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October book club - Miss Carter's War

(133 Posts)
CariGransnet (GNHQ) Mon 29-Sep-14 11:49:33

People have started to receive their copies so ahead of 1st Oct (what's 36 hours between friends) here is the thread to leave your comments about the book and questions for Sheila Hancock - she will be coming in to GNHQ on Monday 27 Oct to answer so make sure you add yours before then.

Lorelei Sun 26-Oct-14 01:22:07

I had Dartford Grammar as my second choice (luckily I got in to my first choice school) after passing my 11+, and my daughter went to Wilmington Grammar, so the book felt even more special and familiar than the average novel. I would like to ask Shelia if her acting skills were useful during the writing of this book? As an actress was it easier to immerse yourself into characters? I would also be interested to know some of the more mundane details, like how long the book took to write, how much research was involved, and whether Shelia has set times devoted to writing (like a job), or writes when ideas and mood dictate it is a good time to put pen to paper, as such? And, lastly, whether Shelia types everything from notes to a finished manuscript, or whether she uses a notebook to jot ideas down in?

Thank you Gransnet for my free copy of 'Miss Carter's War'; it's been a while since I enjoyed a novel so much, and I hope Shelia has plans for further novels as she's a great author - I was gripped from the first few pages. I look forward to seeing what other Books of the Month Gransnet will have - and maybe even being lucky enough to win more free books in the future.

cathisherwood Sun 26-Oct-14 11:11:34

I was looking forward to reading this book so much as I admire Sheila in so many ways. I was born in 1951 and like Lotie who has commented above my parents generation only spoke about the good times they had during the war years - the jobs the women had to do and the close friendships they made - never about the men and women actually fighting or dying
I didnt really enjoy the story - I thought Marguerites life was rather sad in most ways but the detail of the social history of the times was so accurate. It brought back so many memories - the devisive 11plus exams, the canings, the pregnant girls who left school, the demonstrations and marches, the AIDS scares etc
Education meant so much to us then. My parents were denied the chance of schooling beyond aged 13/14 and were so proud of their childrens academic achievements. It was what we used to get on in life and we are so grateful for it. It is such a shame few children now value their free education
Thank you for sending me this book - it will be passed on through many hands

GillH Sun 26-Oct-14 20:56:52

Thank you for my copy - I have enjoyed reading this book

The story took place across several generations and I found the wider social changes thought provoking.

One theme I found particularly interesting was how people rebuilt their lives following the second world war and how personal traumatic wartime experiences resonated throughout their lives.

Marguerite's personal story is set against a background of change, which over time incorporated words and images that would have caused fear into everyday use.

How did Ms Hancock approach this theme?

Thank you

maganne Mon 27-Oct-14 09:19:46

A belated thanks for my copy of the book. The arrival of a new grandchild meant I put it to one side to read later and have only just got round to reading it.

I started off enjoying the background to the story but I began to get a bit bored with the characters. Nevertheless it was good to be reminded of old times at grammar school and how important the correct school uniform was to everyone. I admire the amount of research that went into the descriptive and historical background.

I think the book was well written but would have liked more emphasis on the characters and less on the political background

Thank you for sending me the book.

appygran Mon 27-Oct-14 10:57:13

A belated thank you from me too.

I really enjoyed the historical context of the novel and for me reading it felt like a nostalgic journey reminding me of a lot of significant events that have taken place throughout my lifetime.

However I did not warm to the main character, she was a very worthy and admirable woman but there was something lacking. I wondered if this was how you meant to portray Margeurite Sheila? A woman who having lived through a very traumatic experience is haunted by it throughout her life and always hold part of herself back. Someone for whom the emphasis is on doing rather than on being. Even at the end of the book when she is reunited with Marcel she gets involved in environmental issues. Not that this is a bad thing, I think what I am attempting to say is that we know Margeurite through her work and not who she is and was that your intention Sheila?

It was a very thought provoking book and left me thinking about all those people I have known who lived through the war but did not discuss their experiences.

Thank you for a very enjoyable and thought provoking read.

CariGransnet (GNHQ) Mon 27-Oct-14 12:34:55

Sheila is here and ready to answer your questions so do join us for the next hour!

wigwam Mon 27-Oct-14 12:36:44

Hello Sheila - I loved the book and hope you are writing another? From one gran to another - I would love to know your feelings on being a grandmother. Best wishes

misstycal Mon 27-Oct-14 12:38:30

Another fan of Miss Carter - I couldn't put it down. Do you have plans to write more books (hopeful face!)

SheilaHancock Mon 27-Oct-14 12:38:40

Hello everyone,

It's lovely to be here. The book hasn't been out in the world for long and I was anxious about its reception, so feel hugely reassured by the Gransnet folk and your lovely comments- thank you.

I'll get to work answering your questions now.



jeanb333 Mon 27-Oct-14 12:39:49

Thank you to Gransnet for my copy of the book which I enjoyed very much. To Sheila I would like to ask how do you look so amazing for 81 and can you give me some tips!

SheilaHancock Mon 27-Oct-14 12:41:43


Is any of the book based on her own experiences or maybe someone she knew. Perhaps Marguerite is a combination of people she has met?

I think above all Marguerite is the person I would most liked to have been. She is one of the "aristocracy" that E.M. Forster refers to in the quote that I have at the beginning of the book. I would be proud to have lived a life like her.

SheilaHancock Mon 27-Oct-14 12:45:05


Sheila -I'm enjoying this book So-o-o much.
I echo all that nonnanna said - a brilliant historical,sociological study.

So many of the places and people bring back memories - grammar school in Lancs, -London Uni in early 50s, living in Islington by Myddleton Sq,church services at St Mark's,shopping in Chapel Market, queuing at Sadlers Wells for gallery seats. My college was in Bloomsbury Sq.
My first holiday work was in Dartford (Joyce Green hospital)
Much later (in the 70s) with 3 children at school we lived in Watford for 12 years.
I met Michael Duane in 1977! We talked and walked in a N.London garden at the end of year party of a training course he shared with my husband .I so admired his work at Risinghill School-an amazing man.

Now I'm going back to read 'Miss Carter's War' as a novel.I would like to know at what stage and why you decided to write it in this form

P.S My husbands twin sister was named 'Elsie'and one of my ancestors is
named 'Buckmaster' !

I used Michael Duane and Risinghill because it was a classic example of a visionary school that was destroyed by traditionalist attitudes. And I also wanted Margeurite to teach in a difficult comprehensive after the grammar school where she starts her career. For your information some of the ex-pupils that I interviewed for my fictional version of what happened are hoping to publish an academic serious study of the events.

SheilaHancock Mon 27-Oct-14 12:46:43


Did anyone else have a fitted coat like the one on the cover? Mine was just like that one, but in turquoise. I remember when "loose" coats came in, hating them to start with, they felt strange.

The picture on the cover is actually photograph by Horst and strangely there was and maybe still is an exhibition of his photos at one of the galleries in London. Yes, I had a coat like that! But not as glamourous.

SheilaHancock Mon 27-Oct-14 12:49:45


Thoroughly enjoyed "Miss Carters War" by Sheila Hancock. I felt that she was writing about things that she really knew about and had experienced, which is not always the case with other authors. I hope there will be more from Ms Hancock!!
Thanks again gransnet for an excellent book club choice!

The views in the book are Marguerite's and above all the political views are those of her friend Tony. Tony was a man who loved the Labour party and throughout the book his disillusionment grows. I suppose if I have any political attitude left, it is Old Labour. I do keep a close eye on developments and like a lot of people at the moment, I am confused. However I religiously use my vote because so many people fought hard to get it for me.

SheilaHancock Mon 27-Oct-14 12:54:32


Thoroughly enjoyed "Miss Carters War" by Sheila Hancock. I felt that she was writing about things that she really knew about and had experienced, which is not always the case with other authors. I hope there will be more from Ms Hancock!!
Thanks again gransnet for an excellent book club choice!

I have certainly lived through all the eras that I write about in the book. However it was quite different looking at them through the eyes of a half-French woman who served in the resistance during the war than those of an actor. Having decided to write a book about an idealist who wanted to change the world I obviously had to create the world which she wanted to change. Apart from my memories this necessitated masses of research. I have to say I was staggered by the changes that have happened in my lifetime and because I have lived through them I hadn't really noticed.

SheilaHancock Mon 27-Oct-14 12:57:26


Have really enjoyed Miss Carter's war. I was born in 1948 when the story starts, so in that respect, it is how Britain was through my life. I would be interested in reading a prequel - any chance of that, Sheila?
It's a great social history, as well as a novel - I shall pass it on to my daughter when I see her - there are things in there she will have no idea about - and she's pretty well read!
More please Sheila!

Wow that's tempting! I have files of research both on what happened in Paris, the sort of events involving her parents, and the war in France. I couldn't put all of it into my book, but it was fascinating. However there are quite a few books about the resistance and Vichy France.

SheilaHancock Mon 27-Oct-14 13:00:35


Like Cagsy I also finished the book last night and enjoyed it a lot. I was born in 1945 and grew up in post-war London, was taken to the Festival if Britain in 1951 and was very impressed with the iconic Skylon and Dome of Discovery. Thank you Sheila for mentioning towards the end of the book that there is a plaque where the Skylon stood near the London Eye. As one of his 70th birthday treats I'm taking my husband on this soon, and will look for the plaque. I enjoyed and remembered the many details about London in the 50s, and recall the groups of men in hats and belted raincoats loitering on street corners taking illegal bets. I relished the introduction of a certain dowdy Margaret Roberts in the early stages of the book too!

Marguerite's story is like a broad brush stroke which paints a vivid picture of society through the decades following the war, a novel laced with social history. The characters of Tony and Donald really came alive for me, and they were treated with sensitivity and warmth, making me wonder if they were based on friends Sheila has known, and I enjoyed the sprinkling of Polari that Tony spoke. The attitudes and values which Marguerite, as the central character, expresses, also makes me wonder how much of Sheila is enfolded in this? I smiled at the reference to the demo at Greenham Common, and wondered if I might have bumped into Marguerite there! Sheila's book emphasises the importance of having good teachers who can be instrumental in having a beneficial influence on society. I attended a London comprehensive school with teachers not unlike Marguerite, and became a teacher myself.

I was aware of the inner and outer Marguerite - the inner appeared sporadically in the italicised sections, and I wanted to know more, so it was very satisfying that Sheila brought both the inner and outer Marguerite together in reconciliation and transformation towards the end of the book. It was also good to see on the final page that Marguerite never quite lost her feistiness!

My question to Sheila is about the inner and outer Marguerite. The book was mainly focussed on the post-war outer one. Are there any plans for a second book, maybe in prequel style, covering more details and stories of the inner Marguerite as an SOE agent during the war?

Thank you Sheila for a very enjoyable read and a memorable first novel.

First of all I love your name! I have an older sister who dyes her hair blue. Yes the relationship with Tony is based on one that I had with a gay man, although the Tony in the novel actually is not like him but the feelings they have for one another are. He died of Aids and I wanted to write about that. Again when I reminded myself of it I was amazed how brutal it was. Nobody cared about this dreadful disease for some time because it was happening only they thought, to gay men. One of the things I felt as I wrote the novel was that although it may not sometimes feel like it, we are a much kinder tolerant nation than we used to be.

SheilaHancock Mon 27-Oct-14 13:03:06


Thank you for the book. It certainly brought back memories - having a conduct mark for not wearing my school hat - I was SO upset. After years of teaching, I often wondered if I had any impact on the youngsters I taught. I like the way Miss Carter was actually thanked by ex pupils. Being of a certain age there were lots of memories - I wonder how much memories played in the writing of the book, and how much research. Whichever way, it was an excellent read - I enjoyed it.

Some of the events in the novel I actually took part in and I often remember the emotions involved but I had to research the details. For instance I went to the Festival of Britain as a child and remember being gobsmacked and thrilled but I had to research it in order to discover exactly why.

xanthe Mon 27-Oct-14 13:05:52

I really enjoyed your book. Was it something you had had in mind for a while? Are there other subjects that you are burning to write about?

SheilaHancock Mon 27-Oct-14 13:06:18


I am really enjoying this book, well done Sheila, I was born in 1948 , but remember my mum telling me about drawing seams up her legs. I had a gabardine mac and had to wear a beret to school, passed my 11 plus but my mum decided my sister and I would go to the local secondary modern school.... I loved the swinging sixties... what era in your life have you enjoyed most.

I have to confess that I have the greatest difficulty in enjoying anything. When I look back at photos, for instance of having a picnic with my family, I sentimentally think 'I must have been happy' whereas in actual fact, I was probably worried about how we were going to get home or whether the kids would catch a cold. Now in my dotage I force myself to say "I am happy now," whenever something lovely happens. A bit late in the day, but as Marguerite is told by her lover, you should cherish the moment. Actually, I am probably as happy now as I have ever been, especially reading all of your comments.

SheilaHancock Mon 27-Oct-14 13:10:39


Thank You so much for the book, I really enjoyed it.
Sheila, I wondered whether it was harder to write a novel or an autobiography ? Some people think it's very easy to write about yourself, but I can see that actually it's rather difficult as you are sort of peeling off layers and letting people see the rawness underneath. However, all the resources are within you. Was it easier to tell the story from a character's point of view, in that they belong to you, but are not you ?
I think you did us all proud.Well done.

I was hugely daunted at the thought of writing a novel. As an actor, I am used to getting inside a character's head and body, but the words that I speak and the things that they do are written for me by somebody else. The weaving of a story, the construction and the way things kept changing and characters arriving on the scene unplanned was confusing but exciting.
The dialogue I treated as an actor would, saying it out loud to myself and trying to make it as natural as possible. And as an actor I do spend a lot of time observing people, thinking that a hairstyle or a pair of shoes may be useful for some character that I play later. So, I suppose I do have a little store of people in my mind that I can use.

SheilaHancock Mon 27-Oct-14 13:14:45


Half way through the book and thoroughly enjoying it. I wonder Sheila which character was the hardest to write for and also what prompted you to write this book. Did you "like" all the characters or were some less lovable than others?

I ended up liking all of the characters and now they have gone off into the world I miss them. The character that intrigued my most was Jimmy. He arrived on the CND march merely because when I had decided that Marguerite should go there she had to meet some other people and I invented Jimmy. After finding him having an affair with her, he had to stay and became another example of the casualties of war. My first husband Alec Ross was aircrew during the war. Jimmy's looks are his, but his personality is not. I suppose on the surface he is unlikable, but I hope we understand why he has become what he is.

SheilaHancock Mon 27-Oct-14 13:21:39


I have only read the first bit so far but thought I must comment before the closing day.

I see you lived through these years and I expect you wore the gymslip with the 3 pleats. One thing that brought a smile was when you wrote
" 'Nice' and 'Lovely' are strictly Verboten." I remember we were not allowed to use 'got' and 'nice' and I still have to stop and think of another word when I am about to slip into using them now I am going to be a bit hesitant over 'lovely'. I was a poor speller so spellcheck has encouraged me to enjoy writing.

You write this book a bit like a script with lots of speech any comment about that. Do we see a TV series or a film?

Reading about the teachers it made me realise my teachers would nearly all have been in the war and we never really thought about it and looking at old pictures they were much younger than I had thought.

Chance would be a fine thing! There have been one or two feelers but I think the scope of it would be too expensive and difficult.

SheilaHancock Mon 27-Oct-14 13:29:19


Sorry, forgot to put my question!
Did you have an inspirational teacher at your Grammar school that helped you to form the character of Miss Carter?

I owe so much to my teachers, in fact, the two things that are my biggest solace- music and literature- were given to me by them all those years ago. I came from a loving home but, we did not have books or much classical music. Miss Fryer was the name of my headmistress and Dartford Grammar School was my school but of course it is fictionalised. I have put words into Miss Fryer's mouth but I hope I have shown her as the admirable, wise woman that she certainly was towards me- a difficult child. Strangely enough I discovered many years later that she was a Quaker which is what I now myself am. Miss Tudor Craig, whom I name in the book was a wonderful music teacher. Many years later I mentioned her on my desert island discs and got several letters from old school friends endorsing my admiration of her. I discovered that she lived somewhere near myself and I tracked her down, only to discover that she had died a few months earlier. I was so sad because I really wanted to say thank you, in a way this book, is a thank you to teachers generally.

SheilaHancock Mon 27-Oct-14 13:38:54


I found Miss Carter's War struck a chord with my own life. My mother left school at 14 to work in a factory. She could have gone on to secondary school, but her parents thought it was a waste of time as she would marry. She was pleased I passed the 11+ and could have more opportunities than she had. Lack of confidence and help, and a school that educated girls to be secretaries, teachers or wives meant I did better than my mother, but could have done much more. My own daughter had the advantages of parental help, a wider education curriculum and a Miss Carter figure who encouraged her to aim high. She went to Oxford and got a degree and doctorate in biochemistry. As implied in Shelia’s book, it takes more than one generation to get results. I sometimes worry about the next generation, will they appreciate the spring board they have been given?

I also had experience of the divisive consequences of the education system. I was parted from my primary school friends as I was the only one to pass the 11+ from my village school. My three brothers all went to different schools, two undertaking long journeys to the nearest city, to access technical school -- so the unity of the family was broken too, we had nothing in common and rarely saw each other in the week. ‘

Do the characters in the book believe that education is a life time’s task, not just for school years? I certainly think so!

I'm fascinated by your question, you story and your parents is so typical of what it was like. My mother left school at 14 with hardly any education and worked in a shop or pubs. In one store she worked in she was on the glove counter and suggested to the boss, that she start a little library and then a cafe, and she did! With a better education she could have been a top executive, in fact she could have done anything. In my book The Two of Us, I traced the life of John's mother who had deserted him when he was a child. I discovered that she was an exceptional, lively woman who had been dogged by impossible situations and lack of education.
Even when I left school in the 40's, having been to a grammar school the opportunities for girls of my background were limited to nursing (not being a doctor), secretary or somewhat exceptionally teaching. Marguerite certainly believe in continuing education as she works with the open university. To my mind, the OU is one of the most remarkable inventions as is the University of the Third Age. I don't think one should ever give up learning. I am about to start piano lessons again.