Katrina Kirkwood’s book, The Mystery of Isabella and the String of Beads, is two tales in one. She tells about Isabella Stenhouse’s adventures as a doctor in WW1 as well as her own journey of discovery. Katrina joins me today at Great War 100 Reads to discuss her work.
What first interested you in finding your grandmother’s war stories?
Katrina Kirkwood: Romance. Amongst the medical instruments that I inherited from my grandmother Isabella was a strange string of beads. Rumour had it that they had been given to her by a grateful German prisoner of war, an idea that entranced me. As a teenager, I dreamt up a glorious romance in which love trounced international enmity. The fact that Isabella might have been a pioneering woman doctor, fighting fierce male opposition for the right to practise her hard-earned skills in the profession of her choice didn’t cross my mind until years later.
What was the biggest challenge in your search?
KK: The biggest challenge was finding out anything at all. Isabella left no tales of her wartime exploits and very few documents, so I had to rely on libraries and archives for almost every piece of information. The challenge was particularly hard because, while quite a number of nurses and VADs wrote diaries about their WW1 experiences, almost without exception the women doctors kept silent. I even came across documents from as early as the 1920s and 30s that lamented the lack of information about what women doctors had done during WW1.
What was the most surprising thing you learned in the process of writing Isabella’s biography?
KK: Apart from the identity of the bead donor, which I don’t want to give away, the most surprising thing was the fallibility of my memory, which I had always thought was good. As I read and noted each document, I would form a mental picture of its content. Weeks or months later, I’d refer back to the original, only to discover that my mental picture was ever so slightly off-kilter, not quite right. It made me very careful!
What do you hope people will take away from The Mystery of Isabella and the String of Beads?
KK: I’d like them to be proud of what women like Isabella were able to achieve. I’d like them to learn a little more about WW1 medicine. I’d like them to realise that the First World War spread far beyond the Western Front. But the most important thing I hope people will take away is the fact that research is exciting, that it is possible to find things out, and that researching is fun.
What question do you wish people would ask about your work, that they don’t ask?
KK: I wish people would say to me, “I’ve got this X, could you help me find out about it?” Or, “My grandmother did Y, could you help me tell her story?” The answer would almost certainly be a big, resounding, “Yes, I’d love to.”
Where will your next book take us?
KK: I’m looking for the next story, hence the wish that somebody would come to me with a tale that demands to be explored. I’ve toyed with the idea of investigating the career of Lady Mountbatten’s personal assistant during the partition of India, then there’s Mrs Doughty Wylie, the woman who ran the hospital where Isabella worked in France, but I’m not yet sure.
Another mystery to wait for in anticipation! Thank you so much, Katrina, for sharing these insights and for bringing another perspective of the war to life.
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