Free-spirited, anarchic, rule-bending, Prudence’s purpose in life is to have fun, sometimes in unusual ways. Hobnobbing with the likes of actress *Mrs Patrick Campbell, *Lady Ottoline Morrell and *Millicent Fawcett, pioneer suffragist, Prue is happy to dip her toe into anything that catches her fancy.
This is the one question that writers allegedly dread being asked. But as a writer myself, and a reader, it’s the question I would most like to know of another writer.
Some authors are inspired by a place, or a period in history, some by personal experience, others by a real event read about in a newspaper (or these days on social media). As for me, my ideas always begin with people.
The first book in my Modern Women series, The Awakening of Claudia Faraday,featured a 50-something society lady and mother of three whose moribund life is revitalised by her discovery of the joy of sex. The idea sprang from a short story which in itself was partly inspired by Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, in which a young couple’s married life is ruined on the first night of their marriage by the bride’s deep-rooted fear of sex.
Well now, I thought, isn’t that a common experience? Not all sex entails couples panting up against a wall, or groaning and writhing in a rumpled bed. Sex, particularly for women in the past, was not necessarily regarded or expected to be either joyful or particularly fulfilling. Sex was for procreation only. We have our forefathers (and –mothers) to thank for that.
When I expanded my short story into a full-length novel I decided to set it in the Roaring Twenties, a time of revolutionary change for women: off with the corsets and the inhibitions, in with bohemianism, free sex and Marie Stopes. It was Ms Stopes who first posited (in her book Married Love) the idea that sex could be fun for its own sake and not just for the continuation of the species; who actually mentioned the c-word in print (not that c-word). In my book it was the discovery of the outlandish idea that sex did not necessarily mean lying back and thinking of England that opened Claudia’s eyes to the changing world around her, which in turn led her to realise life can begin at fifty.
Then, since one thing inevitably leads to another, subsequent books in my Modern Women series featured women who’d appeared in the previous book. So Prudence, Claudia’s free-wheeling best friend, became the subject of book two, The Purpose of Prudence de Vere; and Violet, Prudence’s unhappy suffragist friend, the subject of book three, The Makings of Violet Frogg and again of book four, Mrs Morphett’s Macaroons.
As I immersed myself first in the Roaring Twenties and then in the Victorian and Edwardian periods – the books went backwards chronologically – I became more and more intrigued by the role of women in those societies. The series title ‘Modern Women’ only occurred to me some way down the line, as I realised Claudia, Prudence and Violet – and indeed Merry and Gaye, two actresses who feature in my later books – were all in their different ways bucking the trend of the worlds in which they lived. They were not campaigning feminists like Mary Wollstonecraft or Emmeline Pankhurst. But they managed, in their different ways, to find the means to live their lives as they wanted irrespective of what was expected of them; whether that meant partying with bisexuals in a flat in Parsons Green (Claudia), or proposing marriage to John Maynard Keynes (Prudence), or breaking away from an unhappy marriage to join the suffragist movement and work for a living (Violet).
All the world’s a stage, and one man in his time plays many parts As You Like It, Act II Scene VII
Welcome to Violet Frogg, vicar’s daughter, socialite wife, working woman, suffragist and housekeeper. A woman who plays many parts under different names and identities, and all in the cause of a hunt for fulfilment and happiness and everything that makes life worth living. Her adventures take her to Her Majesty’s Theatre, where for years she works as assistant to the acting manager of a company run by Herbert Beerbohm Tree, and to the stately home of Lord and Lady Armstrong, for whom she acts as housekeeper.
Is Violet running away from love and life or running to something else?
By and large we writers are suffering less than most people during lockdown (unless we have small children to home-school, which is another story altogether). We are used to working from home, we are used to spending time on our own – along with our characters of course. And there are no distractions.
There are minor inconveniences of course: not being able to get out and about to libraries – the British Library in particular – or museums, galleries and theatres for inspiration, not to mention parts of London one might ordinarily want to visit, for research purposes or perhaps even for pleasure.
Small discoveries But one of the small pleasures I have experienced of lockdown is what I call the joy of small discoveries. For example as I heard the other day, the British Museum has found mysterious cracks appearing in some of their artefacts. It turns out that without the usual thousands of daily visitors, or more precisely their breath, the air inside the museum becomes so dry it damages some of the exhibits. This is not too much of a problem for the BM as they can just turn up their humidifiers, as I imagine can the larger art galleries.
From the same source I heard that when you are asked online to prove you are not a robot by annoyingly having to identify which of the eight tiny squares on your tiny screen have traffic lights or cars in them, you are contributing to research into driverless cars. I’m not quite so sure how reliable this is (and if it is why aren’t they paying us? I can’t help asking), but if it’s on BBC Radio 4 then it must be true, mustn’t it?
19th century theatre Also, and more particularly to the point for this novelist looking into theatrical history in Victorian and Edwardian times, I was surprised to see how many women played such major roles, both on stage and more particularly, off. Acting was one way a woman could earn a living in the late 19th century without causing too much of an uproar (unlike fifty years earlier when she was regarded as no better than she should be), and many of them wielded considerable power. Mrs Patrick Campbell (who features in my novel The Purpose of Prudence de Vere) not only played starring roles on stage, she also produced several plays in her own right, as did actresses Ellen Terry and Sarah Bernhardt and other less well-known women such as Gertrude Kingston and Genevieve Ward.
Messing about on stage On a slightly more irreverent note, Mrs Pat was notorious for the pranks she got up to on stage when she was bored, such as chucking chocolates at the scenery. She was not the only one. Herbert Tree, arguably the greatest actor manager ever (who features in my forthcoming novel) also played around when he got bored, by appearing on stage from the wrong place, or ad libbing (which he was prone to do anyway as he hated learning lines).
There is a marvellous book called The Truth about Pygmalionabout the first English production of Bernard Shaw’s play, which starred both Mrs Pat and Herbert Tree. Tree was a character actor who found it impossible to play straight roles. In rehearsals he gave Henry Higgins, on different occasions, a limp and a Scottish accent, on the grounds that every middle-aged bachelor drinks too much and has gout, and that most linguists are Scottish. It took all Shaw’s patience and self-control to get him to play without any accoutrements (and to stick to the script). Mrs Pat’s accent was so appalling it took Shaw considerable more ingenuity to teach her to speak cockney than it ever did Higgins to teach Eliza to speak posh. Then on the final week of rehearsals Mrs Pat disappeared completely and her place was taken by an understudy. She turned up out of the blue for the dress rehearsal as if nothing had happened. (She’d got married in the interim.) Meanwhile the moment the famously unromantic Shaw’s back was turned Tree added his own touch to the end of the play when he had Higgins throw a bouquet at Eliza.
The Word Pygmalion was also famous – or notorious – for the uttering on stage, by a woman, of a Word rarely heard outside the pubs and pits; a Word that has since been superseded – and how – by others far more intentionally offensive, but which at the time caused a furore in the national press. Tree was so nervous his audience would be irredeemably shocked he tried to get Mrs Pat to cut it, but she refused. In the event it brought sustained howls of laughter in the theatre, and once word had got around about the Word the theatre was subsequently packed out night after night. It even became fashionable to use it among certain societies.
 I once worked years ago as a transcriber for a commercial company. One of our tasks was to transcribe verbatim verbatim – meaning including everything from ers and ums to coughs, throat clearing and any extraneous noise such as a dog barking or passing traffic – a series of apparently meaningless phone conversations between people who didn’t know one another. The point? They didn’t tell us until much later this was research into voice recognition for software.