Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear (Soho Press, 2003)
In the song “The Schuyler Sisters” from the Broadway musical Hamilton, sister Angelica sings, “ I've been reading 'Common Sense' by Thomas Paine. So men say that I'm intense or I'm insane, You want a revolution? I wanna a revelation . . .” because she and her sisters are “looking for a mind at work, work.” It was this iconic lyric that continued to play in my brain as I relished Jacqueline Winspear's novel, Maisie Dobbs, first published in 2003, and now the first of ten books in this fascinating series. The Schuyler sisters are a strong example of women in contemporary literature who are played with intelligence and curious, vibrant minds, just as Maisie Dobbs is in the early 20th century.
Although contemporary writers are trying to write stronger and more interesting female protagonists, many of those women fail as role models for a multitude of reasons. We've all heard the complaints of how difficult it is for actresses to find weighty roles in film today (and I'm not talking about Gal Godot's Wonder Woman here). While women have been given some super powers via comic book vehicles, finding a woman of conviction and intelligence, who is more passionate about the study of philosophy rather than finding a man to support her in comfort and style, is rare indeed. And that is precisely why Maisie Dobbs is a fascinating and satisfying novel.
The novel opens in the spring of 1929. Maisie is establishing herself as a private investigator, having arrived at her chosen profession through a series of events that reveal the strength of her character; her lifelong pursuit of learning and intellectual stimulation, her advocacy for women's rights, her patriotism for her British homeland, and her passion for other people who are important in her life.
From humble beginnings as the daughter of an industrious widower, who gets up in the middle of the night to peddle his fruits and vegetables to illustrious customers, such as Lady Rowan Compton of the Belgravia section of London, Maisie cannot help but let her keen mind shine even from her earliest years. Of his only daughter, Frankie Dobbs muses, “Oh, there was so much that they had wanted for Maisie, the child that had come to them later in life, and who was, they said, the answer to many prayers. She was a bright one, they knew that almost from the beginning. In fact, people would remark on it, that even as a newborn it seemed that Maisie could focus on a person and follow them with her eyes.” (p.73)
But Frankie's meager savings and hard economic times force Maisie to set aside her dreams of attaining higher education and, instead, Maisie goes to work in Lady Rowan Compton's household, doing menial labor. Drawn to the extensive library in Lady Compton's home, Maisie devises a plan whereby she can study secretly in the middle of the night before she is due to begin her chores. When discovered at her nocturnal studies one night, Maisie expects to be sacked, but Lady Compton has other ideas in mind for Maisie. Like the Schuyler sisters, she respects a mind at “work, work,” and devises a plan that changes the course of Maisie's life trajectory.
When World War I breaks out, the dutiful Maisie chooses yet a different path for herself, and enlists as a Red Cross nurse, traveling to France to tend to dying and wounded soldiers. During her courageous work as a surgical nurse, Maisie also finds love with a dashing British doctor named Simon. Putting passion aside for duty, Maisie puts off making promises to her young man until the war is over and she is free to figure out her priorities as she moves forward with her life.
Like many of the shell shocked young men who are maimed during the horrific first World War, Maisie must fight to put aside the sadness and stress of the battlefield as she opens her practice as an investigator ten years after the war. Ironically, her first case, is looking into a convalescent home called the Retreat, which has been established by a former British officer to see if something irregular is occurring in the home. As Maisie conducts her investigation, she is reunited with a former patient, Billy Beale, whose bettle shattered leg had been saved by Simon's surgical skills and Maisie's determined bedside manner.
When Billy and Maisie meet again, Billy expresses his gratitude to Maisie for helping him through his darkest hours, but he confides that even now, ten years after the Great War, there are many who suffer. Billy states, “I get up, so's not to wake the missus. Then I go out. Walking the streets. For hours sometimes. And you know what miss? It's not only me, miss. There's a lot of men I see, 'bout my age, walking in the streets. And we all know, miss, we all know who we are. Old soldiers who keep seeing the battle. That's what we are, miss.” (p, 236) In the character of Billy Beale, Winspear touches the reader by reminding us of the suffering of the battle scarred, and how difficult it is for many of them to move forward with their lives.
By meeting Billy and conducting her investigation into the Retreat, Maisie must rip open her own suppressed memories in order to confront her past and face her future. The ending of the novel is poignant and powerful, well worth the time to read and share with other people. Maisie is a character whom you will be compelled to discuss with others, and certainly as you close the last page of the first book in the series, if you are anything like me, you will be opening to the first page of Birds of a Feather, the sequel to Maisie Dobbs.