Over the last 9.5 years as I've been writing "Echo Hall" I have been really conscious of a book I needed to re-read. "Dear Girl" is a collection of the letters and diary entries of two working women a hundred years ago, which I came across sometime in my early 20's. It's a brilliant account of how life was for Edwardian women, which I loved when I first read it. I've been aware for a long time it would be helpful background for the central section of my novel, which is set in this period, but I've struggled to get hold of a copy. It wasn't till this summer, when I made a radical decision to change my clunky middle from 3rd person narrative to a series of letters, that it became imperative for me to have another look. Unfortunately it's out of print and I'm a bit crap at finding things on-line, so I'm grateful my lovely Chris is brilliant at it and managed to track a copy down for me while we were on holiday. So when we got home my copy was waiting for me and I could dive straight in.
Sometimes you come back to a book and it is not quite as you remember it, but "Dear Girl" did not disappoint second time round. The collection of letters and diaries documents the friendship between Ruth Slate and Eve Slawson, two ordinary women who met in their late teens and continued to be close friends until Eve's untimely death in 1917. It's an amazing slice of social history, showing what life was really like a hundred years ago. In a world without the NHS, Ruth's first love, Ewan died of consumption, struggling to pay for his treatment. In a world without welfare, both Ruth and Eva witnessed their family members experience difficulties with job losses that led to uncertain income and the need to continually move from one precarious private rented situation to the next. Furthermore, they were expected to contribute to the family income, and were consequently confined to dull, meaningless jobs, when what they really wanted to do was write and learn.
When I read "Dear Girl" twenty years ago, I was struck with the parallels with my own life and my friendships with passionate, feminist women. At one point Ruth lived in Hornchurch, where my parents grew up. Her parents moved around South London, near to places I worked, ending up in Wood Green, which was just down the road from my home town, Southgate. Later, she moved to York, where I studied, and became a social worker, whilst I have worked in social care all my life. And I recognised in her intense, loving relationship with Eva, my equally intense relationships with so many of my wonderful friends. Coming back to it, this summer, just around the anniversary of the death of my friend Pip O'Neill, I felt this even more deeply. Everything about Ruth and Eva's friendship reminded me of mine with Pip. Like Ruth and Eva, we met when we were young, and followed each other through many similar experiences (For Ruth and Eva this was developing an understanding of faith, embracing feminism, learning to fight their own corner, and then studying at Woodbrooke College, Birmingham. For Pip and I, it was working first in the voluntary sector and then for local government and studying at the LSE). And Pip, liked Eva, lived in Walthamstow, and was passionate about her local community. So when I reached the moment of Eva's sudden death, I was in pieces, remembering the friend who died too soon, and grateful, as Ruth was for the community of friends she left behind, who helped me more then they can ever know.
So "Dear Girl" has two levels for me. It stands as an insight into a world where to be an independent woman meant struggle, heartache and conflict with everyone around. But it's also a reflection on how the world we might live in now is very different, but the essentials of relationships never change. It really is a tragedy that it is out of print, and I sincerely hope some feminist publisher will pick it up in future.
And thankfully, it also did the trick on the novel. Immersing myself for a fortnight in the language and style of Edwardian England, ensured my rewrites worked, and I'm convinced that my novel is much better as a result.
Ruth and Eva I salute you - two women who made an impact in ways they couldn't have imagined.