Maggie Ross’s The Villa Rouge remembers lives of war wives

maggie ross and villa rouge jacket image

maggie ross and villa rouge jacket image - Credit: Archant

The award winning author tells Danny Wittenberg about the challenges of blending fact with fiction.

It’s frightening how easily history fades into fiction. Authors, politicians and journalists often demonstrate this as they confuse the facts and seem to forget the obvious conflict between truth and fantasy, which can have the effect of glorifying or degrading the past.

But then you come across geniuses like Maggie Ross, member of a growing class of historical novelists headed by multiple Booker Prize winner Hilary Mantel. Delicately, the Muswell Hill writer mixes her imagination with genuine sources to draw the best from both genres – a golden mean of gripping lessons from years gone by.

Although it’s hard to receive history from anything other than a modern perspective, Ross believes that there can be no excuse for sacrificing authenticity. “I think writers have a responsibility to reflect the true course of history whilst making some aspects more dramatic,” she says. “I can use actual quotes from all sorts of people – but I can use them in my own way, creating much more interesting events.”

The Villa Rouge (MacLehose Press £18.99) her latest hybrid publication, took over two years of research and writing to produce a credible yet vivid account of isolation and liberation in the Second World War. It tells the story of Morgan Perincall during the fall of Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain, as she leaves Tufnell Park for the false sanctuary of her childhood home in Essex, with her children evacuated and her husband serving in France.

Now in her 70s, Ross experienced the war as a girl and much of the novel – the infidelity with RAF pilots on neighbouring bases, the subsequent suppression – is based on first-hand descriptions from friends and family. “The book didn’t write itself, of course, but some of the stories were so interesting that you kind of go with the flow,” she says.

It also provides a revealing portrait of women’s lives in the early 1940s. Ross insists that it isn’t “one of those” romanticised works of feminist fiction, but features female characters being ignored and denigrated. She explains: “Historically, society was still very distant. It’s a world away from what we are now. Women had become almost second-class and the attitude to rape was backward.”

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The author’s greatest gift, however, is for rendering the scenes she knows least in the settings she knows best. As the narrative returns to north London during the Blitz, she rekindles the horrors of an effectively unrecognisable city, citing street upon street covered with shattered glass, burning buildings and leaking gas.

She talks resiliently about the dark place where all historical novelists have to go in order to revive past devastation: “I enjoy writing but I find it terribly hard work. It’s hard to keep putting yourself in those situations on a daily basis, but the process is leavened by the fact that a novelist has great freedom with their characters.”

Ross blames the burden of writing novels for her much larger repertoire of short stories and plays, which have been broadcast on radio and TV. That said, she is best known for her previous two novels, The Gasteropod (1969) and Milena (1983); meanwhile, coinciding with the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, The Villa Rouge couldn’t have come out at a more fitting time.

But does it make sense to continue commemorating the grimmest hours of history through such recreations? “It should continue for as long as they aren’t simply a ritual,” she replies. “For example, the annual meetings at the Cenotaph only come to life – if you can put it like that – when there is a contemporary war and we become aware that this is a recent reality. Trying to keep the feel of war alive is extraordinarily difficult.” Compelling words from an author who applies herself exceptionally to doing just that.