Following Strange Urges

Image courtesy of Alchetron

I should be searching for images of Toulon France as it appeared in the 1920s, particularly the harbour as viewed from a cruise ship. I also need to wade through an endless list of books on Paris in the 1920s. The Lost Generation. How can I recreate that iconic time unless I know the history? Who was where and when? Where would my character go when she first arrives in London? And later in Paris. Where can she possibly get some sort of job? If I don’t have these necessary facts which will form the skeleton of my narrative, I simply can’t progress any further with this manuscript, the second book in my trilogy Paris Next Week.

Yet I am doing none of these things. Instead I am suddenly fascinated by a little known English writer Jan Struther, the pen name of Joyce Anstruther, later Joyce Maxtone Graham and finally Joyce Placzek. I found this beguiling image in the Australian Women’s Weekly icon edition 15 the other day. It was featured in an article on Greer Garson who of course starred in Mrs Minniver, the famous movie which persuaded the Americans to finally enter WW2. From the book by Jan Struther.

I am waiting anxiously for my pay to hit my account so I can buy the kindle version of The Real Mrs Minniver written by Ysenda Maxtone Graham, Joyce’s granddaughter. I am not sure why I have this urgency to read the biography but I am fascinated by this young woman in her print dress, sitting in the back garden of somewhere, with her small dog. There is a long fence in the background and a strange sort of wooden structure. I’m guessing the image is from the 1930s. She looks calm but the dog appears anxious looking off to the side at someone or something. I love the headband. The simple innocence of it. Yet her life was complicated and ultimately tragic.

How much will reading about this woman help my research? I have no idea but I have been, for a long time, interested in the arcs of people’s lives according to when and where they were born. What opportunities were available at the time, what turbulent decades were ahead as they reached maturity. These things are so important and how they affect each individual are what makes studying different lives fascinating. Joyce was born three years before my fictional character Sarah who was born in Sydney. Joyce was born in the UK in 1901 but I can’t wait to read about her working life in England in the 1920s (if she did work as a young woman). Within her life, I’m hoping there is inspiration for my character’s next few years as she steps off the ship in Tilbury. A long shot? Possibly. But you never know.


9 thoughts on “Following Strange Urges

      • I’ve read Mrs Miniver, but not the other one. (See
        My first thought when I read your post in my email (which doesn’t show the pictures) was that it could be a cucumber frame, but now I don’t think so. A cucumber frame was designed partly to give cucumbers a frame for the vine to climb whilst also confining it so it didn’t spread everywhere, but also to protect it from frost. So it was (from a childhood memory in England) like a wide, flat box with a glass cover and ‘walls’ so that it was like a greenhouse.
        Second thoughts about that photo are firstly, that the garden looks neglected because of what look like tall weeds. Yet it seems posed. But who would pose in front of weeds? So are those plants in the background weeds or some kind of grain? People were encouraged to grow all kinds of things in the Dig for Victory campaign. A house we lived in when I was a child in Buckinghamshire, a rather grand house with a summerhouse and considerable gardens, had a field of some kind of grain, tall enough to panic my mother when my sister went walking in it and couldn’t be seen. It may have been a wartime planting that went feral afterwards, or it may have been a field that was part of the estate. The grain may have been grown for hay for a horse. I don’t know, and my parents are no longer alive to ask. But these memories prompt the possibility is that the shed was for storing hay for a horse.
        The other thought that I had was that shed could perhaps have been for coal. In cities ‘the coal man’ delivered coal to a sort of covered chest outside the house, probably weekly if my recollection of the size of the chest at my grandmother’s house in London is any reliable guide. But in the countryside, deliveries may have been less often and therefore a greater quantity may have been delivered. But both firewood and coal would have got damp in an open shed like that…whereas hay needs to have airflow because of the risk of it heating from the inside and starting a fire.
        Lastly, by the design of the dress, I think that photo was taken in wartime when ‘fashion on the ration’ meant that clothes had to be designed to use a minimum amount of cloth. You can see how there is no excess skirt, and the short sleeves are shorter than would have been respectable for daywear in the pre-war era. I remember my mother talking about the joy of full skirts when Dior’s New Look was launched after the war, and there were metres of material in skirts that twirled around! I wrote about it here, on my travel blog, ( The link to ‘Fashion on the Ration’ doesn’t work any more, but if you search the Imperial War Museum using those words, there are links to photos and stories about it.

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  1. Ha ha, I asked my husband whose family had a farm, and as soon as I described your shed he immediately said it was a hay shed. As yes, you must have a breeze flowing through it because the internal heat of a hay stack can easily start a fire.
    Which means those ‘weeds’ are grass grown to be hay.

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  2. Following leads down rabbit holes is one of the joys of research. Your dates/places bring to mind Christina Stead, born in Sydney in 1902; in London in the 1920s; sharing digs with Florence James in 1928 when she, Stead, met William Blake and moved with him to Paris where they were on the edges of the artsy circle around Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Company bookshop

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    • I meant to answer ages ago! Sorry. I must look into Stead’s biography and also Florence James. What they did when they first arrived in London. So stuck at the moment with what to do with my character when she first arrives!


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