If you're a fan of all of the World War I drama of PBS Masterpiece's Downton Abbey, then Jennifer Robson has written the perfect novel for you: Somewhere in France. The book goes on sale today, just in time to indulge before the Crowleys return to the silver screen. Check out our exclusive Q&A with Jennifer below!
Congratulations on the publication of your debut novel! What has the experience been like for you so far?
It may seem like a cliché, but it really has been a dream come true! At times it’s almost surreal and I find myself wondering, “is this actually happening or am I just having a particularly detailed dream?” Every part of the journey has been so enjoyable, and I really do feel tremendously fortunate.
What inspired you to write about the tumultuous period of World War I? Why is this period so fascinating?
My father, who only recently retired from teaching, specialized in the history of the world wars throughout his career. To say that it was an ever-present topic of discussion at our house would be an understatement. As a teenager, I was transfixed by the poetry of Wilfred Owen and the memoirs of Vera Brittain; and then, the summer I was 19, I worked as a guide at the Canadian National War Memorial at Vimy Ridge in France. Although I didn’t study the history of the war during graduate school—I concentrated on the inter-war period in my research—I always had, tucked away in the back of my mind, the notion that I might one day write a book about the Great War.
Lilly is a very independent and progressive woman for her era. Where does she draw the inspiration and strength to defy the societal obligations of her time?
I like to think that Lilly always had it within her, and that even if the war hadn’t turned society on its ear she would have found a way to break free from the stifling expectations of her family. It’s certainly the case that she, and countless women like her, experienced a number of unprecedented freedoms during the war. Where Lilly is concerned, I think her compulsion to do her duty helped to propel her away from her parents, and of course the encouragement of Robbie, Edward and Charlotte was vital in this regard.
How much of this novel is fiction and how much is fact? What kind of research went into building the historical background?
The main characters are all drawn from my imagination, of course; careful students of the English aristocracy will know there is no Earl of Cumberland, or at least there hasn’t been one since 1643. But everything that occurs to Lilly, Robbie and the other central figures in the book could have taken place—that is, I took care to ensure that events in the book conform to actual historical events. The 51st Casualty Clearing Station did exist and was situated in the villages I’ve described, for example, while all the details regarding the WAAC are also true to the historical record. The historian in me would never have been happy with a book that fudged the truth!
I researched the book for more than a year before I began writing in earnest, mainly because I was determined that the timeline and major events of the book would conform to actual historical events. As my youngest child was a baby at the time, I wasn’t able to visit the archives in person, and instead had to do almost all of my research online. Thinking back to the endless hours I spent in dim, dusty archives while doing my doctoral research twenty years ago, I have to say I am very grateful that so many libraries and archives have digitized their holdings.
How does the WWI setting affect the budding relationship between Lily and Robbie? What draws Lilly to Robbie over and over again?
Although the war gets in the way of their relationship, not least by ensuring they are separated from one another for long periods of time, it also allows them to be together for one crucial period (I don’t want to be any more specific, for fear of giving anything away). Only then do they discover the true depth of their regard for one another. As difficult as their relationship is in the beginning, I think Lilly is drawn to Robbie because he thinks of her as his equal and truly respects her. Given the era in which they live, that makes him a pretty exceptional man.
This novel would be perfect for book clubs to discuss over a glass of wine. In your mind, are there any particular themes that book clubs might enjoy exploring in your book?
I think it’s worth discussing the question of motives: what motivates the central characters to act as they do? Is it simply a case of their wishing to do their duty? Or do their convictions run deeper than that? As well, I think readers might want to ask themselves how they might have behaved if they were catapulted into the middle of a world war. I’ve asked myself that question many times, and although I’d like to think I would be as brave as Lilly I can’t honestly say I know what I would do.
Most writers are big readers. What are some of your all-time favorite books and/or writers?
I could go on forever! My all-time favorite historical novel is Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier, I think because of the clarity and beauty of her writing. There is not a single false note in the entirety of that book—everything about it feels authentic and, therefore possible. We don’t know the identity of the girl in Vermeer’s portrait, but I will always think of her as Griet.
The novels that make up Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy (Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, and The Ghost Road) never fail to move and astonish me, as well as a more recent novel about the war, Joseph Boyden’s Three Day Road. I also want to mention Robin McKinley’s Beauty, which is shelved in the YA fantasy section but can (and should) be read and adored by everyone, no matter their age or preferences regarding genres. I first read Beauty when I was 14 or thereabouts and have re-read it at least once a year since then. The final paragraph is written with such lyricism that it takes my breath away.
After the War is Over begins in early 1919, when Charlotte has returned to Liverpool to work as an assistant to city councillor Eleanor Rathbone (a real figure and arguably the most influential female British politician of the early 20th century). We follow her as she befriends the other women in her boarding house, struggles to help the city’s poor and dispossessed cope in the aftermath of the war, and tries to help the man she loves escape the horrors he endured while an officer on the Western Front. Keen-eyed readers may already have an idea as to the identity of the man in question, but I’d rather not say anything definite just yet.