Jacqueline Winspear’s memoir offers charming clues to Maisie Dobbs’ inspiration

By Zofia Smardz

I confess, it took me a while to warm up to Maisie Dobbs, the up-by-her-boot-straps private eye of Jacqueline Winspear’s bestselling British cozy mysteries. She was a little too bland and goody-goody for my taste at first – never mind that Hillary Clinton is a fan. But Maisie grew on me.

Her creator, on the other hand – now that’s a whole different story. I fell in love with Jackie Winspear almost at once, right there on Page 24 of her engaging, amusing and moving memoir of growing up in the post-World War II English countryside. And then there’s the hopeful – and hopefully prescient – title of the book: This Time Next Year We’ll Be Laughing. It was hard to resist.

Page 24 that Winspear tells us about the lifelong fears that first seized her in childhood. Listening to her mother’s evocative tales of wartime bombings frightened young Maisie so much that thereafter, just the sound of a light aircraft in the night sky would send her scurrying under her bed to hide. “No one ever asked why I would emerge from under the bed when called for school,” she recalled. “Perhaps they thought I was just being a kid.” That’s pretty funny and endearing, but then she recounted confronting these fears decades later, in her 60s, with her therapist. “I began to pick at the skin around my fingernails,” she wrote.

Well, that did it for me. It’s just a throwaway detail, sure, but anyone who shares this tic is definitely my kind of person. And in fact, the further I read, the more kinship I felt, being, like Winspear, a woman of a certain age who grew up in somewhat straitened circumstances with parents who’d lived through World War II.

But you didn’t have to be a boomer or have had a mirror experience to get pulled into the world Winspear re-created. It’s a world both nostalgic and soberly realistic, full of crystalline descriptions of the Kentish countryside and the now long-gone hop gardens that once flourished there.

Winspear wrote vividly of the countless fruit farms that supplied seasonal work to Londoners in search of a working holiday, and later to schoolchildren like Winspear, who were looking to supplement family income.

There were colourful individuals – see especially Chapter 23 and one Polly Norris – and a societal closeness that characterised small-town life in a less frenzied era. And Winspear expertly captured the ups and downs in family relations when life was financially and physically challenging (the Winspears didn’t have a proper bathroom or a washing machine till Jackie was a teenager) and all you have is one another.

Albert and Joyce were a pair of London escapees who found their post-war happiness in rural life, working in the hop gardens or picking fruit and living in farm-provided “tied dwellings” and even a “gypsy caravan” until kids came along.

Then Albert got a better job with a commercial painting and decorating business. It was hard work, but he always made time for a ramble with his young daughter through the fields and forests surrounding the village they eventually settled in, stopping “to show me a rabbit’s burrow, a badger’s sett, or a nest, or to break open a prickly shell of a chestnut, holding it out for me to inspect”.

Where Albert was quiet – his own father, wounded in the Great War, couldn’t stand noise. (Maisie Dobbs readers will recognise the inspiration for the theme of the early books; picking out other parallels between Winspear’s life and her writings is a side benefit of the memoir.)

Joyce was the fierce one. “My mother seemed to have her fists balled all the time,” Winspear wrote.