Have you ever wondered why museums and archives contain so many soldiers’ letters but none from the women in their lives? Because families – and curators, in the past – didn’t think the latter worth preserving. My aim is to tell the stories of people overlooked by history: the soldiers who didn’t write poems; the nurses who weren’t posh; the women who wrote only of fruit cakes and measles; the queer, the strange, the otherwise marginalised; the people of colour living and dying in full sight yet unremarked by history.
I try to be authentic. This to me means adhering to a framework of facts, as we understand them right now; my bottom line is that nobody should fail a history exam through reading my work. It also means respecting the nuances and truths of the time. Not every public school officer suffered shell-shock. Not ever man shot at dawn was an innocent teenager – and not every General was a bombastic, heartless, moustachioed idiot. This means a lot of research; not just history books but academic papers and expert monographs. It also means contemporary newspapers and periodicals, memoirs and journals, official war diaries, casualty clearing station admission logs, photo and autograph albums, concert programmes and gymkhana schedules, picture postcards and unpublished letters.
One of my most moving experiences of research happened in the reading room of the Imperial War Museum. I had before me a box (one of several) of papers relating to Captain Noel Chavasse, Royal Army Medical Corps surgeon, VC and Bar, who died in 1917 of wounds sustained whilst carrying in a wounded man. A few papers down I came across a school report, a letter to his grandmother and a note in big, careful toddler letters: DEAR GRANNIE I LOVE YOU, NOEL. Don’t let anyone tell you the Edwardians were buttoned-up emotional cripples. (And then, another day, this time in The British Library; a neatly typed 1915 translation of a very explicit letter written by an Indian soldier to his brother back home, telling him of the delights of French brothels.)
But there comes a point when all the research is done and, to quote Hilary Mantel, the author “just has to make things up”. This is where you make the most of gaps in history. I’m 99% sure a mixed race Royal Artillery major called Gerard Harrington-Sykes didn’t visit a base hospital in Etaples one foggy night in March 1918 (as happens in Best Beloved) but he could have done. Everything about him fits (his background, his service) and the circumstances are entirely plausible (the front line casualty clearing stations were overwhelmed during the German offensive and the wounded were trained straight to the coast); it’s just nobody logged his name because, after a brief conversation with the woman he loved, he left without having his wound treated. And Nurse Hathaway certainly wasn’t going to record the event in her night report.