I’m fascinated by the 1930s. That’s why I write a series of detective novels set in the 1930s and featuring Dottie Manderson, a young female amateur detective, as the protagonist. I write cosy mysteries, or cosy crime, and therefore there’s not a lot of space for too much social reality. Besides which, life is already tough enough, we all could do with a bit of escapism now and then, right?
I wanted to show just how different life was back then for everyone, not just women, in the 1930s. I’m writing from a British perspective, as that is my own nationality and my research and my writing centres around this.
I often portray the glamour of the era–the fashion, the socialising, all the dancing in long flowing gowns, the polite flirting with gentlemanly fellows in smart evening wear who offered one a drink or a cigarette and didn’t (most of the time) immediately pinch our bums. This glamour and glitz is what I love about it, but even I as a die-hard romantic idealist would have to admit this is the stuff of dreams—of the wonderful cinematic fictions of the time. It’s largely a gloss put over real life to get us through tough times and keep us keeping on. In reality we didn’t dance down to Rio or sip champagne, we were too busy trying to put bread on the table and keep the rent man happy.
So let’s go back to Britain in the 1930s. What was life like for the majority of people?
It was very much a time of transition. Things were still getting back to normal after the war. Attitudes were poles apart with very liberal ideas sitting at the same dinner table as conventional, very reactionary, right wing beliefs. And these differences would grow to a huge divide that came to a head in the 1940s, although as many other things, many of the same issues still rumble on today.
To set the scene for this inter-war period: the gaiety and extravagance of the 20s was over. The harsh reality of the 30s set in with mass unemployment, vast financial meltdowns that would devastate the economies of the richest nations and wipe out many fortunes leaving plenty of millionaires bankrupt and desperate. For the poor, things went from bad to worse, with job cuts and losses, and the increased mechanisation of tasks previously done by human beings left many without work and therefore without the means to feed themselves or their families. But for many middle-class families—those with money, skills and professional qualifications and the less demanding costs of keeping up their homes and lifestyles, things were not too bad at all.
The Great War, as WWI was known, was becoming more of a distant memory, and the Second World War was as yet undreamed of. In fact, there was a common consensus regarding the Great War that ‘it could never happen again’. It was ‘great’ in the sense of huge and terrible, not in our modern sense of brilliant and something admirable. Even language has changed since then! It’s no exaggeration to say that millions of lives were changed forever.
There were an estimated 40 million casualties, a little less than half of whom died, the rest were injured, many very seriously. 40 million. How could such an incomprehensibly vast sum of people die in the space of just a few years? Is it any wonder that people, especially the young, were a little bit crazy, a little bit over-exuberant in the 20s? Yet even in the early 30s, there were already the rumblings and murmurings that would lead to a repeat of the disaster.