Between a rock and a hard place: what was it like in the 30s? Part One

Madeleine Carroll: The 39 Steps (Hitchcock 1938). She was once the highest paid actress in the world and in 1938 earned £250,000.

I’m fascinated by the 1930s. That’s why I write a series of murder mysteries set in the 1930s and featuring Dottie Manderson, a young female amateur detective, as the protagonist. I wanted to show just how different life was for everyone, not just young women, in the 1930s. I’m writing from a British perspective, as that is my own nationality and my research and writing centres around this, but the era presented both challenges and successes for many nations around the world. 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, as villages and towns slowly rebuilt themselves literally and figuratively. Attitudes were poles apart, with very ‘modern’ liberal ideas sitting at the same dinner table as conventional, very reactionary, right wing beliefs.

To set the scene for this inter-war period: the gaiety and extravagance of the 20s was over. The Great War, as WWI was known, was becoming more distant, 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 or be injured in the space of just a few short 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 that terrible disaster.

While their menfolk went to war, thousands of women left their homes to take on their jobs. For many, working outside the home was a new and liberating experience. But when the war was over, the men came back and they wanted their jobs back. The newly-emancipated women were in many cases reluctant to go home and cook and clean and have babies. They had their own money for the first time, they mixed with other women and learned new skills, often embracing possibilities that had never been available before. How could they give all that up? On both sides of the gender divide, there was social tension over the conflict between a desire to maintain the status quo, and a desire for freedom and equality. This continued to grow throughout the 20s, into the 30s and is still an issue today.

And let’s not forget that millions of men simply never did come back, and their wives, sweethearts, mothers, daughters and sisters had to become their own breadwinners. It’s not very surprising that they also wanted the same advantages as men, in terms of work, pay, sick pay, working conditions, opportunities for advancement and education. Women had won the right to vote in 1918, following many years of campaigning by both men and women. But the right to vote was only for women over 30 who were married. (Or who were voted parliamentary representatives, an almost, but not quite, impossible task) Was it presumed, as was often said, ‘your husband/father will tell you how to vote’? It wasn’t until 1928 that everyone, regardless of gender or marital status, was allowed to vote, and this came down to everyone over 18 in 1967. But in the 1930s there was still the sense of something new, something experimental, and many women either didn’t want the responsibility of political decision-making, or lacked the information they needed to make an informed choice. Women began to move into political life, but still very much, generally speaking, in a supporting role. Nancy Astor was the first British MP to take her seat in Parliament in 1919, with Margaret Bondfield, a Labour politician, becoming a cabinet minister in 1924.

People of colour and of different backgrounds were, in the majority of cases, socially separate from the white Christian majority. Again this continues today, doesn’t it, though it seems incredible to discriminate against someone due to skin colour. Reading the popular literature of the day could lead you to think there were no people of colour in Britain in the 1930s. But there have been vibrant non-white communities living in Britain for over two thousand years. We just didn’t admit it. People of colour were treated with hostility and resentment, and opportunities were often denied them through financial penalties or social stigma and racism. But here too, there were pressing demands for social change, and many welfare and interest group sprang up, working to change attitudes and lives practically and politically, for example, The League of Coloured Peoples and The Negro Welfare Association, to name two. However, there were successful non-white professionals such as lawyers as early as the 1850s, for example, John Thorpe and in the 1860s, Monmohon Ghosh. (More info available from the Society of Black Lawyers) And the Jazz age (1920s and 1930s) was enabling black musicians, artists, entertainers and actors to produce and perform their art, albeit without the same freedom and acceptance of white people.

Next week: Life in the 1930s: Technology and Fashion.

***

Announcing my new murder mystery series…

and Day (3)

I’ve been writing the first book and half of the second book of a new series this year. Book One is due out this autumn, and will be called – more or less – Night and Day: a Dottie Manderson mystery. It’s set in London in the winter of 1932/3. Dottie is a young woman, single, and although from a fairly well-to-do background, also works as a mannequin–these days we would call her a model–in a small fashion house called ‘Carmichael and Jennings, Exclusive Modes’.

To quickly explain, as the story opens, Dottie is on her way to the house of her married sister Flora, after an evening at the theatre. As Dottie walks along the dark street, she finds a man lying on the pavement, he has been stabbed. As he dies, he sings a few words to her from the song Night and Day, from the stage play Gay Divorce.

I chose the era because it is a time that fascinates me – that all-too-brief moment between the end of World War I in 1918 and the realisation in the late 1930s that there was going to be another terrible war, with its consequent devastation.

How they must have rejoiced when the Armistice came. It meant so much – not just no more fighting, no more war, no more death on a vast scale. It meant people could get back to their lives again, no more dreading the knock of the postman, no more fearing to marry or start a family; the men could think about working again and for those who were well-to-do, they could plan a career again. Optimism believed that social and political issues would be confronted and dealt with, in the great new era of progress, and everything was ‘normal’ again. Women had the vote, and if actual equality was still lagging behind, at least there was the sense that things were changing.

I wanted to capture that time; I’m not trying to hold a mirror up to society to confront major issues, I leave that to those who know more about those things. I just want to entertain, and help readers escape into a time when the biggest war was over, life was less driven than it is today, a time when ideals were still intact and most people still thought politicians were people of wisdom and integrity.

What was happening in 1932?

There were already troubling events and the Nazis were already on the rise; in Britain hunger marches were taking place and of course the recession had bit hard. There was, as now, a great gulf between the haves and the have-nots. According to Good Housekeeping in 1931, a reasonable family annual budget, including school fees and medical expenses, was £410: many people didn’t even earn that much.

It can’t be a coincidence that during these difficult times, a whole new range of chocolate confectionery was introduced, including in 1934 the Mars bar at 2d (a penny in today’s Britain) and a new-fangled electric kettle would have set you back 12/- 6d or about 50p.

In 1933 Schiapperelli introduced the new ‘zip’ fastener to her fashion range, and buttons on dresses began to seem like old hat. The zip had been around for about forty years by then but was not used in clothing before the 1930s apart from on windcheaters and the odd boot.

Fred Astaire and Claire Luce had enjoyed success with a Broadway show called Gay Divorce which featured the songs of Cole Porter, and they brought the show to London in November 1932; in 1934 the show was released as a film, with Ginger Rogers replacing Claire Luce in the female lead role, and the film was renamed The Gay Divorcee.

I am planning – and hoping, with everything crossed – to release a series of murder mystery books featuring Dottie Manderson as the amateur detective, and with Inspector William Hardy as the professional detective she butts heads with and has a bit of a thing for.

I’m planning to release The Mantle of God – Dottie Manderson mysteries book 2 in the Spring/Summer of 2017 and later the same year, book three – The Last Perfect Summer of Richard Dawlish.

If you would like to read chapter one of book one – Night and Day: a Dottie Manderson mystery, please click on the title to go to the page.

all three

World building

 

World building. Of course only sci-fi writers and fantasy writers do that, don’t they? Don’t they?

NO.Presentation1

Every time you write fiction, you build a world. I could even come up with arguments to support this idea regarding non-fiction, but this is my fiction writing site so I won’t do it here. But yes, every fictional work is set within a created world, regardless of genre. You might write contemporary fiction, set in world very much like our own, and peopled with characters very much like ourselves. But it is still not the same as the world you see outside your window. It is an interpretation (one of many) of that world, with elements missing or removed or emphasised, whether deliberately or unwittingly. Sometimes we choose to ignore certain aspects of the world around us, sometimes it’s just that our viewpoint doesn’t enable us to see or understand what is there. Whatever the reason, we are essentially engaged in the creation of a new world as we write our story.

Which gives us a lot of freedom, actually. We can have whatever we like because our world can be whatever we say it is. I write murder mysteries. Some of those are set ‘now’ and some are set in the past. But whenever they are set, I have to sit in front of my computer screen and visualise the world of the story in order to make it come alive for my readers. I have a responsibility, in fact, to make the world of my story real for everyone else. Otherwise they won’t buy into my premise, they won’t get absorbed into the story and they will chuck my book aside and complain, ‘huh, I just didn’t find any of that believable.’ And I don’t want that.

tree-1078711_1920

So whether you write romance, action, sci-fi, fantasy with wizards or fantasy with werewolves, detective fiction of any kind, set in any era, or if you write erotica, drama, or children’s fiction, you need to build a world for your reader which is engrossing and utterly absorbing, and which fits the story as if it wasn’t created at all but just sprang to life fully formed. Can you imagine Harry Potter set in any other world? Lord of the Rings in any other landscape? Remember those stories of our childhood where rabbits and mice live in houses in tree trunks with little round windows, and sat in comfy chairs beside roaring fires? The fact that we can still picture all of these images is a tribute to the compelling creativity of their authors. We, as readers, believed it all.

When my character Cressida Barker-Powell-Hopkins flings wide one of the many doors to her copious wardrobes, I have to show her huge range of designer clothes, even though I’ve never had designer clothes myself, and know little of fashion, cheap and practical, or expensive and exclusive. I’ve never hated anyone so much I’d like to kill them, especially not my mother-in-law: quite the contrary, my mother-in-law is lovely. I’ve never lived in a small village, or in a huge house, or had servants. I don’t even drive. I’m not slim enough or fit enough to climb on top of a garage roof and get into a house through the bathroom window to sneak poison into foodstuffs in the kitchen of my nemesis. But Cressida is, and does.

When I get into Cressida-mode, and turn on the computer, or I take up my notebook and pen, it is like opening the band Day (3)edroom curtains on a new world, a world where all these things are possible, but only if seen through the eyes of my character. I must be her, and see with her eyes the world around her, which she inhabits. As the Bible quotation goes ‘in which we live and move and have our being’.

In my new series, the Dottie Manderson mysteries, (not yet available) the stories are set in the 1930s, and so I had to think about everything – furniture, fashion, idioms and culture, style, attitudes, historical setting, technology, travel, pastimes, work and education. Everything. You might think it’s not a problem, that to a certain extent you can ‘wing it’ and just start writing, filling in any gaps later.

But I ran into problems immediately. If you take a look at my WIP Night And Day page on this site, you will see why. I was immediately stumped by terminology (lounging pyjamas, mannequin), by the mechanics of getting my character from A to B – were taxis horse drawn in the 1930s – hint: no! Would a young woman of good family gone about on her own late in the evening? Hint: no! By what was on at the theatre (the song!) – in fact that’s why I had to change the era of my book – because it was originally set in the 1920s, too early for the song I wanted to use.

When Dottie steps out of the theatre into the London of November 1933, we all need to go with her, and peeping over her shoulder, we need to see what she sees, the dark rain-drenched streets, the tall buildings, the streetlamps which provide such inadequate illumination. We as readers are faced with a newly created, fresh-minted world, and it needs to feel authentic.