The Wild Air: A Book Review & Interview with its author, Rebecca Mascull

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‘There is nothing so dangerous as a headstrong girl who knows her own mind,’ said Mary Yellan, the fearless heroine of Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn. The same can be applied to Della Dobbs, the protagonist of The Wild Air, the latest novel by Rebecca Mascull. Female pilots from the early days of flying are experiencing a renaissance (in the literary world), and having read a few books based on real life pilots and works of fiction it takes a book to stand out. Although Mascull has drawn on the inspiration of aviatrixes such as Lillian Bland and Beryl Markham, the creation of Della Dobbs is entirely her own.

Set during the Edwardian era, Della Dobbs does not fit the mould of femininity, she likes to ride her bicycle and fix it herself. She’s also a loner, and she channels her love of machinery and engineering (as in the cycle) into the latest craze: aeroplanes. When her widowed great-aunt returns from America, Della is intrigued by this outspoken woman of whom her father disapproves. She realises that a life, quite unlike her mother’s burden of housework and childbirth, awaits her. Against the odds, and with her great-aunt’s encouragement, she learns to fly and falls in with a group of male pilots, much to the fury of her father. But Della fights against his, and society’s, prejudice to fulfil her dream. World War One interrupts Della’s fledgling career and her husband goes to France, but when he is reporting missing she takes to the skies to rescue him. This subplot of the novel, in the adventures of Della from shy girl to brave aviatrix, is an example of Mascull’s writing and the marriage of her characters and their vocations – she did a similar thing with Song of the Sea Maid but I won’t spoil it for you by revealing the plot. The character development of Della is almost biopic, as though she were a real historical figure. It is a brave novel which piques the curiosity of the reader, but it is also a reminder of how far women have come.

  1. How much did Lillian Bland and other female aviators inspire your character?

The real lives of these early aviatrixes inspired me – and Della Dobbs – hugely. Their exploits were quite astounding. They fought against prejudice and expectations and forged a path for themselves in a male-dominated, dangerous pursuit. In the pre-WW1 days they were engaged in all the same challenges as their male counterparts, such as aerobatic flying and cross-channel flights. Some, like Hilda Hewlett, had their own aeroplane manufacturing companies. Melli Beese, a German aviatrix who appears in the novel, was an aircraft designer, as well as a great pilot. Katherine Stinson toured the Far East with her plane. They were fearless and determined. I admire them enormously!

  1. You mentioned, last year, that you flew in a small aeroplane to get a sense of your character. How important is primary research to you?

It’s become more important the more I write, actually. I used to think you could imagine it all (and I think to a certain extent you still can) but I realised that if you can do primary research, you certainly should. I found the brilliant pilot Rob Millinship through the Shuttleworth Collection in Bedfordshire and he was incredibly helpful with my research. When we first met, he said very soon into our conversation that he would take me flying in a light aircraft, at which I immediately baulked and said, Oh well, maybe, having no intention of really doing it! I was too afraid! He said that really I had no business writing about flying if I wasn’t going to do it. I thought, I can use research and my imagination – it’ll be ok. He asked me several times and I kept putting him off. Then one day I suddenly thought, Oh blimey, stuff it. I’m gonna do it! And I did. I can honestly say it changed my life. And it made for a much, better, truer book. He was absolutely right, too. I had no business writing about such an extraordinary thing as light aircraft flight if I hadn’t experienced it myself.

  1. How do you choose your subjects and what inspires you?

It’s all delightfully random. I’ll see something that grabs my interest, just catches my attention, a chance encounter, something on Radio 4 or on TV. It’ll present me with a situation, often a What if? kind of thing. With my first novel, it was the idea of how on earth it would feel inside your mind if you were both deaf and blind and you had no way to communicate. With my second, it was what would happen if you had a brilliant scientific idea but nobody was interested in listening to you? And with this one, it was the obsession with flight in those incredibly dangerous early days – what would make anyone want to go up in a kite with an engine, with no seatbelt, no parachute, no safety whatsoever – why would anyone want to risk it, let alone an Edwardian woman? It just grabbed me! Then, once I start doing a bit of research, I’m hooked and I won’t rest till the story is told.

  1. Can you tell The Mitford Society about your writing process?

I start with a notebook and fill that with thoughts about the story. Once that’s finished, I know I’m ready to start the research. I read a heck of a lot, watch documentaries and movies, visit key locations (whenever possible) and engage in other primary research, such as flying! Or visiting a hop field and running my fingers along the bines so I know what they feel like, for example. Then I write a detailed synopsis (yes, I’m one of those curious creatures who actually enjoys writing synopses!) and a chapter plan. I then work from this as I’m writing the chapters. The story always evolves beyond the planning as I’m going along, but I like to have it there as a foundation. This is my process for an historical novel, anyhow. I’m thinking of maybe writing something totally different next and I might alter my method for that. I might just write and see what happens! I fancy a change.

The Wild Air by Rebecca Mascull is published by Hodder and Stoughton.

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Only The Sister: Angela du Maurier

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Originally published in The Mitford Society: Vol. IV

When one thinks of groups of sisters throughout history, it is often their social lives that come under scrutiny, and then their literary output. It is as though they were half expected to write a novel or a volume of memoirs to compensate for their celebrity status, whether they were talented or not. Fortunately it was the former with the du Mauriers, and both Angela and Daphne (though to a larger extent) would write books. As with Nancy Mitford’s novels, predominantly The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, the du Mauriers books were largely inspired by not only their childhood and events in their lives, but of the landscape in which they lived and had visited.

Like the Mitfords, Angela (1904), Daphne (1907), and Jeanne (1911) had an unusual childhood not in the depths of the countryside but largely spent at Cannon Hall, in Hampstead, where fascinating guests filled the home, and their father Gerald dominated the girls, for better or worse. Except for a few terms at Miss Tulloch’s school, their education was confined to a governess as Gerald did not wish for his daughters to be exposed to the wicked world. The Mitfords would also be kept at home, but for different reasons: their father did not want them to develop thick calves from playing hockey. However, unlike the Mitfords, the du Maurier girls were exposed to the arts on the domestic front and there was nothing unseemly about a trip to the theatre, or harbouring an ambition to go on the stage. Whereas Farve went up to London once a year to see a play, taking his daughters with him, and often critiquing it on the journey home – ‘That foolish boy, Romeo…. and that damned nurse, bloody bitch. She was probably an RC!’ Gerald du Maurier was an actor-theatre manager, and he also had a brand of cigarettes named after himself. Their aunt Sylvia Llewelyn Davies was the mother of the five boys who inspired J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, and this fed the girls’ imagination. They identified themselves as a tribe, in the vein of Barrie’s Lost Boys, and Daphne and Jeanne thought of themselves as boys, whereas Angela was happy to be a girl, even if she did think herself unattractive. And, as with the Mitfords, theirs was a feral upbringing of secret societies, schoolroom antics and silly nicknames. Angela, the eldest, was Piffy; Daphne, the middle girl, was Bing; and Jeanne, the youngest was Bird. Their mother, Muriel, was a vague presence in their lives; a former actress, she was beautiful and aloof, and did not pander to her children except when critiquing them. The same was true for the Mitfords, as their mother, as well as their beloved nanny, often told the six beauties that nobody was looking at them (especially Diana, the most beautiful). Muriel was often exasperated by her daughters’ appearance, especially Angela’s heavy build and lack of fashion sense – she was once mistaken for the nanny when she accompanied her sisters to a birthday party.

Angela’s innocence lasted all of her life, and she believed in the mythical figure of Father Christmas long into adolescence. Unlike the Mitfords who were quite cynical as children and when they were taken to see Peter Pan they would yell ‘No!’ when the cast called out, ‘Do you believe in fairies?’ Angela herself did believe in fairies and, after a well-meaning servant placed ‘fairy circles’ in the garden to enchant the children, it was her younger sister Daphne who discredited the stunt and said there was no such thing. Angela however dissolved into tears and accused her of speaking ill of the fairies. She was the only one out of her sisters who believed in the afterlife and often spoke of being reunited with spirits on a supernatural realm. Daphne, as imaginative as she was, scoffed at her ideas. Despite her inability to keep up with the quick wit of her family, her childhood home represented security and a barrier against growing up. Something the Mitfords could not relate to, for each girl, with the exception of Pamela and Debo, was aching to break free. ‘The finish of security. Doubt lies ahead. Adieu les jours heureux,’ Angela wrote in her diary. In a way, she would always retain a childlike enthusiasm, and throughout her life, as in the nursery, she was seldom without an idol to worship.

The ‘business of growing older’, as she referred to it, represented more than double figures to Angela, and she was apprehensive about swapping her childhood clothes for a grown-up trousseau; ‘one was a fish out of water, too young to listen to sophisticated conversation, at the same time not wishing to play cricket on the lawn with younger sisters and their friends’. She was sent to finishing school in Paris but she was stifled by homesickness and it was to be a miserable experience. Like Pamela Mitford, Angela was the scapegoat for her sisters teasing and the other girls’ antics, and she had no ambition to be a bright star on the horizon. Her spirits were momentarily lifted when her parents and sisters arrived to take her on holiday to the south of France and then on to Algiers. Daphne thought it a great adventure and was spellbound by the architecture, Jeanne was too young to appreciate it, and Angela, having read The Garden of Allah, was determined to fall in love. The object of her affection was Roland Pertwee, a married man whose wife had left him, and he took up with Angela and Daphne, acting as a tour guide and chaperone. But Angela’s idea of a chaste romance fizzled out when Pertwee decided she was an unsophisticated schoolgirl and, after accompanying her to Paris, he dropped her at her finishing school and vanished.

When Angela returned home she became interested in politics, having met Peter Macdonald, an MP for the Isle of Wight, and she became a Young Conservative. Throwing herself into the political campaign, she travelled to darkest Southwark but was appalled at the poverty she was subjected to, and she began to question her Tory ideals. Many doors were slammed in her face. A man shouted that he ‘voted for Labour and always would’, Angela’s only response was to sigh and say, ‘Yes, so should I.’ Thereupon, she became a converted socialist and argued with Macdonald, with whom she thought she was in love despite the fact he was married. She proposed a deal to him: if the Tories won all would be well with them, and if Labour won they would go their separate ways. This was reminiscent of Unity and Decca Mitford, albeit through a sisterly bond, they agreed to disagree when it came to politics, but each one agreed to shoot the other if they had to for the sake of their ideological cause. To Angela’s dismay Labour won the 1929 General Election and Macdonald was no longer the focus of her thoughts, but it marked a watershed in her romantic life. Around this period she began to branch out from her family, as painful as it was, and to visit friends at their country houses. On such a visit to Lady Cynthia Asquith’s home, where a group of young people were staying, Angela, who was aged nineteen, was kissed by Lord Dunglass. It had taken place in her bedroom, and she was convinced she would become pregnant. Harbouring this secret, she wrote to her aunt who reassured her that she could not.

Although she held a romantic ideal of love and dreamt of having children, she was appalled by sex – this was prompted by an acquaintance telling her about reproduction and she felt sickened by the biological facts at play. ‘My father would never do such a thing,’ she said. Then, when she absorbed the information told to her, she felt ‘betrayed’ by her parents ‘because the truth was so HORRIBLE that they couldn’t bear to tell it to me’. When her mother found out she ‘harangued’ her for having learned the truth and said she could never trust her daughter again. Adding to this wretchedness, when she was twelve-years-old and walking in the woods, a German soldier whom she saw was wounded and went to help him had exposed himself to her. After this, she felt confused and distressed, and ashamed of what had happened but she knew she must keep it a secret. By her own admission it had stunted her social development.

Furthermore, Gerald had always confided his infidelities to Angela and Daphne, telling them of the young actresses whom he was stringing along, and he invited them to mock the women’s naivety, thus dividing their loyalties to their mother who knew nothing of these chats. This added to Angela’s mistrust of men, and the view that all men, once they had caught a young woman, would move on to someone else. Yet, despite their talk of his affairs, and the girls’ referring to the young women as ‘the stable’ (as in fillies vying to win a race), Gerald was pathologically jealous of his daughters’ coming into contact with young men, especially Angela who was not as loyal to him as Daphne. She recalled him watching from an upstairs window as she returned from a party, and cross examining her whenever she walked through the door. He wanted to know if anyone had kissed her, or had made a pass, or indeed if she found a young man attractive. And he warned that she would ‘lose her bloom’ if she had done so, for a man’s attention would somehow tarnish her looks and everyone would know she had been corrupted. Soon after her coming out in society, he began to call her a whore, and when she complained of pains in her stomach he accused her of being pregnant – it turned out to be appendicitis. The Mitfords father, too, could be frightening when his daughters sought love matches with men he disapproved of, and during their youth he was forever calling their male friends ‘sewers’ and threatening to horsewhip them but he did not cross the threshold of causing psychological harm.

As a debutante she attended dances in London and found a friend in a young Cecil Beaton who, despite his waspish nature, was charmed by her wholesomeness. It was the Jazz Age, and the young ladies of her generation were dressed in the height of 1920s fashion, but Angela was to suffer in the stays from her childhood corsets and flouncy dresses. She failed to become engaged, or to even find a suitor, but she developed a crush on Gwen Farrar, an actress on the West End stage who was notorious for her lesbian pursuits. Her parents, regardless of their theatrical backgrounds, did not approve of the friendship with Gwen, and they put a stop to it. Angela was heartbroken, and in many ways she shared a childish vision of romance with Nancy Mitford, her contemporary. Nancy herself pined for an unsuitable man who was not only gay but treated her badly, and yet she loved him and thought they would marry. This innocence has been attributed to the sheltered upbringing of girls of their generation. Daphne, although younger, believed life as well as love was ‘no fun unless there’s a spark of danger in it’. I think Diana and Decca Mitford certainly agreed with her sentiment.

In an attempt to distract Angela from the business of politics and her ‘unsuitable’ friendship with Gwen Farrar, Gerald suggested she play Wendy Darling in the annual Christmas and New Year performance of Peter Pan at the Adelphi theatre. Nancy would also experience a helping hand on the career ladder when she was given a job at her grandfather’s magazine, The Lady. Angela was undaunted by the task ahead, and although she was an untrained actress the play was so familiar to her that she was word perfect. Gladys Cooper was cast as Peter, and the social world of the theatre appeared to be the tonic she needed. There were rehearsals every day, and parties every night, and Angela was once again in love, this time with Ian Hunter who had been cast as Mr Darling. But the director’s vision of the play did not match Angela’s childhood memories of the story and she clashed with him. After weeks of preparation, she felt nervous and uncertain of herself in the part, and her lisp was intensified and she spoke quickly and forgot her lines. The nepotism on Gerald’s behalf in casting his daughter ahead of classical actresses proved disastrous when, on opening night, she struggled with her wire and flew into the orchestra pit. She was battered and bruised, and embarrassed by the spectacle but, regardless of her personal feelings, she carried on with the show. Although she would never make it as an actress, Angela had somewhat fallen prey to theatrical types and she was conned by a photographer in to posing nude. She was ashamed and upset by the results of her modelling.

As was her wont, Angela retreated back to the family home and into her childhood world. At the age of almost thirty she appeared content to stay at home and write in her diary, and she lived off her yearly allowance of £150. It was the era of the celebrity debutante and her fellow debs, who were now young wives and prominent London hostesses, were serving as muses for painters and photographers alike. Nancy Mitford, too, had succumbed to the alter and married an entirely unsuitable man, but at least she had finally married. Angela had no such luck, or interest. But she played the part of a jolly upper-class girl and Cecil Beaton asked Angela and Daphne to sit for him, and he photographed their blonde heads peering out from behind wineglasses. The surreal composition, though artificial to the untrained and perhaps modern eye, was thought of by Angela as the most flattering portrait ever taken of her.

It would be wrong to portray Angela as a loner, for she had a collection of close female friends whose company she sought. There was a ‘romantic adventure’ with her best friend, Angela Shaw, and her Pekinese, Wendy. They motored in Angela’s MG Midget on their way to the west coast of Scotland and the Isles of Mull and Skye, but this was cut short by a collision in Yorkshire. The car, hurled into a ditch, was so badly damaged it was possible the women and dog survived because of its open top and they were thrown clear. Angela suffered a head injury and was badly concussed, and the rescuers at first thought she was dead. Her first words, when she came to, was to ask about Wendy. Shaw, though conscious, and in agony from a smashed collarbone, resented Angela’s concern for the dog. They were taken to Ripon Cottage Hospital, where they convalesced in a children’s ward, and Wendy was placed in a cot by Angela’s bed. Shaw, high on morphine, cried out that she was at the ‘end of her tether’.

Perhaps a bitter blow to Angela’s confidence was the progression of Daphne. Like Nancy Mitford, her younger sister Diana had triumphed in many areas where she herself had not. Angela was not a natural writer, but she showed a creative flare, and she wrote her first novel A Little Less, which was rejected by publishers. Around this time, Daphne’s debut novel, The Loving Spirit, was published and her great literary career began. With the publication of Daphne’s fourth novel, Jamaica Inn, Angela’s second attempt at fiction, The Perplexed Heart, was accepted by publishers hoping to cash in on the du Maurier name. Eventually her first attempt was published a decade after it was written and it provoked parental outrage when they discovered its theme of a young woman’s love for another. How could sheltered Angela have known of such things? her parents wondered. The publishers’ rejection letters matched the sentiments of the du Mauriers: the lesbian theme was ‘too unpleasant’. And on the romance front Daphne had excelled where Angela did not. She married Sir Frederick Arthur Montague Browning, known as Tommy, and would have three children. Likewise Jeanne became a talented painter, and as with Angela, she did not marry but lived for the rest of her life with a woman. Pamela Mitford would do the same, leading to speculation as to the nature of the relationship with such companions. As with Pamela and her volatile marriage to Derek Jackson, an alpha male, Angela and Jeanne’s difficult dynamic with their father had disillusioned them towards the male sex. Angela’s case was far more complex, she was neither of her parents’ favourite – Daphne was her father’s golden child, and Jeanne, the easy-going baby of the family, was her mother’s pet – and so she was constantly searching for affection and a place to belong.

As she grew older, Angela’s debilitating homesickness left her and she travelled around continental Europe, staying in luxurious hotels. It has also been said that Gerald’s death in 1934, although a great loss for Daphne, had liberated Angela from his put-downs and teasing. She would live with her mother until Muriel’s death in 1957, and be a constant presence in Daphne’s life. The sisters, including Jeanne, might not have been as candid with one another, as say the Mitfords, but they were prolific letter writers. In her later years her common sense and strength of character made Angela the sister they could all rely on. She would outlive both Daphne and Jeanne, dying at the age of ninety-eight in 2002. The landscape of the places she visited, most especially western Ireland, had become embedded in her imagination and in her work. She continued to write, whether her novels were well received or not, and in her lifetime she published eleven works of fiction and two autobiographies. Friends warned her to censor her life, thinking she was (surprisingly) too advanced for the modern reader. She heeded their warning, and censor it she did though it was far from dull. Having plucked up the courage to live the life she dreamed of in the nursery, Angela would never entirely shed the insecurities of her youth, but she bravely took the reigns of her destiny. Her best-known book, an autobiography, was inspired by those who diminished her work in favour of Daphne’s. Its title, Only the Sister, verifies just that. But she was so much more…

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Available on Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com

Angela Du Maurier

NPG x138986; Angela Du Maurier by Hay Wrightson

It is a common misconception that all three of the Du Maurier girls; Angela, Daphne and Jeanne, should have been boys. While it is true that Daphne hankered after her make-believe persona Eric Avon ‘the boy in the box’, and Jeanne had the ‘sturdiness’ of the boy-child she should have been, Angela was happy to be a girl. Though, as content with her sex as she was, Angela felt inferior as the ‘plain, unremarkable’ sister – a feeling emphasized by her father’s (the actor-manage Gerald Du Maurier) incessant need to mock and tease her. A gentle, naive child, her innocence lingered long after she was grown up, and it was those qualities in which her sisters and parents tried to extinguish. For example, as imaginative as Daphne could be, she did not believe in the after-life and was exasperated by Angela’s longing to be reunited as spirits in another realm. I suppose Daphne would have agreed to such dreams, so long as the setting of the after-life resembled Cornwall. Holding onto the fantasy of Father Christmas until the age of twelve, and fearful of growing up, Angela recorded in her diary: ‘The finish of security. Doubt lies ahead. Adieu les jours heureux.’

 

The business of growing older, into ‘double figures’, I disliked. I was unhappy when I was told I was too old to wear my nice white socks in the summertime, and made to wear horrible brown stockings…one was a fish out of water, too young to listen to sophisticated conversation, at the same time not wishing to play cricket on the lawn with younger sisters and their friends…pulled both ways, misunderstood at times by young and old alike, and not always understanding oneself.

 

Nurturing an ambition to appear on the London stage, Angela played Wendy Darling to Gladys Cooper’s Peter Pan. To her dismay she made a hopeless actress, but she plodded on for two seasons, the unsuitability of her professional becoming clear when she took off her on invisible wire, crashed into the footlights and landed in the orchestra pit. She then turned her attention to politics, having met Peter Macdonald, MP for the Isle of Wight, backstage at a play. Becoming a Young Conservative, Angela threw herself into campaigning for the Conservative Party, travelling to darkest Southwark to campaign for the Tories. Appalled by the sights of poverty and inhumane conditions the people endured, Angela questioned her Tory views. Many doors were slammed in her face, and when a gruff man shouted that he voted Labour and ‘always would’, she sighed and answered: ‘Yes, so should I.’ A converted socialist, Angela argued with Peter, who had become ‘the love of her life,’ about their opposing ideologies, and quite ignoring that he was married, she struck a deal. If the Tories won, all would be well with them; if Labour won, they would be over. Labour won, and the General Election of 1929 became the watershed of her romantic life.

 

Although she dreamed of marriage and children, Angela was repelled by the biological factor of sex. As a child, when she learned of reproduction, she felt sickened by the details – ‘my father would never do such a thing’ – and betrayed by her parents ‘because the truth was so HORRIBLE that they couldn’t bear to tell it to me’. She never cared for parties, or for her finishing school in Paris, and was content to sit at home, write in her diary, and live off her parents’ allowance of £150 a year. At the age of thirty, she was still child-like, though she felt repressed by the confines of her family-life and the watchful eye of her father – ‘I wanted to be Angela, and not merely Gerald’s daughter.’ When he died, she finally felt free and, engulfed by her feelings of guilt at such a thought, she set off for Italy where she fell in love with her older, married female friend (the relationship remained platonic), and was horrified at Mussolini and his army of fascists.

 

The onset of World War 2 gave Angela a purpose, and settling in Cornwall she worked the land with Jeanne. Daphne, of course, was reaping the financial rewards that Rebecca had brought her. And, world famous and an in-demand writer, she was pursuing the literary career Angela had dreamed of, but in spite of her younger sister’s success, she was not bitter about it. The Little Less, Angela’s first attempt at a novel, was rejected by several publishers – a bitter pill to swallow given Daphne’s first attempt at fiction, The Loving Spirit, was published around that time. But with the success of Rebecca, Angela’s second novel, The Perplexed Heart, was accepted, thus allowing The Little Less to see the light of day. The latter, when it was first written a decade before, provoked parental outrage that the sheltered Angela should write a novel about a young woman’s love for another. The Du Mauriers sentiments matched those of the publishers’ rejection letters: the lesbian theme was ‘too unpleasant’.

 

With a literary career of sorts, Angela went on to write eleven books, including two autobiographies, the most well-known of which was It’s Only The Sister, its title inspired by her exchange with admirers of Daphne’s work. ‘It’s only the sister,’ she overheard the admirer say. Somewhat fulfilled with writing her novels, Angela’s close friendships with other women developed into relationships, and for the first time since the infatuations of her youth, she had begun t0 live the life she dreamed of. Interestingly enough, when writing her autobiographies, friends warned Angela to censor her life as to avoid offending readers. Censor it she did, though it was far from dull.

 

Outliving both of her younger sisters, Angela died a month before her ninety-eighth birthday in 2002.