Jennifer Ryan’s The Spies of Shilling Lane is a story equally chaotic and resolute. Once a self-styled queen within her English village, Mrs. Braithwaite finds herself distinctly disadvantaged and dethroned in the aftermath of her husband’s divorce petition. As determined as ever, she sets off to track down Betty, her intrepid daughter in London, the last tenuous person she has any hold upon. Yet once she arrives, Mrs. Braithwaite learns from Betty’s timid landlord, Mr. Norris, that her daughter hasn’t been home in days, and the wartime chaos is ever-rising.
Setting off into the London Blitz with Mr. Norris as a reluctant companion, Mrs. Braithwaite confronts her notions about class, status, and reputation, and starts to unpack a propulsive question as she searches for her child: How do you measure the success of a life? In tandem with Betty’s own thrilling wartime pursuits, you’re sure to be charmed and surprised by everything that unfolds.
Recently, Jennifer spoke with Read It Forward’s Abbe Wright, touching upon the groundbreaking influence of women in wartime, the conversations and research that help her to craft a thrilling story, and the generational divide between mothers and daughters.
READ IT FORWARD: Tell us all about The Spies of Shilling Lane. It is set during World War II, but I would love to hear you tell us a little bit about the book.
What We're Reading This WeekGet recommendations for the greatest books around straight to your inbox every week.
JENNIFER RYAN: It’s about a mother whose daughter has gone off to London to work in the war, it’s been underway for a couple of years now. They’re estranged from each other and Mrs. Braithwaite, the main character, has got this very bombastic nature and she’s undergone a couple of setbacks in the village where she lives. Her husband’s divorced her, and divorce in that era would be a real setback for a woman, not necessarily the man.
So, off she goes into London in 1941 where the blitz is going on, only to find that Betty, her daughter, is missing. With the help of her daughter’s landlord, Mr. Norris, who’s a cowardly accountant, she drags him off on this long adventure, and it turns out that her daughter is a spy. There she is, lost in this world that she doesn’t really understand, but at the same time, they take things in their stride. We also hear the story of Betty, who is taking advantage of the opportunities given to women during the war, and finds herself at the very heart of seeking out dangerous Nazi sympathizers.
RIF: I would love to flesh that out a little bit. All of the men are at the front lines, right? This is an opportunity, you write, that young women were flooding the cities to take secretarial jobs, office jobs, to fill in the holes that were left by all of the men off at war. Was this the first time that these women were allowed to wear the pants, and to fill these office jobs that they had never been considered for before?
JR: Exactly, exactly. The role of secretary was very much a man’s job before the Second World War. Women’s work was very limited to being a servant, domestic help, working as shop assistants, and nurse and teacher roles. After a woman got married, she was expected to give up work. Obviously that didn’t happen necessarily all of the time, and she would definitely be working if she was a homemaker, she was a mother at the time with no modern conveniences. The opportunities were very limited. There were a couple of women in the higher echelons of society who were able to go to university. University places were open to women at the time, and there were a couple of doctors, and women who had more qualifications, but they certainly wouldn’t be doing things like engineering, or a lot of the kinds of professions that you get these days.
Suddenly, it was actually considered very patriotic for women to go off and get some work, really. Moving to London was very exciting, the whole concept of going and living in the city and getting digs, getting a shared house or room in a house or a hostel. London was a hotbed of parties because it was really flooded with all these women and everyone, particularly in the Blitz, was full of this live for the day fervor.
After Dunkirk, there was a really strong feeling that Britain was going to be invaded, and then when it was invaded, everything was going to become very, very difficult because everyone was looking at France and saw what was going on in the rest of the continent. There really was this feeling, ‘oh my goodness, either we’re going to get bombed or we’re going to get invaded in the near future, so let’s just make the most of things while we can.’ There was an awful lot of parties and debauchery, morals went a bit out of the window.
RIF: You hint at throwing care to the wind, a little bit of sexual freedom in that people didn’t know if the bomb had their name on it, as you write.
JR: That’s right. But everyone was doing it. I would say there were a certain amount of people, young women, who were very good and went to bed early and everything, but I guess on the whole, most young women and men weren’t, and they were enjoying themselves.
RIF: You do such a good job at painting the terror of the blitz. I felt as a reader, and an American reader at that, Mrs. Braithwaite arrives in London knowing they’re dropping bombs, but has no idea just how bad it is, how terror-filled these lives were. What was your research in the brutality of the Blitz? You paint a really incredible picture of these people in hospital who have burns and singed hair, you can almost smell it.
JR: Well, a lot of this, and when I was researching for Chilbury Ladies Choir, I spoke to an awful lot of people who were alive during the Second World War, and it was just incredible. Obviously, it was a long time since the events, but I was so heartened, they were trying even now to stay cheery about how frightening it was. They would tell stories about how they were walking down a road, and a bomb fell, and it was only 100 yards away and they were shaken.
RIF: As you would be.
JR: Thrown to the ground kind of thing, and they got up and dusted themselves off and ran towards where the bomb had gone off in order to see how they could help. But that was the general feeling, it was very much we are in this together. We’ve got to do the best together, collectively, in order to win this war. My grandmother, she talked about going around to hospitals to cheer people up with her choir, and she said how awful it was. Particularly after the First World War, all the injuries were coming in from abroad and she said suddenly the front line was there. A lot of the injuries were really severe, people losing limbs, and that smell of the cordite of the bombs. She said that the smell of burnt skin is something that always hung in the air around bombed-out areas.
I just cannot imagine how frightening it would be to live in that kind of situation and literally to not know whether this could be your last day. They always said oh, a bomb had her name on it, and they were so stoical at the time about it. Towards the end of the war, they had bombs that were self-propelled, so it was like cruise missiles coming over from the continent and I just think that that is so frightening. I really can’t imagine how it would be to live in a city that was just getting bombarded like that every day.
RIF: And to keep going to work and making dinner and just trying to live a normal life. Was this the era of ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’? That stiff upper lip.
JR: Yeah, very much so. The government in the UK produced an awful lot of propaganda in order to really make sure that the population was not getting completely demoralized by the blitz, by the rationing.
RIF: The blackout curtains, everything.
JR: There’s a lot of Churchill’s big effort towards propaganda who was, look we have to stand together and not let them know that we are demoralized. We can’t be demoralized, whatever happens and that keep calm and carry on, definitely.
I think London must have been a very exciting place to live during that era. I think the combination of the adrenaline of the bombs, and the society just coming together, the war, the hedonism, and everyone just trying their best all the time. This continual emergency situation, so people would go to work and they have been sleeping in an underground station all night and they haven’t washed and they’re wearing the same clothes from the day before and that none of that would matter, everyone would be “well done, you made it to work.” It was standards completely changed.
RIF: One of the things you explore in this book is a great mother/daughter relationship, and they each keep secrets from one another. What was it like exploring that relationship, and the things that we tell our moms and the things we keep to ourselves and our daughters?
JR: I thought this was very interesting. What I was really looking at was how women change over generations. You’ve got Mrs. Braithwaite, who was born in the Victorian era and her main years growing up were in the Edwardian times, that very Edwardian outlook on life from the beginning of the 20th century. But she was very much influenced by her aunt who brought her up, Agatha. She was very Victorian and then of course Betty is the next generation. With the war she was immediately very interested to take advantage of any opportunities.
I think the main difference between both of them, Mrs. Braithwaite and Betty, and this is how I think the views of women have changed throughout the 20th century, is that Betty as a woman saw a lot of opportunities and had a mind that was open enough about the possibilities, whereas Mrs. Braithwaite was much more closed. Her entire world was all to do with the status of who you got married to and what kind of house you lived in.
RIF: What other people think.
JR: And what everyone else thought, rather than the possibilities moving forward. That’s really what I really wanted to look into actually, was with every generation hopefully moving on, women see themselves in a different light. And it’s quite interesting because you do get that little clash between one generation and another.
I always had incredibly good relationships with both my grandmothers. I think it almost skips a generation, because being able to relate to your grandmother, in some ways you don’t see them in any way as contemporary to you. There is just a genuine interest in each other, and what they are going through. Whereas I think the immediate mother-daughter is a little bit more complicated.
RIF: So what do you hope readers take away from this book?
JR: Well, the core message is to do with your priorities in life, basically. Quite often, a lot of people get sucked into wanting things that other people have, or what is being pushed to them through TV or media.
What I really want people to take away from this book is that if you really sit down and think about what you want to matter in your life, it’s about your relationships and people connecting with other people. It’s about kindness and warm-heartedness and love, and it’s about joy as well, it’s about dancing and singing and those small things that don’t cost anything, but bring such a sense of joy to your life. It’s about not losing track of your family, and your friends, and what’s really important in the face of it all.
Author photo © Nina Subin