INTERVIEW WITH JESSICA FELLOWES

 

BRIGHT YOUNG DEAD by Jessica Fellowes brings to life the mid-1920s amid a strong “who done it” mystery.  Fellowes, known for writing the companion books to the Downtown Abbey TV series, has used those skills to write a riveting historical book. This is the second novel that delves into the lives of the aristocratic Mitford household during the Golden Age.

During a treasure hunt a murder is discovered.  Arrested is one of the guests’ servants, Dulcie, since she was overheard having an argument with the victim. She had previously been associated with a gang of criminals known as “The Forty Thieves.”  Led by Alice Diamond this group shoplifts, robs the wealthy, and fences the stolen goods.

Caught in the middle is Louisa Cannon, a servant in the Mitford household and a chaperone of the young adult daughters, Nancy and Pamela. She has become a good friend of Dulcie and believes she is innocent, determined to get to the truth of the matter. Intertwined is the relationship Louisa has with a young police officer, Guy Sullivan, and his partner, Mary Moon.  They have been assigned to go undercover and arrest Diamond and the gang. During the course of her investigation, Louisa finds a definite connection with the thieves. Seeking out Guy’s help, together they connect the dots to find the true killer and end Diamond’s reign of crime.

Readers will also enjoy learning about the 1920s era. The young society aristocrats are determined to have fun by going to dance clubs, becoming flapper girls, experimenting with drugs, and showcasing the latest fashions.

The mix of historical fiction adds authenticity to the novel. The murder investigation allows people to understand the tensions between the upper aristocratic class and their lower-class servants.  This story makes for a very interesting read.

EC:  You seem to like writing about the 1920s?

Jessica Fellowes:  I have been writing a lot of non-fiction and the Downtown Abbey series of books. I love this era and wanted to write a novel in it.  I was approached by my editor who suggested I write a vintage crime series. My continuing characters Guy and Louisa were born.

EC: I was surprised you had a female police woman during that time period; what is the historical significance?

JF: I knew that I wanted a rival to Louisa in this book, and where better to place her than at work with Guy? My research quickly uncovered that there were indeed female police officers at that time, having evolved from an informal service that women provided during the First World War when so many men were away fighting. In the year just before my book begins, in 1924, the women police officers of the London Metropolitan Police had been given powers of arrest, which was contentious. As well as having a love rival, I had the opportunity to explore what it was like for those women who were daring enough to go where few women had gone before. I was also lucky enough to track down an out-of-print memoir by a policewoman, Lillian Wyles, which was full of fantastic detail about her daily routine, her uniform and the attitudes of her fellow policemen.

EC: Women played a role both as cops and robbers. Is it surprising that women were able to be dominant during that time period?

JF: No, it is not altogether surprising. There is a tendency today to think that only now are women rising up and demanding to be treated as equal, which I sometimes find a little frustrating. We’ve been doing it for hundreds of years! Perhaps a woman only had power through her husband, but it was power nonetheless. For the vast majority, marriage was a woman’s only way out of the parental home, the only means for her to gain some kind of power and independence, and her success would be judged against her husband’s. After the war, the way in which society viewed women changed because many women could no longer get married. But these were the women who went out to work, to manage their lives for themselves, and they are true pioneers. Things changed after the war, partly because the Suffragette movement finally won its cause and partly because women had run the country while the men were away fighting. I think there was a conflict for them, though, because culturally the expectation of marriage was still very present, not to mention that it is a natural instinct to want a romantic life. But through Louisa I enjoy exploring how she feels about Guy versus the work she enjoys doing and the experiences it gives her. At that time, a woman would be expected to resign her job on marriage, so it really was a case of having to choose one or the other.

EC: Is Alice Diamond a real person and was she ruthless?  

JF: I can’t remember exactly how I heard of her, but I was reading generally about the period, as I have done for some years now, and came across her story. It seemed to me immediately obvious that I had to use her in this book! Alice Diamond and the Forty Thieves were all the girlfriends of the Forty Elephants, a notoriously violent gang from South East London. Gang culture can be very pervasive when young people are looking for motivation and glamour to lift them out of their surroundings, as we know today around the world, from South Side Chicago to Peckham in London.

EC: How would you describe her?

JF: Alice Diamond was unusual in that she was a leader from a very young age, just 16, but her story is a complicated one. She was born into a criminal very poor environment, where it was the norm for people to get what they needed in aggressive, illegal ways. That said, she was not frequently violent and her chosen method of getting what she wanted was shoplifting. What Alice wanted most of all was to ‘put on the posh’, wear good clothes and go out dancing, just like most young women. She did what she felt she had to, given the situation she was in. Not all of us can claim that we would do much different. It is this that I like to explore: I don’t think people are straightforwardly good or bad, and we have to look closely at the context of their actions.

EC: How would you describe Nancy versus Pamela: (the good girl versus the bad girl)?

JF: In terms of the two sisters, Nancy, a twenty-one-year-old, was a complicated person, I think, possibly born into the wrong time. In a more modern era, she would have lived a life that perhaps did not place such emphasis on a need to get married and have children. Despite her many accomplishments, there’s a sense of sadness that she did not create her own happy family. Her ambition made her spiky and her defensiveness, or jealousy, could lead her to tease her sisters in ways that were at times just plain mean. But then again, she also had a wonderful, true sense of humour and must have been huge fun. Of all of them, Nancy’s the one I’d have liked to go out and have a few cocktails with.

Pamela was quite different from all the other sisters. While they were all headstrong and wilful, unabashed about causing storms and headlines, Pamela was quiet and steady. She was more interested in horses, gardening and cooking than any political mantra, which is not to say she didn’t hold her own strong views. But I think she was the ballast of the family, the rock that kept them moored.

EC: Can you explain this book quote about Diamond: “One woman who was rather taller than the rest and elegantly dressed…She carried herself with confidence”?

JF: Looks and dress can define, in someone else’s mind, personality. I much prefer to describe the clothes a character is wearing, then the details of their faces, for two reasons. Firstly, I think a reader naturally superimposes their own idea of a character’s face and it’s best to interfere as little as possible with that. Secondly, I can say what I need to say about a character’s personality through their clothes. Over and above all that, of course, I’m writing about a very glamorous and good-looking period! It’s delicious to write about the details of their outfits.

Elise Cooper: Did you ever do scavenger hunts and what gave you the idea to put it in this book?

JF: I have never done a scavenger hunt because they didn’t exist after the 1920s, though I wouldn’t mind trying one out! I discovered them when I was researching another project some years ago, and it was when I was putting together the plot for Bright Young Dead that I thought this would be the perfect place to use them. I liked the idea of a murder happening in the middle of a scavenger hunt, and how that could frame several suspects at once. The Bright Young Things were notorious in their time, with their antics and parties frequently reported on in the papers. There was plenty of authentic detail for me to draw on, too, which is a real bonus in a novel like mine.

EC: Why put in the scene with Noel Coward?

JF: He made a cameo appearance because he was so much a figure of that time, and I thought it would be fun to have a celebrity sighting, as it were! My mother – who was an actress loved his songs, and often sang them to me when I was a girl. Most memorably, ‘Don’t Put Your Daughter On The Stage, Mrs Worthington’, and ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’. They brilliantly capture the period, and his wit and bonhomie was much admired at the time. Using a well-known figure like this in a novel is a sort of cheat in a way, because it lends a note of ‘truth’ to the proceedings, a kind of authenticity that might be hard to achieve otherwise. But it’s fun, too!

EC: In the book, there was a contrast of classes.  Please explain.

JF: The reality of life for the upper classes before the Second World War, was that they largely shared their houses with servants, the working class. In portraying the Mitford sisters, there would be servants in the house and I wanted very much to include them in the story. As a servant in the nursery, my fictional heroine, Louisa Cannon, would be both up and downstairs, as it were, spending time both in the servants’ quarters and closely with the family. This meant we could have an insight into the workings of the whole house and all its inhabitants.

EC: Can you give a shout out about your next book?

JF: I’m currently researching the third novel in the series, which will be called CRUEL BODIES, and have Diana Mitford as its focus. It will be out in the Fall of 2019.

EC: Also, what is it like to write the companion books to the Downtown Abbey?

JF: Huge fun! I had access to the set, the actors and an early read of the scripts. For all of us connected to the Downton Abbey, the enormous success of the show meant that it was a life-changing experience. I would not be doing this today if it hadn’t been for the opportunities that that work gave me. It also meant I had six years of researching that between-the-wars period, which I hugely enjoyed, as well as touring the US giving talks on it. I feel very lucky.

Thank you!!