There are times when writing can be a bit like acting. You need to get into the characters’ heads, experience the world as they experience it, speak as they speak.
For The Other Daughter, speaking as they speak was the big challenge for me. There’s such a unique tone to the 1920s, and particularly to the specific subset that my heroine, Rachel, was trying to infiltrate.
So I went into training. For about six months, I read only books written during the twenties and thirties. (I cheated and let myself creep forward into the 30’s because… well, Angela Thirkell.)
I had two voices I needed for Rachel: her natural voice and her Bright Young Things voice, although, as the book went on, the lines between the two became less and less distinct.
Here are a few of the books I used to get “in voice” for The Other Daughter:
— Dorothy Sayers’s Unnatural Death: published in 1927, this Lord Peter Wimsey mystery takes place in between a country town similar to the one Rachel grew up in and the London to which she moves. Careful readers will notice that I might have borrowed a few details here and there (including a block of flats!).
— Margery Allingham’s The Crime at Black Dudley: Allingham’s first Campion novel came out in 1929, so it was written just about the right time. I found that mystery novels were, in many ways, more useful than the satires that epitomize the era: they’re full of what a professor of mine used to call “accidental evidence”, details of life and bits of slang that are just thrown in along the way to the big whodunnit.
— Angela Thirkell’s High Rising: Angela Thirkell’s first Barsetshire novel came out in 1933, six years late for me. But her image of English village life has a timeless feel to it and deeply influenced my image of Rachel’s home life. (I was tempted to put Rachel’s home in Barsetshire, but decided that would be pushing it– and found an appropriate village in Norfolk instead.)
— Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies: Waugh’s 1930 satire is the quintessential portrait of the Bright Young Things in all their frenetic frivolity– and, in many ways, the Bright Young Things’ swan song. An inside member of the group, he knew their quirks and their slang and parodies them all mercilessly. (Naturally, I had to have Waugh make a guest appearance in Other Daughter.)
— Nancy Mitford’s Highland Fling: like Waugh, Mitford skewered the group from the inside. Her first novel, written in 1930/1, satirizes the same crowd. Her columns in The Lady were also incredibly useful– and, of course, ridiculously funny.
— P.G. Wodehouse’s Leave It to Psmith: Wodehouse’s 1927 novel was set in New York, so I went back to 1924 for that unique Wodehouse spin on the antics of the English. (Although, who are we kidding? As with Sayers, Waugh, and Mitford, you can’t read just one. Once you pop, you can’t stop.)
— Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm: like Angela Thirkell, Gibbons was a bit late (1932), but any excuse to read Cold Comfort Farm…. Because there’s always been Starkadders at Cold Comfort Farm.
What are your favorite novels of the 20s and 30s?