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Interview: Jean Fullerton, novelist

17 July 2020

‘You might think you’ve had an ordinary life, but you haven’t. You’re living in extraordinary times’

I write historical novels, set where I was born and raised: in Wapping, Whitechapel, Shadwell, and Stepney. My inspiration is my family, who lived there since the 1820s.

I lived with my parents and younger brother in a council house in Bethnal Green, and then in Stepney. I had a largely happy childhood, with a two-week holiday each year at Butlins and regular visits to museums, but my teenage years weren’t quite as trouble-free because of the deteriorating health of my parents. I was 15 and looking after my brother, who was four years younger than me. Of course, some of my friends had already left school to work, and children helped more round the house then; so, though I was still at school, I was more like an adult.

When I start a new series, I read about the period and subject in general, and then hunt out primary sources, such as diaries and letters, to put authentic meat on the historical bones.

None of my family wrote their stories down, but I remember things they told me. My mum happened to be in the station when the Bethnal Green tragedy happened — 3 March 1943 — and I found an account from a doctor who treated people at the scene. You can often find people’s diaries on the internet, and first-hand accounts published from the Mass-Observation [a record of everyday life in Britain]. There’s a good online archive from the Imperial War Museum, too. I found the diary of a heavy-rescue man stationed in Canning Town, published by his daughter, full of detail about his work.

You might think you’ve had an ordinary life, but you haven’t. You’re living in extraordinary times, and you should be writing it down for your children. I haven’t written my autobiography yet, but I should, because I’m always telling other people they should.

My east-London nurse series is similar to Call the Midwife, in that they’re set in the same area, and they deal with some of the same day-to-day struggles; but, whereas Jennifer Worth’s three books are autobiographical, all of my novels are fiction interwoven with real events and detailed research.

No, they don’t romanticise the East End at all. In fact, I try to turn the myths on their heads as much as possible, or put a new twist on them. I also try to show the great mix of people that I grew up among, and who lived cheek by jowl in deprived conditions.

I started work in the 1970s as a woman police constable in the Metropolitan Police Force. I was stationed in West End Central, which was a bit of an eye-opener. That’s where I met my husband, who was also a police constable: he likes to say he met me walking the streets of Soho. After having our three daughters, I trained as a nurse. I became a district nurse, and it was then, as a way of relieving the stress of being a district area manager, that I started writing.

Stress in the NHS? Always shortages of money, shortages of staff, too many patients, government targets, paperwork. . . Being in management, there’s always the corporate stuff, and people going off sick, putting in complaints — all while you’re trying to provide a service to vulnerable people.

My husband was ordained while he was still a police officer. Once he’d completed his service, he took a post as a chaplain for the Olympic construction site, and became Vicar of St Paul’s, Stratford.

We live in Bedford now. I don’t do cakes, but I do the church’s website. I’ve been doing quite a few cruises as a speaker for the last 12 years, which I treat like a writing retreat. I talk to my three daughters — two of them are nurses — almost every other day, and we meet up as a whole family regularly.

We’ve had almost two different lives, starting new careers in our fifties. It keeps you fresh.

My family went to church every Sunday for as long as I can remember; so my first experience with God was the usual Sunday-school stories and teaching.

Truthfully, I was a C of E churchgoer until my daughter was diagnosed with leukaemia. Then I had to decide if any of this God stuff about his love and divine plan was true, or just a bunch of fairy stories. I chose to believe, and Christian faith has been my anchor ever since.

Caring for my eldest daughter as a child, and then again when she relapsed at 17, was the bravest thing I’ve ever done. She survived, and has three children of her own now, but the experience of sitting by her bedside through seemingly endless rounds of chemotherapy changed me completely. In truth, I wasn’t brave or courageous: I had no choice. I just had to face it.

Being a nurse and caring for other people is very satisfying, but what I enjoy most is creating characters and then telling their stories in a 400-page novel.

There’s always a point in the book — usually about 40,000 words in — when the whole thing is such a mess that I spend days just staring at the screen of my computer trying to fathom my way out. After 18 years of writing, I know it’s part of the process, but it still sometimes has me staring at the ceiling in the small hours.

As a teenager, I devoured books by Anya Seton, Jean Plaidy, Mary Stewart, and Norah Lofts, and, although their writing styles are very different from mine, the way they brought the many women in history to life has stayed with me to this day.

Now, for pleasure, I read books not in my genre, by authors such as Elizabeth Chadwick, Bernard Cornwell, Ben Kane, Angus Douglas, and contemporary authors such as Carole Matthews and Milly Johnson. To be truthful, I’m open to most offers, as a good book is a good book. That said, I never read horror or fantasy, or Harry Potter.

As Mrs Vicar, I’m proud of 43 years of marriage, three grown-up and fully grounded daughters, and seven grandchildren. As Jean Fullerton, I’m proud of all my books, published and unpublished. Fifteen out in May, and I’ve got about seven still unpublished in Britain. My happiest times are spent with my family, and when I hold a printed copy of my newest book in my hand.

I’d like to travel east to China, Japan, and Australia, and then west to Canada and Alaska. I’d also like to keep my faculties long enough to write dozens of books and meet my great-grandchildren.

Intolerance makes me angry. While some views and attitudes are totally unacceptable, I worry about the increasing way in which people are demonised for holding legitimate but opposing views.

I have a great deal of hope for the future. Humans have always faced great challenges, but they’ve also overcome them with ingenuity and technology. If they hadn’t, we’d all still be dressed in fur and living in caves. I believe we’ll overcome our present challenges of climate change and pollution. The seeds of this hope are many scientific advances, like stem-cell research and gene therapy.

I pray for my husband, my daughters and their families, and my friends. I give thanks for my many blessings, and I pray for people to come to Christ as Saviour, both within our parish and the wider Church.

If I could choose any companion to be locked in a church with, it would be my mum. She died when I was just 19; so I was never able to talk to her as a grown woman. It will be fine. One day we’ll be in a place of worship together, because she was a Christian, and we’ll have that long-overdue conversation.


Jean Fullerton was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

A Ration Book Wedding is pub­lished by Atlantic Books at £7.99 (Church Times Bookshop £7.20).

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