Caroline Beecham is the best-selling author of Maggie’s Kitchen, which I reviewed back in 2016, it was her first novel and was set in London during WWII. Eleanor’s Secret is also set partly in London during WWII and has ties to the British Restaurants depicted in Maggie’s Kitchen.
We are fortunate to have a guest post today by Caroline Beecham that gives us a little more insight into the inspiration and writing of Eleanor’s Secret.
Eleanor’s Secret is a story about long-lasting love; love that’s worth protecting, and love that is worth making sacrifices for. And of course, it’s about the secrets we keep and how they affect the lives of those around us. The novel switches between the Second World War and the present day as a young artist, Eleanor Roy, follows her dream of becoming a war artist, and sixty years later, when she entrusts her granddaughter, Kathryn, to help her solve the disappearance of artist Jack Valante.
The idea for Eleanor’s Secret evolved when I was researching my first novel, Maggie’s Kitchen and came across the War Artists’ Advisory Committee whose official role was to produce an artistic and documentary history of Britain during wartime, but unofficially it was also to protect a generation of artists. I found this really interesting and felt that there was such a contrast between creating art and warfare that there was sure to be some interesting characters and stories—and there were!
Then I discovered that of thirty-seven artists given fulltime contracts, thirty-six were men and there was only one woman. This really sparked something for me; in wartime Britain women were taking on the majority of roles that men had previously held, yet that wasn’t reflected in the WAAC or the art world. The heads of the major art institutions and the art schools were mostly men and I imagined there would have been female artists who had an issue with this, and Eleanor was one of them!
Eleanor wants to be a war artist because of her love of painting but is driven by the fact that nothing was expected to become of her as a daughter; she also knows that being a war artist is what she can best do to help. It was peeling away the layers of the real history and these female artists’ lives that inspired Eleanor’s character.
Her granddaughter, Kathryn, is key to helping solve the mystery of the missing artist, and whilst she’s pleased to help, she also welcomes the opportunity to return home because she has issues with her marriage to work out. However, as she delves into Eleanor’s past, Kathryn is soon confronted with a grandmother that she doesn’t recognise. Kathryn migrated to Australia so has learnt to cope with homesickness and living without family support, which is something a lot of people might relate to. This aspect of her character is probably influenced by my own situation but the theme also explores how strong these relationships can become surviving long-distances and many years, and of course the importance of inter-generational ties, especially the grandparents.
It was useful in writing Maggie’s Kitchen that I had worked in family restaurants but I’m not an artist, so it was crucial to talk to artists, and in particular war artists. At the start of my research I talked to David Rowlands, a British military artist, who has worked in battle zones all over the world; from Northern Ireland and Bosnia, to Africa and Afghanistan. He was able to describe the emotions of being at the frontline, at the atmosphere of battle and the attitude of other soldiers to him as a war artist, which was very revealing and helped to shape Jack’s character. It was useful to hear about the incidental details and characters that you meet on tour, but David also spoke of missing his family and of the ‘unspeakable crimes happening within sight of his window.
I interviewed award-winning artist, Joshua Yeldham, who had a brief spell as a war artist and was lucky to talk to Wendy Sharpe, who was official artist in East Timor, the first female war artist since WWII. She was able to give a female perspective on working in difficult conditions and helped speculate on what life might have been like for Eleanor. She talked about the materials that would have been used and the processes but also of the feelings of volatility–of everyone on edge–and how this makes you aware of how things happen by chance. Wendy described how the experience intensified her knowledge, and of seeing the extremes human beings are capable of and stories of unbelievable horror and atrocity, but of seeing incredible acts of kindness and bravery too. As someone who grew up watching BBCs Kate Adie, reporting from battle-zones—and always wanting to be Kate Adie—I was really grateful for a deeper understanding of what these artists and journalists went through; different time period and artistic tools but still the same emotions, sense of fear and unpredictability.
It was a real pleasure to write this novel, partly because I find lesser known histories and how they lived during wartime fascinating, but also because writing novels set in England helped when I was homesick by anchoring my thoughts there. Eleanor’s Secret is a mystery and a love story and I hope readers enjoy that as well as the insight into the lives of the war artists. It’s good to keep the real stories alive by talking to family; my grandmother is still alive and she’s shared some of her experiences of wartime, in fact I’ve discovered a few family mysteries of my own, but that’s another story…