As the daughter of acclaimed historian Stuart Robson, this debut novelist grew up feeling as though she had a decent understanding of what happened during the Great War. It was only after serving at the Canadian National War Memorial in France, that she realized how little she knew. The stories she heard and research she conducted there would later serve as inspiration for her first novel: Somewhere in France, the story of Lily—a young, British aristocrat—who is thrown into the heart of the war after chasing her independence and applying to serve as an ambulance driver. Through Lilly’s eyes, Jennifer Robson explores the importance of remembering the effects of the war—especially in this, the year of the First World War centenary.
Bookish: On your website you say it’s been nearly seven years since you first “dreamed of Lilly and her journey through the war.” As a debut novelist, can you share with us some of the successes and challenges on your own journey from conception to publication?
Jennifer Robson: When I first starting writing in earnest, my youngest child was an infant—she’s now about to turn seven—and I turned to it as a way of reassuring myself that I was still a creative person and I was still intellectually engaged with the world. It was difficult to find the time to write, as I’m sure is the case with any endeavor when you’re a parent with small children, but I persevered and eventually had a reasonably polished manuscript.
Then I hit a wall. None of the agents or publishers I approached were interested. Again and again I was told, very politely of course, that no one was interested in reading about the First World War. That is, no one was interested—until Downton Abbey. A dear friend persuaded me to unearth my manuscript from the depths of my hard drive and try again, and thank goodness I listened to her. I sent it out to a handful of agents and received an offer of representation almost immediately. I should add that my literary agent, Kevan Lyon, was not one of the people I approached the first time around, and from time to time I wonder what would have happened if I’d contacted her a few years earlier. I’m not complaining, though—I’m delighted with the way things have turned out!
Bookish: It’s said that fans of Downton Abbey will adore this novel. Are you a fan of the show? Do you have a favorite character?
JR: I am a fan of the show, although I came to it late. I had already written Somewhere in Francewhen it debuted, but as I worked on revisions to the book I was nervous about being influenced by the show and made a decision to hold off on watching until I was finished. I’ve only recently allowed myself to catch up, and as you can imagine I adore it. As for my favorite characters, they are Anna and Mr. Bates. I so hope they have a happy ending.
Bookish: One of the things that consoles both Lilly and her patients during the war is The Return of Sherlock Holmes, a book that she loves and reads aloud to them. Do you have a book that you repeatedly return to in that way?
JR: I’d say there are about a half-dozen books I return to time and again, depending on the season and my need for a particular sort of comfort read. If I had to pick my favorite, it would be Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring. We will never know the true identity of the girl in Vermeer’s painting, but Ms. Chevalier makes me believe that it must have been Griet. That, I think, is the sign of a first-class historical novelist: someone who tells a story so believably, so effortlessly, that you close the book and think, “yes, it must have been so.”
Bookish: I hear you’re working on a follow-up novel about Lilly’s friend Charlotte. What about Charlotte’s character made you want to dig deeper and write more about her?
JR: Like Lilly, Charlotte is a pioneer. She attends Oxford at a time when there are few female students; she devotes herself to her work as a nurse during the war, and then as a social worker after the Armistice. She is constantly driven by the need to do more, to be more, but at what cost to her own happiness? I wanted to see what makes this woman tick, and of course I had to figure out what would be in store for her and the other central characters from Somewhere in France after the end of the war.
Bookish: You spent time working in France as a guide at the Canadian National War Memorial at Vimy Ridge. Did any of your experiences there influence this novel?
JR: I worked there for a season in the late spring of 1989, just after my first year at university. When I went to France that summer, I naively imagined that I knew a fair amount about the Great War. I’d read a lot about it, had talked about it often with my father, and imagined I had a pretty good understanding of what happened during those dark years. I quickly realized I knew nothing, and this was never more apparent than the first time I had the privilege of meeting a group of Great War veterans who were visiting the Memorial. As I listened to those remarkable men talk of what they had endured, and then when I had the privilege of shaking their hands and thanking them, I told myself I would never forget. So I suppose that is why I chose the Great War as my subject, and why I continued to be deeply moved by the experiences of those who suffered and died as a result of it.
Bookish: What do you think draws people to that time period? What do you think we gain from continuing to recall what that period was like for people of all classes?
JR: The First World War has never been as popular a subject for books and films as the Second World War, largely because it lacks an overt narrative of good versus evil, or at least it does for later generations. It’s the war’s very complexity, however, that helps to make it so interesting to us now. There simply is no straightforward way of explaining why it was fought, nor is there any way we can easily generalize reactions to the war, both at the time and in the post-war period.
Unsurprisingly, the preparations for centenary commemorations this year have become a source of controversy. I don’t see this as unjustified—after all, in Britain the government has imposed quite severe austerity measures in order to cope with economic woes, and to those who are suffering it must seem ludicrous to be spending millions of pounds over a war that took place a century ago. I understand all this, but I also feel very strongly that we should commemorate the beginning of the war, if only as a means of properly introducing it to a generation of young people who are largely oblivious to its history. If we forget the Great War, we risk forgetting what war does to young men and women. We forget that it kills and disfigures and cripples them. We forget that it tears apart their families and friends. We forget to acknowledge the advances in human knowledge and achievement that can happen during war, often in spite of it. And we forget how war has shaped the world we live in today.
Jennifer Robson first learned about the Great War from her father, acclaimed historian Stuart Robson, and later served as an official guide at the Canadian National War Memorial at Vimy Ridge, France. A former copy editor, she holds a doctorate in British economic and social history from the University of Oxford. She lives in Toronto, Canada, with her husband and young children. Somewhere in France is her first novel.