Certain years, 1066, 1492, and 1914 for example, establish themselves in schoolroom history books as pivotal in the world’s history. But there are some years that escape such close scrutiny, years that can slip between the margins but where events of huge significance have occurred
1936 was not just the year of the first and so far only abdication of a reigning British monarch. It was also the year in which Adolph Hitler broke the rules of the treaty that concluded the First World War by invading the Rhineland. This was territory that had been removed in 1919 by the Allies from Germany’s custodianship with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles In 1936 Communism came to the heart of Europe when The Spanish Civil War broke out, while at the same time Oswald Mosley was still trying to cement the power of the British Union of Fascists by marching on London’s Jewish East End.
In 1936 a literary giant Rudyard Kipling, died, Charlie Chaplin released his first talkie, Modern Times, a new bestseller Gone with the Wind was published, and in Swing Time Fred Astaire sang his Academy Award winner about how he was smitten with the way Ginger Rogers looked that night.
It seemed to me that the creation of fictional characters would allow me an intimate entry into places where historians may not venture. Through fiction I would be able to sit down in the drawing room at Fort Belvedere, the miniature castle just outside London where Edward Vlll spent much of his time, the place where he courted Wallis Simpson. Through fiction I could become a member of a Jewish family fearing for their lives as Mosley and his Blackshirts invaded their streets. Through fiction I could stand on the Southampton dock and watch the huge Cunard liner, The Queen Mary, as she set off on her maiden voyage across the Atlantic to New York. Through fiction I could attend the funeral of George V at the beginning of 1936, and towards the end of that momentous year I could listen with the rest of the shocked audience to the wireless as Edward Vlll explained to his subjects why his love for a divorced American woman meant that he could no longer serve as their King.
1936 was a year so rich with historical and social material that it proved irresistible to a novelist.
- Juliet Nicolson
I began researching the novel by sitting for days in the basement of the London Library in St James’ Square in London and reading in correct sequence every issue of TheTimes for 1936. By immersing myself not only in the headlines but also in the detail of people’s lives as revealed in the situations vacant column as well as the advertisements, the weather reports, the social columns, the crime stories, the highs and the lows of the day to day existence, I started to get a sense of what it was to be alive in Britain at that time.
In one of the early January editions I came across something I was specifically hoping to find, a couple of advertisements for women drivers. I put one of the adverts verbatim into the book. I then read The Illustrated London News and The Lady Magazine in exactly the same way and soon both publications threw up gold dust.
The Internet also revealed unexpected gems. I could hardly believe that a Baltimore department store that Wallis Simpson must have known had produced its own record label called Belvedere Records.
Nothing can quite give a writer a sense of place better than visiting the location of where something actually happened. London landmarks and the streets of the East End as well as the fields and the sea shore of East Sussex were all easily accessible. But an opportunity to walk around the house and garden at Fort Belvedere was a piece of luck I had not been expecting. By the time I received the invitation I had already begun to write the chapters that feature the Fort with the help of photographs and also of Edward Vlll’s and Wallis’s own descriptions of the place where they had spent so much of 1936 together. The chance to have those imaginings and accounts made real and to drive myself up the long winding road that leads to the Fort, just as May herself does in the opening pages of my novel, was something I shall never forget.
Writing a historical novel set in a period within living memory was a huge advantage as it meant I could talk to people who had actually been there, either at the Battle of Cable Street, or who had lived in an East End pub as a child, or who had seen the Jarrow hunger protestors as they marched down Piccadilly or remembered what the upper classes ate for breakfast.
These first hand memories of the period were invaluable.