Hailed by The Bookseller as ‘One to Watch’, Jane Davis is the author of nine thought-provoking novels. In her most recent novel we encounter an actress, a duchess and a hostess, all brought together by a defining moment in British history: the last woman to receive the death penalty.
Her novel At The Stroke of Nine O’Clock revolves around a gentleman’s club in high society London where the lives of three very different women become intertwined. It’s pacy, thought-provoking and moving. I particularly enjoyed the way her female characters were strong and defiant in the face of societal expectations. Wanting to know more about where the idea came from, her writing process and what lovely things Jane is writing at the moment, I caught up with her to find out more.
In your recent blog you spoke about how you move between contemporary and historical fiction in your writing. Which came first for you and which do you prefer writing?
The truthful answer is that I don’t consciously differentiate between historical and contemporary fiction. I go with the subject and see where it leads me. My first, second and third novels all had contemporary, although not bang up-to-date, settings. (I’m not a techy person, and wouldn’t want to write a novel which has characters texting each other.) Then came I Stopped Time, an homage to both my grandmother who lived to the age of 100 and the pioneers of photography. It spans the Victorian era to the present day. I also incorporated a dual timeline, using my Victorian character Lottie Pye and her estranged son, Sir James Hastings in the present day. I played with the juxtaposition of my Victorian character being very modern for her time, and her son being quite old-fashioned. As a writer, I enjoy exploring cause and effect, and in some cases the cause is discovered in the past.
Your novel is populated with an array of female characters who challenge the mould that society has given them. What was it about an actress, a hostess and a duchess that drew you into telling their stories?
I’ve been fascinated by Ruth Ellis since my teens, when I first saw the same photographs that were splashed across the front pages the day that newspaper production resumed in 1955 after a month-long strike. With a four-million-pound loss to recoup, the papers needed something sensational to fight back with, and Ruth’s story was newspaper gold. ‘Platinum blonde ex-model shoots racing-boy lover.’ By the end of the day, in every pub and Lyon’s Corner House, around every dinner table, on front doorsteps and over garden fences, talk was of one subject and one subject only.
Everything I’d read about Ruth convinced me that she was not the character that the newspapers portrayed. The reason why her story holds such enduring fascination is precisely because it’s so difficult to unravel. In its telling, Ruth was the ultimate unreliable witness. Like many of us, she kept parts of her life secret from those who thought they knew her the best – her family. None of them knew, for example, that she’d had a walk-on part in the film Lady Godiva Rides Again until they saw her in the line-up of bathing beauties. And there were certain facts she wouldn’t allow her defence lawyers to use in court.
While I was drawn to her story, I was reticent about writing a fictionalised account. Recent history is difficult like that. It would have felt disrespectful to put words into her mouth.
It was after reading three biographies on the trot, all of which contained anecdotes about Ruth Ellis that I decided that there was an alternative way to tell her story. I created three different characters, all of whom have experiences that in some way mirror Ruth’s. My choice of an actress, a hostess and a duchess came directly from those biographies I’d been reading. The very astute may notice where I borrow elements from the lives of Ingrid Bergman and the Duchess of Argyll. My hostess’s life follows Ruth’s the most closely of course. I needed one of them to come from a similar background, tough and working-class.
The reason I needed variety in my characters was because I wanted to show how much Ruth had in common with many women of her day. By the end of the book, each of them had a reason to say, ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’
Ruth Ellis being given the death sentence after suffering abuse is the thing that unites your characters. How far did you see your novel as an opportunity to highlight injustice against women at this time in history?
There’s no doubt that the 50s was a time of rapid social change. Since then, the removal of many of the taboos and barriers Ruth faced would have made some of the lies she told unnecessary. But it’s short-sighted to think that Ruths living today aren’t driven to the same point of despair. Women, as we know, are far more likely to be victims than killers. (Arguably, the two are not mutually exclusive.) But when they do kill, the law seems at a loss to know how to deal with them.
It’s often argued that, had the partial defence of diminished responsibility been available, Ruth would have been convicted of the lesser charge of manslaughter. To explore how she might have been treated in twenty-first century Britain, we must find a ‘similar’ case – one in which a woman has been driven to breaking point. The case of Sally Challen (2010/11) offers a number a parallels. (1) Like Ruth’s, Sally’ story made scintillating headlines. Middle-aged woman in middle-class Surrey bludgeons husband to death. (2) Like Ruth, Sally took the weapon – a hammer – to her former marital home (she and her husband had separated), suggesting that her actions were pre-meditated. (3) She attacked an unarmed man. (4) She was portrayed in court as a jealous woman out for revenge.
But despite the availability of diminished responsibility as a defence, Sally Challen was convicted of murder. Once again, the law failed to get to the truth. When Sally’s brothers, aware that their sister had suffered at Richard Challen’s hands (albeit that they didn’t know the extent of it), challenged why the matter of their brother-in-law’s behaviour wasn’t raised, they were told, ‘Speaking ill of the dead doesn’t go down well will the jury,’ a sentiment echoed by the Crown Prosecution Service’s representative: ‘It’s not Mr Challen who’s on trial. The fact that someone was incredibly cruel and abusive towards their partner is not on its own a defence to murder.’ Sadly, not as much has changed as we would like to think.
The club that all the women end up in is a central setting in your book. Why did you choose this place as a focal point for the novel and what parts of life at the time do you think it allowed you to explore?
Ruth’s sister Muriel Jakubait wrote a book about her sister’s life. In it is a list of members of the club that Ruth managed. One of Ruth’s later biographers, Tony Van Den Bergh, appears. Also featured were royalty including King Hussein of Jordan, King Farouk of Egypt, King Feisal of Iraq, socialites such as the Duchess of Argyll and Lady Docker, film stars such as Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Victor Mature, Burt Lancaster and Diana Dors, stars of the racing fraternity such as Donald Campbell and Stirling Moss, photographers Anthony Armstrong Jones (who later married Princess Margaret) and Anthony Beauchamp (who was married to Sarah Churchill), and Stephen Ward (who, ten years later, was a central player in the Profumo Affair), as well as notorious London landlord, Peter Rachman, and ‘Dandy’ Kim Caborn-Waterfield, described by Jakubait as a ‘better class of criminal’. But London’s drinking clubs were also places of refuge for ex-servicemen and travelling salesmen. They were places where blind eyes were turned (homosexual acts were still illegal in the UK, London’s black market economy was booming), the kind of places a duchess and an actress could meet without having to worry that they were attracting attention. The setting also provided a direct window into Ruth Ellis’s life and much of what that entailed.
The plot throughout is deftly handled and incredibly complex. How do you go about planning and redrafting a novel with this many threads and issues?
The truth is that I don’t plan. I knew that the book would start on the day when Big Ben failed to chime at the start of the Nine O’Clock News, and I knew it had to end at the moment of Ruth’s execution. (Believe me, I’ve started writing novels with far less than this to go on. When I began work on My Counterfeit Self, all that I knew was that I was going to write about the life of a poet.) That gave me a six-year time span to play with. The way I write is that I get to know my characters, introduce them to situations where they’re under incredible pressure, and hope there’s a point when they’ll take over. If you don’t plan, you have to be prepared for a lot of redrafting. I must admit that there were times when I wondered if I’d bitten off more than I could chew, but an early reader assured me I was onto something and that I should keep going, so I kept going for another year (I’m a very slow writer) and my characters told me a few more of their secrets. For example, I learned that my duchess character, who is childless, was preoccupied by who she would leave her ancestral estate to. I also have a fabulous team of beta readers who chip in with their ideas, and I use a developmental editor and a copy editor. It was my copy editor who suggested that the book needed the Ruth scenes, so they arrived at the very end.
What are you currently working on?
The working title of my current project is Encroachment. It is set in the road where I live. Up until the late nineteenth century the site was operated as a chalk pit, but just after the turn of the century, a man called E Cooke leased the site and opened a pleasure gardens. This was an enormous act of optimism on his part. Why did he think he could succeed when so many larger venues like Vauxhall and Cremorne had already gone out of business? We know that it was divided into plots in the 1930s and sold, but what was the final nail in the coffin? That’s what I’m trying to explore.
What advice would you give to any writers at the beginning of their journey into being a published writer?
No one can teach you how to be a writer, and there are many different ways to write a novel. You have to learn what works for you. And that means actually doing it.
Jane spent her twenties and the first part of her thirties chasing promotions at work, but when she achieved what she’d set out to do, she discovered that it wasn’t what she wanted after all. It was then that she turned to writing.
Her debut, Half-truths & White Lies, won the Daily Mail First Novel Award 2008. Of her subsequent three novels, Compulsion Reads wrote, ‘Davis is a phenomenal writer, whose ability to create well-rounded characters that are easy to relate to feels effortless’. Her 2015 novel, An Unknown Woman, was Writing Magazine’s Self-published Book of the Year 2016 and has been shortlisted for two further awards. Smash all the Windows was the inaugural winner of the Selfies (best independently-published work of fiction) award 2019.
Jane lives in Carshalton, Surrey with her Formula 1 obsessed, star-gazing, beer-brewing partner, surrounded by growing piles of paperbacks, CDs and general chaos. When she isn’t writing, you may spot her disappearing up a mountain with a camera in hand. Her favourite description of fiction is ‘made-up truth’.
Links to Jane’s books:
Books2Read Universal Link: https://books2read.com/u/brWppZ
Amazon Link https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B08B1PCTC1
Social media links:
Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/JaneDavisAuthorPage
I hope you enjoyed my interview with Jane Davis. You can support my writing for just the price of a coffee. Thank you so much!