As some of you may know, my last four books have dealt with World War I and its aftermath. While writing them, I was also going through some difficult personal times. So when it came time to pick my next novel topic – I wanted FUN!
I remembered, in my research for The War Bride, that there had been a couple of Australian actors/singers/dancers who had gone to London in the 1920s, and become big stars (Madge Elliot and Cyril Ritchards), and I decided I’d use them as the models for my new book. So, off I went to research – and discovered two more exciting things. One, that Fred Astaire and his sister Adele were the big stars of London in 1923 (I’ve always been an Astaire tragic). And two, a story about Astaire dancing the Charleston with Lady Elizabeth Mountbatten, which was a big scandal at the time. Now, Elizabeth Mountbatten married the man who became George VI – yes, she was the Queen Mum! I knew, when I read that, that I’d found the ‘seed’ of the book – the idea from which the story would grow.
Now, my novels are mainly about women, so I switched the genders. But who should my main character, Kit, dance with? Obviously, it had to be the Prince of Wales – the one who later abdicated to be ‘with the woman I love’. And would the Palace approve of him dancing a shocking new dance with a daring young actress? Oh no, they would not, especially if photos somehow got into the tabloids…and The Charleston Scandal was born.
1923 was the year that the ‘Roaring Twenties’ really got started in London, and people came from all over the world to be there (the Astaires and Talullah Bankhead for starters). The locals weren’t bad either: Noel Coward, Gertie Lawrence, Ivor Novello and more. Then I found out that the Prince of Wales and his brothers mingled quite a lot with bohemian performers, and my story was set: a vibrant and vigorous theatre crowd coming into conflict with the might and social power of the British aristocracy – and this conflict was lived by my Kit, torn between her upbringing as an upper-class gel and her love of performing.
And of course, there had to be love interests: the hedonistic but rather dishy Lord Henry Carleton, and Zeke Gardiner, the Canadian farm boy who is Kit’s on-stage partner.
I wanted fun, and oh! I had it – rather like those people in the ’20s, who’d had more than enough of war and grimness and turned to dancing and drinking to forget it. Part of that fun was exploring London nightlife: the cabarets, the over-the-top theatre afterparties, the upper-set house parties where the Bright Young Things might do anything…
The 1920s is the first modern decade, when attitudes to life – at least among the theatre crowd – begin to resemble our own. But women were still fighting their way to even partial equality, and class was an acknowledged barrier. Smashing through those barriers was hard, and you paid a price for doing so: having Kit face that fact is really the key to the story. Plus, you know, the frocks…because, naturally, when Downton Abbey meets 42nd St, you have to have fabulous frocks!
The Charleston Scandal is coming 24 November, 2020.