I presented this paper at “Voices of women in the Great War and its Aftermath” 2018 at The Black Country Living Museum:

“Maisie Dobbs: How World War I is reflected in truth and lies.”

I’d like to start by giving some background and context to the period immediately after the end of the Great War. Speaking in Wolverhampton, just weeks after the Armistice, Lloyd George made a fateful promise

“What is our task? To make Britain a fit country for heroes to live in. I am not using the word ‘heroes’ in any spirit of boastfulness, but in the spirit of humble recognition of fact. I cannot think what these men have gone through. I have been there at the door of the furnace and witnessed it, but that is not being in it, and I saw them march into the furnace. There are millions of men who will come back. Let us make this a land fit for such men to live in. There is no time to lose. I want us to take advantage of this new spirit. Don’t let us waste this victory merely in ringing joy bells.” [1]

By 1922, Kenneth O Morgan told us that after six months of the house-building programme there was a shocking gulf between the calls for half a million new homes and the actual 10,000 under construction, let alone the 180 actually occupied. The final figure of 170,000 built, falls far short of the promises made in Lloyd Georges rhetoric [2]

Was this promise a lie? Their truth tells us that perhaps it was or to be kind to a politician, maybe a miscalculation, but this is the Britain that our soldiers returned to. One not apparent in the speeches of the men who sent them to war.

Inflation was at 10.05% in 1919. Prices had risen 123.5% since the outbreak of war. Unemployment was at 11.3% in 1921. In 1932 it was 15%.

The war had left 240,000 widows and over 740,000 servicemen dead. There were 1.6 million wounded, some with the most horrific of wounds.

To cap all this the 1921 census told us that women in the UK exceeded men by 1.75 million and we saw headlines about the 2 million “surplus women” who now lived in the UK, most destined never to marry and to find themselves at odds with the natural order they had become so used to.

This is a bare outline of what the public saw as the Great War ended and is the background to the works of Jacqueline Winspear.

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 a bombing that left them both near death. 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 later went to Girton College and returned to London to work with her mentor Blanche and then on his retirement, Maisie opens her own detective agency, setting herself up as a “psychologist and investigator” in post-World War I London.

Winspear tells us:

“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?“ [3]

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.” [4]

We can see these changes in her novels.

I will look at the first four she wrote; Maisie Dobbs, Pardonable Lies, Messenger of Truth and Birds of a Feather. 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.” [5]

This is not light fiction, be it written in a style that nods towards the traditions of the Golden Age. There is no sugar coating and no happy conclusions. 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 has her education 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 suspected infidelity, takes her on the trail of a killer, and back to the war she has tried to forget.

Pardonable Lies

A deathbed plea leads Sir Cecil Lawton, KC, to seek the aid of Maisie Dobbs. As Maisie soon learns, his wife Agnes Lawton, never accepted that her aviator son was killed in the War, a torment that led her to spiritualists. Determined to prove Ralph Lawton either dead or alive, the case 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 beaches of Dungeness in Kent, and into the city’s art world. In Messenger of Truth, Maisie uncovers another legacy of the Great War in a society struggling to come to terms with itself.

Birds of a Feather

She now has an office in Fitzroy Square and an assistant, Billy Beale. She has won over Detective Inspector Stratton of Scotland Yard. 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. Waite’s instructions are to find his daughter and bring her home. When Maisie considers the disappearance, she finds a link to Stratton’s murder case, and to yet another terrible legacy of The Great War.

So, you can see that the stories are full of adventure and if you haven’t read them I cannot recommend them highly 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. Indeed:

“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. “ [6]

Her initiation to the real world is cruel and scars her. Just as much as the men in the opening novels are scarred. Maisie must 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. The 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 and misogyny, as well as outright sexism after the war.

Expecting a man to be the Dobbs of the detective agency is just one thing, her client:

“… hid his surprise well, taking a linen handkerchief from his inside pocket…I’m surprised to see you. Thought you’d be a chap.”  [7]

but a Policeman and his condescending:

“Nice little motor car cost a young woman like you a bob or two…” [8]

 

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.

Linn Style writes in her thesis, “The Spinster Detective”

“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…” [9]

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 winding busy streets of the city of her birth. [10]

Later in the same novel, we read:

“As the train chugged and puffed its way through south London and out into the borders of Kent, Maisie pondered the changes she had seen in the city in her life time. London was creeping outwards. Where there had been fields, houses now stood. Rows of shops were doing brisk business, and a new commuter class was working to improve itself.” [11]

London as ever moving outwards, new homes at last being built in 1929 in this case, but a long time since the end of the war. Even so we still see the squalor of London and the East End 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. Maisie:

“… knew the East End of London to be a breeding ground for disease, with its proximity to the damp and filth of the Thames and with houses and people almost on top of each other.” [12]

Indeed, the juxtaposition of Maisie living in the splendour of Ebury Place and Billy in his two up two down in the East End is clear, but as Jacqueline Winspear told me, her books are not about wealth or power, but:

“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.” [13]

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

“Heaven only knows where the traffic comes from – and they thought the horseless carriage would be the answer to London’s congestion problems!” [14]

to the effects of the crash on home building where Maisie can pick up a flat cheaply, on a site not yet finished by bankrupt builders. [15]

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. He would have to find a hospital willing to take his daughter though and this still wasn’t easy. As he says:

“The ‘ospitals might be run by the councils now, but it don’t seem to ‘ave changed much, not really.” [16]

Indeed, 1930 does not see a great change to the Health system. They had to wait until 1948 for the creation of the NHS, again after a world War.

Maisie does not have time to visit the sick 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 in 1931. The stoicism shown by Billy is incredible, but we should not be surprised though, as Jacqueline Winspear told me:

“… 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 fulfilment – life’s mixed bag.  And the mixed bag of personal grief could be that much more full in those days.” [17]

It does credit to Maisie that she tries to get Georgina Bassington-Hope to remember her early days as a campaigning journal; and 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!” [18]

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.” [19]

I admire her use of indignation at the way society was in the 1930s. She continued as she:

“… made her way around London she could see men on her way to join the lines for assistance, or queries at factories where it was said a man could find work.” [20]

And in a later novel Billy Beale says:

“Every day I look out as the bus passes the labour exchange and the line ‘aint getting’ any shorter.” [21]

Unemployment is rife. Man’s dignity has been stripped away. The government has seemingly forgotten about its promises. Where is this great new world they had been assured of? This is not just a post war, 1930s issue. Jacqueline Winspear is indignant because she, as a child, could still see her grandfather picking out shrapnel from his leg, know 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. This background gives her permission to make comments and to try to seek remedies for what is going wrong in the world of her novels. It is very much her world as a writer and her truth as a viewer. 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 doesn’t want to think back on it and neither do his contemporaries. 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.” [22]

The war has left its personal scars and seems to have been to no benefit for anyone. For her assistant, Billy Beale,  whom she and her former lover, Simon, saved at the Casualty Clearing Station, they never go away:

“Blimey I can almost smell the gas, can ‘ardly breathe at times. If I fall asleep straight away I only wake up fighting for breath. And the pounding im my ‘ead. You never forget that pounding, the shells…”  [23]

But we also see that there were those of a certain class, who barely felt the deepening crisis. It must be said that whilst money is tight, Maisie is able 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, consequently, power, is revisited throughout her novels, but not as the main message of her stories, 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.” [24]

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

“Women of that era … were women who were called to work in every field of endeavour to release men for the battle field… For most of them their lives changed beyond anything they would have imagined … 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.” [25]

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 can make social criticisms as we see throughout every novel, but she also educates her readers on a past time and bases 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…” [26]

Her intention as a writer is to show how life really was, to show the truth. There is no window dressing here. If society has been failed, she will show it. If the returning soldiers have been betrayed, she will say it. Hindsight we know is a wonderful thing, but in these novels her social comments are part of the fabric of the novel and don’t seem out of place or out of context.

Maisie at the end of every case reconciles the truth with her client and all affected by the case. She brings each individual the truth and helps them to come to terms with it. It is part of the contract she makes with each stakeholder in each case. 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… After all, a generation is said to have lost its innocence in The Great War.” [27]

The loss of innocence means that she can approach each story with a blank canvas, but always have a reference point. Everything has changed. Life is less formal. The rules of the past have changed and people can show their feelings in the open. In public:

“Georgina … linked her arm through Maisie’s a demonstration of affection that unsettled Maisie, though she understood that for the people she was now mixing with, certain social boundaries and codes of behaviour had been eroding in the past ten years.” [28]

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… And yet those women… blazed a trail …” [29]

Maisie represents that force and in later novels her new assistant Sandra becomes one to. She trains as a secretary, she goes to evening classes and joins educational associations. All this after losing her husband. Before the war it is not too extreme to have expected her to assume a widow’s weeds and to have closed herself away. In this new post war world, she can do anything she wants to up to a point.

In the past she would have been part 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:

“… as time went on, like many women of her generation, her experience of a certain freedom became more deeply ingrained. Her position, her quest for financial security and professional standing was paramount.” [30]

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…  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… so to go on about it would have felt self-indulgent.” [31]

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. 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.” [32]

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 when she sees past the lies, then that is her Truth.

[1] 24 November 1918, Prime Minister David Lloyd George gave a speech in Wolverhampton.

[2] Consensus and Disunity: The Lloyd George Coalition Government, 1918-1922

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

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

[5] 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.

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

[7] Maisie Dobbs p11-12

[8] Messenger of Truth p253

[9] 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

[10] Maisie Dobbs p17-18

[11] Maisie Dobbs p20

[12] Messenger of Truth p28

[13] Email interview with Jacqueline Winspear 11.7.2017

[14] Messenger of Truth p29

[15] Messenger of Truth p26-27

[16] Messenger of Truth p138

[17] Email interview with Jacqueline Winspear 11.7.2017

[18] Messenger of Truth p240

[19] Messenger of Truth p146

[20] Messenger of Truth p145

[21] Birds of a Feather p23

[22] Birds of a Feather p259

[23] Maisie Dobbs p235-236

[24] Email interview with Jacqueline Winspear 11.7.2017

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

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

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

[28] Messenger of Truth p123

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

Messenger of Truth p51-52

[31] Email interview with Jacqueline Winspear 11.7.2017

[32] Email interview with Jacqueline Winspear 11.7.2017