As a daughter and now the mother of two girls growing fast into adulthood, I found myself pondering anew on the mother-daughter conundrum. The way that I felt about my own mother when I was their age I now see mirrored in my own girls: the mockery of my sense of dress, of my continual friendliness--especially to people I don't know such as assistants in stores and waitresses--all deliver a smirk or even a roll of the eyes. I get it: in their quest to find their own identity, it's crucial for them to determine what they're not, and to point out things they find embarrassing or not to their taste.
It was through this pondering that I shaped the two main characters in my new book, THE SPIES OF SHILLING LANE. Mrs. Braithwaite, who was 50 in 1941, was inspired by my grandmother’s Aunt Agatha, whom I knew only as a bombastic old lady who was obsessed with class and status. Her daughter Betty was 20, a clever go-getter, ready to grab hold of any opportunities for women the Second World War had to offer.
I have always been intrigued by the differences between the generations, how one generation’s beliefs can be at complete odds with those of the next. In Britain at the time of the Second World War, this couldn’t have been more true. The First World War, followed by women’s suffrage, the modernist era, and the downward turn of the British Empire, led to very different outlooks from mother to daughter. Gone were the Victorian strictures, and in their place, with the outset of another war, a new, practical woman was stepping up to join the fight.
The war was a special time for women, and especially those who were able to work in espionage. Prior to the war, women’s jobs were limited to domestic servants, shop assistants, nurses, and teachers, most of whom were expected to give up work if they got married. With all the men away, women were encouraged to step into their shoes. Secretarial and administrative work became more of a women’s terrain, and a lucky few passed from there into heftier roles. Many of the women spies entered as translators and then quietly sidestepped into an espionage role. As the war progressed, the war machine grew, and as the women demonstrated their abilities, greater numbers were employed into this male-dominated world.
It was this mother-daughter difference in worldview that I wanted to portray between Mrs. Braithwaite and Betty. Our frustration with the generation of women before us, our mothers, and our lack of understanding of those who follow, our daughters, is one we all feel from time to time. In order to embrace the other, we need to talk, to share our experiences, and to come with an open heart full of love.