“Marguerite is labelled as someone with a ‘Messiah complex’ – exactly the words John Thaw used to describe his wife.”
Although I am not of Hancock’s generation, I am demi-connected to it. She may have taught in post-war London; I went to school there, and although the ’60s were well underway by the time I was attending an East End grammar, much of Hancock’s world stubbornly remained – the peasoupers, the bomb sites turned into playgrounds and allotments, the general grubbiness and sense of defeat snatched from the jaws of victory.
Judy writes about the young, idealistic girl of the mid-20th century; in some ways I preferred the mature Marguerite, who also has so much of the author in her. Marguerite is labelled as someone with a ‘Messiah complex’ – exactly the words John Thaw used to describe his wife.
The older character is also changed (but not soured) by the gradual realisation that although age brings wisdom and perspective, it can also deliver a sense of alienation and puzzlement; a feeling of being shut out of the brave new world of the thrusting young.
The political background to the swirling half-century Marguerite witnesses and tries to change is the canvas for this story, but it is the personal relationships that form its heart, and none more so than her friendship with a fellow-teacher. He’s from the north, and gay – ‘our new word, because we’re all rather jolly’ – he explains to her.
As a writer, Sheila Hancock uncompromisingly wears her heart on her sleeve. Age has not withered her – other than in this regard. ‘All my life I’ve always felt a bit ill, she said cheerfully in a recent interview. ‘Getting old is pretty much like that, really. You just feel a tiny bit ill.’
Well, as a first-time novelist, she is in the rudest of health.
“From flashbacks we learn that during the war Marguerite was a fearless heroine as a member of the Special Operations Executive in Vichy France.”
This is Sheila Hancock’s debut novel, which is astonishing as she is now an incredibly attractive and vibrant 81-year old. It’s not, however, the actresses first book; she has already written two brilliant memoirs about her marriage to the actor John Thaw, and her subsequent widowhood.
So we already knew Sheila could write; and her first novel is a truly wonderful read. Miss Carter’s War begins in 1948 and tells the story of Marguerite, one of the first women to be allowed to receive a degree at Cambridge. She becomes a schoolteacher, passionate about the education of girls. From flashbacks we learn that during the war Marguerite was a fearless heroine as a member of the Special Operations Executive in Vichy France.
Marguerite is half English, half French. She is beautiful, idealistic, and determined to change the world. Politically she is on the liberal left, and Hancock vividly brings to life the old causes so many strong women made their own – the anti-nuclear Aldermaston and Greenham Common marches, and the Miss World protests.
Hancock writes about Marguerite heckling Margaret Roberts, whom she describes as ‘a frumpy blonde’. Roberts of course late became Mrs Thatcher, so far our only woman prime minister. Marguerite is not impressed.
So Miss Carter’s War extends beyond war itself; it’s the story of a clever young blue-stocking who yearns to create a better world, not least for women. It’s not hard to see the author’s spirit shining through her heroine, the woman Hancock wishes she had been. But this novel is not just political. It’s also full of warmth and personal relationships, of love, grief, and disappointment.
Here are a selection of the reviews for Miss Carter’s War
“There is more than a touch of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie about the book … Carter is an original and convincing character and Hancock would be perfect for the part in a film of the book”
“A vivid portrait of the fast-changing life in post-war Britain. Nostalgic and moving”
Woman & Home
“She has a vocation for putting into words the alienation that age and grief bring. The audience for her previous books will be delighted by this one ****”