It is 1938 and Daisy Driscoll is forging a lonely path through the world, struggling to make ends meet as a sales girl in a London department store. She has been raised in an East End orphanage and has never known the warmth of a real home – something she craves. When she meets Gerald Mortimer, a cavalry subaltern on leave from the Indian Army, it seems that her dreams are about to come true. She has finally found someone of her very own to love. But fate was never going to give her an easy ride. When she finds she is pregnant, the dream begins to disintegrate. She travels to India to marry, but discovers almost immediately that Gerald is not all that he claims. Daisy is an innocent in a wicked world, and is led down a path of deceit and danger. As the menace grows, she is forced to call on every ounce of strength and courage in order to survive.
Research has always been the part I most enjoy in writing historical fiction. I usually have a comfortable ‘nest’ on which I can build, and it’s only the smaller details that I need to discover - what kind of butter churns were in use in the Regency, for instance, or whether madeleines were eaten at the time. But when I came to write The Girl from Cobb Street, my nest was bare. It consisted of one very old marriage certificate and a single visit I’d made to Rajasthan.
The certificate recorded my parents’ wedding. My mother travelled to India in April 1937 and was married in St John’s Afghan Church, in what was then Bombay. Even now India hits you in the face with its difference. But in the 1930s, the journey took three weeks and most people rarely ventured far beyond their home. I tried to imagine how it must have been for a working-class girl, who had never been further from London than a day at the Southend seaside, to travel to such an alien world and marry a man she hadn’t seen for six years. Out of that imagining came my heroine, Daisy Driscoll. Daisy is reunited with her lover far more quickly, but she faces many of the same hazards in settling to her new life in India.
Memories of my Indian trip and the countless photographs I took, gave me the setting – the look, the smell, the colour and texture of the region. But I had no idea what it must have felt like to live in 1930s British India. My mother had rarely spoken of it. I guess she’d filed India away as a past that was no longer relevant. We were an army family, constantly on the move, and there was always another place to get used to – Egypt, Germany, Cyprus. All I knew was that she hated the curry, was terrified of frogs in the bath and loved the cool beauty of the hill station. And that her social life as a sergeant’s wife had been great fun. By the end of the Second World War, though, my father had climbed to the rank of captain and she was forced to become a part of the Officers’ Mess, with all its subtle discriminations. Her reaction to this very different social world was stark. She never felt she belonged and every mess ‘do’ was an enormous trial for her.
It was into this milieu that I plunged an ill-prepared Daisy. Her husband is a very junior officer but still part of a world in which hierarchy and status are all important, and where iron backed memsahibs rule. I spent several weeks reading first-hand accounts of life in the Raj: a huge amount of fascinating material most of which, fortunately for readers, doesn’t appear in the trilogy. Army life, at least in India, was narrow and insular, the main topics of interest being sport and gossip. Intellectual discussion was largely absent. The occasional Gilbert and Sullivan musical evening was about as cultural as it got. Some of the women were intelligent but had to pretend they weren’t, and I felt genuine sympathy for them. Admiration, too, for their fortitude in making a home often miles out in the bush, coping with the intense heat and the constant fear of disease, and bearing children but seeing them die or sent ‘home’ at a very early age.
Their attitudes to the colonised, however, though orthodox for the time, made me cringe and I couldn’t let Daisy share them. So I read on – trying to get a handle on the political situation in the late Thirties, when Europe was threatened by war and Indian nationalism sensed an opportunity to throw off the yoke of empire. Daisy’s sympathies were clearly going to lie in this camp, so for all kinds of reasons she was never going to fit the world into which she’d married. Add a deceitful and desperate husband, and you have the seeds of disaster. In comparison, my mother’s marriage was blissfully uneventful!
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About the Author
Merryn Allingham worked for many years as a university lecturer and between job, family and pets, there was little time to do more than dabble in writing. But when the pressures eased, she grabbed the chance to do something she’d always promised herself – to write a novel. She’d taught 19th century literature and grown up reading Georgette Heyer, so it seemed natural to gravitate towards the Regency period. That was over five years ago and in that time, she has published six Regency romances under the name of Isabelle Goddard. It has been a splendid apprenticeship but it left her wanting to write on a larger canvas and more mainstream fiction. In 2013, she adopted a new writing name, Merryn Allingham, and a new genre. Daisy’s War, a suspense trilogy, is the result. The books are set in India and wartime London during the 1930s and 1940s and the first in the series, The Girl from Cobb Street, was published in January this year. Books two and three will come out in May and August, 2015. Find out more at Merryn’s website www.merrynallingham.com and find her on Facebook and Twitter