WIDOWLAND, by C. J. Carey, is set in 1953 in an alternative London. Rather than fight Nazism in 1940, Britain sued for peace, and has lived with occupation ever since.
It is disorientating to be drawn into a world that we recognise and are familiar with when it is made so different by the changes imposed by the German Alliance. Britain has been treated more benevolently than mainland Europe — but most of the men have still been sent to work camps on the Continent, and women live a strictly regimented and controlled life. They are assessed when they reach maturity on their appearance and their capacity to bear children. That categorisation defines their work, their residence, their opportunities, their rations, and their entire future.
At one extreme are widows and those too old to give birth, who live in separate communities away from society — Widowlands — living greatly reduced lives: disposable, feared, forgotten. At the other are people such as Rose Ransom — young, blonde, and talented — who enjoys meals out in London hotels with her German boss and lover.
The leaders of the Alliance understand and fear the power of story and great literature. Rose’s job is to rewrite English classics such as Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice so that their message and content support the regime’s expectations of women as obedient, limited, and uneducated. She must remove any suggestion of female independence, intellect, and ideas, and make these central figures of literature as weak and dependent as women and girls are expected to be under the German Alliance.
In 1953, those who won the war are getting old and tired. The rules are tightening as preparations for the coronation of King Edward VIII and Queen Wallis advance. Something is beginning to move under the surface. Feminist statements from literature and philosophy are being written on buildings, and the authorities cannot decide how to deal with the challenge. Rose is sent to investigate and report back.
© Charles KerrThe author, the historical novelist Jane Thynne. Widowland is her first book published under the pen name C. J. Carey
Rose is the heart of the story. We travel with her, and follow her deepening realisation of the restrictions that she lives under. Her awakening comes from many directions — primarily, her interactions with an older generation (her father and the residents of a house in Widowland outside Oxford), who remember the world before 1940, and the dreams of freedom and self-determination which she has for Hannah, her precious niece.
In other hands, this plot could feel awkward, forced, but Carey is utterly in control of her world and material. Dread seeps from every page as we catch hints of the truths hidden in the shadows: concentration camps, the organised sexual abuse of women, that deadness that comes when a nation has its cultural tradition, its history, and its literature ripped from it by outsiders. It is as if we are glimpsing horrors from the window of a speeding train.
We know what Carey is referring to in those places where the people in the book are forbidden to look, or that they choose to turn away from. This is the same dilemma that the people of occupied Europe faced in the early 1940s. We are so used to feeling comfortable and a little smug at the thought that it “didn’t happen here”, as if Britain were a chosen nation. Widowland shows us a reality, one that we would probably have responded to no differently from our neighbours in France or Holland. In Widowland, the dilemmas of living under occupation — when to acquiesce and when to stand — become not just European, but English.
Such impossible choices are clearly embodied in Rose’s own family — in the obedience of her sister and brother-in-law, in the quiet and increasingly dangerous outspokenness of her ageing father, and in the innocence of her niece, for whom Rose defiantly writes secret fairy stories of female courage and freedom.
The year 1953 might feel like another time and another world, especially in Jubilee season, but Widowland clearly echoes our own age and environment, and asks vital questions. What will be left of Ukraine’s history and culture if Russia has its way? Can we imagine a different world in which the Queen never had the chance to grow up and grow old? How damaging has our sense of being different as a result of 1940 been, over subsequent decades?
And how different is our world in 2022, in the expectations that it places on women, judging them by their appearance rather than the quality of their character? How overlooked and ignored are the elderly, especially in the aftermath of a pandemic in which so many were infected in their own rooms in our care homes?
A study of courage and memory, a celebration of the vital importance of history and literature, Widowland raises two immense questions above all. Are the values and inheritances that we rely on and take for granted really as secure and eternal as we think, or can we imagine needing to fight for them, as the residents of Widowland do? And will Rose’s slow awakening to the injustice and horror of the world that she lives in set her free, or crush her utterly?
The Revd Richard Lamey is the Rector of St Paul’s, Wokingham, and Area Dean of Sonning, in the diocese of Oxford.
Widowland by C. J Carey is published by Quercus at £8.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.09); 978-1-5294-1200-0.
Listen to the author C. J. Carey in conversation with Sarah Meyrick in this week’s Church Times podcast. This is a new monthly series produced in association with the Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature.
WIDOWLAND — SOME QUESTIONS
- Is our society’s attitude to those who cannot have children different from that in Widowland?
- At what point do you see more than Rose does in the book, and when does she see more?
- Does the book help you to care more about those living under authoritarian regimes?
- What do you want to change about our world, having read Widowland?
- Who are you most worried about at the end of Widowland? What will happen next?
- What is the part played by religion in the book?
- Which scene is the most memorable in the book?
IN OUR next Book Club page on 5 August, we will print extra information about our next book, Night of Fire by Colin Thubron. It is published by Vintage at £8.99 (£8.09); 978-0-09-953265-1 .
A fire spreads through a house, threatening to engulf the six tenants: a failed priest, an atheist neurosurgeon, and an obsessive photographer, along with a naturalist, a schoolboy, and a traveller. Each has lived a fascinating life, conjured in Thubron’s lyrical prose. But, as the inferno courses through the building, we start to notice inexplicable resonances between the lives of the tenants: motifs that recur and details that repeat, and that surely cannot all be explained as coincidence.
Colin Thubron is an acclaimed travel writer and novelist, whose eight novels and 11 works of non-fiction make up an oeuvre that transports readers around the globe, and deep into the human psyche. His celebrated travel books recount journeys in the Middle East, Asia, and Eastern Europe. A voyage down the Amur River, through Russia and China — completed in his 80th year — is the subject of his most recent book. In his novels, characters are subject to intense pressures: losing their memory, losing a loved one, or losing their minds.
BOOKS FOR THE NEXT TWO MONTHS
September: A Terrible Kindness by Jo Browning Wroe
October: To Calais, in Ordinary Time by James Meek