Inspiring Historical Women: The Bookseller’s Secret by Michelle Gable
BY TERRI BAKER
In the two decades following the bloody and destructive World War I, British families became fractured and citizens agitated due the polarizing politics of fascism and socialism, and everything in between. During this era, the six aristocratic Mitford sisters—Nancy, Pam, Diana, Unity, Jessica, and Deborah—embodied the social divisiveness caused by these polarizing politics.
The Mitford sisters may have been born into the aristocracy, but they lived in genteel poverty, in a shabby country manor estate around which they ran wild, virtually ungoverned, with their sole brother, Tom. An increased interest in the lives of these women can be seen in both the 2017 documentary (A Tale of Two Sisters: Jessica and Diana Mitford) and the 2021 miniseries based on one of Nancy’s novels (The Pursuit of Love). Michelle Gable adds to these texts her novel, The Bookseller’s Secret (Gradon House, 2021), in which she explores two timelines: one set in World War II, the other in the 21st century.
In her World War II storyline, Gable identifies a critical time for Nancy Mitford (a.k.a. “The Novelist”) when, cash-strapped, she finds work at the elite bookstore, G. Heywood Hill Ltd., an actual bookstore that can still found in Mayfair, London. In her 21st-century storyline, Gable introduces Katharine “Katie” Cabot, also a novelist, who grew up—like Nancy—with an inattentive mother, forcing her to become independent at an early age. Katie, whose graduate work had focused on Mitford’s novels, accepts her friend’s offer of accommodation in London to escape her personal crises: writer’s block, a romantic break-up, and another, more mysterious loss.
In the historical narrative featuring Nancy, the roots of the tension between the Mitford sisters are revealed as Nancy, suffering from her own writer’s block, brainstorms her next project: an autobiography. In between Nancy’s work in the shop and her hosting a literary salon at the bookshop that includes Evelyn Waugh, Cecil Beaton, Jim Lees-Milne, and Eddy Sackville-West—the idiosyncrasies of her sisters are revealed. Whereas Diana’s fascist loyalties ended in her incarceration, Unity was reviled for the years she spent in Hitler’s inner circle, receiving a more gentle confinement after the cognitive damage following her attempt to kill herself when the U.K. declared war on Germany. The roles these sisters played identified them: Nancy Mitford, the Novelist; Pamela Mitford, the Countrywoman; Diana, Lady Mosley, The Fascist; Unity Valkyrie Mitford, the Hitler Confident; Jessica Lucy “Decca” Mitford, The Communist; and Deborah “Debo” Cavendish, the Duchess. Out of this close yet disparate sisterhood, Nancy Mitford emerged as the most critical of her other sisters’ politics through her semi-autobiographical novels, especially Wigs on the Green, a novel often alluded to in Gable’s story.
Whereas Nancy Mitford is aided by the likes of Evelyn Waugh with her struggles against writer’s block—hoping to resolve that with an autobiography—Katie has Simon, a school headmaster who has a personal stake in finding Nancy’s unpublished autobiography manuscript. This is the mystery that Simon and Katie seek to solve together, while their own relationship blossoms.
Gable has visited the lives of women forgotten by history in her previous two novels, A Paris Apartment (2014) and I’ll See You in Paris (2016), by exploring the real lives of Marthe de Florian and Gladys Marie Spencer-Churchill respectively. As with these two previous novels, in The Bookseller’s Secret Gable alternates between a historical past featuring a woman from history who defied their society’s expectations and a fictional present that features her protagonist finding inspiration from the historical character. This novel reveals a more in-depth fascination—or perhaps appreciation—that Gable has with Nancy Mitford. Gable argues that Nancy “is one of the most underappreciated writers of the 20th century.” Gable read many of Nancy’s over 8,000 letters so she could “get a feel for how [Nancy] spoke and thought about things.” As for Wigs on the Green, often alluded to in both timelines, Gable says, “Wigs on the Green is a famously satirical novel written to poke fun at Nancy’s sister for getting swept up in the Fascist movement.” It is understanding how Nancy never re-released Wigs on the Green because, according to Gable, “[It] was written in 1934, long before the world knew how bad things would become. As a result, certain lines are almost shocking in hindsight.”
At its heart, The Bookseller’s Secret explores the travails of mother-daughter relationships, the creative act of writing and the healing powers of a community of writers and readers.
About the contributor: Terri Baker is an English Literature and Composition instructor at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Alberta. The focus of her PhD was historical fiction, in particular the contemporary critique found in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies.