Today I welcome author Clare Flynn, who I met at the Historical Novel Conference where we were both helping out stuffing goody bags for all the delegates. Clare is going to talk about how one particular object speaks to the themes in her new WW2 novel, The Chalky Sea.
The German Powder Compact
The Chalky Sea, my fifth novel, takes place between the summer of 1940 and the end of the war in 1945. The main character, Gwen Collingwood, is a married thirty-something woman whose husband has headed off to war to a destination unknown (he is in what we now know as Special Operations). For Gwen, an unhappy and unfulfilled woman, who appears emotionally cold, the war represents a form of liberation. Refusing to be evacuated from her small seaside town, even after it becomes a frequent target for the Luftwaffe, Gwen, like many of her contemporaries, finds working for the war effort gives her a new sense of purpose.
You asked me to talk about a real historical object that I found inspiring or related to my book. I’m going to pick a powder compact. I’ve chosen that because one scene in the book revolves around it – and because this object, once ubiquitous, is rarely seen these days other than in the handbags of Vintage enthusiasts or on the shelves of collectors. Powder compacts, at their height of popularity in the 30s, 40s and 50s, declined from the 1960s as heavily powdered faces fell out of fashion.
With rationing and shortages, make-up was not freely available as the war progressed. Women were encouraged instead to eke out their supplies. As one cosmetics advertisement said at the time:
“No lipstick – ours or anyone else’s – will win the war. But it symbolises one of the reasons why we are fighting.”
Any self-respecting middle-class woman would have had a powder compact, often an ornate one – not in throwaway plastic, but a jewelled or engraved permanent container, intended to be refilled when the powder itself ran out. Compacts were much more than functional objects – they were fashion accessories.
In The Chalky Sea, there is a scene early in the war, between Gwen and her friend, Daphne Pringle, in the ladies room of a local hotel at a benefit to raise money to buy a Spitfire. Daphne claims to have forgotten her face powder, so asks to borrow Gwen’s. The compact is an unusual one, gold and monogrammed with Gwen’s initials, a gift from her husband before they married. The eagle-eyed Daphne examines the object and notices there is an inscription in German and immediately makes the assumption that Gwen must be German and has been concealing that fact. The explanation that Gwen and her husband met in Germany in the 1920s and Roger had a line from Goethe “Glücklich allen, Ist die Seele, die libel” inscribed as a romantic gesture, is greeted with skepticism by Daphne. For her, anything associated with Germany is automatically cause for suspicion – even the woman she regards as her best friend.
Her voice was frosty. ‘I had no idea you were German.’
‘Then why do you have a powder compact with a German inscription on it?
‘It was a gift from Roger.’
‘From Roger?’ Daphne’s hand went to her mouth. ‘Good Lord, is he German?’
‘Neither of us is German. We happened to meet there. In ’23. I was at finishing school in Switzerland and Roger was working for The Reparations Commission. We met at a party at the British embassy in Berlin. I was a friend of the daughter of one of the attachés there.’
‘You speak German?’
‘Yes.’ Gwen felt herself bristling.
‘I see.’ Daphne’s voice was frosty.
‘As far as I’m aware, Daphne, it’s not a crime. I speak French as well.’
The relationship between Daphne and Gwen doesn’t survive the war, and is emblematic of how people change during the intensity of sustained conflict. Behaviour and attitudes, that might be overlooked in peacetime or never surface at all, come to the forefront and relationships are put to the test. Gwen forms a new friendship with a working class woman, Pauline, to whom in peacetime she would have been unlikely to give the time of day.
So, the powder compact for me is emblematic of the times and of Gwen and Roger’s relationship, a relationship which Gwen stifled in its infancy, a victim of her own past and her own doubts and fears. Had the war not happened, Gwen might well have stayed friends with Daphne, and continued to drift in what was then a passionless marriage, without confronting her own buried emotions and desires.
The German powder compact also opens a door for Gwen, by revealing her knowledge of German, which leads to a new role for her in the war effort.
The Chalky Sea is available as a paperback and a Kindle e-book. http://mybook.to/chalkysea
Clare’s website www.clareflynn.co.uk
Amazon author page http://author.to/clareflynn
You can download a free copy of Clare’s short story collection, A Fine Pair of Shoes and Other Stories via her website.