London, 1926. Evie Gifford, one of the first female lawyers in Britain, is not a woman who lets convention get in her way. She has left her family home following a devastating love affair, much to her mother’s disapproval.
London is tense in the days leading up to the General Strike and Evelyn throws herself into two very different cases – one involving a family with links to the unions and the other a rich man who claims not to be the father of his wife’s child. Evie is confronting the hardest challenge of her career when she is faced with an unexpected proposal – just as her former lover returns.
How can she possibly choose between security with a man she admires and passion for the man who betrayed her?
Although I’ve been aware of Katharine McMahon’s books for some time – in fact, most of them are on my shelves – I picked up The Woman In The Picture largely because publishers W&N sent me a copy and asked if I’d like to review it (there – thought I should be honest!). Published in hardback and for kindle in July 2014, the paperback version is released today (30th July) and I’d highly recommend it to everyone who might fancy something just a little different for their summer reading. You’ll find my review below, but firstly I’m delighted to welcome the author to Being Anne.
Hello Katharine, and welcome. You might like to start by introducing yourself…
Katharine McMahon, author of nine novels, loves theatre. teaching, talking, walking.
I’m ashamed to say that – until this one – I haven’t read another of your books since reading and loving The Rose of Sebastopol way back in 2007. Looking back, was its stellar success (and inclusion in the Richard and Judy Book Club) a blessing or a curse?
How could it be other than a blessing, although my agent often says Richard and Judy should have picked The Crimson Rooms instead, as he thinks it’s a better book (even better!!). Richard and Judy brought my work to the attention of a much wider reading public. My writing has always somewhat defied genre – as an historical novelist I don’t fit snugly into the ‘costume’ or ‘Tudor’ niche. I love writing about strong, unusual women, living in unusual or challenging times.
So tell me a little about the years that have intervened. I see two new novels I’ve missed, plus some re-releases of earlier books?
These have been joyous years as a writer. The Crimson Rooms was a bit of a breakthrough for me – bringing a distinct heroine, Evelyn Gifford, into the spotlight, lawyer, lover, solver of crimes. And then I followed my nose again and wrote a book called Season of Light set during the French Revolution. It began with the premise: Jane Austen’s own cousin was married to an aristocrat who was guillotined in Paris. Why does she never write about such a turbulent period? In my novel, needless to say, the heroine does get embroiled in revolution. And I’m delighted that my back-list is now available to readers.
Please do tell me more about The Woman In The Picture, and where the inspiration for the story came from.
Although this is a standalone novel, it does pick up the life of Evelyn Gifford – heroine of The Crimson Rooms – in 1926 – quite a turbulent time of social unrest for the nation. The inspiration for this book came in part from a fascinating court case, known as The Russell Case (or sponge baby case), involving an aristocratic couple – the husband claiming he was not the father of his son.
What was it that fascinated you about Evelyn Gifford?
Evelyn has to battle with all kinds of family issues – not least her own – and that of a woman who is being horribly abused by her husband. What I love about Evelyn is that she provides me with such rich territory for interweaving the personal and the professional – something that all women always have to do.
The research needed to set a book in the 1920s and to bring the background to life so well must have been immense. What did it involve?
This is a period I’ve always found fascinating – my very first novel, A Way Through the Woods was set in this period, also Footsteps. It’s a very rich time in women’s history because women had won the vote and the Great War had given them all kinds of unexpected opportunities and challenges – and yet they were faced with a working environment in which they were no longer welcome, once men had returned from the trenches. I love researching newspapers, biographies, letters, court cases, anything which gives me a feel for the period.
To write so wonderfully, you must also be a reader. Anything you’ve read recently that you’d recommend?
I’ve just enjoyed H is for Hawk (wonderful writing though I was slightly less gripped towards the end). I loved The Laguna by Barbara Kingsolver and the The Gold Finch. These are marvellous writers. And Julian Barnes’s A Sense of an Ending.
If someone said “your writing reminds me of…”, what author name would you be most pleased to see?
Rose Tremain, Penelope Fitzgerald, Julian Barnes.
And I can’t let you go without asking what’s next. Are you writing, and can you share anything about it?
I’ve just pressed the ‘send’ button on my new book – set in 1938, and based in Belgium and England – about family rivalry and accident of birth.
This really was a most enjoyable read – a fascinating story told by its heroine, Evelyn Gifford, one of Britain’s first female lawyers as she fights to make her way in a male world. We watch as Evelyn handles two large and wholly fascinating court cases, each with its own focus and perspective on the position and status of women in 1920s Britain. But we also see Evelyn’s off duty life – her difficult and complicated family relationships, the pressure to marry and live a more conventional life, her pain from an earlier tempestuous relationship, her efforts to move on. And in the background – and sometimes in the foreground – we have the General Strike, the rallies, speeches and political negotiations, and its impact on London and its people.
The writing is quite excellent – Evelyn is a very likeable character and narrator, and the whole approach to telling the story works well. This was a book I looked forward to picking up – while Evelyn was fascinating in herself, the backdrop was equally so. This is a period, between the wars, that I’m not at all familiar with, but the author brings it to life perfectly through the small detail, and through all levels of society. The love story was convincingly real too – with a real tension between duty and convention and love and passion that had me desperately hoping that, just this once, Evelyn would follow her heart rather than her head.
I do rather wish I’d read The Crimson Rooms – I’d like to have lived through Evelyn’s earlier relationship with Nicholas Thorne and understood its background, as well as knowing the full story around Meredith and young Edmund. But the book does work quite perfectly as a stand alone – an excellent story, a real sense of place and history, and a charismatic heroine. I do hope Katharine McMahon returns to Evelyn’s story – I’d love to see a sequel, even a series. And, I have to say, those who commission TV drama series really should be looking at this one – it would be quite perfect for Sunday nights.
My thanks to Rebecca and Emma at W&N for my reading copy, and for co-ordinating the interview. And for making sure I didn’t overlook such an enjoyable read.
Katharine McMahon is the author of nine novels, including the bestselling The Rose of Sebastopol, which was a Richard and Judy pick for 2007. She’s always combined writing with some form of teaching – English and Drama in secondary schools, mentoring through the Arts Council Escalator scheme, or as a fellow of the Royal Literary Fund, supporting students in their writing. Her great love, beyond writing books, is the stage – both as a member of the audience and performing in her local theatre. She lives with her family in Hertfordshire.
To find out more about Katharine and her books, she has both an official website and a blog: she can also be found on Twitter.