In No Place For a Lady (published this month as an ebook and next month in print) Gill Paul takes us back to 1854 and the events of the Crimean War. Dorothea Gray has a mission – to join Florence Nightingale and travel to the battlefield hospitals, but she has an ulterior motive. Her sister Lucy eloped with handsome Captain Charlie Harvington and when he was sent to the Crimea she went with him. Dorothea is determined to find her and bring her home. In her novel, Gill follows the very different stories of the two sisters, both of whom face extraordinary challenges, fears and true love.
To celebrate the publication of No Place For A Lady, I am delighted to host a guest post by the lovely Gill Paul. I asked Gill about her inspiration for the novel, for the characters of Dorothea and Lucy Gray and for the historical setting of the Crimean war and the place of women in it. With thanks to Gill, this is what she has to say.
On feminism, bereavement and squeamishness
You asked about the inspiration for No Place for a Lady and I have to be honest and admit that my editor, Eli Dryden, came up with the idea of writing about the Crimean War. I’d been planning a glamorous novel set in the literary salons of 1920s Paris but she persuaded me to change tack, and in retrospect I’m glad she did. We were both fascinated by the fact that the Crimean War marked the start of middle-class women being able to work outside the home. Of course, poor women had always worked – as servants, laundresses, farm hands, governesses, prostitutes … and as nurses. Hospitals were rough, dangerous places and the stereotypical nurse (caricatured by Dickens in Martin Chuzzlewit) was a hard-drinking, dissolute type who didn’t much care for her patients’ welfare. Charitable committees of well-meaning middle- or upper-class ladies could visit the wards, mop fevered brows and read to the more respectable patients, but for such women to take paid employment in a hospital was unheard of. In an early draft of my novel I had Dorothea sit overnight with Mr Peters as he died in chapter three, but Natasha McEnroe, director of the Florence Nightingale Museum, assured me that definitely wouldn’t have happened so I had to change it to daytime.
Florence Nightingale’s struggle to be taken seriously is inspiring. She came from an aristocratic background but always knew she would suffocate as “just a wife”. She met the right people, impressed them with her grit and intelligence, and was invited by the Minister of War, Sidney Herbert, to go out to Constantinople to establish a hospital for the troops, where she became the indomitable force of legend. Jamaican-born Mary Seacole, a self-proclaimed “doctress”, also has a remarkable story; it was even harder for her because of the colour of her skin, but she won great respect among the troops for her courage and skill. Both of them appear in my novel but I wasn’t able to squeeze in the remarkable James Barry. Born female, she dressed as a man in order to study Medicine at Edinburgh University and rose to the rank of Inspector General of Military Hospitals. During the Crimean War she ran a hospital on Corfu where the death rate was 90% less than at Florence Nightingale’s Scutari hospital – much to Florence’s chagrin. That Barry was a member of the fairer sex was only discovered following her death. After the amazing work all these women did in the Crimean conflict, society was ready to accept middle-class girls training as professional nurses and feminism as we know it was a tiny step closer.
While I was still planning and researching No Place for a Lady, my lovely dad fell ill and died after six weeks in an NHS hospital, where he could not have been better cared for. The staff were simply wonderful: they made it clear to us from the start that he was almost certainly not going to recover and then helped us to make his last weeks comfortable and pain-free. My brother, sister and I spent a lot of time on that old men’s ward watching the patients come and go, and that experience definitely fed into the novel. It felt cathartic for me in the months after Dad died to be writing about death and bereavement – and realising how lucky he was compared to the soldiers in 1850s Crimea.
I felt it was only fair to warn my sister that I was writing about two sisters who fall out with each other, and fortunately she said “Write what you like”. I’m the elder of the two of us but she’s definitely not a flighty Lucy type and I’m far too squeamish and cowardly to be Dorothea. Many moons ago I studied Medicine at Glasgow University but left halfway through when I realised that I didn’t much like dealing with sick people. Shameful but true.
So there’s a fair bit of personal experience in No Place for a Lady, and I’ve stolen lots of material from first-hand accounts written by the feisty women who were in Crimea in 1854–6. It’s been a fascinating book to write and I’m glad Eli persuaded me to write it. But I still hope to get back to 1920s Paris some day…