The de la Mare household, filled entirely with women, is not unlike many households on the tiny British island of Guernsey during World War II, where most men have left to join the army in its fight against the encroaching German forces. Vivienne feels little difference, however, in her husband Eugene’s absence from the life they lived when he resided at home as she raises their two daughters and cares for her ailing mother-in-law. He may have slept in the same bed, but the distance between them, then, was just as great.
Her life does change, though, when the Germans bomb their island and then occupy it, building work camps for prisoners of war and taking up residence in the homes abandoned by Guernsey citizens who fled. The house next door to Vivienne’s becomes one such German residence, and when several soldiers of the German army begin living there, including one tall, intriguing man with a long pink scar on his face, Vivienne is forced to negotiate a new life fraught with new rules, new faces, and a dangerous but fulfilling new love.
An intricate historical novel that moves deftly between mystery and romance, The Soldier’s Wife depicts domestic and military life—and the horrors of war—with poetic, evocative prose. Margaret Leroy’s book about a woman whose unassuming life is irrevocably changed by war is a quiet meditation on bravery, compassion, and the resilience of human nature.
1. The book opens with Vivienne reading fairy tales to her younger daughter, Millie. Discuss the ways in which The Soldier’s Wife is like a fairy tale, as well as the important ways in which it is not. Discuss, too, the running motif of fairy tales throughout the book, including what Vivienne reads to Millie out of Angie’s book of Guernsey stories. Is Leroy using the fairy tales as symbols, or metaphors, or as a way of constructing a thematic statement for the book? (Or, perhaps, all three?)
2. Consider the ways the setting of The Soldier’s Wife is used as a literary device. Discuss scenes where the landscape foreshadows events or parallels the moods of the characters (in particular, Vivienne).
3. How effectively do you think Leroy portrayed life on the island of Guernsey during its occupation by the Germans in World War II? In particular, discuss the extent to which she depicted the bombing of the harbor, the gradual decline into poverty and resourcefulness of the island’s inhabitants, and the strained and complex relationships between the German soldiers and the British citizens.
4. Because most of the British men from Guernsey were enlisted as soldiers in the war, a majority of the characters in this book are women. Discuss the ways in which the author writes about women during wartime, focusing in particular on Angie, Gwen, Blanche, Vivienne, and Evelyn.
5. Similarly, consider—by way of the book’s characters—how the different generations were affected by the war: Millie and Simon’s innocent youth, Blanche and Johnnie’s emerging adulthood, Vivienne and Gunther’s duty-torn middle age, and Evelyn’s advanced (and afflicted) years. In what ways did each generation suffer because of the war, and in what ways were they changed, perhaps, for the better?
6. Comment on Vivienne’s honest appraisal of her marriage early in the novel, before her relationship with Gunther begins. What does it say about her that she never confronted Eugene about his mistress? Do you think that she would have returned to her marriage after the war with the same practical resignation?
7. Some of the less developed characters in the novel are interesting nonetheless. Discuss the roles Gwen, Angie, Max, and Johnnie play in the book and in Vivienne’s life. How does each character teach her something, or reveal something, about which she would otherwise remain in the dark? How do her relationships with these characters change, and change her, over the course of the story?
8. Discuss Kirill and his role in the novel, too. When Millie began speaking about the “white ghost” in the barn, did you suspect she was talking about a man from the work camp? What did you think had happened to him the first time he disappeared? In what ways was he responsible for a change in Vivienne, particularly as a character in opposition to Gunther, a man who was also responsible for significant change in Vivienne?
9. When Vivienne broke off her relationship with Gunther, what did you believe? Did you believe that Gunther had reported Vivienne for housing Kirill? What did you think of Max’s revelation to Vivienne that Hermann had died, and then, at the end of the book, that Gunther had not been responsible for Kirill’s death? Do you think Vivienne blamed Gunther for Kirill’s death before this, or did it matter to her? How much did Vivienne hold Gunther responsible for his actions as a German soldier?
10. Gunther and Vivienne were both marked by the death of a parent—Vivienne, her mother, and Gunther, his father. What other similarities, particularly of character, did they share? What made them such an ideal match? Had the war ended while Gunther was still on Guernsey, what might have happened to them? Would their fairy tale have had a happy ending?
11. In what ways is Vivienne a memorable heroine? What character trait did you find most interesting about her? What made you like her (or, possibly, dislike her) in particular?
12. Compare this book to other works of historical fiction that you have read. What are its biggest strengths? What makes it different from other historical novels? Did it change, in any way, your perspective of life in Europe during World War II? What can be learned from these characters and their particular situation that can be useful in contemporary society, even in the United States?
A Conversation with Margaret Leroy
1. Three of your books – and now The Soldier’s Wife – have featured mothers as the protagonists, and often highlight (if not develop around) the complex relationship between mother and child. What do you find most compelling about this kind of a character?
Bringing up my two daughters has been my main preoccupation for the last twenty years of my life, and I like to see that experience reflected in the novels I read. This doesn’t happen all that often. Of course there are some authors, such as Jodi Picoult and Joanna Trollope, who write marvellously about parenting, but generally the subject matter of novels doesn’t really reflect the centrality of child-rearing in most people’s lives. As author David Lodge once rather nicely remarked, the novel is all about sex and hardly at all about parenting – whereas life tends to be the other way round… Yet I find the relationship between mothers and children to be so rich in story possibilities. And of course if your protagonist has children – if there’s a child who could be hurt by her actions – this raises the stakes. So, in The Soldier’s Wife, the risks that Vivienne takes are much greater because through her actions she will be endangering her own children.
Another reason why most of my novels are about mothers and children is simply that children are such fun to write. In The Soldier’s Wife, Millie is probably my favourite character – this robust, vivid little girl who sees things very clearly, and who is a centre of good in the story.
2. Also, you’ve written that some of your ideas for novels have sprung from your own experiences as a mother – what are the biggest challenges when writing characters that share similarities with your own life? Do you find the writing process cathartic in that way, or is there some other benefit (or danger) from writing about what you know?
The seed of a story can come from anywhere. In the case of The Soldier’s Wife, it was planted way back, in 1992, when the government papers related to the Occupation of the Channel Islands were released. I remember reading about the Occupation in the newspaper – this was well before I became a novelist – and thinking, That would make such a wonderful story. The ideas for other novels have come from television programmes, or things that have happened to people I know. But for two of my stories, it’s true that the inspiration was something that happened to me. The River House began when we dropped our elder daughter off for her first term at college; and the idea for Postcards for Berlin came from a difficult encounter with a paediatrician when our younger daughter was ill. And I also drew on the experience of my daughter’s illness in Yes, My Darling Daughter, in writing about the loneliness of a woman who has a troubled child – though in that story the mother comes to suspect that her daughter’s troubles may have a supernatural origin.
I’m not sure that writing a novel could ever be cathartic in the way that, say, writing a memoir or even a non-fiction article might be. So much happens between that first frisson – the moment of thrill when you think I could write about that – and the finished story; there’s so much exploration and development, and by the time you’ve created your characters and written your story you’ve left the personal experience that may have inspired it far behind. When I sit down to write I enter a place that’s quite different from my everyday world – that’s one of the things which is so blissful about writing; and none of my protagonists is exactly me – though each of my heroines probably does have little bits of me in her.
Perhaps I should add, though, that I’ve just shown this answer to Mick, my husband, and he said rather wryly that I’m a lot easier to live with when I’m writing – so I guess in some way my storytelling does provide some kind of catharsis for me!
3. In The Soldier’s Wife you write evocatively about a specific time period and specific places. How much research did you have to conduct before (or during) the drafting of this novel? What do you find most liberating about writing historical fiction, and what parts of the process are the most demanding, or the most frustrating?
I started by visiting Guernsey, where I’d never been, because I knew I had to love the place to be able to write the book! And I was enchanted. Though the island is quite small, it was easy to leave the more touristy bits behind and to seek out peaceful places, like the deep lanes of St. Pierre du Bois where I decided Vivienne should live.
Probably the biggest challenge in writing the book was to try and put myself back into the mindset of the time. Today, the whole way we in Britain think about the war is hugely shaped by the fact that we won. But in 1940, people in Britain were absolutely convinced that the Occupation of the Channel Islands was just the start, that Hitler was about to cross the Channel and that Britain would be invaded and defeated, and they made their decisions in the light of that belief. I always tried to remember that, as Blanche remarks, the people in the story don’t know how it’s going to end.
I found the historical research reasonably straightforward: my Bible was Madeleine Bunting’s brilliant book, The Model Occupation. Researching the feel of the early 1940’s was more challenging, but it was also richly enjoyable. For me, part of the appeal of the story idea was the glamour of the period. Not of course for the people involved, but for us now, at this distance, it’s such a romantic time – all that wonderfully nostalgic music, and the cigarettes, and the stockings with seams, and the sense of everything being incredibly fragile. I loved researching fabric patterns and perfume and cocktails, and the fashions that Blanche lusts after in her old copies of Vogue.
When I was trying to recreate the day-to-day textures of life and the way women ran their households, it helped that I’d had a rural childhood, and that my mother was a seriously late adopter. When I was growing up, she still used a mangle to wring out her washing, and she kept her perishables in a safe in her larder, and she’d turn sheets sides-to-middle, and in the evening she’d get out her darning basket just as Vivienne does. And there were things in my childhood home that dated from the 1940’s, and that I’ve used in the story: Margaret Tarrant prints, coral necklaces, eiderdowns covered in slippery taffeta that always fell off in the night.
4. You’ve written a number of nonfiction books and articles, some of which stem from your experience as a social worker. How much has your career in social work influenced your fiction, and in what ways? Beyond giving you story ideas or characters, how has your profession shaped your writing?
In my very first job as a social worker, I interviewed people admitted to hospital after attempting suicide. It was an extraordinary education in human psychology. As a social worker, you learn how people behave in extreme situations, under extreme pressure – how strong we are, and just how heroic we can be. You meet so many people who live lives of quiet heroism against terrible odds. But you also see a lot of cruelty, expecially the cruelty of parents to children and men to women. So in a way, you see both the best and the worst of people – and all that knowledge certainly shapes my writing.
In this kind of work, you also hear a lot of stories. Every time you take a case history, you’re listening to a story. Though of course I’d never use anything told in confidence in my writing, the experience of listening to all those life-histories does influence the way I write, especially when I’m creating backstory for my characters. And backstory is so important: for me, writing a rich, complex backstory is the key to creating a rich, complex character.
At one time I specialised in therapy with couples, and the things you learn doing that kind of work are gold dust if you’re writing a love story. You learn how the rules of a relationship are laid down very early on – and how things can get difficult if the rules have to be changed: as in The River House, where I looked at what might happen to a marriage that’s based on the shared project of child-rearing when the children leave home. And you learn how the ghosts of the past are always there in our relationships: so, in The Soldier’s Wife, Vivienne, who lost her mother so young, marries Eugene because he gives her the sense of safety that she’s never had – but maybe that’s not such a good basis for a marriage, because there’s something in her that remains unexpressed. And doing this kind of work, you’re always aware how important trust is in our relationships. It’s a theme I keep coming back to. My first novel was called Trust; and this theme is there in The Soldier’s Wife as well, as Vivienne urgently questions whether she can trust the man she loves.
5. What are you working on currently? Are any more of your books due to be made into films? What will we see from you next in bookstores?
I’m writing a novel about a young English woman who goes to study the piano at the Academy of Music and the Performing Arts in Vienna in 1937. At the time Vienna was perhaps Europe’s most glamorous city, and the setting and time are fascinating to explore – a seductive mix of music, Freud, exquisite coffee houses, and underground SS cells; and then all the horror of the Anschluss, when Hitler annexed Austria.
It was thrilling to have my first novel, Trust, made into television in the UK, and I’d love to see another of my books on the screen. Recently, I’ve been approached by an independent film director who’s eager to make a film of Yes, My Darling Daughter. Of course these are very difficult times for the film industry. But I’m hoping!