Difficult, sexy, kind – Margaret James on what makes a perfect man (and more)

Christina Courtenay

In 2000 Richard Lee had the privilege to judge the Elizabeth Goudge Prize at the RNA’s conference that year. It was a near run thing: there were two outstanding openings to novels. In these circumstances, it is arbitrary how you decide on the winner – and Richard chose Gwen Kirkwood’s The Laird of Lochandee simply because it seemed a more unusual setting. Gwen’s book went on to be published, and a series followed. Similarly, runner-up Margaret James’s book, The Silver Locket went on to be published, and a series followed. Richard Lee will be trying to repeat his success in finding new writers as a preliminary judge in this year’s £5000 Historical Novel Society International Award.

Christina Courtenay chats to Margaret James about her novel The Penny Bangle, a family saga set during the Second World War.

CC: The Penny Bangle is set during the Second World War – why did you choose that particular period and why do you think it continues to hold such fascination for readers?

MJ: This novel is the third in a trilogy beginning with The Silver Locket, set during the First World War, and continuing with The Golden Chain, set during the 1930s. The ending of the Second World War coincides with the resolution of many of the problems which beset the Denham family.

Wartime is good for social mobility, and in these novels characters meet people they’d never have met unless there had been huge social upheaval going on.  During times of war, people are tested in many unexpected ways, and testing one’s characters always makes for interesting story lines. These characters also discover there are many different kinds of courage.

CC: Ten words that describe your hero?

MJ: Tall, dark, handsome, clever, domineering, stubborn, generous, difficult, sexy, kind.

CC: Would you have fallen for a man like that in real life do you think?

MJ: My goodness, yes – he’s irresistibly attractive and he’s so also a challenge.  We usually value something or someone we’ve found difficult to work out or hard to get.

CC: The women during that time had to have almost as much courage as the men (if not more!) as they were left behind, waiting and wondering.  How does your heroine cope with that?

MJ: My heroine Cassie is determined not to be left behind waiting and wondering.  She’s only nineteen when the story starts, she’s excited by all the new experiences she’s offered, and she wants to have adventures, too – which she does, eventually joining the army and travelling to Egypt.

My own mother is the same age as Cassie, and Mum says the war years were the most exciting of her life.  But it must have been hard to be a mother of small children living in the UK, trying to cope with one’s husband being away, working, looking after the children and being under constant threats of all kinds.

CC: What was the most fascinating fact you found out when doing research for this novel?

MJ: There were so many it’s hard to choose just one, but maybe the fact that the black market and crime in general were such big business. The prisons were full of criminals who’d been carrying on as usual in spite of the war – robbing, raping, murdering, defrauding and money-laundering on a grand scale.  The disruption of the war years gave the bad guys in society plenty of opportunities to have a great and often lucrative time.

CC: I’ve read a lot about the dreadful food people had to eat because of rationing, have you tried any of it for research purposes?  (I’m thinking specifically about things like egg powder and spam.)

MJ: I’ve spoken to lots of people who were alive at the time and they say that actually the food was okay.  It was rationed, of course, but that meant there was enough to go round.  People were encouraged to grow their own vegetables – the Dig for Victory campaign was a huge success – and country people still kept pigs and chickens.

So if you knew a farmer or smallholder, you could sometimes get fresh eggs.  As for spam – it isn’t bad on a sandwich with some pickle.  I’ve tried it.  I think what people nowadays would miss most is the variety we all take for granted. There were no pizzas, pasta, curry or Chinese takeaways, real coffee was hard to get although it was never rationed, and chicken meat was a luxury.

CC: Did you watch a lot of films from the 1940s to get the characters’ way of speaking right, using the terms that were popular then?  (I love those old films!)

MJ: I love them, too, and they’re certainly very useful for research, or that’s what I tell myself when I’m spending a Sunday afternoon with an old film and a big block of chocolate!  The slang is always fascinating.  Everything is tickety-boo. Our brave chaps are jolly well off to do their bit for Blighty.  Gosh, what a bounder – that chap’s a real bad hat!

CC: Who would have been your heroine’s favourite movie star?  And the hero’s?

MJ: Cassie’s favourite movie star is Ewan Fraser, a fictional character in The Golden Chain, but she fancies Clark Gable, too.  Robert is attracted to blondes, so he’d have liked Betty Grable and Ginger Rogers.

CC: If you had been a young woman during the war, what would you have done – become a Land Girl, joined the army, worked in a factory or become a spy?

MJ: I think I’d have joined the Civil Service and worked in one of the various Ministries.  I was a civil servant myself for ten years and I actually enjoyed dealing with governmental procedures and so on. This appealed to my sometimes orderly mind.  I still file all my personal documents in the way I learned in the Civil Service, and I still talk about India tags!

As for being a spy – absolutely not, I’m nowhere near brave enough. But I’d have liked to be in a team that supported espionage, maybe at Bletchley Park.


Christina Courtenay’s third novel, Highland Storms, won the 2012 RoNA for Best Historical Romantic Novel.

Richard Lee will be trying to repeat his success in finding new writers as a preliminary judge in this year’s £5000 Historical Novel Society International Award.

Posted by Richard Lee


  1. Tricia Kyne
    June 21, 2012

    Excellent interview with a well-established writer who does so much to support and encourage new talent.

  2. Kellie Warriner Doyle
    June 21, 2012

    I have renewed respect for historical fiction writers. Without much background, I launched into writing a Civil War novel. I would research, but then hand chapters to armchair historian friends who would rip my details apart. I won’t even get into incidences when my “experts” didn’t agree …think food fight.

    Add to this that historical fiction is not a popular genre, it’s no wonder that my next book out is a paranormal memoir.

    Still, historical fiction writers get high marks in my book for loving the genre and sticking with it even though it is a hard road. In the case of Margaret James, I can feel her passion.

  3. Steve Emmett
    June 21, 2012

    Spam? I know someone who chooses to eat Spam today! I was lucky enough to have Margaret James as my writing tutor. I read The Penny Bangle out of loyalty, not really expecting to enjoy it that much (being one of those men) but I loved it. Highly recommended.

  4. Shelley
    June 29, 2012

    But “difficult” is always so much more attractive in literature than in life!

  5. Richard Lee
    June 30, 2012

    Nice point Shelley. Austen was always good on this: would you choose Bingley (‘easy’ but lightweight) Wickham (‘easy’ but a cad) Collins (‘easy but impossible) or Darcy (‘difficult’)? Austen laughs that most women (in life and literature) choose Wickham first, Bingley next, the other two only on sufferance.