Spring is the season of the début and set to make a splash this April is Dear Mrs Bird, a "super lead" for Picador. It opens in December 1940 and is set in wartime London, where young Emmeline—Emmy—Lake dreams of becoming a Lady War Correspondent and fearless journalist. While on the bus home from her dull secretarial job she spots an advertisement for her dream job at the London Evening Chronicle, but this turns out to be a lowly position at its sister title, Woman’s Friend magazine. And, as Emmy discovers at her interview, she will be assisting the formidable agony aunt Henrietta Bird in a role that mostly involves opening and sorting the letters that arrive in the post.
It soon becomes apparent that Mrs Bird has no inclination to help the majority of readers who write in with their problems. She refuses to read, let alone answer, letters containing any form of Unpleasantness, including, but not limited to, marital relations, pre-marital relations and extramarital relations, etc. Emmy is instructed to weed those out immediately. But the thought of these desperate women waiting for an answer becomes impossible to ignore. Emmy decides she simply must help and starts to secretly write back.
The story behind Dear Mrs Bird begins with a woman’s magazine from 1939 which first-time author A J Pearce bought on a whim while browsing on eBay back in 2011. "I was immediately captivated," she says now, "by the adverts, the fashion pages and the recipes" but what really caught her eye and sparked her imagination was the problem page. She has brought the very magazine from her home in Hampshire to her agent’s office in Somerset House, where we meet, and its yellowing pages are a glimpse into another world. As Pearce says, reading the magazine "feels like a direct bridge into the lives of women at that time".
She's got issues
Pearce began collecting wartime magazines, and found herself wondering where each one would have been read for the first time, nearly 80 years ago now, and by whom; a woman sitting in her kitchen, or on a bus driving past bombed-out buildings, or even in an air raid shelter. "The more magazines I collected the more I realised—I thought the problem page advice would be all, ‘Keep calm, carry on, buck up’, all that hearty stuff—that largely the advice is incredibly sympathetic. They might occasionally say, ‘You are being a bit silly, pull yourself together’, but mostly it is practical help, it’s sympathetic and there is a great deal of understanding.
"Some of the problems are quite funny; particularly the beauty problems [worries about freckles or fat ankles] but some of the problems are enormous. People are writing in and they don’t know if they are going to see their husband again—or they know they are not going to see him again.
Or they are really lonely; they haven’t seen their husband for two years and they have fallen for the wrong man. Or they are making a choice whether or not to evacuate their children. These are the most crucial and awful life decisions to have to make, and [readers] are writing to a women’s magazine about them. You can’t help but be drawn in."
A bygone era
The problems uncovered in the collection of 1940s magazines inspired those in Dear Mrs Bird but Henrietta Bird herself is not an agony aunt sensitive to the world her readers are living in. She has a Victorian mindset, drawn from magazines of the 1890s (which Pearce also collects). "I thought, wouldn’t it be good fun to bring an agony aunt from the turn of the century into 1940, which was an incredibly modern world with brand new problems?"
Henrietta Bird is, says Pearce, "very much in the tradition of Margaret Rutherford". She is imperious, domineering and brusque to the point of rudeness, always leaving the office and rushing off to do Good Works. "It’s all about duty. She has a very Victorian view of the world and she happens to prefer animals to people—not brilliant if you are an agony aunt," says Pearce. "She has very high expectations of women; she expects them to be made of iron in support of the war effort and that doesn’t fit at all with how Emmy sees the world."
In contrast, tender-hearted 22-year-old Emmy is filled with the desire to do the right thing and respond to desperate readers, even if it requires subterfuge. "She has this naïvety where she thinks, ‘Even if I’m doing something wrong, it’s for the right reason’," says Pearce. Emmy also works as a volunteer for the Auxiliary Fire Service three nights a week, manning the phones as the Luftwaffe tries to pound London into dust.
She shares a flat with her dear friend Bunty and when the war intrudes directly on their lives it is heartbreaking, but at its core Dear Mrs Bird is an uplifting read that pays tribute to the awe-inspiring courage of those young women who lived through the Second World War. "It’s a story about friendship," says Pearce, "with friends you have had forever and friends you haven’t even met. It’s about ordinary young women in the most extraordinary time".
The dialogue seems spot-on for wartime London. Besides the magazines, Pearce steeped herself in the language by reading second-hand copies of books set in the 1930s and ‘40s, which are now mostly out of print. In particular she cites Angela Thirkell’s Cheerfulness Breaks In and Henrietta’s War by Joyce Dennys (still in print): "It’s funny and light but every now and then there’s a line that takes your breath away because it is so sad." She also immersed herself in the music of the 1940s and watched air raids on YouTube, "with the volume turned up as loud as possible, trying to get some idea of what on earth it was like".
A bird in the hand
Pearce, whose background is in freelance marketing, credits Arvon courses with turning her into a writer— particularly a commercial women’s fiction course led by Katie Fforde and Judy Astley. She has already started work on the second book of her two-book deal with Picador. It will be a sequel featuring the same characters from Dear Mrs Bird, but she has plenty more ideas: "If people like it then I’ve got stories mapped out for the whole of the war, so it could be a series."
I ask why the Second World War setting has such appeal? "I think it’s because the stories are so inspiring," she says. "You say to yourself, ‘Could I have been that brave?’ Just getting up in the morning and not knowing if your family is all right—every day for months, for years. We know that Hitler was defeated but they couldn’t know. People say they were the greatest generation and the more I read and the more I understand, well, you can’t fail to be inspired by the stories you hear."
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