The Beauty and Tragedy of Maisie Dobbs

462033My granny introduced me to the first Maisie Dobbs book some time around 2008 or 2009 when I was in undergrad (though the first book in the series was published in 2003). We’d always shared similar interests, and she highly recommended this historical fiction / mystery series from author Jacqueline Winspear that was set in the 1930s—the aftermath of WWI and the interwar period in Britain.

Without recalling her precise words, I remember her rather passionate feelings about the rich historical fodder that is the interwar period and the sense that it is often overshadowed by art and entertainment centered on either World War I or World War II; when the lens turns to the years between the wars, the common setting/theme might frequently be the roaring twenties or the great depression, particularly in American culture. When wars are so often how we date time, the so-called interwar period between WWI and WWII can often be imagined as a negative space, or dominated by other trends. But, my granny impressed upon me (and with which I agree), what Maisie Dobbs does so well is engage with the economic and cultural changes of the 20s and 30s while remaining firmly grounded in the Great War, even after ten and fifteen years have passed.

There are a particular set of postwar, everyday realities that follow in the wake of an official declaration of peace: the deaths, the physical and mental afflictions, the attempts to rebuild lives. Winspear, and her Maisie Dobbs, never loses sight of the way the war scarred all those who lived through it. As much as people undoubtedly wanted to look away, and tried to look away, and still do, the aftermath of war cannot and will not long be ignored. Maisie Dobbs seems to find again and again that war-related issues continue to reemerge or make their way to the surface suddenly after years of silence. (Winspear’s interest in the period started as a child and was influenced by her grandfather’s experiences in the war.)

And within all of this, Jacqueline Winspear set a compelling mystery series. Thus, I’d recommend it to people as an historical fiction series with crime and mystery.

In an interview, Winspear said this about her choice of setting and style of storytelling:

“For me, the war and its aftermath provide fertile ground for a mystery, offering a literary vehicle for exploring the time. Such great social upheaval allows for the strange and unusual to emerge and a time of intense emotions can, to the writer of fiction, provide ample fodder for a compelling story, especially one concerning criminal acts and issues of guilt and innocence. After all, a generation is said to have lost its innocence in The Great War.”

I agree that it is the social upheaval of the period that enables enables her to explore many of her most engaging “issues of guilt and innocence” as she describes them.

The first book is hard to summarize briefly, as it is split between different periods, and it tells multiple stories. It begins in 1929, when the titular character is a woman opening her own agency as a “psychologist and investigator”—this psychologist aspect is important to Winspear’s brand of mystery. It’s never a whodunit, but a whydunit. Solving a crime is often not Maisie’s sole priority; she strives to help her clients and those she meets along the way to reach some sort of internal resolution over whatever is most troubling them in their lives. (In 2014, in honor of the tenth anniversary edition of the first Maisie Dobbs, NPR’s Maureen Corrigan took a few minutes to reflect on how her assumptions about the first book changed swiftly upon reading the first few pages.)

Anyways, the first book starts with that introduction into Maisie’s 1929 world, and the initial “mystery” (still set in 1929), but soon delves into Maisie’s life story, focusing on her when her life changed as a 13-year-old in 1910 when she began working as a maid in a great house (shades of Downton here) but was also simultaneously “discovered” to be an intelligent and motivated, though untutored, learner. With the patronage of Lady Rowan she begins private tutoring with Rowan’s family friend Dr. Maurice Blanche, all while continuing to earn her keep as a maid in the great house. So, from the start, she’s caught between worlds and is isolated from most of those around her. She’s awarded a scholarship to Girton College, Cambridge, but during the first year in 1914 or 1915, she leaves school and enlists as a nurse serving overseas in France. We read about some of her experiences during that period, and then we know she returns with issues of her own after the fighting ceases. During the decade after the war and up until the setting of the story, she works with Dr. Blanche on cases, and slowly recovers from some of her experiences, but not entirely. The mystery happening in 1929 begins to expand touch on figures from her past, which somewhat serves to help us weave together Maisie’s past with her present.

The next nine books in the series stay more firmly rooted in her present, though they are never free from the past—neither Maisie’s nor any of the characters in this literary universe. The ninth book brings us to the close of the year 1933. After taking a break for a few years and writing a standalone WWI novel, Winspear returned to her Maisie Dobbs in 2015 with another book in series set forward a bit to the year 1937.

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It’s hard to truly capture the beauty and tragedy, and the rich and textured history, that Winspear injects into this world, all while still impressing upon you that it contains genre mystery elements. As much as I enjoy the mystery aspects, and I do, I also love Winspear’s commitment to the legacy of the Great War; violence—whether wartime or personal, institutional or generational—is never far from the story and from the lives of those individuals who are brought to life in Dobbs‘ world.

It’s not a perfect series, and my feelings about it are conflicted, particularly with the last few books, as I struggled with the unrelenting sense of depression that only a few sentences above I praised. The most recent book published, especially, failed to capture my attention fully, as I felt reluctant to return to Dobbs as I soon realized her life had experienced another personal tragedy, on par with the war itself. Dobbs has never been an uplifting type of heroine; you don’t go to her for verve or pluck, nor for sparkle or wit. She is empathetic and quiet, unrelenting and plodding. You admire her but you don’t necessarily want to hang out with her. But, as you most of the post conveys, I really like and admire a great deal about the series, and it definitely captured my attention and held it over several books.

In an essay Winspear wrote about visiting several Great War memorials in Europe, she referred a refrain in the poem “For the Fallen” by Robert L. Binyon, which is recited daily at the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing in Ypres, Belgium. It goes like this:

They shall not grow old as we who are left grow old. Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, We will remember them.

There is so much great poetry and literature that emerged from the Great War, and these lines are not singular, but they do seem to permeate Winspear’s literary world. Her characters are burdened by memory, whether they are actively repressing memories or drowning in them. The onus is on the living, who struggle to find a balance amid their remembrances. For readers today, the Maisie Dobbs series is one way to dip a toe into something that we do not remember, all while reading a piece of fiction that exists within the safety of historical fiction and mystery genres. It’s a palatable bit—merely a taste—of Great War drama all wrapped rather neatly with a genre bow. I think you’ll enjoy it.

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