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2015 is the centenary of Edith Cavell’s execution in Brussels by the occupying German army. A revised edition of my biography of her, with a new introduction will be published by Quercus in August. [ more news ]
I wanted to write about the 1940s. I was born in the Crown and Anchor Edmonton at the beginning of the blitz on London. I have inchoate childhood memories of ration books, air raid sirens, gas masks, Spam, and ITMA on the Home Service. The postwar years held the promise of a good society: welfare for all, state education, the national health service. In Murder at Wrotham Hill I took a true murder as the motor of my narrative
What prompted me to write about Edith Cavell was the idea of altruism, the concept of goodness. In two years of working on this book I kept unswerving respect for her.
Coconut Chaos is about how one small act – in this case the taking of a coconut by Fletcher Christian from the pile on the quarterdeck of HMS Bounty on Monday 27 April 1789 – has tangential ramifications that ripple through time.
For my first biography, Gluck, I saw a retrospective of her paintings one rainy lunchtime. YouWe, as she called it, a self-portrait of her head fused with that of her lover Nesta Obermer, intrigued me. Here was obsession, lesbian love, merged identity. Next day, out of the blue, a letter came from an editor at Pandora Press: she liked my reviews for City Limits. Was there a book I wanted to write? She’d give me a commission.
With Gertrude and Alice I played on the irony that the perfect marriage: loyalty, commitment, delight in each other til death do us part, was between two women. Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, first met in Paris on Sunday 8 September 1907 and from that day on were never apart until Gertrude’s death on Saturday 27 July 1946.
In Greta and Cecil I was intrigued by narcissism: the film star Greta Garbo, the photographer Cecil Beaton and how their absorption in each other was a reflection of self.
Hypocrisy is the core of Mrs Keppel and Her Daughter. Mrs Keppel, as mistress of King Edward VII, was ‘La Favorita’ of Edwardian high society. Her daugher Violet Trefusis was ostracised, forced into a sham marriage and banished to Paris because of her stormy love affair with Vita Sackville-West.
In Selkirk’s Island, which won the Whitbread Biography Award, I hoped to stretch the boundaries of biography. The hero is the island not the man marooned there. I went to Crusoe Island to write this book.
Natalie and Romaine was originally published as Wild Girlswhich was not my choice of title. I’d called my book about Natalie Barney and Romaine Brooks, with my own quasi-autobiographical interpolations, A Sapphic Idyll. The marketing men said no one would know what Sapphic meant, particularly the booksellers. I found it hard to say I was the author of Wild Girls and I am happier with Natalie and Romaine. The marketing men still baulk at A Sapphic Idyll.