Interview: Elizabeth Wilhilde

Last week, I reviewed If I Could Tell You, a poignant and very evocative portrayal of a woman in 1940s London, struggling to find a way of being in a world that has absolutely no patience for her dilemmas.  It was highly enjoyable and left me with a lot of food for thought, so I was naturally delighted when I was able to persuade the book’s author to appear in an interview here on Girl with her Head in a Book.  One of the most exciting moments in blogging is when the opportunity arises to ask questions about novels I’ve loved – directly to the author!  I hope people enjoy …

if i could tell you1) Your novel If I Could Tell You captures a middle-class woman from a respectable 1940s home who is drawn into adultery. What first drew you to this story?

It was the main character, Julia. She first popped into my head 15 years ago. I have no idea where she came from. When the story I originally wrote about her didn’t work, she refused to go away and leave me alone. Then, after my first novel was published, I found myself in her company again, if I ever really left it.

The wartime setting was also a very powerful draw. I’ve been fascinated by the period for a long time – particularly the home front, what it was like to live with the constant fear of invasion, under the bombs.

I came to live in this country when I was 14. It was the late 60s and you could still see bombsites in London and shrapnel damage on buildings. It brought the war really close.

Later, when I researched the period, the more I realized what a watershed it was for women. It broadened their horizons and gave them the opportunity to explore new identities, to be defined not by their relationships but by their work. To be what we would recognize as modern.

Adultery was not uppermost in my mind when I wrote the book, although naturally its consequences drive aspects of the plot.

Identity was.


brief encounter2) Your novel has echoes of similar stories such as Brief Encounter but has a very different outcome – to what extent did you wish to present an alternative female experience to that of Laura in Brief Encounter?

I think these are two very different stories. Brief Encounter is about unfulfilled desire and the agony of wanting two utterly incompatible things. Even if Laura had said ‘yes’ to Alec, which she nearly does – and plenty of women in similar situations did during the war – the heart of the story lies in this dilemma.

In Julia’s case, it is where her infidelity takes her that is the real issue. Her affair with Dougie is the beginning of a slow, painful process of self-discovery. It’s the means by which she grows up, belatedly, and not without cost.


3) The story of the Blitz experience has been told, retold, debated and then retold again. How did you seek to make your depiction distinctive?

humphrey jennings
Humphrey Jennings

That’s a very good question! The short answer is through a camera lens. I’ve long been intrigued by Humphrey Jennings, the great wartime documentary film-maker. Dougie, Julia’s lover, is loosely modeled on him.

During the war Jennings made propaganda films with poetry, wit, artistry and as much truth as the government allowed him to tell. He was a complex person, a brilliant intellect, maddening to work for and, shall we say, not the ideal family man.

He was also a co-founder of Mass Observation. Mass Observation diaries, written during the war, give a very different picture of the Blitz to the myth that has since grown up around it – crime, looting, panic, depression, pettiness and frustration are common in these accounts. Yet so too is immense courage, humour and grace. The truth of those times must lie somewhere in between.

So the long(er) answer would lie in the exploration of this ambiguous territory.


4) At one point, Julia’s husband Richard remarks that passion is a very dangerous thing. What do you feel was your book’s final verdict on the subject? 

elizabeth wilhilde
Elizabeth Wilhilde (c) Gransnet

Richard reveals more about himself than he knows when he makes this remark. He’s a decent man, if a conventional one, whose work permits him to view human frailty at a slight distance. But he turns out to be capable of behaving less than admirably himself.

If passion is dangerous – Julia certainly pays a high price for hers – that’s because it tells you where the truth lies. In Julia’s case, it allows her to discover her real self. Reason or level-headedness would never have taken her down that path.


5) Do you have any forthcoming projects?

Another book is shaping itself in my head, in notebooks and on scraps of paper. This is new for me. Up to now, I have largely written my way into a story. Now I’m thinking my way, which feels very different.

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