Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. World War I changed society in some fundamental and far-reaching ways. From the class system and the role of women to modern technology and medicine, everything changed as a result of that war. To get a real portrait of some of those changes, let’s take a closer look today at Jacqueline Winspear’s historical mystery Maisie Dobbs, the first in her Maisie Dobbs series.
As the novel begins, it’s 1929, and Maisie Dobbs has just set up shop as a private investigator. Dobbs served as a nurse during World War I and completed her university education after the war ended. Then she apprenticed with her mentor Maurice Blanche until she was ready to go off on her own. She’s only been in business for a month when she gets a visit from Christopher Davenham. He is concerned that his wife Celia may be having an affair and he wants Dobbs to follow her and find out whether she is faithful. Dobbs agrees and becomes familiar with Celia Davenham’s patterns of life. One day, she follows her quarry to a cemetery where she notices which grave Celia visits. She then strikes up an acquaintance with Celia by pretending to be the cousin of a fallen soldier who’s buried in the same cemetery. She finds out that the grave Celia is visiting is also that of a veteran and that gives her a piece of the puzzle. So does what she learns from Celia. Slowly she gathers the information she needs to find out the truth and report back to her client. She’s able to solve that case, but it leads her to another quite different one.
Some of the soldiers in the graveyard, including the one whose grave Celia was visiting, had been living at The Retreat, a refuge especially designed for World War I veterans who had suffered injuries that made it hard for them to function among ‘regular’ people. At first The Retreat was intended mostly for soldiers who’d suffered facial injuries. But gradually it has expanded to include soldiers with other injuries as well as soldiers with what used to be known as ‘shell shock’ and is now known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Dobbs discovers that James Compton, son of her former employer Lady Rowan Compton, is considering moving to The Retreat. Lady Rowan is concerned about this decision, and Dobbs agrees to investigate this soldiers’ home; she has some concerns of her own about it anyway. With help from her friend Billy Beale, whom she nursed at the front, Dobbs looks into what’s going on at The Retreat and finds out the truth about the home. Her investigation also gives her the impetus she needs to face a sad truth about her own life.
One very strong element in this novel is the way in which everything about society changed as a result of World War I. Before the war, there were very clear and strong differences among the classes and between the sexes. Maisie, for instance, is the daughter of costermonger Frankie Dobbs, so she is not a member of the ‘better’ class. She serves as a maid in Lady Rowan’s home until Lady Rowan sponsors her to go to university. When the war breaks out, everything changes. People from even the ‘best’ families, including Lady Rowan’s own family, go to war, endure wartime shortages, and so on. And women join the workforce in large numbers. Ten years after the war, Maisie Dobbs is an independent, educated woman starting out in what was primarily a man’s world, something that might very well not have happened but for the changes the war brought. You could argue that this war blurs the lines among classes and between the sexes, and Winspear shows that in many ways.
Another element in this novel is the terrible destruction the war brought with it. War is dirty, ugly and dangerous and leaves permanent scars. As we learn about The Retreat and the lives of the men who live there, we see two important things. One is how badly the war damaged those men. The other is how ill-prepared the country was, at least at first, to meet their needs. These former soldiers whose scars and wounds are not obvious are hailed as heroes. Those who have more significant wounds or whose scars are emotional have little waiting for them at home. They can’t ‘fit in’ in society and some of them can’t get beyond what happened during the war. There’s little treatment for these unfortunate veterans and many of them are left to get along as best they can.
Another crucial element in the story is the character of Maisie Dobbs herself. She’s bright, curious and reflective, and her intelligence and intuition are what bring her to the attention of the Lady Rowan in the first place. But she’s hardly perfect. For instance, there’s a piece of her past that she has a great deal of difficulty facing. That and the guilt she feels for not facing her past do hold her back. But she’s well-grounded, practical and humble without being falsely modest. It’s not hard to be on her side as she tries to negotiate the sometimes harsh new world the war left in its wake.
She isn’t the only interesting character either. There’s also her mentor Maurice Blanche, who has a medical background but is also interested in philosophy, psychology and many other fields. He’s somewhat enigmatic, but we learn enough about him to make him seem real. We find out gradually that he also does private investigation and it’s from him that Maisie learns the trade. Through him she also learns about meditation, psychology and human nature, among other things. As the novels in this series continue, Blanche serves as an advisor and guide, while at the same time acknowledging that his protégée will have to take her own decisions.
And then there’s Lady Rowan Compton, who from the beginning chooses not to fit into the limited set of roles set aside for women in her class at that time. She’s an educated suffragette, well-versed in politics and interested in just about everything. She takes an interest in Maisie when she finds out that Maisie is also intelligent and as well-read as a girl with her background could be, and much better-read than most. As the series goes on Lady Rowan remains a friend and benefactor.
The mystery in this novel – what’s going on at The Retreat – is interesting and believable. Its solution is very, very sad, but it’s also credible. So is the means by which Maisie finds out the truth. But honestly, the mystery is almost secondary to the history and atmosphere woven through the story. Winspear places the reader very effectively in the World War I and post-war eras, and that’s the real appeal of this book. So readers who prefer their crime fiction to focus only on the mystery at hand will be disappointed. But that sense of time and place are essential to the story and handled quite deftly.
The story’s timeline is handled in an interesting way. The story begins in 1929, and then flashes back to the years between 1910 and 1917 as we learn Maisie’s backstory. Then the novel returns to 1929. Readers who are uncomfortable with a timeline that’s not strictly chronological will be disappointed. That said though, it’s very easy to tell what happens when, and the reader (well, at least this reader) is not left confused about the storyline.
Maisie Dobbs tells the story of a fascinating, frightening and critical time in history. It raises some important issues without preaching about them, and it’s a believable mystery that features a likeable protagonist and some well-developed characters. But what’s your view? Have you read Maisie Dobbs? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 17 December/Tuesday 18 December – Project Nirvana – Stefan Tegenfalk
Monday 24 December/Tuesday 25 December – Betrayal – Karin Alvtegen
Monday 31 December/Tuesday 1 January – The Innocence of Father Brown – G.K. Chesterton