Lettie Quick believed in what she was doing as other women believed in the Trinity: she was spreading the faith. To this end she had suffered. She had worked for even lower wages than she earned at present, had in the early days fought her way through placard-wielding mobs shouting murderer, whore, and found shards of glass in her hair one evening, from a half-brick flung through the clinic window.
Lettie is a Marie Stopes nurse, moving around the country, training local women in contraceptive health. Married women, of course, as the law only allows this advice to be given to those in wedlock. However, Lettie does provide a service for those in need:
A client finds herself in difficulties, and has asked for discreet assistance…
A sincere client of more than ample means…
A distinguished client in urgent need of privacy…
There are risks involved, of course. But in a while, only a year or two more, perhaps, the special bank account will reach the right sum.
This private service is how film star, Rae Grainger, finds herself in Lottie’s territory, just outside Silkhampton in
‘An isolated house, beside a lake,’ the helpful if unsigned letter had read…And in fact, thought Rae, it was more like an isolated lake with a house. She stared out at he great ruffled sheet of water, steel-grey, murky, fringed at its distant far shore with yellowed ruin of bulrushes, just the sort of place you despairingly waded into at dead of night…
The third female protagonist is Norah Thornby. Nora’s struggling following the death of her mother particularly, it seems, because she’s unmarried and entirely alone. Her only comfort is a weekly trip to the cinema which she finds an ‘intense…uplifting…lasting…wonderfully complete release from being Norah Thornby’.
But how was she to live? That was the question that had roughly slapped her awake night after night. She was four years older than the century; in September she would be thirty-six. The last few years had sapped her, she thought, they had aged her, they had made her catch up with Mamma. They had been two querulous old ladies together, saving up for little treats, arguing over the merits of new embroidery stitches, petulant if the tea tray was brought in late.
Now Norah is struggling with the cost and upkeep of the house she and her mother lived in so when her friend suggests she take in a lodger, namely the new midwife, Lettie Quick, Norah and Lettie strike up an unusual friendship and their fate is entwined.
Add two mysteries into the mix – why did Lettie choose Silkhampton? – and much more dramatically – does Sister Wainwright end up at the bottom of a cliff because she lost her footing or for much more sinister reasons? – and you have a page-turner.
Aren’t We Sisters? is an engrossing novel with women’s rights at its core. If I have a complaint, it’s that the Sister Wainwright mystery felt as though it was left dangling for a while as I was dying to know what had happened. However, the answers to that are being put together throughout the book leading to quite a climax!
I’m delighted to welcome Patricia Ferguson, the author of eight books, two of which were longlisted for the Women’s Prize, to talk about Aren’t We Sisters.
Aren’t We Sisters? uses the work of Marie Stopes as its foundation; why did you choose to write about this era and the work of Stopes in particular?
I’ve always wanted to write about contraception, that vitally important piece in the jigsaw of female equality. Marie Stopes was a pioneer, opening her first family-planning clinic in 1921. She also wrote one of the first sex manuals, a best-seller about shared physical pleasure in marriage, at a time when even mentioning sex was taboo; fearlessly she took on the church, the establishment, the medical profession. She was heroic. And intransigent and dotty, a fame-hungry megalomaniac – how could I not write about her? Do read Ruth Hall’s magnificent biography of her – everyone should.
The book has three women at its centre – Lettie Quick, the nurse; Norah Thornby, the spinster, and Rae Grainger, the film star – was it important to you to depict the lives of a range of women?
That’s not how I thought of it at the time. I had various stories vaguely in mind, and wrote many scenes more or less at random. Lettie was setting up clinics and pinching things well before I wrote The Midwife’s Daughter, and Norah came across the body on the beach before I knew whose it was or whodunnit. I couldn’t for ages see what either of them had to do with the glamorous actress who drew up one morning in the market square and blew young Barty a kiss from the back of her magnificent motorcar. Eventually the stories seemed to fit together, but it feels like a sort of coincidence to me now, that the three women met up and got on so well.
The main thread of the novel involves a possible murder: are there any real crimes or crime writers/novels that inspired or supported your writing?
I love a good crime novel when I’m in the mood – particularly Denise Mina at the moment, who writes about a woman police officer with children and a nice husband as well as a taxing job – so unlike the usual stereotype. But the crime at the centre of Aren’t We Sisters? was real – I read about it decades ago in a copy of the BMJ dating from the late 1950’s, in the library of the old Mile End Hospital. I was on night duty, trying to keep awake on my lunch break.
The book’s title comes from a film and film and photography plays a significant part in the novel. Why did you choose to use these forms?
I’ve been interested in the British silent film industry for a long time, and for the same reason I like old photographs. What’s in the background of the shot? Who is that child, the one who couldn’t stay still for the camera? What the room like, behind that half-drawn curtain?Old films and photographs can look like portals into the past. Sometimes film-set artifice preserves a sort of reality, like the Keystone cops chasing Charlie Chaplin through recognisable versions of the bleak Spitalfields streets he grew up in.
My blog focuses on female writers; who are your favourite female writers?
How to choose? If one test might be needing to read every single production, then in no order and missing out dozens of other possibilities the Brontes, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Muriel Spark, Iris Murdoch, Barbara Pym, Elizabeth Taylor, Penelope Fitzgerald, Ivy Compton Burnett, and the usual modern suspects, Helen Dunmore, Ali Smith, Hilary Mantel, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and the deeply wonderful Barbara Kingsolver.
Thanks to Patricia for such fantastic answers and to Penguin for the review copy of the book.