|photo: Laurie Fletcher
British writer Wendy Holden was a national newspaper and magazine journalist before becoming a full-time author. She wrote 10 comic novels, selling more than 3 million copies, before turning to historical fiction. The Royal Governess (Berkley, August 28, 2020) is a novel about the little-known childhood of Queen Elizabeth II and the lively young teacher who made her the monarch she is today.
On your nightstand now:
I'm researching my new novel on Wallis Simpson and so am back in the 1930s, also the setting for The Governess. I'm reading Cecil Beaton's Bright Young Things by Robin Muir. It is slightly too big for the nightstand and therefore lying on the floor next to the bed. But it's a completely fascinating portrait of an era of excess. The glamorous, eccentric people Beaton photographed are walking straight into my story!
Favorite book when you were a child:
My grandmother had a souvenir book of the 1937 coronation. It was huge and had gold cloth covers; I thought it was the most glamorous thing ever. Inside were lots of pictures of the royal family, mostly sepia, but also some beautiful full-page early colour photographs. But beyond the glamour and glitter I could see, even as a child, that the Windsors were all completely distinct characters: grumpy George V, thunderous-looking Queen Mary, sphinx-like Mrs. Simpson and the beautiful, bored Prince of Wales. I knew even then I'd put them all in a novel one day.
Your top five authors:
They're all comic writers because we desperately need to be cheered up at the moment. Flying the flag for the Brits here, but Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons is a side-splitting satire about country life. Sensible Flora, down on her luck, must leave London to live with her rustic cousins in the village of Howling.
I also love the Adrian Mole books by Sue Townsend, and the fantastic graphic novels of Posy Simmonds, especially Tamara Drewe--a reworking of Far from the Madding Crowd--and Gemma Bovery, a reworking of--well, you can guess!
And no list of funny English lady writers can leave out Nancy Mitford, whose Love in a Cold Climate, about the crazy posh Radlett family, is perfection. Finally, a shout-out for a great American comic novel The Serial by Cyra McFadden. It's about a hipster couple in 1970s California and so funny you can't read it in public.
Book you're an evangelist for:
I try to convince people that War and Peace is a fun read, but no-one ever believes me. I love it, though. Prince Andrey Bolkonsky is one of my favourite literary heroes, knocking Mr. Darcy into a cocked hat.
Book you've bought for the cover:
When I was researching The Governess, a good source of material was a stall in the market in the nearby town. It sold secondhand books, mostly from house clearances. The local area clearly had a lot of royal fans because there were avalanches of books about the Windsors, mostly hagiographies from the 1950s and '60s with stirring titles like Our Noble Young Queen. While usually syrupy in the extreme, these almost always contained some fascinating nugget I had not read before. I always bought them for the covers; they were all I had to go on, always featuring royalty, often surrounded by beautiful heraldry. I snapped them up by the dozen!
Book you hid from your parents:
Like most '70s parents, mine weren't all that interested in what I was doing. It would never have occurred to them to police my reading. But I was a very pretentious, aspirational child and my working-class family used to laugh at me for that. I probably hid the "improving" books I got out of the library--volumes about elocution, the British peerage and so on.
Book that changed your life:
Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain. This account of a young girl's life derailed by the First World War is famously a feministic classic and a passionate argument for pacifism. But what really spoke to me was the plight of the teenage Vera, stuck in the Edwardian north of England and desperate to go to Oxford. Stuck in the north of England some 70 years later and desperate to go to Cambridge, I took both comfort and courage from Vera's iron determination in preparing for the entrance exams. If she could teach herself Greek Responsions (whatever they were), I figured that I could struggle through Beowulf.
Favorite line from a book:
"And his answer trickled through my head like water through a sieve." This is from "The White Knight's Song," a poem in Alice Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll. It's not just that the poem makes me laugh, the line completely captures that inability to remember what someone has said, even while they are saying it.
Book you most want to read again for the first time:
None, because if I like them, I enjoy them even more when I read them again.
Five books you'll never part with:
Two exercise-book diaries made by my children, when small, about a family holiday in Rome. They're battered, stained and curling at the edges but entirely beloved. The other three would have to be selected from my vast collection of photo albums and scrapbooks, all of which provide surprising surges of memory when opened. My husband says they'll help prevent Alzheimer's.
The best book you've read this past year:
I really enjoyed The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd. It imagines that Jesus had a wife: clever, rebellious Ana. All the familiar characters are imagined as real people. Herod is fantastically evil, and Jesus sexy and charismatic. I love fictionalisations; it's what I do myself.