Some Great War 100 Reads followers have joined the bandwagon, dipping into selections from my reading lists. Linda (not only the first follower, but a frequent companion in monument quests) has gone a step further … she wrote a book review. I am pleased to share with you her views on Maisie Dobbs.
Maisie Dobbs is the first in a series of 12 mystery novels by Jacqueline Winspear. This book traces the physical and mental scars left by WW1. The breakdown of the rigid class structure of Britain and the emancipation of women because of their war work are also themes woven throughout.
The preface is the final verse of Disabled by Wilfred Owen:
Now, he will spend a few sick years in institutes,
And do the things the rules consider wise,
And take whatever pity they may dole.
Tonight he notices how the women’s eyes
Passed from him to the strong men that were whole.
How cold and late it is! Why don’t they come
And put him to bed? Why don’t they come?
The novel does not unfold in a linear fashion. It begins in 1929 when Maisie sets up her private investigative practice, moves back to 1910-1917 and returns again to 1929.
It opens as Maisie anxiously waits for her first case. She has done this sort of work with investigator Dr. Maurice Blanche – more about him later. Christopher Davenham is looking for ‘Mr. Dobbs’ whose services have been highly recommended by his solicitor. He engages Maisie to find out if his wife is being unfaithful. The investigation links back to the battlefields of France and the destruction of the minds and bodies of the combatants. In befriending Celia Davenham, Maisie finds that instead of having an affair, Celia is tending the grave of a soldier known only as ‘Vincent’ who is buried with other soldiers whose graves only list their first names. The soldiers were buried in Britain as they survived the war, horribly disfigured and outcast. Maisie identifies Vincent Weathershaw with the help of her assistant Billy Beale, a wounded veteran of the War.
Clues are dropped about Maisie’s past throughout the first part of the book: her work with Dr. Blanche; her time as a nurse in France during the War; and her connection to Lady Rowan Compton, a wealthy and progressive aristocrat.
Answers are revealed in the second part of the book. Maisie, it turns out, is the clever daughter of Frankie Dobbs, the costermonger who brings supplies to the cook of the Compton household. When her mother dies, 13 year old Maisie is taken into service as a maid. Lady Rowan discovers Maisie reading Latin in the library at 3 am, and engages her friend Dr. Blanche as a tutor. Maisie continues her work as a maid and studies with Dr. Blanche, eventually writing Cambridge entrance exams and entering Girton College. While her education progresses, Maisie is reminded of her class by her roommate and fellow maid Enid. Enid is well aware of her class knowing that although James, the Compton heir, loves her she will never marry above her station.
With the advent of the war everyone’s life changes. Frankie Dobbs becomes groom for the Compton’s after all the younger grooms enlist. Enid leaves service and becomes a munitions worker. She is killed in a factory accident. Maisie’s Cambridge friends, Pricilla Evernden and Simon Lynch, join the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) and Royal Army Medical Corp, respectively. Maisie becomes a VAD and is sent to France. Her relationship with Simon deepens during the war and as the second part of the book ends Simon asks Maisie to marry him. Her decision would wait until the end of the War.
The third section begins in 1929 with Lady Rowan asking Maisie to look into The Retreat, a farm for WWI veterans with disfiguring facial injuries now open to veterans with other wounds. James Compton came home from with War with shrapnel injuries and PTSD and plans to move there. At The Retreat, residents give up their surnames and titles and turn over their personal funds to its head, Captain Adam Jenkins. Maisie meets with Jenkins under the guise that her brother might wish to join The Retreat. Billy Beale plays her brother and enters the retreat for two weeks. Daily communications are arranged with an emergency telephone he rigged up in a secluded place – using his WWI sapper skills. While Billy is at The Retreat, Maisie and Maurice discover the job Jenkins did in the War and what happened to ‘Deserters’ who wished to leave The Retreat. They have to get Billy out before it is too late.
This book is all about the links in life that bring people together. It ends with the link between Simon, Maisie and Billy. No spoilers here – it is well worth reading the book to find out.
Winspear dedicated the book to the memory of her paternal grandfather and maternal grandmother. Her grandfather was a costermonger in London who was wounded in the leg at the Battle of the Somme. Her grandmother was a munitions worker during the First World War hurt in an industrial accident. I wonder how much Frankie, Billy and Enid reflect the strength of character of Winspear’s grandparents.
I’m absolutely reading more in the Maisie Dobbs series.
My own book reviews have been missing in action for a few weeks, falling victim to the lethal combination of a lengthy book and a life more hectic than usual. Returning soon!