‘But is it true?’
Or, Why I write history
‘Can you write a short bio? Just a bit about where you come from and why you write? It doesn’t have to be long. Just a few sentences.’
Um. ‘I was born in Kent in 1973.’ Will that do? If it needs to be longer, I’m going to need more than a few sentences…
Was it the bonnets or the bloomers?
Mary Poppins & Little House on the Prairie…
I didn’t stay in Kent for long, you see. I didn’t stay anywhere for long. By the time I was seventeen, I had notched up ten house moves and thirteen schools in Britain and the United States. We were a happy little family – nothing to report there – but it was still a challenge being the perpetual new girl.
Over time I developed strategies to make things easier. For a while, I would try out a new persona for each move. At one school in California, for example, fresh out of an English prep school, I adopted a cockney accent modelled in no small part on Dick van Dyke in Mary Poppins. At the next, I insisted on dressing like an extra from Little House on the Prairie.
Not a true story
Frog and Toad…
At the same time, I had an innate obsession with the truth. When I was three, my mother tells me, I interrupted a bedtime reading of Frog and Toad to fix her with a fierce stare and demand, ‘But is it true?’ This was followed by various quibbles about the accuracy of Frog and Toad’s living arrangements.
From that point on, I was obsessed with the line between fact and fiction, stretching my mother’s patience to the limit each week during our Saturday visits to the nearest public library.
A subscription to the fabulous and now defunct Look and Learn magazine, with its tales of wild historical adventures and curious facts, cemented my obsession.
Granny being transported up the Yangtze (no pirates in sight)
Pirates, codebreakers & Roman women…
Add to the mix the family stories I grew up hearing from my beloved grandmother – tales of encounters with warlords and pirates from her childhood in China as the daughter of gung-ho Scottish missionaries, along with hints about her secret work in the Second World War (she’d been at Bletchley Park) – and I grew up with a slightly off-kilter view of what life had to offer, but also an enduring love of history.
In time, I read Ancient History and Archaeology at university, specialising in the early Roman Empire (a period, as I discovered, utterly tangled with truth and myth). My tutor was particularly interested in uncovering the hidden lives of women in the ancient world, an enthusiasm which rubbed off on me and has informed my own research (albeit in different periods) ever since.
Museums: dry and warm(ish)
A surfeit of mud…
After graduating, I briefly worked as an archaeologist between temp jobs. Then, for reasons relating to mud, painful knees and a general unwillingness to get wet, I studied for a Master’s degree to enable me to work in relative warmth.
For the next 20 years, I researched and wrote about history for museums, art galleries, magazines, and anyone else who would pay me, but always had my own little projects on the go in the background. I loved every minute, but I had yet to find my subject, a story that I could really sink my teeth into and that truly embraced my own personal interests.
Enter Maud West.
Maud West advert c. 1920
A real-life lady detective…
When I came across Maud West, Britain’s top female sleuth of the inter-war years, I knew I had found my match. I have always been a fan of Golden Age crime fiction, and here was a real-life lady detective, a forgotten trailblazer, who had inhabited that world for real. What’s more, she spoke my language, mixing fact and fiction with glorious abandon in order to claim her place in the world. But she was also an enigma. What lay beneath all the ridiculous disguises and far-fetched tales she used to promote her work? Who was she? And what was she so clearly trying to hide?
The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective outlines my attempts to answer those questions and to untangle the fact from the fiction in Maud’s work and life. It was an exciting, frustrating and, at times, heart-breaking process, but I hope the resulting story is just as amazing and entertaining as the fictions Maud wove around herself.
And that’s where I find myself today, enriched and enlivened by my encounters with Maud West, getting stuck into the research for my next book, which features another fascinating and forgotten woman, a Golden Age murder, and yet more questions of truth vs fiction and the quest for an authentic life.
So there you go. It’s not short, but it is a bio – and, thankfully, there’s little sign of it getting any shorter.