only changed Maisie's life, as revealed in A Dangerous Place, but how Maisie made use of Elaine's flying skills in Journey to Munich.
A Sunlit Weapon will be published on March 22, 2022. In the meantime, imagine Jo Hardy up in the clouds, then swooping low, determined to have just a few more minutes at the controls of the fastest aircraft in the world—the Supermarine Spitfire—before bringing her charge in to land so a young RAF pilot could take to the skies in service to his country.
In the next newsletter, I'll be telling you more about the 1942 visit to London of another extraordinary woman who enters Maisie's orbit in A Sunlit Weapon. I wish I had known more about Eleanor Roosevelt when I was nine—I know I would have added her to my book of famous women.
Until the next time...