Jacqueline Winspear on Maisie Dobbs, History, and War…
I was so thrilled to be asked to contribute to The Strand Magazine blog, and specifically to talk about what continues to inspire me to write about the former WWI nurse and now psychologist and investigator whom readers first met in Maisie Dobbs, published in 2003. Of course, the truth is I write about more than simply one character; I have a cast of characters, a given period of time through which they move, and personal challenges they face as the narrative progresses.
Creating the characters at the heart of the Maisie Dobbs series and following their lives as each novel unfolds continue to engage me, chiefly because there’s not only an arc of story for each character over the course of the series and throughout that particular novel; there is an overall arc to the entire series. The “mystery” that gives each new novel shape and form challenges those characters, not only against the events of their lives but against the backdrop of history. With mystery comes the archetypal journey through chaos to resolution, which also challenges character: we find out who people really are in the best of times and the worst of times. And because my novels have been staged in the “between the wars” theater, the reflections and experiences of ordinary people during those times can be acute.
As soon as I realized that I had written not just a first novel but the start of a series, I was determined to move Maisie Dobbs and each of the core group of characters through time. I wanted to bring the camera in, so to speak, to look at their responses to the events of their time, not only the immediate catastrophe that forms the start of a mystery. There’s that saying—it’s been attributed to different people, but I first heard it from Lee Child—that readers come back to a series not simply to find out what the sleuth has done with the case, but what the case has done to the sleuth. For me it’s more than that. I want to follow the characters, each with their personal history, their cultural influences, their socioeconomic circumstances, and see what they do when faced with immediate challenges and events as well as those on a wider scale. What we think of as “history” was once a present that had to be negotiated—and mystery gives the writer a wonderful opportunity to explore all facets of humanity’s response to societal change—and to reflect that process in the development of character and arc of the story.
I’m interested in what makes a person decide upon a “good” decision, and another step in a direction that is damaging or cruel. I’m interested in those traits of resilience and endurance, and what it is that brings one person through a tumultuous experience yet leaves another behind—and I discovered that I can explore those elements within a series featuring a woman who is very much of her time, along with the characters who pepper her world.
There are no perfect characters in my fiction, although certainly Maisie Dobbs tries hard to make good, wise, and considerate decisions. Like so many who set lofty goals, when she falls, she falls harder than the average bear. But her striving to do everything right is very much a hallmark of a person who has suffered shell shock or some type of trauma. When you’ve witnessed the world around you spin out of control, it is perhaps a normal reaction to want to control your immediate world. I’ve enjoyed working with the character as she learns to let go or, as she says in Leaving Everything Most Loved, as she tries not to prepare for the unknown around every corner.
These are the elements that have brought me back to the series for twelve years now, and I still have more questions for Maisie Dobbs, Billy Beale, Priscilla, Sandra … and now a younger generation of characters who are faced with an approaching war, the like of which Maisie Dobbs hoped she would never see again.