This was a paper I gave at the Criminal Heritage: Crime, fiction, and History Conference at Leeds Beckett University. It’s rather a pretentious title, but it does involve one of my favourite crime fighters Maisie Dobbs. Her creator Jacqueline Winspear is a very helpful supporter of writers and was very helpful in my quest for more information about the background to Maisie.

MURDER THROUGH THE EYES. MAISIE DOBBS: HOW 1930S SOCIETY REFLECTS TRUTH AND LIES

 “My focus has always been on what happens to ordinary people in extraordinary times. I hope my readers see that history is a mirror – hold up the truth and we will see ourselves and our time reflected there. Now, what do we do with that knowledge?“ [1]

Jacqueline Winspear is the New York Times bestselling author of the Maisie Dobbs novels. Her creation, Maisie Dobbs, is the daughter of a costermonger, who, after the death of her mother, spent her early life as a maid in the household of Lord Julian and Lady Rowan Compton. When they noticed her intelligence and talents they introduced her to accomplished detective Doctor Maurice Blanche who mentored and taught her to University entrance standard. She lied about her age and nursed in the Great War where she met the love of her life, Simon, who was then wounded in an attack that left them both at deaths door, he never recovered and dies brain damaged in a later episode. Maisie is left with a scar that reminds her of the attack constantly. Maisie went to Girton and returned to London to work with her mentor Blanche and then on his retirement, Maisie opens up her own detective agency, setting herself up as a “psychologist and investigator” in post World War I London.

The germination of the character Maisie Dobbs is fascinating, Jacqueline Winspear told an interviewer:

“I started daydreaming. Suddenly, in my mind’s eye, I saw a woman – dressed in the fashion of the late 1920’s – on the old wooden escalator at Warren Street station in London. She left the station, walked down Warren Street and stopped outside one of the houses, whereupon she took out an envelope with a set of keys. The scene continued, even as I heard the car horn from the driver behind me…” [2]

There is often talk of the “Great Lie” after the end of the war. Men had been promised a ‘land fit for heroes’ and then came back home to mass unemployment, poverty, strikes and low wages, followed by the inevitable crash in 1929. The promise had turned out to be an untruth, but who had lied? Had the soldiers fooled themselves into thinking there would be a better world awaiting them? Had they told themselves that after a four-year fight for freedom that all would be well back in England? Indeed, what had they been fighting for, many would have had no idea beyond the idea that patriotism meant they had to fight. To then come back to a world worse off than when they had left would have been traumatising for an already damaged group of men. Added to this the fact that women had taken up the slack and intended to keep their lifestyle as it had been meant a conflict between men and women. As was usual the men won this battle of the sexes and returned to jobs that the women had ably taken up, but it was a pyric victory as what exactly had they won?

Maisie Dobbs is perhaps an idealised character, but after taking her rise to prominence with a pinch of salt, we are happy to see her make her own way in post war London. She is the personification of commoner made good and we are soon at ease in her company, even if she is not truly at ease with herself. The war has impacted upon her. She left her studies at Girton to sign up as a nurse, she lost her lover to brain damage. She had her hopes destroyed and went home to a London she still recognised, but had also changed. Winspear tells us in an interview:

“The aftereffects of war – especially the Great War – impacted almost every family in Britain, and changed life and society forever. A woman might have lost her husband, brother, cousins, and sons. A street would lose all its boys on one day, in one battle.” [3]

We can see these changes in her novels.

I will look at the first four she wrote; Maisie Dobbs, Birds of a Feather, Pardonable Lies, and Messenger of Truth. Straightaway we can see that Truth and Lies are central themes. Laurel Young tells us:

“In contrast to many of the writers in the Detection Club of the Golden Age, who tried to produce light fiction to distract their readers from the aftermath of the Great War each Maisie Dobbs Mystery deals with issues caused by the war.” [4]

Briefly the four novels:

Maisie Dobbs

Maisie Dobbs, daughter of a costermonger and now Psychologist and Investigator, began her working life at the age of thirteen as a servant in the Belgravia mansion, of Lady Rowan Compton, Maisie is shocked when her education is supported by Lady Rowan and a family friend, Dr. Maurice Blanche. The Great War intervenes in Maisie’s plans, and she enlists for nursing service overseas. in 1929, having apprenticed to Maurice Blanche, Maisie sets up her own business. Her first assignment, an ordinary inquiry involving a case of infidelity, takes her on the trail of a killer, and back to the war she has tried to forget.

Birds of a Feather

Since starting a one-woman private investigation agency in 1929 London, she now has an office in Fitzroy Square and an assistant, Billy Beale. She has won over Detective Inspector Stratton of Scotland Yard. Stratton is investigating a murder case in Coulsden, while Maisie has been summoned to Dulwich to find a runaway heiress. The woman is the daughter of Joseph Waite, a self-made man who has lavished her with privilege but kept her in a gilded cage. Waite’s instructions are to find his daughter and bring her home. When Maisie considers the disappearance, she finds a murderous link to Stratton’s murder case, and to the terrible legacy of The Great War.

Pardonable Lies

In her third novel, a deathbed plea leads Sir Cecil Lawton, KC, to seek the aid of Maisie Dobbs. As Maisie soon learns, Agnes Lawton never accepted that her aviator son was killed in the War, a torment that led her to spiritualists, a booming industry after the war. Determined to prove Ralph Lawton either dead or alive, Maisie is plunged into a case that tests her own strength, as well as her regard for her mentor, Maurice Blanche. It takes her to France and reunites her with her old friend Priscilla Evernden, who lost three brothers in the war, one of whom has a strange connection to the case.

Messenger of Truth

The night before an exhibition of his artwork opens, controversial artist Nick Bassington-Hope falls to his death. The police rule it an accident, but his twin sister, Georgina, a wartime journalist isn’t convinced. When the authorities refuse to consider her theory, Georgina seeks out a fellow graduate from Girton College, Maisie Dobbs, for help. The case leads Maisie to the desolate beaches of Dungeness in Kent, and into the sinister underbelly of the city’s art world. In Messenger of Truth, Maisie again uncovers the perilous legacy of the Great War in a society struggling to come to terms with itself.

So, you can see that the stories are full of adventure and if you haven’t read them I cannot recommend them enough!

Maisie Dobbs is a true woman of her time and she develops as the novels move forward in history.  She reflects the ‘modern woman’ in a time of drastic change, when it is difficult for women to gain the acceptance of society as to their place in that society.

“Maisie lost her innocence at an early age in seeing death of a most terrible kind. It changed her forever, and has defined who she is, how she works, and what moves her. Certainly, if readers had not realized it before, when they read “Pardonable Lies”, they will know that Maisie is as shell-shocked as any man who went to war. “ [5]

Her initiation to the real world is cruel and scars her. Just as much as the men in the opening novels are scarred. Maisie has to fight against prejudice. This to me seems the biggest deceit of the Great War. Women played their part and answered the call of duty. They worked at home so that men could fight. Then Suffragettes suspended their campaign and put the country first, but it was not until 1928 that some women got the vote. Just as we see casual racism now, there was casual sexism as well as outright sexism after the war. Expecting a man to be the Dobbs of the detective agency is just one thing, but the Policeman and his condescending:

“Nice little motor car cost a young woman like you a bob or two…” [6]

A young woman like you. Like what? What does he know of her and the position she is in. He reflects the society of the time and not in a positive way. She is a woman of her time. Not a flapper or socialite, but a modern career woman.

Maisie also notes that men’s attitudes to women had changed, that having many lovers was now the norm,

“In fact, it had become more acceptable, especially as there weren’t enough men to accompany them… many bachelors were quite caddish anyway, making the most of the surfeit of women with an easy come, easy go flippancy…” [7]

But she has chosen her path and for her she knows she must stick to it.

Linn Style writes

“Outwardly Maisie is seen as a modern and attractive woman who is university educated, owns her own business, lives alone in her own apartment and drives around in a motorcar. The readers, however, get to follow her struggles to fit into her new role as a modern businesswoman…” [8]

Maisie Dobbs is a mirror of history and we can learn a great deal from her, just as we can from crime novels throughout our history. No other genre investigates society as a crime novel does and it is the society of Maisie Dobbs that I will now interrogate. We travel through a London steadily set in its time. This is a social history rather than a political one though we do have nods to the various factions of the time. Oswald Mosely is featured in Messenger of Truth and we are introduced to John Otterburn, a Canadian newspaper baron, loosely based on Lord Beaverbrook, becoming a central figure throughout the novels. These machinations however are secondary to the depiction of the city in the early novels.

In the first novel, we see a travelogue of sorts where Maisie takes us on a journey from her digs in Lambeth to the home of her client, Davenham. It is a simple, yet clear picture of the city of her birth. [9]

We see the squalor in Messenger of Truth and the cause of Billy Beales daughter’s death. The fact is brought home to us over, and over again that London is not a pleasant place to live in. Indeed, the juxtaposition of Maisie living in Ebury Place and Billy in his two up two down in the East End is clear, but as Jacqueline Winspear told me,

“I have just done my best to portray society as it was at the time – I didn’t deliberately lean the emphasis one way or another, as I am simply looking to give a sense of the truth of life as it might have been for whichever character I am writing about.” [10]

We see a true picture of London, from the increase in traffic on the roads that make journeys take longer as Georgina complains,

“Heaven only knows where the traffic comes from – and they thought the horseless carriage would be the answer to London’s congestion problems!” [11]

to the effects of the crash on home building where Maisie is able to pick up a flat on a site not yet finished by bankrupt builders. [12]

The disparity of rich and poor is most marked in her treatment of health and illness. As a nurse, Maisie has very clear ideas and these are a commentary on public health during the thirties.

Billy cannot afford to see the nurse when his daughter catches diphtheria. An illness that could be cured easily enough if caught early. Maisie does not have time to visit the child as work takes over and by the time they do take her to hospital it is too late. This is in microcosm what the health sector was like. But the stoicism shown by Billy is incredible. Not surprising though, as Jacqueline Winspear told me:

“I have read so much about the lives of women at that time, and it’s true to say that for a lot of people, life was “just one thing after another.”  Think of it – death in childbirth, death from sickness, death in war… it’s so easy to forget a world without the advanced medical care that we have today, both on the battlefield and on the home front.  Maisie has had personal joy, personal tragedy and personal fulfillment – life’s mixed bag.  And the mixed bag of personal grief could be that much more full in those days.” [13]

It does credit to Maisie that she tries to get Georgina to expose the evils of the lack of a welfare system in Messenger of Truth. Indeed, this is to become Georgina’s new war, one she can do battle with a real enemy rather than the flippant journalistic pieces she has churned out since her war time scoops. She can at last seek another Truth. All important to Maisie and now to her.

Maisie tells Georgina,

“The war is being waged…only the war is here and now, and it is a war against poverty, against disease and against injustice…you would do well to consider igniting your pen with that for a story!” [14]

Though this may help Georgina recover some of her self-esteem, to Maisie this is like another war as she says in Messenger of Truth,

“Feeling the anger, and shame, rise again, Maisie tempted her thoughts even more as she watched the exodus out in search of a job. Many of the men limped along, others bore scars on their faces or wore an expression of those embattled to a point where any last vestige of optimism had been lost. These were men – and women – whose country had needed them but who were now without a means to support themselves. They were the forgotten heroes now waging another battle for honour.” [15]

As Linn Style writes in her dissertation essay,

“While the writers of the Golden Age struggled to create a female detective, who could be feminine without being provocative… As a modern author, she is able to create a woman detective who is operating in the interwar period, but who does not have to play by the same social rules. It is as if Winspear endows Maisie with qualities that even a modern woman can aspire to, not just a role unusual for the era.” [16]

I admire her use of indignation at the way society was in the 1930s. Jacqueline Winspear is indignant because she can still see her grandfather picking out shrapnel from his leg, that he liked to sit in silence and not be disturbed by sudden noises. His experience in the Great War, affected her completely and yet gave her a life-long love of researching the period. She is allowed to make comments and to try to seek remedies for what is going wrong in her novels. As a writer, we always have the authority to create our own world. Of course, it is all hindsight, but we as a reader can sympathise with it.

For Billy the war needs to be pushed to one side. He has seen too much and references his cousin who said

“I think people are trying to forget the war… I mean who wants to be reminded?”

And

“…it was one thing to be remembered, and quite another to be reminded every day. He didn’t mind people remembering what he had done…But he didn’t want to be reminded of it.” [17]

The war has left its scars and seems to have been to no benefit for anyone.

We also see that there were those of a certain class who barely felt the deepening crisis. It has to be said that whilst money is tight, Maisie is in a position to enjoy life if she chose to. Her best friend Priscilla lives a flamboyant life and is at the extreme of the wealth scales. This idea of wealth and, as a consequence, power, is revisited throughout her novels,

Jacqueline Winspear told me,

“There will always be the powerful and powerless in any situation – my characters reflect level of power accorded to them by the story.” [18]

Her portrayal of women during and after the war is paramount.

“Women of that era, the women who lived and worked through World War I, and we tend to forget them so easily, they were women who were called to work in every field of endeavour to release men for the battle field. Just think of any job you had to do and they did it. For most of them their lives changed beyond anything they would have imagined because there was no husband and kids etc, because a whole generation of men were lost. We all know the old ladies that lived up the street when we were kids and they were spirited, they were strong, opinionated, and they did this country a great service. If Maisie can show just a bit of that spirit I will be grateful and if she can reflect as a woman some of the things we all experience today then so much the better.” [19]

Her novels are so much more than a nod to the 1930s, they are also a nod to the modern day. We all see things that disturb us and motivate us to do something, but in Maisie’s case she does take up the baton of change. She has a twenty first century approach to the problems. She vividly describes the Great War and its aftermath and in the manner of the golden Age she is able to make social criticisms as we see throughout every novel, but she also educates her readers on a passed time and places her stories

on facts rather than opinions. But

“Unlike the Golden Age detective fiction that it mimics, Maisie Dobbs doesn’t restore order to a devastated post-war world…” [20]

There is only so much that she can do and as long as her clients are satisfied and come to terms with whatever problems they had, she feels her work is done. As a process, she has been able to use the Great War as her starting point:

“For me, the war and its aftermath provide fertile ground for a mystery, offering a literary vehicle for exploring the time. Such great social upheaval allows for the strange and unusual to emerge and a time of intense emotions can, to the writer of fiction, provide ample fodder for a compelling story, especially one concerning criminal acts and issues of guilt and innocence. After all, a generation is said to have lost its innocence in The Great War.” [21]

The loss of innocence means that she can approach each story with a blank canvas, but always have a reference point.

It is also true that many women lost their innocence, be it a sexual awakening, a realisation that they could mean something in a society still in thrall of Victorian standards or in the workplace taking on male roles and earning more money. After the war, the 1921 census showed two million “surplus” women. This in terms of having no man, but otherwise surplus to what. It does our world no credit that once the war was over women were expected to retreat into the shadows and allow the returning soldiers to take up ‘their’ jobs once again. It is perhaps an irony that those jobs started to disappear at the same time and the retuning heroes were left on the scrap heap.

This was an incredible time. Women had opportunities they had never had before, but could also see their new-found status ebbing away. Jacqueline Winspear is so proud of what women achieved, but wasn’t it their right, just as it is today? She said in an interview that Maisie symbolizes the woman of that generation,

“…they were a really extraordinary generation of women. And, when I was a kid, I knew those women, because they were the elderly ladies in my village. And so many of them were single, what we would call “spinsters” in those days. And for every single one of them, there was a sepia photograph on the mantelpiece of a young man lost to war. Or young men. Brothers, cousins, a sweetheart, a young husband. And yet those women, so many of them, absolutely blazed a trail. It was as if they thought, “We have just got to get on with it.” That’s endurance. And that generation became quite a force…” [22]

Maisie represents that force and in later novels her assistant Sandra becomes one to. They were of a generation that held emotions in check. Maisie does not welcome the idea of a long-term relationship with doctor Andrew Dene as she can see it will impinge on her work. She cannot get any feeling of release from her first love Simon, until he dies and the courtship she has with James Compton is rocky at first until they marry, but this  eventually ends in double tragedy. She lost her mother at a young age and saw the horrors of war, yet she still goes on. She is loath to discuss her private life. She puts a check on her emotions, she seems to have quite an unhappy life outside of her work which is her one real passion and consumes her when she is on a case.  Jacqueline Winspear told me that

“I think you have to appreciate that we are looking back at a generation that did not air any of its laundry in public, before or after the war. Today the notion of being “private” is allied with holding secrets, and that is not correct – probably because the media is full of stories about what people in the public eye do in “secret.”  People just kept their business to themselves, and in a time of difficulty, many people would not dream of placing undue concern on their families… Another reason why people would not talk about the war was that in general, people just wanted to try to forget – and everyone went through something, so to go on about it would have felt self-indulgent.” [23]

Words were important and had meaning then. What was said could not be unsaid and it seems words were used with more care wanting to be truthful and to reflect reality. Wasted words meant wasted time and there was not enough time to go around. Life was led at a breakneck pace and had to be taken hold of. People could not just spout nonsense as they saw it as it would waste theirs and the listeners time.

Writing this paper was a pleasure and it has felt almost as if I was having a conversation with Jacqueline Winspear. The many interviews she has given that are available online and the answers to questions that I posed have given me a true insight into the writers mind and what she wanted to achieve.

Truth was important, for Maisie seeking the truth was paramount, yet, as Jacqueline Winspear says,

“…it’s not all about truth and liars – that’s skimming over the surface.  Maisie seeks a deeper truth, and it’s connected with finding the humanity in everyone.” [24]

Humanity lost its way during the Great War. A truism I know. By looking for Truth Maisie is trying to reclaim something and if it is reflected in the society Winspear describes then that is her Truth.

[1] https://www.bookbrowse.com/author_interviews/full/index.cfm/author_number/1028/jacqueline-winspear

[2] http://www.jacquelinewinspear.com/A%20Conversation%20with%20Jacqueline%20Winspear.pdf

[3] https://www.bookbrowse.com/author_interviews/full/index.cfm/author_number/1028/jacqueline-winspear

[4] Young, Laurel. “(Re)Inventing A Genre: Legacy In Women’s Golden Age Detective Fiction.” Dissertation Abstracts International, Section A: The Humanities and Social Sciences 67.5 (2006): 1745.

[5] http://www.worldwar1.com/tgws/jwinterview.htm

[6] Messenger of Truth p253

[7] Messenger of Truth p190

[8] The Spinster Detective A comparison between Maisie Dobbs and the women detectives of the Golden Age     p12 Linn Style Literary Seminar Bachelor Degree Essay Spring 2012 English Studies Centre for Languages and Literature Lund University

[9] Maisie Dobbs p17-18

[10] Email interview with Jacqueline Winspear 11.7.2017

[11] Messenger of Truth p29

[12] Messenger of Truth p26-27

[13] Email interview with Jacqueline Winspear 11.7.2017

[14] Messenger of Truth p240

[15] Messenger of Truth p146

[16] Linn Style The Spinster Detective A comparison between Maisie Dobbs and the women detectives of the Golden Age. Linn Style 2012 English Studies Centre for Languages and Literature Lund University p13

[17] Birds of a Feather p259

[18] Email interview with Jacqueline Winspear 11.7.2017

[19] http://www.shotsmag.co.uk/interview_view.aspx?interview_id=54

[20] http://www.npr.org/2014/07/10/329568667/10-years-later-mystery-heroine-maisie-dobbs-gains-new-life

[21] http://www.jacquelinewinspear.com/A%20Conversation%20with%20Jacqueline%20Winspear.pdf

[22] http://popcultureclassics.com/jacqueline_winspear.html

[23] Email interview with Jacqueline Winspear 11.7.2017

[24] Email interview with Jacqueline Winspear 11.7.2017