You know, blogging is a very strange occupation. There are favourite authors who simply don’t appear often enough on the blog, even though I know their writing is just wonderful. Such is the case with Mollie Walton. I’m delighted to remedy that today by sharing an extract from Mollie’s brand new Ravenhall Saga series, A Mother’s War. as part of the blog tour. My enormous thanks to Maddie at Welbeck for inviting me to participate and for sending me a copy of A Mother’s War which I’m very much looking forward to reading.
A Mother’s War is published by Welbeck on 3rd March 2022 and is available online and in all good bookshops including here.
The last time I featured Mollie was here when I was reviewing her book The Daughters of Ironbridge. I’ve also interviewed Mollie writing as Rebecca Mascull here and reviewed her outstanding The Song of the Sea Maid here, which was also one of my books of the year in 2015. Rebecca Mascull also completed Miss Marley, begun by her much missed friend Vanessa Lafaye and which I reviewed here.
A Mother’s War
North Yorkshire, September 1939.
Rosina Calvert-Lazenby, the only surviving member of her family and widowed by forty-four, has lived at Raven Hall all her life. With war approaching, Rosina must be strong for her daughters, five confident young women who are thick as thieves.
When the RAF come to stay at Raven Hall, Rosina finds herself intrigued by their charismatic, albeit young, officer. But is there time for love with the war looming and her eldest daughter leaving home?
Grace Calvert-Lazenby, twenty-one years old and newly graduated from Oxford, is determined to live a fuller life. Leaving behind her mother and sisters at home, she joins the Women’s Royal Naval Service.
Trading the safety and familiarity of Raven Hall for exhausting drills, difficult training and conflicting acts of secrecy will not be easy. But Grace knows that everyone has a part to play in the war and she is ready for a brave new adventure.
With so much on the line, Rosina and Grace must learn how to push themselves and have the courage to lead those around them into the unknown . . .
This heartwarming, dramatic World War II saga is perfect for fans of Vicki Beeby, Kate Thompson and Rosie Clarke.
An Extract from A Mother’s War
Prologue September 1939
The house stood at the edge of nowhere. It was perched on the cliff above the endless sea, surrounded by grounds peppered with hiding places. When the fog rolled in, it became a seat in the kingdom of the clouds. When the sun was out, it was a throne to the best view in the world: the sweep of the bay, bordered by cultivated fields and wild moorland tumbling steeply down to the beaches. Beyond it stood Robin Hood’s Bay; from here one could spy just a hint of its intricate network of alleys and lanes crowded with fisherman’s cottages. To the north lay Whitby, to the south, Scarborough. And here, above the village of Ravenscar, the gulls chattered and swooped beyond the walls of the grounds of Raven Hall, mocking the generations that had made their home there, hemmed in by walls, feeling safe against encroaching nature: the bracken and nettles bristling against the stone, the sea below crashing against the rocks ceaselessly, the salty wind assaulting the planted trees by the border walls causing them to bend over like women picking strawberries, the lowering sky frowning down upon the house and its ordered grounds. The battlements that were built upon the walls acted as though the house imagined itself a fortress against nature, but everywhere nature encroached, the rock walls mottled with lichen and creeping ivy. The gardens of Raven Hall were tamed and orderly: box hedges, fuchsias and roses. Domesticated, yet surrounded by wildness, the sound of the constant, distant roar of the sea below a reminder of the abandon beyond these safe walls. The undercliff below the house was replete with thick foliage, sweeping down to the rocks below. The lush plants looked soft, as if they’d cushion a fall, but of course the ravine was steep, jagged and deadly.
Rosina stood on the path, inhaling the sharp smoke of her cigarette, gazing out towards the bay, watching the tiny waves break harmlessly on the shingle below. The sea fret was patchy that day, rolling in like playful clouds, revealing a perfect patch of blue sky or a swathe of many-hued green fields, replaced by white fog in an instant. She could hear the sheep bleating in the fields that surrounded her home, the gulls calling and the little brown birds twittering in the trees and she watched the swifts dip down for insects on the wing. The sky was vast, the sea looked endless, a glimpse of the horizon revealing it misty and mysterious. The fog rolled in, silent and stealthy. Rosina shuddered, slightly from the chill held in the mist, yet partly too from the feeling that unseen forces were moving over the sea towards her home, just as the fret trespassed on her land beyond her control. She glanced back at the house and exhaled a puff of smoke that obscured the view as one of her daughters appeared at a window then disappeared again. All five of them were home for the announcement. All of the servants were assembling in the servants’ hall too. Rosina needed to get back inside soon. But she wanted these last few moments of peace to herself. Peace from the busy household and all its demands, but peace too from the historic moment that was about to be played out on the wireless. For the family and servants were all gathered for one reason only: to hear the Prime Minister announce what they had all feared for months.
Rosina finished her cigarette and stubbed it out on the stone wall. She didn’t wish to litter the rose bed so took it in with her and dropped it in the ashtray on the hall table that was emptied periodically. She could hear the girls inhabit the house. They weren’t making much noise yet their presence was as obvious as sound to their mother. For mothers are always on duty when their children are around, even if they’re not doing much, even if they’re asleep, even if they’re grown up. Rosina was happy to have her brood all back under one roof. It didn’t happen much these days, what with Grace down at Oxford and Evelyn over in France until recently, whilst Constance and the twins Daisy and Dora were mostly away at school. She’d need to walk the house over to summon all five of them, or send one or two to find the others. She found Grace at the writing desk in the window of the study. A quick look over her shoulder confirmed that her eldest daughter was working on her modern rewrite of the Greek myths. She’d just finished her degree in Classics and her head was still buried in that ancient world.
‘It’s nearly time, darling,’ Rosina said.
Grace looked up, her grey-blue eyes concerned, her long, straight russet-brown hair draped in a curtain across her back. ‘All right, Mummy,’ she said and nodded, placing the lid carefully on her ink pen. She looked younger than her twenty-one years and seemed younger too, Rosina thought. Three years at Oxford had seemed to have had little impact on her experience of life. She was still the reserved, modest girl she’d been when she’d left school.
Rosina walked back out into the hallway and along the corridor to the stairs, past the lounge through whose windows the sun now streamed in defiance of the sea fret. She took the steps up to the small landing, standing beneath the stained-glass window there, the coat of arms of her family name Lazenby emblazoned in rich coloured panes.
‘Evvy?’ she called
‘All right, Mummy,’ came her second daughter’s strident voice from the room on the first floor that had once been the playroom and had now become the art studio when Evelyn was at home.
‘Is Connie with you?’ Rosina called.
‘Yes, driving me mad with her incessant ball throwing against this wall.’
‘I am not driving you mad!’ Rosina heard Constance’s throaty voice exclaim. ‘You said the rhythm helps you concentrate, you big, fat liar!’
‘Oh, do shut up, Connie!’ snapped Evelyn.
Always at each other’s throats, those two, yet when it came to boys, they were thick as thieves and knew all of each other’s secrets. Rosina walked upstairs and stood in the doorway, noting the floor strewn with paint tubes, brushes, canvas and paper.
Evelyn looked up at her mother and said, ‘We’re coming! Don’t fuss!’
She was a messy genius, that one. Nineteen going on twenty-nine, with strawberry-blonde hair and a freckled, peachy complexion, a lipstick-wearing, cigarette-smoking, adventure-seeking beauty. Rosina smiled and shook her head, glad in a way that Evelyn had been in France for a year, beyond her mother’s reach, where she had little knowledge of what scrapes her daughter had got herself into and thus could only worry vaguely from a distance. Constance started up her ball throwing again and the ball hit the wall hard, straight and true. The girl had an excellent aim. At sixteen, she was captain of the lacrosse and hockey teams, as well as a keen shot-putter. Stocky and strong, she had none of Grace’s tall gangly frame or Evelyn’s curves. Her straw-coloured hair in a perpetual bob since she was eight, she despised preening or make-up of any kind. Still striking in her way, her skin creamy- pale and freckled, she would be the perfect model for a government poster about rude health. Rosina chuckled at the thought. ‘Come on then, you two. And clear up that mess on the floor later, Evvy. The last thing we need is paint stains on the carpet.’
She went back down the stairs and turned right to walk along the passageway to the games room. There she found her twins, Daisy and Dora, identical in appearance with their mid-blue eyes and long, wavy fair hair, yet alike as two snowflakes in character: same design, different details. Now fifteen years old, they had come as a surprise so soon after Constance. This meant that the three of them grew up inseparable, especially Connie and Dora. Daisy was the odd one out of the whole family in some ways, more similar to her eldest sister Grace than anyone, both pianists, both a little awkward in company. Daisy was playing at the upright piano, a little piece by Bach that had her fingers in a twist. She kept on at the same phrase, over and over, forcing her muscle memory to learn it. Rosina smiled at how much better a pianist her daughter was than she herself. That should be the way of things, that your children outshine you, she thought. She glanced over at Dora, who was making notes on her latest natural experiment: this time, an ant farm in a glass case. Dora loved living, breathing things and studied them, sometimes killing them to study them further. A scientist’s cold eye had that one and an analytical brain, yet when it came to matters of the heart, she was as hopelessly romantic as Connie. How different all her girls were and yet how much they overlapped and echoed each other, as well as having aspects of herself and, of course, their father, dead three years now.
The thought of George Calvert made Rosina shudder. Though she missed virtually nothing about him, his death being a blessed release from an ill-conceived and poorly executed marriage, she realised that his absence now gave her a slight feeling of panic as she felt more alone than ever. Usually, this sustained her because she valued her independence above everything, but now that history was moving its shadowy purpose towards her own door, as it was to every house in Britain that morning, she suddenly felt wholly alone – the matriarch, in charge of these five girls, this vast house and grounds and all the servants and farmers and tenants who made it work. After three years of widowhood and years before that of orphanhood, Rosina thought she’d be used to this by now. And so she was, in peacetime. But change was coming and fear gripped her. She swallowed it down and tapped on the door to alert the twins.
‘It’s time, girls,’ she said, and they stopped what they were doing and turned their heads in the same way, with the same slight tilt to the right.
Rosina turned and walked back along the passage towards the lounge. On the way, she heard footsteps behind her and turned to see a housemaid, head down, clutching a dustpan and brush. The girl stopped dead at her mistress’s notice and dropped her gaze to her feet.
‘Hardcastle, hurry back to the servants’ hall,’ said Rosina.
‘Yes, ma’am. Sorry, ma’am,’ said the maid, bobbing a curtsey, eyes still down, too shy to look at her mistress.
‘It’s only that you’ll miss the Prime Minister’s broadcast if you’re not careful. And it’s important that you hear this. Everyone should hear this.’
‘Yes ma’am. Sorry, ma’am,’ the girl said again. Only fifteen years old, Rosina recalled, younger than Constance. Rosina reached the lounge and found Grace about to switch on the wireless. Evelyn and Constance came in, still bickering, the twins arriving quietly behind. They were all gathered together and found seats around the fireplace to sit on and wait. Rosina hoped that at the other side of the house, the housekeeper and butler had managed to gather all the servants together around the kitchen wireless, as families all over the country must be doing at that very moment. A nation acting as one – how rare that was. How admirable. And how terrifying.
The Home Service announced its star speaker, the Prime Minister. The girls’ slight restlessness was stilled and every head in the room was bowed slightly, eyes intent, ears pricked. They’ll remember this moment for the rest of their lives, thought Rosina.
‘I am speaking to you from the Cabinet Room at 10, Downing Street. This morning the British Ambassador in Berlin handed the German Government a final note stating that unless we heard from them by eleven o’clock that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland a state of war would exist between us. I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently this country is at war with Germany.’
There it was. They all knew it was coming but it was truly shocking to hear it spoken aloud by Chamberlain himself.
‘Oh, good lord,’ muttered Grace and Evelyn hissed, ‘Ssh!’, as Chamberlain went on about assurances and settlements and Hitler and the Poles and France, about God and the Empire, about evil and force and injustice.
‘And against them I am certain that the right will prevail,’ he said and then there was a pause. He had come to the end of his speech. They listened to the announcer say important details would follow, then they heard the bells ring out of the wireless, tinny and eerie in the lounge. There followed a list of directions for the foreseeable future, about places of entertainment being closed until further notice and that people should not crowd together for any reason. It went on about air-raid warnings and how they would sound; about shelters and what people should do in a gas attack; sirens, rattles and handbells would be used. Schools would be closed for a week but thereafter open again. Many children would be evacuated. Everyone must carry gas masks. There were other things they could have listened to after this, but Rosina stepped over and turned off the wireless to silence it. She did not wish to hear any more at the moment. The fact of war was enough, that morning. Glancing outside at the gardens she saw how the sun was now completely free to shine down on their house, all morning mists having dissolved away into the warmth of a balmy September late morning. It seemed to mock the sombre mood of the room, of the country, of Europe and beyond.
‘What does it all mean, Mummy?’ asked Dora, always questioning, always wanting to know more.
‘It means the end of every bloody thing,’ said Evelyn in a grump. Selfish as ever, she thought only of her art studies in France coming to an end. ‘Evvy, language,’ chided her mother, though gently. ‘Oh, who cares about words now!’ cried Evvy, dramatic as ever. ‘Come on, girls,’ said Grace, sitting upright and forcing a smile. ‘Now is not the time for strife, but for togetherness. Mummy needs us to help her. And so does our country.’
‘Thank you, Grace,’ said Rosina, at which Evelyn huffed and folded her arms. Rosina went to Evelyn and gave her long, red-blonde hair a single, affectionate stroke, which soothed her a little. ‘Grace is right, girls. Now is the time to think not of ourselves, but of others. Of what we can do to help, to support, to provide and to manage without. It won’t be easy. Remember that I have lived through a war before and never thought to see it again in my lifetime.’ She shuddered inwardly at the thought of it, the horror of the Great War burned into the memory of her late teens and early twenties. Her mother had died the year before the war started and Rosina could chart the downward spiral of her life, and indeed the world’s it seemed, from that moment. ‘But here it is. And here we are. And we must make the best of it.’
‘Will we have to fight?’ asked Daisy, her face unreadable. Rosina couldn’t tell if she liked the idea or not.
‘I’ll fight ’em!’ cried Constance.
‘I was going to say that!’ added Dora.
‘Nobody will be doing any fighting,’ said Rosina. ‘Now—’ But she was talked over by another daughter.
‘I’ll be off to London,’ said Evvy. ‘They’ll need artists there, I’m sure of it. To design posters telling us all to do our duty.’
‘I’m not sure that London—’ Rosina began and was interrupted again.
‘I’ll join the Air Force then,’ announced Constance, ‘and fly planes and gun down Germans floating on parachutes into the sea and a watery grave.’
‘Don’t be a dunce,’ scoffed Evvy. ‘You’re far too young.’
‘Am not!’ cried Constance, her cheeks colouring, eyes blazing.
Rosina noticed that Grace had been sitting quietly and staring at the fireplace, pensive.
‘Are you all right, darling?’ Rosina asked her eldest daughter. ‘I know it’s a lot to take in.’
Grace turned round and surprised her mother by giving her a bright smile. ‘Actually, Mummy, I’ve been thinking a lot about this over the past few months, since we knew that war was inevitable. And I’ve come to a decision: I want to join the Wrens.’
‘Really?’ said Rosina, quite shocked. ‘I’m not sure the Navy would be right for you.’
Evvy added, ‘It’s rough and ready in the Navy, Gracie. Sure you’re up to it?’
This is what Rosina feared too. Grace was so … unworldly. Evelyn often said the thing that Rosina herself was thinking, but didn’t have the nerve or did have the tact to keep it quiet.
‘I’m not sure I’ll ever be up to it,’ said Grace thoughtfully. ‘But I’d like to do my duty. And duty is never easy. It’s not meant to be easy, I think. They say the Wren uniform will be the nicest, with a smashing hat! But seriously, I feel it’s about time I saw a bit of the real world, don’t you, Mummy? And when I was a girl, living on the edge of a cliff, I always loved the idea of running away to sea.’
‘Ooh, can I come?’ piped up Constance.
‘Oh, Connie, do put a sock in it,’ said Evvy, with a toss of her hair.
‘Will school be closed forever?’ added Daisy, hopefully. Her twin adored school but Daisy had never found boarding school easy. All those people in close quarters . . . She was the kind of person who found small talk horrifying and sharing her space utterly draining.
‘No, dear,’ said Rosina. ‘Only for a week or so while they sort all the evacuees. But your school is deep in the countryside and will be safe, so you will go back there. Life must go on, you know, the things that matter must prevail. Grace and Evelyn, we will discuss your plans later. Connie and twins, you will study at home this week. I’ll see to it you will have plenty to keep your mind occupied. Now, girls, I must go and see the staff for there will be things to discuss. I’ll see you all at luncheon in an hour and we’ll talk everything through then. Try not to fret too much; some things will change, but many will stay the same, school being one of them! Take comfort in that, my darlings.’
As Rosina left the room, she heard Constance tut and Daisy sigh, probably at the thought of school going on as normal. She knew she ought to stay with the girls and let them bombard her with their inevitable questions, but the truth was that she felt as clueless as them. She even wondered if Grace knew more about the state of affairs than she did. Rosina read The Times each day, but she did not pay such close attention to worldly matters as Grace did. Evelyn was worldly in a different way, had more knowledge of the streets than herself or her other daughters had. The others were young and foolish, except Daisy, who had a kind of otherworldly peace about her. She’d be stoic, Grace would be sensible and the other three would probably go wild, falling in love with soldiers and sailors and airmen.
Rosina sighed as she walked down the passageway that led towards the ballroom and, further on, to the servants’ hall, kitchen, scullery and outhouses. Again, she felt very alone walking down that long corridor that stretched the depth of the house, facing away from the sea beyond. She saw, through the ballroom’s glass-panelled doors, the trees of the driveway stretching away in parallel lines and thought of the horses she and the girls had ridden on, ambling down that driveway on to the moorland they would gallop across for fun. She’d probably have to sell some of the horses, if all the grooms were called up. She thought then of her two gleaming motor cars parked in the garage, of petrol and food, of how both would probably be in short supply. The land and the farmers surrounding her estate – how crucial they would be! How could she be crucial too? What could she do to help her nation?
As she approached the servants’ hall, Rosina could hear the hubbub of her staff discussing the news. She knew her entrance would hush them all and, for a moment, she had a strange desire to be one of them, amidst colleagues and friends, talking about their families, their futures, relying on each other for advice and hearsay. As she arrived at the door to the servants’ hall, in the moment before her appearance was noted, she saw a kitchen maid – Nancy, her name was, Nancy Bird – stand up from the table and announce something to the room.
‘I’ll be joining t’Wrens!’ she said and beamed a beautiful smile.
She was scolded by Cook, MrsBairstow, who told Nancy to think on, that she’d be beaten with a rolling pin before she left them all in the lurch like that. But as the servants near the door noticed Rosina’s presence and the customary hush fell, Rosina realised that while Nancy might be the first to announce her role in the new world of wartime, many other servants would also leave – the young first, of course, but if the war dragged on past Christmas, as the last war had, then perhaps this room bustling now with staff would dwindle and empty, leaving only the middle-aged to keep the big house and estate from grinding to a halt. That would be her task, to keep all this going, with little to no help. She’d have no time to be noble and aid the nation. She’d drown in the responsibility of Raven Hall and all its hungry needs. The thought both energised and exhausted her.
‘Now then, everyone,’ she said brightly and smiled. But nobody else was smiling, except the kitchen maid, who looked extremely pleased with herself. My Grace will join the Navy with Nancy Bird, thought Rosina and in this one bare fact, she saw how the world would be changed forever by this war, bringing some together, separating others. And she felt as if the room would tip, that she’d lose her footing and slide down into nothingness. But it didn’t and she didn’t. She heard herself talking to her staff calmly, reassuringly. Whatever changes came, she knew that through all the years of loneliness since she’d lost her beloved mother, she had built an iron spine for herself to see her through the hardest of times. War would be no exception. Whatever the world threw at Raven Hall, would dare to aim at Rosina Calvert-Lazenby, she would face it. And prevail.
And now, of course, I’m going to have to find out if indeed she does prevail!