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Thursday, February 20, 2014

Historical novelist Juliet Greenwood talks about life, love and loss

I'm delighted to welcome the novelist Juliet Greenwood to my blog this morning. Juliet's new novel We That Are Left is published today and I was very happy to be able to chat to Juliet about her writing life.

Who or what inspired you to write We That Are Left?

I’ve been fascinated by the First World War since studying the war poets like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. But I knew that I wanted to write about the experience of women and the civilians, who are so often forgotten. I was lucky to stumble across a wonderful book, http://www.amazon.co.uk/Elsie-Mairi-Go-War-Extraordinary/dp/1848091354 - Elsie and Mairi go to War by Dr Diane Atkinson, which tells the true story of two friends who set off to help the men on the front line. They were amazing women, and from their story I also learnt about the many women who set up field hospitals, drove ambulances and braved horrific conditions and danger to help both the soldiers and the civilians caught up in the fighting.

My other inspiration was my mother, who as a teenager was in France when WW2 broke out and had to make a terrifying journey home on her own. I’ve never forgotten her stories of what she saw on that train journey as war erupted around her, including being hunted by a submarine as the boat crossed the Chanel. I’ve got family in France, so this really brought home the sense of civilians caught up in the middle of a war, and what it is like to experience an invasion, something we haven’t experienced in Britain for centuries.

What is this novel about?

We That Are Left is the story of Elin, young woman leading a conventional, comfortable life on the family estate in Cornwall in 1914. There are shadows in Elin’s life, but she pushes them to one side until war breaks out and her life changes forever. With her husband at the front, Elin has to take charge, finding hidden depths in herself and gaining new skills and confidence. She works growing much needed food and developing her mother’s recipes, and when a friend is in danger, she braves the horrors of occupied France in a desperate attempt to rescue her, racing through enemy lines in a battered ambulance. When the war is over, Elin is expected to return to being a dutiful wife, but with all that she has been through she finds this impossible, and so her own personal battles for freedom have only just begun …

How did you organise your research?

The locations were the most straightforward. Because I’ve family in France, I’ve visited the war graves and the trenches several times. I’ve lived in London, and Anglesey is just across the water from me. 

What was more difficult was finding out details of women’s experience in the war, as it has been less studied than the actual fighting. I found some great books and first hand experiences. One of the best things I did is a subscription to the British Library’s collection of online newspapers of the time. They have proved invaluable, not only in getting a sense of early 20th Century life an attitudes, but also some of the recipes that Elin uses in the book. As shortages began to bite, there were plenty of recipes and advice on meals without meat (unthinkable for even modestly well-off families before the war) and how to make the most of what was available. There are also traditional Welsh recipes that Elin uses, that she has inherited from her mother, so I had great fun trying them all out!

Who is your favourite character in the story?

I think it has to be Elin’s friend Lady Margaret, known as ‘Mouse’, who is headstrong and reckless and gets herself into all kinds of trouble, but beneath all the bravado has a heart of gold. She can be exasperating at times, but is determined not to be constrained by being a woman. She flies an aeroplane and teaches Elin to drive, but it’s when she takes herself off to the front line to help soldiers and civilians that she really finds a sense of purpose, despite the dangers. 

What did researching the period teach you?

One of the big surprises was just how much women did in WW1. I knew that they took over much of the work at home, but I hadn’t realised how much they also did on the front line, including picking up bodies in No Man’s Land and driving ambulances. This was when women were considered too fragile to work or even study, and who were there simply to support their husbands – with marriage being their only respectable option in life. It also taught me how much we owe to these women, as they were also the women who after the war forged careers and created the freedoms and opportunities we have today.

The other thing that surprised me was just how much WW1 echoed the experienced of WW2. Although there was not rationing until the end of WW1, there were shortages and people had to find different ways of living. There were air raids, too, with first Zeppelins and then early aeroplanes making their way across the Chanel. It was clear that lessons had been learnt, so that things like rationing were put in place right at the start of WW2.

What does a typical writer's day hold for you?

I have a part time day job, so those days I tend to do research and social networking as I need a clear mind to really get going on my writing. On my writing days, I get up early and take my dog for a walk. This is my thinking time, when I’m working out my mind the day’s work, or sorting out a particularly knotty problem.

Thank you for chatting to me, Juliet.  Congratulations on the publication of this lovely new novel! 

If you would like to win a copy of We That Are Left, please leave a comment on this blog post.  

Juliet will choose a winner and I will ask the winner to contact me in March 2014.


‘Eden’s Garden’: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Edens-Garden-Juliet-Greenwood/dp/1906784353


  1. I am about to read this, and so looking forward to it - now even more so after reading the blog.

  2. I was really looking forward to reading Juliet's second book anyway, after having read her first one, Eden's Garden, last year but this interview was so interesting. I had the impression that what women were involved as nurses on the Front in France worked in field hospitals and on the hospital trains but didn't realise that they would go out and collect the injured.

    I love that Juliet tried out the recipes herself as part of the research, too! What a great idea.

  3. Love the cover on Juliet's new book! Covers really attract me. But no need for the attraction! I've read 'Eden's Garden' twice, and loved it. Pure escapism. I can imagine this story is completely different. Juliet has obviously done a lot of research for her new novel. I'm always intrigued by the happenings in WW1 & WW2. So much misery and despair, but so much love. I'm really looking forward to reading this new title. Good luck Juliet ... Rosy

  4. Such an interesting post. I read a little about women's experiences in the WW1 many years ago in Vera Brittain's 'Testament of Youth', which is still on my shelves even now. Apart from that it's been mostly down to the poetry of Wilfred Owen and Pat Barker's Foundation trilogy. My father fought in WW2 and used to tell me quite a lot about it, including what it was like as a young person before the war started, knowing it was inevitable. Looking forward to reading this. Good luck, Juliet. :-)


  5. I am fascinated by this era how well dress some of the women are, how restricted their lives were. How did those dresses look so good with out the mods & cons of today.so much we take for granted. Then those women who stood out for change.
    I know Juliet book is going to be riveting can,t wait.Paula

  6. I am so looking forward to reading this book, I find this time in history so interesting as my grandad was a stretcher bearer during WW1 and served on The Somme

  7. I have always loved History, and never knew just how much of a role Women had in WW1. Their strength and tenacity helped pave the way for our Country to carry on despite there being a War on. This carried on again during WW2. How lucky are we to know that our ancestors helped to keep our Country going during such terrible times. We owe them all a debt of gratitude. I will definitely read this book, as I know that I won't be able to put it down once I have started to read it.

  8. Lovely comments, everyone! I've loved reading them. :-)

  9. What a fabulous sounding story. I would love to read this one. Thanks for the competition. Anne x