Several years ago, Cindy brought us a small box of teabags that looked just like a book. A young woman pictured on the box was wearing a cloche and a grey suit, holding an umbrella and watching a couple walk by. Big Ben was in the distance.
Cindy told us that she picked up this fetching little thing at a book-signing event for an author named Jacqueline Winspear, who had just written a novel called Maisie Dobbs. Ever since, we’ve been following Maisie’s adventures, hoping that her clever creator would stop in Columbus during one of her book tours. Last night, we were part of the crowd that came to the Columbus Museum of Art to see Winspear at the Thurber House’s sold-out Evenings with Authors event.
Wearing an elegant black pantsuit with a gleaming silver pendant, Winspear talked to the audience for an hour. After describing how Maisie came to be, she discussed her inspiration for Leaving Everything Most Loved, the 10th book in the award-winning series that was released on March 26.
Born in Great Britain, Winspear worked in publishing for several years. In 1990, she moved to California. Stuck in traffic one day, she started daydreaming. Then, Winspear said, a young woman walked into her mind’s eye. Dressed in 1920s garb, she negotiated the wooden escalator of the Warren Street tube station, the same London Underground station that Winspear used for her commute when she lived in London. After she talked to a newspaper vendor, she started walking down the street. Readers might recognize this description as the opening scene of Maisie Dobbs, Winspear said.
This scene was on her mind all day, Winspear continued. When it was time to go home from work, she had the whole story in her head. She couldn’t wait to start writing. Later, in 2003, Winspear released the first book in her “Maisie Dobbs” series featuring a female private investigator working in England in the years between the two World Wars.
If you’re not familiar with Maisie, the assignments that she undertakes in the series reveal her thoughts, provoke wartime memories, provide information about her past and offer details about her character. After working as a ladies’ maid after her mother died during her early teens, Maisie attended Cambridge University’s Girton College for women. She served as a nurse on French battlefields during World War I and fell in love with a young doctor who mysteriously disappeared. Working with her assistant, Billy Beale, who suffers from wartime injuries, Maisie has looked into a mysterious plane crash, an unsolved murder, an evasive spouse, a questionable accident, enigmatic fires and burglaries, and a perplexing missing-person case.
Winspear described how her childish curiosity about the wounds and shell-shock that her grandfather suffered at the Battle of the Somme in 1916 led to her inquiries about the Great War as an adult, which eventually inspired her to explore the effects of World War I in her books. Particularly intrigued by the women of that generation, Winspear learned about the freedom they gained through the highly visible roles they took in the workplace, and the grief of loss they experienced despite that freedom. Sharing how the 1921 census revealed that there were two million surplus women in Britain, Winspear described how those women moved into public life, established community with each other, and became forthright, stalwart figures who were always there when others needed them. Listening to oral histories of women’s experiences and how the Great War changed their lives, Winspear particularly remembered how one woman commented that once the stable door opened, these “bachelor girls” bolted and didn’t want to go back to answering to men anymore. Winspear gave Maisie the spirit of that generation.
Next, Winspear gave the audience a preview of her latest book, which explores the theme of exile by will and by compulsion. In the book, Maisie investigates the murder of Usha Pramal, an Indian woman who left her homeland to work as a governess in England.
Winspear shared that the inspiration from the book came when her cousin, a teacher, did a project with her students on the history of multicultural London. Explaining that emigration to Britain has been an important factor of life there for decades, she described how the class had taken a field trip to a hostel for ayas, women native to India who looked after British children. That prompted Winspear to consider what it is like to leave your culture and everyone you love behind and start a new life in a new land.
Wondering “why” has been a characteristic of Winspear’s personality ever since childhood. Drawing on her own experience, she described how she wondered these same things when her aunt left Britain and began a new life with her family in Canada. Whenever the fine, crinkled paper of an air mail letter from her aunt arrived, she wondered why her aunt left, and whether she missed her family back home in Britain.
Winspear also described an experience she had as an 11-year-old girl. She had a teacher who was Indian, and she and her classmates were fascinated by the beautiful saris that her teacher wore. One day, the teacher brought 32 saris for the children to wear during the lesson, teaching them how to pleat and drape the garments. Winspear remembered the lovely feeling of silk against her skin and thinking what it must be like to wear something that beautiful every day. She loved the specialness of that peach-colored sari so much that it makes an appearance in Leaving Everything Most Loved.
Other things have inspired Winspear in her work. Seeing a New York Public Library exhibit called “Writers in Exile” that focused on writers who lived in a place other than the land of their birth prompted her to think about being transplanted, either by choice or by circumstance. Spending time at the Victoria & Albert Museum, admiring its costume collection, helps her use fashion to anchor her stories in an historical time period.
The process of developing Maisie’s character while writing these books is especially rewarding to Winspear. Just as friends reveal themselves to each other over time and get to know each other, Maisie gradually reveals herself to Winspear over the course of the series.
Before she answered a few questions from the audience, Winspear read an excerpt from the first chapter of Leaving Everything Most Loved. The evening concluded with a coffee-and-cookies reception, where the audience could buy Winspear’s books and have her sign them.
Winspear’s books include: Maisie Dobbs (2003); Birds of a Feather (2004); Pardonable Lies (2005); Messenger of Truth (2006); An Incomplete Revenge (2008); Among the Mad (2009); The Mapping of Love and Death (2010); A Lesson in Secrets (2011); Elegy for Eddie (2012) and Leaving Everything Most Loved (2013). Visit www.jacquelinewinspear.com for a list of the author’s appearances and news about her work.