My grandparents were Russian anarchists, living in Edwardian London in 1905. How I Broke Mama’s Commandments, the novel I am currently writing, is the story of anarchists, Sophia Vitebsky and Dov Feldman and their socialist comrades, in both London and Russia, at that time. Originally inspired by my grandmother, it has taken off in directions I certainly didn’t expect when I began writing, but I hope it still maintains a connection with that young girl I never knew. You can read an extract from the first chapter, (published by Crocus, in Migration Stories ISBN 978-946745-23-4) on the novel page of this website.
So how does a young immigrant’s life in the Edwardian era connect with the Fabulous Fifties?
Firstly, a little about the story: Sophia Vitebsky, a girl of nineteen, voyages across the Baltic Sea from St Petersburg to the Millwall Docks, meeting en route, Dov Feldman, a fascinating Russian revolutionary. Ettie Guterman, a midwife, also travelling to London, warns her to be wary of Dov: ‘Don’t be caught by those dangerous words, his fine manner. By his charm. Think what your mama would say.’
But fate intervenes, and Sophia finds herself alone in London …what can she do…?
Before writing the first chapter, I had researched the period politically and socially. Some weeks after its publication, I was dreaming over the direction the novel would take, when it came to me suddenly that Sophia might have worked as a midwife in the East End to supplement her pitiful sweatshop wage. A midwife? Then I certainly needed to do more research.
An enthusiastic librarian in my local Didsbury Library almost took me by the hand to show me an ‘extraordinary’ book. ‘Not quite your period,’ she said, ‘but it will give you ideas and it’s wonderfully written.’ It was Jennifer Worth’s, Call the Midwife. ISBN 078-297-85964-2. I devoured it together with the second volume, Shadows of the Workhouse, some chapters too upsetting to read.
A year later, Call the Midwife, went out on BBC One, an enormous success. I was thrilled to see that Miranda Hart has been cast as Chummy because that’s whom I envisaged on reading the first book.
I quote from the BBC Media website: The BBC One ratings hit ended on a series high last night with 9.2 million viewers tuning in to watch the final episode, resulting in a series average overnight of 8.7 million which makes it the biggest new drama series on the channel since records began (in 2001).
Why did eight million people sit entranced every week? TV critics opine that the British public loves anything that shows the class system. Really? I think there were other reasons. Certainly, there are people like me, who lived through that era. A little younger than Jennifer Worth, I wore shirtwaister dresses, sewn at home on a Singer sewing machine, not as they have it, in today’s paper, ‘shirt dresses’ but identical to those worn, off-duty, in Call the Midwife; my friends and I wore red lipstick and pointy bras, and always stockings and high-heeled shoes. Our hair was long, waved like Rita Hayworth’s or Grace Kelly’s. It was perhaps natural for some of us to love the programme, indulging a little in nostalgia. I don’t know the age range of those who comprised the huge audience, but I guess that the majority couldn’t possibly have lived during that time, and it was the themes that drew them to the programme. Birth, death, romance, sexual restraint, and fascination with a way of life seen so little, the practical, down-to-earth, spiritual conviction of the midwife nuns. And the humour – perhaps that’s what the great British public likes?
Back to my novel. Sophia lived in the East End, not in Docklands, which in the early nineteen hundreds were indescribably poor. It was called ‘Darkest London’ and there were certainly streets, where only whores, pimps, (their bullies, as they were called) dared to walk. By the 1950s Docklands had clearly improved, according to Jennifer Worth’s introduction, because there was high employment.
On a deeper level, I wanted to tell Sophia’s story, because although she lived a hundred years ago, I’ve always felt a close connection with her. I wanted to discover who she was, to know where I came from, because imagining the lives of Jewish immigrants, might offer some illumination for me, of who I am today. (This could be true for a descendant of any immigrant to this country).
Is it impossible to think that the huge, appreciative audience for the Midwife series might have the same, deeper yearning to see and recognise the people who lived before, so they too could discover a sense of belonging, a connection with the past, their roots?
A serious first article for my News and Views Page? Please don’t be dismayed. In my next article, I shall surely talk about the fifties as the period of time, when men’s hair was too short and women’s skirts were too long. About going to jazz clubs, and ‘abroad’, about first dates and being on the shelf when you’re twenty. But in addition to that, the fabulous fifties have another meaning for me – it’s the time when many women grow up, and know what they’re going to be… So plenty to talk about!