Happy Birthday, dear WI!

It’s been a busy week for everyone involved in the centenary of the Women’s Institute. I wasn’t fortunate enough to get through the ballot for the Garden Party on Tuesday 2nd June, and I couldn’t apply for the Albert Hall AGM as I was working with the U3A that day. But that doesn’t mean I’ve missed out on the excitement. My name must be lurking somewhere on a dusty list at the BBC and ITV: when there’s something going on with the WI, who’re you gonna call? I’m honoured that this week, at least, it’s been me.

Local BBC and independent radio stations have been eager to pick up the centenary story. It might have been nice had they covered it on their drive-time shows (with a nice cup of tea and a suitable cake) but hey, I don’t mind being bright and breezy on air at – what was it this morning, for BBC London? Six-thirty am, I seem to remember.

On Tuesday, the day of the Garden Party, I was summoned at two hours’ notice to Buckingham Palace to do a piece for the News at Ten. I’ve been peripherally involved with the media for ages now, but I still can’t quite get used to the last-minute, split-second nature of it all. I leapt on the train, my lunch half-munched, and found my way to ITV’s satellite-dish van in Green Park; meanwhile the newsroom had decided that it was too blustery to film outside (although right on cue, the sun came out as though someone had flicked a switch at 3 pm, when the Party was due to begin).

We eventually found an alternative venue for the interview – the gorgeous new library at LSE – and proceeded to film ten minutes or so of chat about the history of the WI, which was broadcast (cut, understandably, to a few seconds) that evening.

More radios the next day, and the next – I love it! Writing is such a solitary, physically passive sort of occupation. I grab any chance to get out and enthuse in public. And it feels such a privilege to be able to enthuse about the Women’s Institute, for which – as anyone who’s read A Force to be Reckoned With will know – I have unbounded admiration.

The television interview was different, but I have to say that most radio presenters tend to ask the same questions, and I thought it might be useful for those of you who are WI members involved with the local Press to know what those questions are. You’ve probably been asked them already, actually.

  1. Why Jam and Jerusalem?
  2. Still Jam and Jerusalem?
  3. Anything else apart from Jam and Jerusalem?
  4. Did the WI do anything before the Calendar Girls came along?
  5. Why are all WI members old?
  6. Why aren’t men allowed?

That just about sums it up, I think. I really hope this week will have finally changed the public’s mind about our radical, courageous, fun-loving and passionate organisation.

That would be the best 100th birthday-present of all.


An exercise in trumpet-blowing

My last post was about critics and reviews. Here’s a sequel: In the Family Way is not out until Thursday this week (5 Feb) but the coverage has been widespread already. Below is a sound-bite digest, compiled for my publishers, of all the reviews I’ve seen so far. I hope it’s of interest to those of you who helped me research the book; I can only thank you again for all your contributions. People kindly say I’ve given you a voice in the book, but really you’ve given me yours, and I’m grateful.

Here goes, then. As of today, 2 February:

In the Family Way is an important social history tracked through personal stories that need to be heard and will soon be beyond memory.  Elizabeth Grice, Daily Telegraph 24.01.15 (five-star review)

Robinson, who wrote the excellent Bluestockings, has a good eye for the human story and the affecting detail that brings alive the hypocritical moral landscape of the period. Daisy Goodwin, Sunday Times 25.01.15 (lead review)

[Robinson] has made contact with 100 unmarried mothers and their progeny and deftly interweaves their stories with the political and institutional history… The chapter on single fathers is especially interesting because it defies expectations.  Lara Feigel, Observer 25.01.15

Robinson has worked to give back a voice to those not traditionally allowed one… Taken together, the individual stories of secrecy and enforced separation form a powerful testament to the hypocrisy and cruelty of our culture.   Michele Roberts, Independent, 29.01.15

A fascinating journey into the history of illegitimacy… In this incredibly touching book, social historian Jane Robinson reveals family secrets kept for entire lifetimes, enabling us to hear long-silent voices… Elegant and compassionately written… Eloquent and highly readable. Family Tree Magazine, 30.01.15

 A four-page feature written by Jane appears in the February issue of Britain’s best-selling monthly magazine, Saga Magazine. 30.01.15

[In the Family Way’s] heart is firmly in the right place. It is a book that makes a woman want to reach for an AK47 to avenge the past; or at the very least to buy a copy to politicize their daughters.   Melanie Reid, Times, 31.01.15

The closer Robinson’s survey comes to our own day, the more shocking it grows… In the Family Way is not, incidentally, without its funny side. I particularly enjoyed this…   Craig Brown, Mail on Sunday. 01.02.15

Sunday Times ‘must read’ recommendation, 01.02.15

In the Family Way is both engaging and incredibly moving and will strike a profound chord with many readers.   Sarah Franklin, Sunday Express, 01.02.15

So there we are. All this makes it sound as though everyone has been raving in praise of the book; that’s not quite the case, as you’ll appreciate if you read Craig Brown’s review in the Mail on Sunday or Michele Roberts’ in the Independent. But I think – hope – all agree that it’s a book that needed to be written; a subject we need to address.

Fingers crossed for publication day. See you on the other side.


I carry my hardback of ‘In the Family Way’ around with me like a premature baby, wrapped in a scarf when I go outside (really!) and placed out of harm’s way in a companionable corner of the kitchen when we’re at home. I suppose it’s because it’s a pre-term copy, not properly due for another three weeks. I already feel the pangs of an over-protective parent when I hear that reviews are being prepared for it and talks planned. There’s also something of the vulnerability of having a real baby: one identity is shared between the two of us. Judge one and you judge us both.

But that’s where it ends. It’s tempting to get precious about the publication of a book. It’s my work, not my child. True, I gestated it (for over two years) and now it’s about to go into its little world to grow and flourish with all my hopes behind it. Yet in no time at all those hopes will be transferred to the new project. No author fortunate enough to attract national reviews would last long if they couldn’t dispel that vulnerability I was talking about pretty quickly.

If I tell myself that often enough, I’ll believe it.

I hope the book does well; of course I do. The reviewers must judge me as a writer because that’s what they do. But if there’s one thing I wish for ‘In the Family Way’ above all else, it’s this. That readers do not judge those mothers, fathers and children whose story it tells, but try to understand what they went through, are often still going through, and give them credit for doing the best they could in the circumstances. I’ve tried to celebrate the everyday strength of the human spirit in this book. If readers recognise that, and are as moved by it as I was, I’ll have done my job.

That sounds a bit heavy. So here’s a joke I found in a letter (included in the book) written in 1921. A young Scottish lad was courting, and asked his father for permission to get wed. ‘Father, I want to marry Janet McTavish.’ ‘Dinna do that, laddie,’ answered his father. ‘Ye canna, she’s your sister.’ Undaunted, he waited a few months, and then returned to his father. ‘Father, I want to marry Mary Findlay.’ ‘Ye canna, laddie; she’s your sister.’ The process was repeated once or twice, the boy always receiving the same answer. At last, he went to his mother. ‘Mother,’ he said, ‘I canna get wed, for Father says that every lass in the village is my sister.’ ‘Nay, laddie, dinna fret. He’s not your father.’



The finished book isn’t always enough. Each time I come to the end of a project, I look for a keepsake to remember it by; a physical emblem of two years (or more) of research and writing. For my first book, Wayward Women, it was an album of cartoons published in 1863 illustrating the perilous peregrinations of a spoof lady traveller who rejoiced in the name of the Honourable Impulsia Gushington. I’ll show you one of my favourite images (in a sophisticated Blog ‘first’ for me, if I can manage it). It’s such an exuberant book:

FullSizeRender (3)

‘Miss Gushington experiences a new sensation’

While I was writing about the Memsahibs involved in the so-called Indian Mutiny of 1857-8 (Angels of Albion), on one of my habitual fossikings around junk shops I came across an anonymous-looking scrapbook packed with cuttings from British newspapers breaking the sensational news in 1857 and 1858 of massacres and desperate escapes. I was thrilled. It’s unique; not only an invaluable resource for me, but a live commentary on unfolding catastophe. Whenever I read it I feel as though I’m eavesdropping on history.

FullSizeRender (4)

I visited the Crimea to research my biography of Mary Seacole and came home with a sprig of aromatic herbs from the site of her ‘British Hotel’ and clinic. I like to think the plant was a modern descendant of Mary’s own personal pharmacopoeia. It’s dried to a powder now, but someone in Balaklava gave me the cartouche or medallion from a bottle of claret (or something similar) also found close to Mary’s temporary Crimean home. Surely the wine came from the generous cellars of ‘Seacole and Day’? Here it is.

FullSizeRender (2)

As the faithful few who follow this Blog will know, the book I’ve just finished is called In the Family Way and is about the experience of illegitimacy for parents and children between the Great War and the Swinging Sixties. Will I keep a souvenir of this one? Nothing tangible, no. But there is an image described to me during my research that stays in my mind and will continue to do so long after the book is forgotten. It’s of a woman in her sixties taking a bundle of clean laundry from the airing cupboard. The bundle is warm, heavy, and smells sweet. This is something many of us do without thinking, several times a week. For my contributor, though, the act has painful significance. Holding that bundle in her arms reminds her of the last time she held her baby son before relinquishing him for adoption decades ago and quietly, she weeps. That’s her souvenir.


The death of fiction (and the birth of history).

As I write this, I’m waiting for the courier to arrive from Penguin Books, armed with the typeset proofs of ‘In the Family Way’. I’m absolutely terrified. I haven’t read the script since submitting it just after Christmas. What did I say? What if I can’t bear it? What if…? On the other hand, this is one of the most exciting moments in a book’s life: seeing it for the first time in a different form, all ready to leave me and live an independent life. That well-worn analogy between books and children is apt in so many ways. I feel proud and fearful at the same time, and a mixture of careful detachment and complete, ineluctable involvement. I hope the courier comes soon. I’ve gone all squirmy.

Five months have passed since my last post. It’s the fiction wot did it: I tried my hand, and thoroughly enjoyed the sense of liberation it gave me, but the pull of reality was too strong to resist. I had work to do on the script of ‘In the Family Way’: going through the copy-edits, selecting and captioning the illustrations, checking and re-checking permissions, facts, infelicities and blunders; and as soon as all that was done I found myself not turning back to my novel, which managed strangely to be turgid and excitable all at the same time, but looking for a new history to write.

Actually, it’s not so much looking as listening. There is usually a small voice in the back of one’s mind, once a book is finished, calling the next one to attention. That sounds pseudy. What I mean is that something will lodge – often unnoticed at the time – in my brain during my research, a little nugget of tangential interest, and sit there quietly until the task in hand is finished and everything else is cleared away. Only then do I notice it: the insistent suggestion of a new book, a new enthusiasm to keep me engaged for the next two years and send me straight back to my research completely invigorated.

That’s what’s happening now. The cycle is turning again: idea, research, write, publish. Idea, research, write, publish. This will be the tenth revolution. I can’t say yet what the subject will be: superstitiously I need a dotted line to sign on first. But watch this space – although if you’ve been doing that for the past 5 months, I owe you a pint.


Advice for a fictional virgin

In my previous post I mentioned that I was going to have a go at fiction – in fact I’ve been banging on about it for ages – and now, dear reader, I’ve done it. One of my lifetime’s ambitions is coming to fruition: I’m writing a novel. It’s quite probably arrant rubbish. As a fictional virgin (if you see what I mean) I feel I have no way of knowing. But it’s so much fun. I started a couple of weeks ago with the intention of writing a few pages now and then, just to keep the wheels turning until I need to prepare the illegitimacy book for the copy-editor. I’ve done a word-count this morning: 16,000. Four chapters.

The most difficult part of the whole process, I find, is keeping track of time. As a historian, I am well used to doing that; real-life chronology lends an unassailable structure.  As a novelist (if only!) the chronology is in my own head, where times and dates have a habit of suddenly changing when I’m not looking. Numbers have always swum around my mind like fish; maybe that’s why my characters can’t seem to remember what day it is. Consistency is a real challenge. I can cross-check things quite easily now, while the book is relatively short; how shall I do it when I’m halfway through or nearly done? I’m such a novice.

The problem would not arise, I suppose, had I planned out all the action in advance. The fear of accomplishing this is partly what stopped me attempting a novel before: how could I conceive of the finished object before I had written a word – yet how could I begin without knowing what was going to happen, and how it was going to end? This has been the greatest revelation of all: that in writing fiction, you don’t need to know what happens. Stuff doesn’t happen; it evolves. And it can only evolve if you start writing. So if you, like me, feel you lack the courage to try, give it a go. Don’t have high expectations; try not to judge yourself; just do it.


History and invention

I have always been terrified of attempting to write fiction. Fiction’s what real writers write; people who can think of plots and characters and don’t need to hide behind facts. Apart from doubting my ability to invent things – which is a good deficiency for historians to have, surely? – I assumed that fiction would be too personal. The Q and A sessions at the end are often the best bits of any speaking engagement, but I find myself a little bewildered by questions about me: how do I work, why do I write, what does my family think, who inspired me, and so on (so why does she indulge herself in a blog, I hear you mutter; she’s a solipsistic hypocrite…) But it’s true: in a professional capacity I shy away from talking about my role as an author, preferring instead to concentrate on my subject. The people I write about are genuinely so much more interesting than I am. That’s why I write about them.

What I have failed to appreciate all these years is that writing fiction doesn’t necessarily involve writing about yourself. I mean it probably does on a subliminal level – of course it does – but if you are a novelist it doesn’t follow that you have nowhere to hide. I hide behind history at the moment; if I were a novelist I could hide behind invention. Think how liberating that idea is, especially to those of us with a responsibility to get things right, and to do our best by other people (alive or dead). There is no ‘right’ when you’re a novelist. There is only truth, and that’s a movable feast. How tempting is that?

So: I’ve decided that while I wait in agitated trepidation for the first editorial responses to come in about the illegitimacy book, I’ll try teaching myself to let go of fact and have a go at fiction instead. I’ll just write a couple of thousand words a day, say, and see what emerges. Surely that’ll do me good, both in a mechanical sense – to stop me rusting, as I suggested in my previous blog – and creatively. But what then? What part does creativity play in non-fiction? Especially history? This is dangerous ground, I feel. But sometimes, danger’s good.