Last year I read Singled Out by Virginia Nicholson about the so-called surplus women (all 1.9 million of them) who were left to fend for themselves after WWI once marriage was ruled out for them following the deaths of so many young men in the trenches. They carved out new lives, found jobs and settled for a life without love or children, something none of them expected when they were growing up, having been drummed into them at school and home that a woman’s duty was to find a husband and provide children. With this option taken away from them, they were setting forth into uncharted territory, fighting prejudice and having to proved themselves in what was a man’s world. This was a non-fiction social history which I enjoyed tremendously and found enlightening as there were many aspects to the women’s struggles which I could understand and empathise. Of course things have moved on since then, but there were several examples which made me feel that a lot of what women go through now stem from that era and are still ongoing.

I enjoy reading popular history, something that’s not too academic and dry, and which provides an introduction to more serious work if your interest is piqued and you want to rifle through the references to find out more about the subject. And it’s been a pet project of mine to research and read about life during the interwar years, not just in Britain but world wide. I’ve been concentrating on Britain because of the wealth of research that’s been done and the books that are available here.

So I jumped at We Danced All Night by Martin Pugh when I caught sight of it at the library. This was more a general history rather than a focus on women, but there were a couple of very interesting chapters regarding feminism and the struggle faced by countless women in being taken seriously and ultimately getting the right to vote. But it’s not just about that and the book discusses all aspects from colonialism and empire through to politics, culture, sports, food and leisure in an engaging and highly enjoyable manner. There were also liberal references to Vera Britten and E.M. Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady (both of which are on my TBR pile and am looking forward to reading this year).

I particularly enjoyed the chapter about the bright young things and flappers (notorious because they were care-free) as much as the chapters on food, marriage and education as well as class conflict and the monarchy. We Danced All Night is a general book that goes into enough detail that you will learn something new in each chapter. At around 450 pages, it took me a while to read this book partly because I was in a bit of a reading slump post-Christmas, but every time I dipped into this book while commuting or before bed, I found it a gripping read.

Her Royal Spyness by Rhys Bowen

This is my second book for the Clear Off Your Shelves Challenge! I’m doing rather well, if I say so myself as I’m now reading my third book for the challenge, A Grave Man by David Roberts, which is also from my TBR shelf. Way to go!

Her Royal Spyness by Rhys Bowen is a clever romp through interwar Britain with a plucky and likeable protagonist, Lady Georgie, who is half royal on her father’s side (Queen Victoria is grandmama) and half working class on her mother’s side (actress/bolter and granddad is a former copper). An interesting combination which gives Rhys Bowen a license to talk about the various aspects of British life and culture in the 1930s.

Lady Georgie is 34th in line to the throne and living with her step-brother in his Highland castle. As she is of marriageable age, her family are trying to marry her off to some suitably obscure royal but she has other ideas. She goes to London to try her hand at independant living, learning how to light fires and make toast. When she finds a dead body in the bath and her family is implicated, she must learn to uncover who is trying to bring them down and, more importantly, stay alive. On top of that, she has been assigned a task by her grandmother, Queen Victoria, and is sent off to a house party in the country to spy on her son who is besotted with a certain married American lady.

Her Royal Spyness is not too dark and was actually quite funny. I loved Bowen’s description of Georgie’s step-brother’s Scottish castle with draughty bathrooms and tartan wallpaper. Hilarious. The only thing that jarred was Georgie’s awareness of the poor, unemployed and disenfranchised, queuing at the soup kitchens. Would she really have noticed? But then she comes from a mixed class background and would be aware of the differences even within her own family. But that’s a small quibble in what was an enjoyable read. This is the first book in a series, so I’m looking forward to reading more about Lady Georgie and her antics.

It rather drew a comparison to Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day which I loved, but which was much darker and wasn’t a mystery. I’ve only seen the film but plan to read the book one of these days.

I was lucky enough to see Sarah Waters in conversation with Suzy Feay (formerly literary editor at The Independent) several weeks ago at the London Literature Festival at the Southbank. Waters is a slight, vivacious figure, always with a smile. I hadn’t read The Little Stranger at that point, but was interested in anything written in or about the interwar and postwar period. The talk was enlightening with Waters describing how her interest in the postwar period did not end with the publication of her previous novel The Nightwatch but kept drawing her back until she wrote The Little Stranger. Uncharacteristically for her, her new novel is a ghost story without any lesbian overtones. But this didn’t seem to bother her. And why should it, because Waters has written a beautifully atmospheric novel and has been rightfully longlisted for the 2009 Booker Prize.


A synopsis of the novel can be found here. The narrator of The Little Stranger is Dr. Faraday. We never find out what his first name is. This is a ghost story and a love story and a social history of that particular time when Britain’s social structure was undergoing radical changes. The strict hierarchical divisions of the Edwardian era was disappearing and many amongst the landed gentry were beginning to feel like relics of history, unable to find a place in the new world order. Waters writing style is engaging and effortlessly draws the reader into her story. The characters are sympathetic and troubled, and the growing tension in the book leaves you increasingly uneasy but wanting to know more. Waters said in her talk that she wanted to leave the ending open, but that she had left enough detail/clues for the reader to work out what happened in the end. Many readers voiced their confusion over the ending, but I liked it. The Little Stranger is a measured, confident novel that really sends a chill down your spine.

I’m now reading The Nightwatch and it’s brilliant.