Several decades ago, Jacqueline Winspear passed over tables full of secondhand goods at a church “jumble sale,” or rummage sale. Then, a book caught her eye. Winspear picked up The Woman’s Book, a heavy, spine-cracked, dog-eared book held together with a rubber band, a 1911 instruction manual for new wives on how to run and maintain the family home. “I flicked to the title page,” she says, “and it had been inscribed to a woman on the occasion of her wedding in July 1914.” Right before World War I’s outbreak, she notes. “I wondered what happened to them. All these years, that question stayed with me."
Winspear’s new novel The Care and Management of Lies attempts to answer such questions. The story begins on the cusp of a young couple’s wedding and of World War I. A young English woman, Kezia, marries a landed farmer, and enthusiastically plunges into her new role as keeper of home and hearth. In contrast, her longtime friend, Thea, throws herself into in clandestine political activities.
Kezia’s husband Tom leaves for the front lines, leaving Kezia to manage the home and farm, and Thea enlists in the war effort. Soon, tragedy leaves expectations forever destroyed for all three. Yet throughout the novel, Winspear takes everyday occurrences—food, work, home management—and turns them into warm, rich, descriptive scenes that evoke a bittersweet nostalgia for the era. One can almost smell the damp tweed and taste the freshly baked pies.
Care and Management is an interesting new take on Winspear’s fascination with World War I; previously, Winspear focused on the era in her New York Times-bestselling Maisie Dobbs mystery series. “I don’t write who-done-its,” she says, “but why-done-its.” The mystery genre, she notes, offers an insightful way to examine war’s chaos and post-war challenges. “I’m interested in what happens to ordinary people in extraordinary times,” she says, inspired by her childhood curiosity in her grandfather, who survived the Great War. “The man was still removing shards of shrapnel when he died at age 77,” she says. Like a decades-long splinter, the shard would eventually work its way out; first-hand, at the knee of her grandfather, she observed the long-term ramifications of war.
In the book, Tom and Kezia write wartime-letter descriptions of meals to communicate their affections; even a casserole evokes a rather sensuous affair. Winspear always wanted to write about love in a time of war, “but I didn’t want to tell it as a mystery,” she says. “I wanted to look from different angle, at love in a time of war through the lens of how we are nourished. I’m fascinated by how we express ourselves with food, how food is an expression of love. Love becomes more urgent in a time of war, becomes more necessary.”
So she integrated an imaginative storyline about wartime love, quotes from The Woman’s Book, and deep research on food and the Great War. She turned to newspapers of the time, books written about food and the military, and hours in the imperial archives, reading letters from men on the battlefield. “That which you know has to be used carefully,” she says of facts’ relationship to fiction. “Like an iceberg, only seven percent should be visible. The rest informs what you write.”
Winspear was 45 when her first book was published, yet her natural storytelling acumen is evident even in casual conversation. In delightfully accented English, she layers story upon story, weaving anecdotes and facts as easily as in her books, each yarn more fascinating than the last. In one short conversation, she explains the origins of “pin money,” why “bully beef” changed military strategy and how officers would buy French bread to bolster their solders’ spirits.
For Winspear, procuring additional copies of The Woman’s Book has become a favored pastime. She’s tracked down the five-inch-thick tome from eBay and AbeBooks, along with antiquarian booksellers, and passes them along as gifts to friends and colleagues. It was an extraordinary book, she notes. “For example, there’s a piece on how to communicate with the servants and make them feel at home, as well as hosting dinner parties and where you would seat the prime minister or king.”
Lora Shinn is a recovering librarian, currently working as a full-time freelance journalist.