Facts Behind the Fiction: Jennifer Robson’s Goodnight from London
Historical Novels Review’s prolific 20th-century section is proof that WWII-era fiction remains one of the hottest historical subgenres. Jennifer Robson, author of three WWI novels, has just released her first book set during the 1940 Blitz. Much of the research for her doctoral thesis concerned life on the home front in Britain. Regardless, she admits, “I had a lot of catching up to do! Perhaps the most enjoyable part of my research for Goodnight from London was having the chance to revisit the oral history project I undertook while at Oxford. I could hear the voices of the women I’d interviewed so clearly, and see them in my mind’s eye. And the project was an absolute treasure trove of details about daily life during the war.”
Robson’s grandmother, Nikki Moir, to whom her book is dedicated, led an interesting life that mirrors the protagonist in the story, Ruby Sutton. “My grandmother started at the very bottom of the editorial ladder in 1938, working as the newsroom ‘Girl Friday’ at the Vancouver News-Herald. The war gave her opportunities she’d likely never have had otherwise. One of her proudest moments was interviewing Eleanor Roosevelt, although she was only one of several reporters admitted to the great lady’s presence. My gran left school when she was 16. She never had any formal training and she had no illusions about her strengths as a writer. But she knew how to get a good story and she never let anyone intimidate her. She was always curious, always learning. After my grandfather’s death in 1980, she decided she wanted to go to university. Nikki died just over three years ago at the age of 95. She was well enough to know that I had become a writer, and she often told me how proud she was of me. I am so glad that I always told her how proud I was of her.”
There are various clips from female journalists throughout the book. “They were all exceptional women, but Martha Gellhorn is someone I find especially fascinating. The obstacles placed in her path by the authorities, by her editors, even by her own husband (although she and Ernest Hemingway were almost entirely estranged by the war), meant that she had to work twice as hard as most journalists to get the story. And yet she never gave up. I knew that I had to get permission from her stepson, Sandy Matthews, who controls her estate and is (understandably) very selective about granting rights to her work. I poured my heart into the letter I sent him, and I guess it worked since he very kindly allowed me to quote from her story of landing in Normandy on a hospital ship.”
Captain Bennett, whom we meet early in the story, is a likable, though secretive character. When asked about crafting his persona, Robson responded, “It was probably the most difficult aspect of writing this book. It would have been much easier for Bennett to have a moment of weakness and admit everything to Ruby. But that would have negated everything heroic about him. His secrecy was intrinsic to his character: he simply could not tell her the true nature of his work. And I struggled with that. But it was something everyone engaged in covert work during the war had to bear. People like Ruby had to endure years of not knowing – and often, if the person they loved was killed in the line of duty, they never discovered the truth of what happened.”
Robson’s next book will be different. “Provisionally titled The Gown, it is narrated by several central characters rather than one heroine. It tells the story of three embroiderers at Norman Hartnell’s couture house in London, who are among those who created Princess Elizabeth’s wedding dress in 1947.”
Goodnight from London is published in trade paperback this month in the US by William Morrow (9780062675576).
About the contributor: Arleigh Johnson has worked in the book industry for 12 years and has reviewed with HNR since 2011.
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 80, May 2017