Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Thursday, April 14, 2022

Thursday, April 14, 2022: Maximum Shelf: Widowland

Sourcebooks Landmark: Widowland by C.J. Carey

Sourcebooks Landmark: Widowland by C.J. Carey

Sourcebooks Landmark: Widowland by C.J. Carey

Sourcebooks Landmark: Widowland by C.J. Carey


by C.J. Carey

C.J. Carey uses two of the greatest what-ifs in modern British history as the basis for the captivating and exploratory alternate history Widowland: what if Great Britain had surrendered to Nazi Germany during World War II, and what if Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson had ruled as king and queen of England.

Set in London in 1953, on the cusp of the coronation of Edward and Wallis, Widowland introduces a world under the Alliance, in which Britain is known as the Protectorate; an authoritarian government, headed by the Leader and supported by a vast system of surveillance and informants, values order and duty above all else. The timing is crucial; it's far enough out from the Alliance that life has, for the most part, returned to some semblance of normal, even if that "normal" includes government control largely upheld by the classification of women "that accorded with their heritage, reproductive status, and racial characteristics." At the top of this caste system sit the Gelis, so nicknamed after the Leader's own idolized niece, and at the bottom are Friedas: widows deemed fairly useless to society for their lack of husband and failure to reproduce on behalf of the Alliance; they are assigned living quarters in "desolate residential districts" known as Widowlands.

Rose Ransom is a Geli, "not so much beautiful as enigmatic, a perfect oval framed by neat dark blond hair and grave eyes of indeterminate blue," who enjoys a slightly more elite status because of her "friendship" with the assistant culture minister, Martin Kreuz. Their relationship--an open secret despite Martin's wife and children back in Berlin and the Alliance's disdain for extramarital affairs--is what lands Rose a new office job with the Ministry. She is assigned to edit literature to be more reflective of the Leader's values, to create a narrative aligned with Alliance rules of order. "Our Protector believes that books are every bit as dangerous as bombs. Words are weapons, aren't they?" Martin asks Rose. "I mean that books, like people, need discipline. Not only the discipline of grammar and sentences but the hard discipline of meaning."

Carey (a pen name for historical fiction author Jane Thynne) uses this premise to great effect, as Rose is drawn into increasingly complicated plots of her own while simultaneously trying to unravel and "correct" the plots of popular works of literature. But, as Rose comes to find out, the Alliance's fear of literature is not unfounded; she finds herself changed by the intended meanings of the very works she is charged with reading and editing. "Reading," she discovers, "preserves empathy, and without that, we're not connected anymore. We lose that feeling of stepping into other lives." When she is eventually sent into a Widowland district on an undercover mission to suss out resistance leaders there, her newfound empathy finds her unexpectedly sympathetic to the plight of the Friedas she meets and appalled by the horrid conditions in which they live. When she, like the Friedas, finds herself with nothing left to lose, the lessons of literature guide her to step into her power--as an individual, as a woman, and as a resistance fighter--in ways she could never have imagined.

Widowland is, of course, speculative fiction, but the depth of historical detail within Carey's parallel world is incredible (though understandable, given the depth of Thynne's research in World War II-era novels such as her popular Clara Vine series). Even the idea of editing works of literature comes from a real--if never actually executed--plan of the Nazi Party. This focus on literature combines with the Alliance's very keen interest in controlling women ("This whole nation is obsessed with order. Ordering books, ordering women"), again reminiscent of very real attempts to control women and their bodies through much of modern history. In Rose's story, even her relationship with Martin is "as much a cage as a comfort," not entirely unwelcome but ultimately also without much choice for Rose.

This brilliant combination of real and imagined details pushes Widowland beyond the realm of mere history or conjecture into something greater: an examination of the power of storytelling and imagination, the seeds of resistance and hope in an authoritarian environment, the way words and fear are used to control and manipulate--all of which transcend the imagined 1950s London that Carey has so expertly crafted. She offers reflections that feel as relevant to modern times as to mid-20th-century Britain. Widowland is as thoughtful as it is thought-provoking, a fast-paced work of historical speculation that asks big questions about the past and present across every page. --Kerry McHugh

Sourcebooks Landmark, $16.99, trade paper, 432p., 9781728248448, August 9, 2022

Sourcebooks Landmark: Widowland by C.J. Carey

C.J. Carey: Rewriting History

C.J. Carey is the pen name for journalist Jane Thynne, who has also authored several works of World War II-era historical fiction. Her speculative fiction debut, Widowland (Sourcebooks Landmark, August 9, 2022) imagines a 1950s London in which Britain allied with Nazi Germany during World War II.

Much of Widowland centers on this idea of rewriting great works of literature. I've heard of burning books, but not rewriting them. Was this an idea you invented, or has this actually occurred?

I've written several novels set in and around wartime Europe and Nazi Germany, and in researching those, I came across something that absolutely astonished me: in the 1930s and going into World War II, there was a man called Alfred Rosenberg, a Nazi functionary very close to Hitler, who was an obsessive pedagogue. He set up an SS task force to go through occupied Europe to seize books from libraries and personal collections, then bring them back to Berlin, where a team of scholars would rewrite these history books. The idea of actually rewriting history so painstakingly was so astonishing to me that I took an imaginative leap and I thought, what would it be like if you had a situation where somebody had to rewrite English literature to make it ideologically appropriate for Nazi ideology?

And then when my husband died, I was out to lunch with an old friend who made a passing comment that he'd love to invite me to dinner, but that they only had couples to dinner, and I thought to myself, "I'm living in widowland now," which would be a great book title. That same day I'd been researching the treatment of women during World War II in Germany during the latter stages of the war. Everyone had rations, and there was one particular category of women who had the lowest rations because they were over 50 and they had no children, no husband; they were useless. They were nicknamed "Friedhofsfrauen" which means "Cemetery Women," and I thought it would be interesting to take these "useless" women, when we know women over 50 tend to be the most literate in a society, living in a Widowland as women who actually knew what English literature was all about. All those ideas came together and ultimately became Widowland.

Those women of Widowland also have the least to lose.

If you take everything away from someone, then they have nothing to lose and they have nothing to fear. In Widowland, there is an outbreak of subversive graffiti: banned lines from women's literature, women like Mary Wollstonecraft and Virginia Woolf and Charlotte Brontë. The authorities are horrified by this, particularly as the Leader is about to visit Britain and be greeted by embarrassing graffiti about women and power and education. The suspicion falls on the widows because everybody understands they have nothing, so they're not frightened anymore.

Towards the end of the novel, there's a line from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein that becomes very important to the heroine: "Beware, for I am fearless and therefore powerful." In the context of the novel, with reading frowned upon but with classics like Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre, the government recognizes people won't forget those books in a hurry. So the best thing to do is correct and edit them, but these older women read these books in their original, and remember them. So the difficulty of stamping out memory becomes important, and that's a theme I'll carry on in the sequel to Widowland.

It gives new meaning to the idea of history being written by the victors, doesn't it? It's more like re-written by the victors.

That's something I think about a lot, and it even has a very contemporary feeling if you think about the Trump era and the idea of "facts" and "alternative facts." And the idea that we're quite concerned about at the moment, though it's certainly not new, that people rewrite history. Winston Churchill said, "History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it." That idea about history being adjusted to suit the victor is not just something that we see now, it's been going on since Greek and Roman times.

What felt different to you writing this book, which is speculative fiction, compared to your other novels, which are historical fiction?

That's actually why I adopted a pen name for Widowland, because I've always gone to enormous lengths not to get the historical facts wrong in any way in my other novels, and to get everything accurate. And so when I decided to do an alternative history, I thought to do it under a different name.

I've always loved that "sliding doors" theory of history, how easily things could have been different, so what I wanted was not to have a sort of fantastical dystopia, I wanted how it would have been. Helpfully, an intelligence chief for the Nazi party wrote a whole handbook about how they would have run Britain once invaded--that was very useful, and I tried to keep fairly accurately to things that I thought would have happened.

It was also liberating, because you suddenly think, I could make that happen! For example, there was a senior Nazi called Rudolf Hesse who flew to England during the war and crashed and was kept prisoner in Spandau Prison for the rest of his life. In Widowland, Hesse has not crashed his plane, and he's bought a mansion in Scotland instead. I wanted that alternative, that "what if?"

And the biggest "what if?" of 20th-century British history, which is: What if Edward VIII had not abdicated? Edward was a Nazi sympathizer, and I think without any doubt, if that had happened, England would have been allied with Germany and all sorts of things would have flown from that. Life would have been very different, so that's a huge what-if in English history, and I wanted--I've always longed--to tackle that one.

It's so interesting to think of the multitude of what-ifs, and then back to the power of literature to hold so many stories, both real and imagined.

I suppose one of the things that I really fear is that the books that everybody knows of English literature--famous books like Pride and Prejudice, Middlemarch, etc.--can, in the space of just a generation or two, become books that only a few people know. That fear, about losing reading and our literary heritage, underpins this. Obviously the people in charge in the regime believe that it is very easy to stop people reading and stop people thinking, and so what [this book] really is, is kind of a vote of confidence for reading. The important thing about reading is that you experience other lives, and it expands empathy. I suppose, in that way, it's really about reading as much as anything. --Kerry McHugh

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