Wednesday, 2 February 2011
A Lesson in Secrets ~ Jacqueline Winspear
I was, then, extremely pleased to be given the opportunity by NetGalley to read the eighth Maisie Dobbs novel, A Lesson in Secrets, prior to publication and spent last weekend immersed in the Cambridge of 1932 where Maisie finds herself at the behest of the Secret Service conducting covert surveillance into the activities of the staff and students in an independent college dedicated to encouraging peace amongst the citizens of various European countries. While the Government is concerned that there may be problems with people entering the country under false pretences, it is not long before Maisie becomes far more concerned with the extreme political allegiances of some of her colleagues and their influence upon the students with whom they are associated. As usual, it is Maisie who has the more accurate grasp of the situation.
Inevitably, matters are complicated when the College Principal, a man whose writings are said to have caused a mutiny in the ranks of both the British and German armies during the First World War, is murdered and Maisie becomes embroiled in the investigation even though specifically warned off it by the powers that be. One of the things I really like about Maisie is that she is always prepared to tell said powers that be when she thinks they are wrong, even if she does know that she is still going to have to play along with them in the end.
Eventually, of course, the murderer is found and the real danger at the heart of the College revealed. Revealed, but still not acknowledged by the leaders of the Secret Service. There is clearly scope for taking the matter further in future episodes.
As well as putting together a tidily thought out plot, Winspear also explores a number of issues that were pertinent at that period. She brings to the fore the failure of the British Establishment to recognise the threat posed by Hitler at a time when it might still have been possible to do something to stop him and hints at the possibility that it is a fear of the rise of the lower classes that fuels this failure. Too many people in power in the UK, I believe, thought that Hitler had the right idea when it came to keeping certain types of individuals in their places. She also explores the post war growth of racketeering and of extortion that was the plague of those trying to set up their own businesses in a world that had seen a tremendous slump in trade and a dramatic rise in unemployment. And, perhaps most interesting of all to me, she has her characters look back on the treaty signed at the end of the Great War and foretell the disaster that was to come as a result of the demands made upon Germany. There were moments when I noted as I read "this could be Winifred Holtby", thinking of that writer's journalism on this subject rather than her fiction. She too was aware of the catastrophe that awaited Europe as a result of the short-sightedness of the Treaty of Versailles, a catastrophe it would have been possible to avoid but which by this stage was already inevitable. As one of Winspear's characters says:
we do not pay enough attention to the past...in 1914 we had become a reflection of history when we embarked upon what could be considered another European Thirty Years War.
Now there's an interesting thought, one conflict stretching from 1914 right through to 1945. It is, I think, a perspective that has some merit.
This is the excellent novel that I've come to expect from Jacqueline Winspear and I recommend it heartily. My only caveat, if you are a new Maisie Dobbs reader, is that you shouldn't think about starting here. I do think you need to read this series in order. However, if that is the case, then how lucky can you get. You still have all eight to read and delight in. I envy you.
Posted by Ann at 15:12