You may be forgiven for thinking from reading my blog posts, that my novel Ancasta Guide me Swiftly Home is all about flying boats, the Hampshire Regiment, Palmerstone Forts and the Schneider Trophy. Yes they do feature, threaded through my story, but Ancasta addresses huge feminine issues of the time too.
Ancasta is actually a multi layered story of love and resilience, stressing the fortitude of women to adapt and sometimes take over men’s roles; in fact it is a story of how, with determination and strength of character women showed their worth at the time of World War 1 in a way rarely seen before, in British culture certainly.
My husband has gone to watch Speedway tonight and though I have promised to go with him once a year, an evening standing in a cold draft, watching little bikes race around a track is not my idea of fun on a Saturday night. Each to his or her own. This made me wonder why I have focussed on perceived to be masculine interests when promoting my new novel. (please forgive me if I’m being sexist or perpetuating stereotypes)
If someone had told me ten years ago that I would be reading non fiction on the Schneider Trophy and the Spitfire, taking a lesson in fishing and getting excited on numerous air days, I would have laughed but I think it is because they are areas I really have had to work hard on, in order to research them thoroughly, so that I’ve become so absorbed.
I can only liken it to reading Shakespeare when I was about 14 yrs old. At first I didn’t really want to read it or try to understand it. I enjoyed going to see Romeo and Juliet at 15 and watching A Mid Summer Night’s Dream in Regent’s Park is still etched on my memory, but then I was lucky to have an inspiring teacher, Mrs Yates. It was she who made me look more carefully at the language and start to appreciate the beauty of it, but even now I admit to finding the Henry’s and Richard’s a bit challenging.
It’s the same with my research. It is meeting people who are fascinated by their subject, reading anecdotes and amusing stories as well as facts and experiencing live performances in places like Shuttleworth, which has made the subjects come alive for me, and also learning more about my family links with Supermarine.
So turning back to the women; I was inspired initially by my great grandmother who set up a guest house in Woolston and by reading about the magnitude of The Royal Victoria Hospital in Netley, not so long after Florence Nightingale opened the way for women nurses to travel the world. (In fact Florence was quite rude about the ‘magnificent’ hospital on the banks of Southampton Water)
We all know that women did a great deal of the work when their menfolk went off to war but what sort of work? I was particularly interested to note down any details and here are two examples.
I was talking to one of the mechanics in the Shuttleworth Air Museum in Biggleswade. (the chap turned out to be from the island of Sark, which was also a coincidence) I asked him about the wings of the aircraft and what they were made of and he explained how each aeroplane design had a unique pattern in the frayed fabric on the wings, and it was the women who stitched them so carefully during the war. This made sense to me but I was even more pleased to read in a book in the Bitterne Heritage Centre that some women were also taught to do the welding at Supermarine.
My women characters are strong. They have to be. Even before the war the reader will be aware of the tensions building up of the need for women to express themselves and for their opinions to count. As war progresses the women have no choice but to change, to run the home or a business, to work in a factory or become a nurse here in England, or in far distant places. The balance of relationships and responsibilities changes; it is tipped over and never really sees the same level again.