IF I COULD TELL YOU is a vivid and captivating novel of love and heartbreak between morally ambiguous characters in the war-torn world of London in 1939 that is decaying around them. It’s been called “a heartrending story of passion and loss, beautifully crafted with finely drawn characters” (Mary-Rose MacColl, author of In Falling Snow) yet at the same time, “one can almost taste the dust falling through the stairs during bombing raids.” (Booklist)
Elizabeth Wilhide is the author of Ashenden. Born in the United States, she has lived in Britain since 1967. She has two children and lives in south London.
In the acknowledgements, you write that the character of Dougie was inspired by British wartime filmmaker Humphrey Jennings. How did you discover his story and why did it inspire you?
A friend’s mother, who lived through the war, told me about Jennings many years ago, singling out two of his films in particular: Fires Were Started and Listen to Britain. At the time I was reading Mass-Observation accounts of Blitz – contemporary diaries written by anonymous contributors – and was fascinated by the vivid descriptions of the bombing, particularly where these diverged from popular mythology. While the “Blitz spirit” undoubtedly existed, some of the diarists also recorded feelings of fear, panic, depression, despair and exhaustion, which is hardly surprising. Not everyone behaved well under bombardment – looting, for example, was common. Yet there was immense courage, too, of the everyday, putting one-foot-in-front-of-the-other variety.
Can you tell your readers a little more about Jennings and his work? In what ways are he and Dougie similar and in what ways do they differ?
Jennings was a hugely significant figure in the early years of British documentary filmmaking. The war, which came along at the right time for him, became his great subject. He was a painter, a Surrealist, and a poet, as well as a film-maker. Dougie shares many of his interests, characteristics and talents. He also shares some of his faults.
When I was writing the novel, a friend put me in touch with John Krish, a noted British documentary film-maker of the 1950s and 1960s, who began his career during the war when he went to work at Denham Studios at the age of 16. His boss was Stuart McAllister, Jennings’ editor, and Krish knew Jennings at the time he was making his best-known films.
John Krish was well over ninety when I interviewed him, and not in good health (sadly, he died earlier this year). But he was incredibly generous with his time and his memories. When I first spoke to him on the phone, he said, with wry amusement in his voice, “So you want to talk about Humphrey, do you?” and hairs rose on the back of my neck. The cold winter morning when I talked to him in his kitchen about a man I knew only from films and biographies was a great gift.
What was the purpose of films like Jennings’s? Do you believe they were effective? How would today’s viewers respond to that work?
Jennings’ films were propaganda, intended to bolster morale on the home front and to portray a resolute nation under fire to friends abroad. Widely shown in Britain, they were also screened in the United States to help shift public opinion in the days before Pearl Harbor. Yet they were not crude exercises in tub-thumping; there was something much subtler about their explorations of national character. Who are we, and what do we value, they seem to say. Jennings, like others in the documentary film movement, was dedicated to telling the truth, at least as much truth as the wartime authorities would allow. He was also, first and foremost, an artist, who pushed the boundaries of what was technically possible at the time.
Like this book, your previous novel “Ashenden” was also based on historical events and individuals. What are the challenges in melding fact with fiction? What is the appeal?
When you are writing fiction based on real, well-documented events, I believe you are under an absolute obligation to be as accurate as possible. For me, it’s a question of respect, a duty we owe the past and those who lived through it, as well as to historians who have put in the hard academic graft.
It’s also the case that nothing destroys a reader’s faith in a historical novel faster than a historical howler. Truth matters in any kind of fiction and a disregard of it shows sloppiness at best. I live in dread of making mistakes, which is why I will check and check and check again – even so, I know I am bound to have got something wrong.
The level of historical detail in the novel is impressive and suggests that you did a lot of research before writing the novel. What was your research and writing process? Did you find any interesting information that didn’t make it into the book?
The Irish novelist Sebastian Barry once made a very interesting observation about research. When he was writing A Long Long Way, a book that is partly set during the 1916 Easter Rising, he said he went to the trouble of finding out what Dublin’s street lamps looked like at that date – not so he could put this detail in his book and impress his readers by his thoroughness, but so he could feel confident about leaving it out. That seems to me to convey a crucial point, which is that the purpose of research is to give you confidence in your decisions. Does this matter? Would it have been unusual at the time? Is it worth noticing? Your aim always has to be show, not tell.
The war is still, just, within living memory. My high school French teacher, Miss Simpkins, used to tell us how she had taken a bus to Victoria station during an air raid to retrieve her umbrella from Lost Property. That went into the book. So did a conversation I had with a cab driver, who had lived in our East End street as a boy and who told me that he had been saved by his wardrobe when the ceiling of his bedroom came down.
Julia has a deep emotional and intellectual connection with music, and because of this, there are a number of detailed discussions of specific classical pieces. Of the pieces Julia describes, which is your favorite? Do you play any instruments?
I played the piano for a while when I was in my teens – badly, but well enough to gain both enjoyment from it and an understanding of what it would take to be good at it. My daughter, who persevered, is wonderful pianist and I loved listening to her practice on the Bechstein that lived in our hall. Chopin’s “Raindrop Prelude” always reminds me of her. My mother played the piano by ear and with much rolling of chords – especially popular songs from the 1930s and 1940s, such as “Stardust”, which is briefly mentioned in the book. But the piece that really makes me smile and gives me itchy feet is Art Tatum’s irrepressible “Tea for Two”. I can listen to that over and over. It’s so sexy.
Julia changes dramatically over the course of If I Could Tell You. What do you see as her greatest strength and her greatest flaw?
Her greatest strength is resilience. You don’t necessarily appreciate it at the outset, but it develops, almost like a muscle. The war was a long haul.
I’m tempted to say her greatest flaw is self-deception, which she shares to a greater or lesser degree with most of us – love is blind, after all – but I think failing to rise to the challenge of her talent, selling herself short, is probably worse.
Where would she be if she had never met Dougie? Would she be happy? Would her life be fulfilling?
There is an inevitability about Julia meeting Dougie – he was just waiting to happen. In many ways, he represents the unfinished business she has with herself. When the novel opens she has chosen a safe, protected route in life. While the war would inevitably have changed her, as it changed everyone, I doubt that she would ever have been truly happy if she had not found some means of taking full responsibility for herself – effectively if she had never grown up.
You did extensive research on the new roles British women took on during the war. Why was it important to you to explore this history? How do you see Julia’s work at the HAA as it relates to her identity and transformation in the novel?
Julia is what I’d like to call an accidental feminist. Her story asks a question. What would it be like if women were defined not by their relationships but by their work? The war gave women a chance to explore new identities, to be what we recognize as modern.
When women’s war work is portrayed in historical fiction, it’s often of the caring, supportive and nurturing variety: nursing, driving ambulances, volunteering at canteens, making tea. All of which are worthy. But I wanted Julia to experience true agency, to step right away from a traditional role and stand on the front line.
Two things inspired me. One was a photograph of a young female motorbike dispatch rider in the ATS. She looks as pleased as punch. The other was an article in a 1940s magazine a friend sent me, which described how the first draft of women on HAA batteries was initially received. (The powers that be were very concerned that they would need to eat salad.)
Praise for IF I COULD TELL YOU by Elizabeth Wilhide
“Heart-wrenching . . .Wilhide creates a closely detailed, finely shaded portrayal of love and war that is anti-romantic but far from cynical.”—Kirkus Reviews
While comparisons to Anna Karenina could be made, Julia is made of stronger stuff, and eventually, she crafts a useful life and is able to discover some measure of peace. The author’s careful attention to period detail, complemented by clean prose, is a special strength of this book. The effects of wartime ruin are vividly rendered, and one can almost taste the dust falling through the stairs during bombing raids.”—Booklist (Starred Review)
“Readers who enjoy introspective and morally ambiguous tales such as Jojo Moyes’s The Last Letter from Your Lover and Anita Shreve’s The Pilot’s Wife will want to pick up this tale from a promising writer . . . Wilhide delves deep into the human psyche, especially when it comes to loving and losing.”—Library Journal
“Elizabeth Wilhide’s IF I COULD TELL YOU is a marvelous work of historical fiction, beautifully crafted and inhabited by morally complex and fully realized characters. It’s one of best novels I’ve read this year, compelling, immersive, and utterly impossible to put down.” —Jennifer Chiaverini, New York Times bestselling author of Fates and Traitors and Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker
“IF I COULD TELL YOU is a beautifully composed work of historical fiction, its atmospheric lyricism a testimony to the obvious skills of the author, who evokes Britain’s past with honesty and feeling.”—Historical Novels Review
“A heartrending story of passion and loss, beautifully crafted with finely drawn characters and wonderful detail, set against the darkest years of the 20th century, when the world went to war for a second time.”—Mary-Rose MacColl, author of In Falling Snow
“Elizabeth Wilhide writes about universal emotions with great tenderness and imagination.”—Claire Fuller, author of Our Endless Numbered Days
“Unflinching, excellent…Wartime Britain has been rarely so skillfully evoked.”—Daily Mail (London)
“Beautifully observed and written.”—Woman and Home
“An elegant, absorbing tale of hope and resilience.”—Sainsbury’s Magazine
“Heart-wrenching . . . intoxicating.”—The Times (London)