Robin Agnew

Jacqueline Winspear photo by Holly Clark

Photo by Holly Clark

English writer Jacqueline Winspear is a force in the mysterious universe. If you’ve read and enjoyed her Maisie Dobbs books, or her standalone The Care and Management of Lies (2014), or simply sit down to read this interview, it’s obvious why she’s been influential. She's beloved by readers, in no small part thanks to her character, Maisie, the clever and quirky psychologist and investigator who embodies the independent women of her time, a generation of women post-WWI who stepped up to manage the world while men were away at war or traumatized or disabled at home.

Maisie has ventured out in 17 books to date, the most recent of which is A Sunlit Weapon (2022), but after spending so much time together, Winspear brings readers a departure: the standalone novel The White Lady, which follows Elinor White, a resistance fighter, through two World Wars—and it's an absolutely compelling read in every way.

On her site, Winspear speaks to her interest in writing the stories of women's lives in the time after war: “The war and its aftermath provide fertile ground for a mystery. Such great social upheaval allows for the strange and unusual to emerge and a time of intense emotions can, to the writer of fiction, provide ample fodder for a compelling story, especially one concerning criminal acts and issues of guilt and innocence."

Mystery Scene's Robin Agnew connected with Winspear to find out more about her epic new novel and heroine, The White Lady.

The White Lady by Jacqueline WinspearRobin Agnew for Mystery Scene: This book spans two wars, is epic in scope, yet feels very intimate. It’s really Elinor’s story. I loved the development of Elinor, from young girl to grown woman. When you started writing the book, did you have this long-term arc in mind, or were you thinking of only writing about WWI?

Jacqueline Winspear: I think if I’d deliberately set out to write a novel that was “epic” in scope, I would have been too intimidated by my own ambition to get past the first page! As a character, Elinor was on my mind for many years—indeed, readers who have delved into my 2020 memoir, This Time Next Year We’ll Be Laughing, might recognize the woman who first inspired Elinor.

With that woman as my character, I knew I wanted to take her through two wars within one novel, not a series. I’ve always wondered how living through two wars felt for those who had to endure such a time—it’s a curiosity that began with my grandfather. I wondered how it felt to fight in one war—a war during which he was shell-shocked, gassed, and physically wounded—and then 25 years later watch as his sons went off to fight another war.

I’ve always thought of the First and Second World Wars as being another European Thirty Years’ War, so my question to myself was, “How would it feel for a woman if she served in girlhood and womanhood during two wars? And how would it feel if she had been trained in the art of killing during those wars?” I wanted to get inside the character and find out how she absorbed the experience, but more importantly, how would she bear a lingering damage to the psyche, and what might spark terror in her?

I found there were things in this book that were unexpected, particularly the parts about the London gangs postwar. How did you decide to include that as part of the story?

If I was going to write a story anchored in post-WWII Britain, then organized crime was going to be part of it. Ordinary people were impacted by organized crime in some subtle and not-to-subtle ways. If a man knocked on your door and offered you a two-pound bag of sugar (sugar was rationed until 1949 in Britain), never mind that it came from some black market dealings, you jumped at the chance even though you guessed it had come from a major burglary at the Tate & Lyle sugar factory. In addition, the crime lords, though known to be brutal beyond measure, were believed by locals to be the heroes who kept their streets “clean of the filth” whereas the police were often deemed powerless.

There are many instances in this novel where women are underestimated, from secretaries, to women in queues at the market, to Elsie, the gang leader’s sister. Elinor herself learns to fade into the background. Can you talk about this?

The issue of women in wartime has always been a tricky one—in fact, women in any field of endeavor. Especially during WWI, men were encouraged to enlist to protect their womenfolk at home, yet at the same time, many of those womenfolk not only became engaged in war work, but were putting their lives on the line. It was a public relations challenge for the government: How do you get men to fight for the people at home, when the people at home were also fighting?

I’ve written about women’s roles in wartime—in both fiction and articles—for many years now, and it’s amazing how their contributions have been manipulated by the press and governments. Fortunately, there are now many books and films setting the story straight, that women have been a force to be reckoned with in wartime, even when that war is the one on the streets.

As an aside, I remember visiting Hearst Castle many years ago, and watching an old film about the construction of William Heart’s palatial California home. In one clip, the famous, highly skilled architect/engineer Julia Morgan accompanied him, and was described by the narrator as his “secretary.” Hmmm….

Were there different challenges in writing about WWI as opposed to WWII? And why begin the book in Belgium?

I can’t say there were any different challenges in writing about WWI and WWII, apart from the obvious historical details, and I have immersed myself in this era for many years. It’s fascinating to me, not only due to family history, but the way in which life changed dramatically from 1914 to 1945, and the impact it still has socially and geopolitically today. It was while I was undertaking background research for my novel A Lesson In Secrets, that I read a fascinating book about women and intelligence work in WWI, Female Intelligence: Women and Espionage in the First World War, by Dr. Tammy Proctor, distinguished professor of history in the department of history at Utah State University.

In the book she describes the work of the British-bankrolled La Dame Blanche (“The White Lady”) network in WWI Belgium. Given that all males, with the exception of small boys and old men, had been taken away and either shot or sent to work camps by the occupying German army, a good deal of resistance work fell to girls and women, who were not suspected of being a threat by the invaders. (You can read more about this in my January 2023 newsletter.

I knew I wanted to put the young Elinor in WWI Belgium, and I wanted to create a coincidence with the family name (I knew a girl at school whose parents had the same name when they met, so I had some fun with White/De Witt). In addition, there were a number of British citizens living in Belgium pre-WWI, just as there were many Europeans living in London. As historian Niall Ferguson noted in his book The Pity of War, the Great War ended the first great age of globalization. It’s easy to forget how much international business was done during those pre-war years.

Then I looked at Belgium in WWII. The work of women in the French section of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) garners so much attention, yet Belgium was not only one of the most dangerous of locations to be conducting resistance operations, but only two SOE women were ever sent there. Given Elinor’s background, I knew that’s where she would be deployed after being recruited by the SOE in WWII, so I took some artistic license and bumped that number of female operatives in Belgium to three!

And research? I have read so many books on intelligence work in WWI and WWII, but my rule of thumb with research is that it has to be used as if it were an iceberg, with only 7% visible above the surface.

Will you revisit Elinor or will this book remain a standalone?

No, I think Elinor has served her country well and she won’t be coming back for any more assignments!

A Sunlight Weapon by Jacqueline WinspearAfter writing 17 Maisie Dobbs books, are you tiring of her? The reason I personally love series fiction so much (and I know I’m not alone) is the long form development of characters like Maisie. Are you enjoying her long character arc?

The fact that I have moved Maisie Dobbs through time keeps her and the other characters fresh for me. I think if I’d written a series where each story could have happened on the same day, I would have stopped long before now. I love working with time, and I love working with history, exploring how ordinary people were impacted by the big and small events of their day. I love working with characters to discover how they grow and change, and how relationships develop. When you add the element of “mystery” to those ingredients, you can create a story that takes the reader along on the archetypal journey through chaos to resolution, and when part of that chaos is war, then it becomes a compelling creative quest!

What book was transformational for you, as either a reader or as a writer?

Oh that’s a big question! Of course, one’s first novel is always transformational, because you realize that you are in the game. You’ve done it, you’ve published a book and a huge dream has come true. But then there’s the second novel, and that’s where I thought, Uh-oh, now they’re going to find out that I don’t know what the heck I’m doing! I was terrified of the enormity of what it meant to write a second novel, but managing to do it really made me realize I could create a series in the way I wanted to do it.

However, writing my first standalone novel, The Care and Management of Lies, was a turning point. I knew what I wanted to create, but when I sat down to write the novel, I realized I didn’t really know how to pull it off, so I had to put a lot of trust in my vision and just get on and write my story. And I still receive so many emails about that book, even though it was published in 2014. Writing The Care and Management of Lies —which wasn’t a mystery—was the proof I needed for myself that I could one day write The White Lady, weaving a narrative across two time periods and eventually braiding the two together.

What makes it fun for you to sit down and write every day? What’s the hardest part about it?

I actually don’t sit down and write every day, though I should add I’m a great believer in writing across literary forms. I also write articles and essays (I love interviewing people for the articles I write on assignment) and of course I spend a lot of time on background research for my writing. However, when I am working on a new novel, I most certainly write every single day for months on end!

I don’t know that there is a hardest part. Sure, there are challenges, but once I get going, I keep going. I know it’s a privilege to do what I do—to write, to have the freedom and right to use my imagination in a creative endeavor when there are so many people in this world who don’t have that freedom for one reason or another. I’ve worked at some tough jobs in my life, and this is not one of them! That’s not to say that writing a novel is easy, but let’s face it, I’m not down a mine. Also, I think it’s important to have a routine, and when I’m in full writing mode, I have a very firm routine that I stick to.

And what’s next for you?

Writing the next novel in the Maisie Dobbs’ series, plus planning for a new series. I’d like to write something lighter, and I have character in mind. In addition, I’d love to write the sequel to The Care and Management of Lies, and also get to grips with a new standalone idea, again featuring an extraordinary woman plunged into extraordinary circumstances. Not sure I’ll be able to do it all, but I’ll give it my best shot!

Jacqueline Winspear was born and raised in the county of Kent, England, but has made the United States her home since 1990. In addition to her Maisie Dobb series, she has written two standalone novels (The Care and Management of Lies and The White Lady), two nonfiction books (What Would Maisie Do? and the memoir This Time Next Year We’ll Be Laughing), and has contributed to several anthologies of essays and short stories.