February 07, 2017

Jennifer Ryan: Behind the women of Chilbury

Sponsored by Crown

As England enters the fray of World War II, the women left behind in the small, sleepy village of Chilbury must adapt to their quickly changing world. Unwilling to let their church choir shutter after the men are drafted, the ladies of Chilbury take the reigns and transform the choir into a place of solace, strength and kinship. Written in a series of personal letters, Jennifer Ryan's debut novel, The Chilbury Ladies' Choir, follows a diverse cast of women characters as they navigate village life, love, friendship and dangerous family secrets. 

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As England enters the fray of World War II, the women left behind in the small, sleepy village of Chilbury must adapt to their quickly changing world. Unwilling to let their church choir shutter after the men are drafted, the ladies of Chilbury take the reigns and transform the choir into a place of solace, strength and kinship. Written in a series of personal letters, Jennifer Ryan's debut novel, The Chilbury Ladies' Choir, follows a diverse cast of women characters as they navigate village life, love, friendship and dangerous family secrets. 

A native of England and a former book editor, Ryan now lives in the Washington, D.C. area. We asked her about the women who inspired her story, what we can learn from the women who lived through World War II and more.

On your website, you mention drawing inspiration for this novel from your grandmother—Party Granny. Can you tell us a little about her role and experiences during World War II?
At the beginning of World War II, Party Granny was a pretty, plump and jolly 20-year-old. Her life changed irrevocably as a result of the war, as it did for many young women of the time. She had been engaged to a young man who joined the army but decided to end their relationship because there was far more excitement for a young woman than there had ever been before the war.

"There was a general feeling that every day could be their last, making people drop their morals and enjoy life to the very fullest."

Dancing and parties became common, as people were urged to keep their spirits up, and there was a general feeling that every day could be their last, making people drop their morals and enjoy life to the very fullest. Soon she met and married a naval officer, Denis, who subsequently left in a submarine for a few years. He left her pregnant, which meant that she got extra food rations, including milk and eggs. She also didn’t have to work (by this time in the war, all women between the ages of 18 and 40 had to take on war work), although by the end of the war she was working as an administrator in a nearby factory.

She belonged to the local choir, which, like the Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, was women-only by default as all the men had left for war. Unlike Chilbury, it was a notoriously bad choir—or so she told us in her hilarious stories—and they sang off key for the entire war. On one occasion, a choir member had been injured in a bombing raid, and when Party Granny’s choir came to the hospital to cheer her up with a few songs, their singing was so hysterically dreadful that they were paraded through the entire hospital to cheer up every ward.

It was the parties that my grandmother remembers the most; putting on the radio and swinging each other around to some jazz tunes. At that point there didn’t need to be much excuse to roll up the rug and put on a gramophone record or two. It became so commonplace, even for a mother with a baby in a pram, that they all knew the most recent dances and would kick off their shoes in a flash every time the trumpets and saxophones of "In the Mood" were heard.

Aside from piecing together your grandmother’s stories, what kind of research did you conduct for this novel?
The best part of my research was talking to old ladies about their memories of the war. Their eyes would light up when I asked them questions, and if there were more than one—I was often in an old people’s community—they’d all start talking on top of each other. They’d tell me about the dances, the affairs, the unwanted pregnancies, the gossip, the American boys, and then they’d remember the bombs and how they all pulled together, making cups of tea and singing—there was always a lot of singing and dancing.

"Shockingly, most of them told me that the war was the best time of their lives. This was because of the camaraderie and the fun, the relaxed attitudes and the new jobs."

We’d invariably end up having a few choruses of popular songs from the day, "Roll Out the Barrel" and "It’s a Long Way to Tipperary." One old lady, who must have been over 90, insisted on showing me how to do the dance to "Knees Up, Mother Brown," and I clasped her elbow hoping she’d be okay as she got up out of her wheelchair and began kicking her legs in the air. Shockingly, most of them told me that the war was the best time of their lives. This was because of the camaraderie and the fun, the relaxed attitudes and the new jobs. One of them became an engineer and designed plane parts and another became a senior nurse and then was sent to study medicine, which was very unusual for a woman in those days. They told me that they had more control over their lives, that the men had gone and they could do a better job without them, thank you very much.

Of course, the war wasn’t all fun, and there were plenty of horrific, sad stories of people losing loved ones. I remember tears coming to the eyes of one lady as she told me that she lost both her sons, and that she was left with no children, no family. There are also a great many memoirs, diaries and letters from the era which make for very interesting reads. World War II has been fascinating to me since my childhood, and I had already read a great many of these books before I even thought about writing a novel, although it gave me the perfect excuse to read them all over again.

Did you always envision The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir as an epistolary novel, or did you naturally gravitate to the form during your writing process?
I wanted to write the novel in the women’s own voices, both in letters and journal entries, so that the reader could really get into their minds. The speech patterns of the era, as well as the mindset, could be conveyed better, I felt, through this medium. I wanted the reader to be fully immersed in the era and characters.

Having read so many gripping and fascinating first-hand accounts of the war in books of letters and journals, it made me realize how well this form would work. I almost felt that it would be missing a step if I didn’t write it in the way I had encountered the personalities behind my research materials. There is something terrifically raw about a journal or diary that provides a true insight into a person’s fears and dreams, and I especially wanted to use that to augment the interior thoughts of the protagonists.

How closely does the village of Chilbury mirror your native Kent?
When I was growing up in the '70s, the war didn’t feel that long ago, and people would often speak about it, remembering stories or memories. Many adults had been evacuated as children to different parts of the country, including many of my family members. Food rationing continued well into the 1950's, as well as the shortages, and everyone seemed very OCD about using teabags twice and not wasting food under any circumstances. One of my great aunts contested that broken biscuits were better for you than the ones that had made it intact.

There was also a sense that the country was broke. We’d done all we could and won the war, but we lost everything else in doing so. There were still bomb sites in London and in some towns in Kent, too. It wasn’t uncommon to see a house bombed out of a terraced row, making it look like a knocked-out tooth. Air raid shelters were still around, especially the big triangular concrete ones in public parks. A friend of my sister's once eased open the old wooden door to one; we all peered down the dark, spidery concrete stairs then ran away screaming.

Although the countryside remains the same as always—the run of hills called the Downs are in the right place—the world is a different place now. It was an interesting and special time, as the end of Britain’s colonial era was nigh, and with it the waning power of the aristocracy and the traditional class system. There were the vestiges of an age almost already past, and the cusp of a new order, which enabled the Chilbury ladies to challenge the status quo and forge a new world for themselves.

What inspires you the most about the women in this story?
When I was researching the war, I began to come across a similar theme: individual women—previously living relatively insular lives, often with a man around to tell them what to do—joined women’s groups. Through work, choirs, the Sewing Bees, the Women’s Voluntary Service or through having women evacuees and billets—these were the catalysts for them to change their lives for the better. Part of their impetus came from a sense that they were not alone, that the group was behind them.

A World War II diarist, Nella Last, joined the Women’s Voluntary Service and slowly began to stand up to her domineering husband. At the start of the war, she was getting over a nervous breakdown. He wouldn’t let her socialize without him, and since he was a quiet, unsocial man, this meant that she had few opportunities for friends. The war changed all that, and soon she was managing a mobile canteen for the troops or bomb raid victims. Her health improved dramatically, and by the end of the war she had even stopped coming home to make her husband’s lunch every day. He wasn’t happy at all, but she was determined never to allow him, or any man, tell her what to do ever again.

Women became more open with each other, and sharing stories of their own lives shed light on some of the atrocities that were happening behind the closed doors of marital and family homes. Domestic violence and child abuse became a lot more visible, and with many of the men away, far easier to shame out of existence. The evacuation of children also made it easy to see how other people lived their lives. Some weren’t happy with how theirs looked from the other side. The other way in which the women’s groups helped was that they made the war a shared experience. One woman’s pain or heartache became their problem too, and I tried to capture this in The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir. A few of the women suffer losses of loved ones, and the choir embraces them, telling them that they are all part of a new family of friends. This gave the women a tremendous strength and resilience in a time of horrific loss.

What lessons can we learn today from the bold women of this period?
Today, we face some of the same challenges as they did in those times, universal themes that continue to affect women everywhere. The first, and probably the most important, is that we are still in a world created and organized decades and centuries ago by men. It is never too late to challenge the way things are done, as the women do in Chilbury. Small steps and seizing opportunities to gain control of aspects of our lives, such as work and family responsibilities, all make a difference. We need to make the world more geared toward our needs and wants, rather than it being molded to an old-fashioned world of yesterday. For me, it was important that the Chilbury ladies first took on the choir for themselves, but then changed it to meet their own purposes. They made the entire choir work better for them, moving away from the traditional role of a choir and directing their aims toward a choir that helps them and other women.

I think this what I’d like readers to take away from Chilbury, that it’s up to us to take control of our world, create a new way of seeing old ways of doing things, and rejuvenate them for our own uses. We, too, need to question the status quo and find ways that will better suit our purpose.

We have to ask: are you an avid singer? What’s your favorite hymn or piece of choral music?
Yes, I am an incredibly avid singer! I belonged to my school choir (which was terribly serious) and then a few different adult choirs. I simply loved choir practice: creeping into a cold church at night, greeting my fellow choir members with a joke or two, singing and hearing our beautiful voices blend together to create such a majestic sound. Since I wrote Chilbury, I’ve come to learn that all kinds of chemical reactions happen when we sing with other people, which is part of the great bonding experience that it becomes. And then there’s the music, which affects our emotions in such a profound way.

My favorite choral work is Mozart’s "Requiem." What a phenomenal, intense, moving piece of music! Mozart was writing it as he was dying, and it brings the whole of humanity, death and spirituality together in an incredibly big and moving way. It was as if he was truly putting his all into it. It was the very last piece of music that he wrote—indeed, he didn’t quite finish it—and, tragically, it became the "Requiem" for his own funeral.

Get the Book

The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir

The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir

By Jennifer Ryan
Crown
ISBN 9781101906750

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