A wonderful conversationalist, she picks her words carefully, as if she’s editing before she speaks. But it’s her insight, her charm, and her calm reflection that make her such good company.
She’s a household name. But reaching the pinnacle of women’s fiction wasn’t easy. Joanna had written lots of historical books, and had already written three contemporary novels before she became an “overnight” sensation.
It was The Rector’s Wife that caught the public imagination. Joanna had written of the difficulties being married to someone else’s vocation. She’s published another 12 novels since then, but, for her new book she decided to revisit the concept of that earlier one, to see how such marriages are working 20 years on.
“I didn’t want to write about the church again, and I was thinking, what else is there? What institution does the public love, and sanction doing anything, and I thought, gosh yes, the army! There is almost universal support for our brave boys — and girls.”
Alexa, the soldier’s wife of the title, is married to Dan; a major, who is returning from a six month tour in Afghanistan. A young widow with a 12-year-old daughter, Alexa adores her new husband. They have three-year-old twins, but she views his return with apprehension as well as delight.
“Dan’s head will still be in Helmand. He has been living with the possibility of dying every day for six months. The entire world is saying he is a hero, but Alexa has to compromise. She needs to talk to him, but to him her concerns are trivial. It’s ‘what are you doing fussing about a lump in the dog’s side?’
“She’s been offered a teaching job she’d adore, but she’ll have to turn it down. She’s expected to buy into the ethics of the past, when women were happy to subsume themselves into someone else’s calling. Younger women are not going to toe the line, and the army will have to catch up with that.”
There’s a huge difference, Joanna points out, between the British army of the past, where they were defending land and colonial interests, and these new discretionary wars.
“The men sincerely believe that they are keeping the streets of London free from terrorists, but it’s harder for the women to view it that way.”
Joanna had to conduct a great deal of research in order to write The Soldier’s Wife. And that took time.
“I had to get Ministry of Defence clearance. That was easier once they realised I was a novelist and not a journalist. I did say, ‘of course I’m looking for a story, but I’m actually looking to verify a narrative I have in my mind. I’m not looking for an exposé.’
“I was introduced to an artillery regiment on Salisbury Plain. I spent a week with them and went on exercises with them and it was absolutely fascinating. They were hugely helpful and welcoming, and very keen to show me not just what they could do but how excellently they could do it. I have never seen men so dirty, or so happy, in my life.
“Coming home is always difficult for the men. They’re thankful to be back, but they’re missing each other. There is such bonding, they would, honestly lay down their lives for each other. But there is this terrible danger that the blood bond takes the colour out of all other emotional relationships.”
Joanna talked to army wives too — and to children. And she’s provided us with a comprehensive look into modern army life, from just about everyone’s point of view. Along with the central theme of marital disharmony, she shows the tremendous support the army wives give each other, but how fragile that friendship is, when an army wife can’t take the necessary sacrifice, and leaves. And through Isabel, Alexa’s daughter, we read of the misery boarding school can evoke, when bullying is involved.
“It was important to me to write about an unhappy child, because there are so many,” she says. “There’s that peculiar beastliness girls mete out to each other. They can be so mean.”
Beetle, the Labrador, has a starring role too. Adoring his master, he’s grateful for any crumb of affection. The memories of Dan’s father and his grandfather, both ex-soldiers, demonstrate how military life has changed; and the long, not especially happy marriage of Alexa’s parents is viewed through a discerning lens.
Joanna has been married twice, but now lives, very happily, alone in London.
“I’ve been in a very nice relationship for well over 10 years. That’s gratifying, but I so don’t want to live with anyone. I love the mother, grandmother bit.” Joanna has two married daughters, two stepsons and nine grandchildren. “It’s nice to be able to do that as often as I want.”
I’ve read all of Joanna’s books since The Choir came out in 1988; I’ve interviewed her for most of the more recent ones. I enjoy her work, and think The Soldier’s Wife is one of, if not the best book she has ever written.
She seems to understand the fraught situation she writes about astonishing well. And whilst she agrees that life experience has enabled her to learn as much from what people are not saying, as from what they tell her, she says writing the book was not a happy experience.
“This one was really hard to write. I was in an unhappy state. When I start a book I usually know where it will end, but Alexa’s situation is so intractable. I could not see, if you are trying to train a fighting force, how you could expect the soldiers to then be domestically enabled. The impossibility of that got to me and I couldn’t see a way through.
“I didn’t want the Dans of this world having to sacrifice their superb soldiery, and I wanted to do justice to the army people who had been so helpful; but I didn’t want to soft pedal on what I saw as a very anachronistic system in a modern society where there is equality of opportunity. All these highly intelligent, often highly qualified women were going to waste.”
The Soldiers Wife is the third book Joanna has published in the past three years.
“I think I need a break from ‘my own’ novels now,” she says. Not that she’s going to slack off. The 68 year-old has been appointed as chair of the Orange Prize. She’s also judging a Short Story competition for the Sunday Times; and she has a rather interesting commission from the publishers, Harper Collins.
“I’m going to be writing a contemporary version of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, taking a novel written in 1809, sticking to the cast list, but setting it in 2012. So much of Austen’s narrative is contemporary. There’s Marianne’s sense of entitlement and emotional surrender. Give Willoughby an Aston Martin instead of his horses, and he’s a modern young man with his credit cards maxed. It will be a rather wonderful literary game.”