The RONA shortlists: Annie Murray on The Women of Lilac Street

Richard Lee

Annie Murray is shortlisted for the Romantic Historical Novel Prize. See the other shortlisted historical titles for the Romantic Novel of The Year. The winner will be announced on Monday 17th March 2014.

anniepicI decided I wanted to write a novel set in the 1920s in a poor area of Birmingham. As soon as we mention the 1920s, often a whole series of stereotypes spring to mind which are often the stuff of romance – flappers, chaps in goggles and flying jackets piloting small aeroplanes, country houses with sporty cars sweeping up the drive for a house party presided over by a forbidding dowager… Perhaps one of the party will have been an officer in France and be missing a leg…

Unfortunately, none of these images is the least help for the kind of environment I was writing about. As we have seen in Jennifer Worth’s Call the Midwife, the conditions in London in the 1950s for the urban poor were in some ways not a million miles from those of Victorian London. In 1920s Birmingham the story was the same. Much of the jerry built, cramped housing was still occupied by very large families. Street by street, at least in the slightly better houses, electricity and taps were being installed … These very gradual changes, as well as the often wide variations in living conditions between  different social classes, sometimes make it hard to gauge quite how it was at any given time; how to portray it.

My main interest is in people and in what life throws at them, how they respond and interact. Romance comes into this but so do many other things. I wanted to write about the way in any time and place, a street full of people is a treasure house of activity, some public, much hidden. We never know – even when we think we do – what is going on behind the doors of any of the houses. The situations in which some of the people in my story, The Women of Lilac Street find themselves – a married woman falling in love with a man who is not her husband, another with dark secrets in her past – carried risk of social judgement, disgrace and exclusion that we can barely imagine today.  One of the elements of the novel which is in fact taken from a true story, is the ingenious way in which a mother goes to enormous pains to disguise her unmarried daughter’s pregnancy…. As I planned and wrote about Rose and Phyllis, Aggie and Jen, the 1920s suddenly seemed a very long time ago.


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