The Wild Rose, Jennifer Donnelly’s third and final installment of the Rose series, is a sweeping saga of love, passion, and betrayal that unfolds over four continents during the course of World War I. Incorporating historical figures with fictional characters, The Wild Rose examines the themes of exploration, espionage, global conflict, and women’s rights in vivid, impeccably researched historical detail.
The dashing, elusive Max von Brandt weaves his way from the Himalayas to the grimy East End of London to Berlin, where he works as a German spy. Willa Alden, a wild, passionate mountaineer, is so devastated by the loss of her leg in a horrific climbing accident with her lover Seamus Finnegan that she travels to the farthest corners of the world trying to forget him. Seamus, meanwhile, is back in London after completing the first successful expedition to the South Pole—and he marries a young English woman in a desperate attempt to forget Willa.
In The Wild Rose, Max, Willa, Seamus, and an entire network of compelling characters twist and turn their way through England, Asia, Africa, and America, colliding with one another in a multilayered web of passion, hope, tragedy, and, ultimately, love.
1. Donnelly portrays historical figures—Winston Churchill, Ernest Shackleton, T. E. Lawrence—alongside her fictional characters. How did this blur the line between truth and fiction in your mind as you read?
2. How did societal gender roles and expectations shape the lives of the many female characters in The Wild Rose? In what ways did these women rebel against their expected roles?
3. Discuss the connections between love, exploration, and masculinity in The Wild Rose. Donnelly writes, “It was no accident that they were both unmarried, Seamie and Lawrence. They belonged to their passion, their yearning to see, to discover, to know. They belonged to their quest, and to nothing else.” (p. 53) What do you make of this mutual exclusivity between romantic love and exploration? Why was exploration considered an inherently masculine pursuit in the early twentieth century—and do you think the same sentiment exists today?
4. Why is Willa such an arresting, unusual character? Consider both the historical setting and the timeless aspects of her personality.
5. When Seamie tells Jennie about exploring in Africa, the “dark continent,” Jennie responds, “England is the dark continent. Take a walk in Whitechapel, down Flower and Dean Street, or Hanbury, or Brick Lane Street, if you need convincing. I’ve always felt that British politicians and missionaries should make certain their own house is in order before marching off to set the Africans to rights.” (p. 76) How do you see this dichotomy played out in politics and society today? What regions or issues would you describe as the “dark continents” of the twenty-first century?
6. The generation of men and women who came of age during World War I is often called “the Lost Generation.” How did you see this idea manifest itself throughout the book? What exactly did the wartime generation lose?
7. Which character in the book did you find yourself rooting for the most? Which character did you most despise? Whose fate did you predict and whose storylines surprised you the most?
8. What do you think would have happened if Willa hadn’t run into Seamie at Admiral Alden’s funeral? Do you think Seamie would have stayed in London with Jennie, working at the RGS, or do you believe Seamie and Willa’s love was too strong to have been denied?
9. Were you surprised to learn about the pivotal role of the Arabian front in World War I? Why do you think this part of the war is less well-known than the European theater?
10. After Max reveals to Seamie that he is a British double agent, Seamie angrily confronts him about his actions as a fake German spy that caused real harm to British citizens, including his wife, Jennie. Do you see any ethical difference between Max’s actions as a double agent and Seamie’s as a British soldier?
11. At the end of the book, Willa tells Max she can’t be with Seamie because of everything she’s done to him. Looking back, how strongly do you think Willa was motivated by an inability to forgive herself? Do you think that everything can be forgiven, as Max says, or are there some things you can’t come back from?
12. The last sentence in the book describes love as both a terrible and a wonderful thing. (p. 614) Do you think this is an appropriate theme for The Wild Rose? If not, what idea or sentiment would you pick as a unifying theme?
13. Have you read The Winter Rose or The Tea Rose? If yes, how did this book wrap up the story started in the earlier two books? If no, do you feel that you missed anything, or did this book stand on its own?
A Conversation with Jennifer Donnelly
1. You did a lot of research for the Rose series, as your extensive bibliography indicates. What kinds of facts did you seek out in your research, and what kinds of details did you leave to your creative imagination? Did you find that the research was a creative inspiration or a factually necessary limitation?
I’m looking for everything when I research—from the immutable time lines of major historical events like the Great War, to the structure and composition of an artificial limb in 1914, to songs sung at posh Edwardian parties. Research both informs and inspires me. I use it to portray the world that my characters live in accurately, and also to determine the possibilities, options, and limitations they face. I don’t deviate from the known realities of history—World War One starts in 1914, no matter how inconvenient that may be to a plot line—but I do push the more fluid boundaries as much as I can. My characters are often on the frontlines of social change. Fiona, for example, builds a worldwide tea concern at a time when few women owned businesses. India is one of Britain’s first female doctors. Joe is one of the first Labor members of Parliament.
2. Which character do you like best? Which character did you have the most fun writing? What differences did you feel as a writer in portraying historical figures versus creating fictional characters?
That is an impossible question! It’s like asking someone which of their children they like best. I love them all. Though I will admit that I really enjoyed writing Max von Brandt. He really surprised me; he totally refused to go along with my program and came up with his own path, and his own reasons for taking it. As for historical vs. fictional characters, I’m always conscious, when portraying historical figures, that they belong to all of us, not exclusively to me as my fictional characters do, and so I try to be careful to work within what is known about them, and to not give them motivations or beliefs that are wildly divergent from who they were and what they stood for.
3. The book has incredibly intricate plot points, familial connections, and seeming coincidences that you later reveal to be strategically planned. How did you keep track of everything? How much plotting did you do before you started writing, and how much plotting happened as you found inspiration in your drafts?
Thank you! I want to keep my readers entertained and guessing, and doing that takes a lot of thinking and planning and outlining. I map the different strands of the plot out in advance of the actual writing, and often color code characters so that I can see at a glance on my outline where they are popping up, if they’re on stage too much or not enough. I would say most of the plotting happens before I write. With a book of this length, one that contains so many characters, I have to know where they are going to end up—and how—before I start, or else I waste too much time going down wrong roads. That said, I sometimes find out that an idea isn’t working, or characters start doing what they want to do, rather than what I think they should do, and then changes need to be made to accommodate that. That’s what happens when you write strong-willed characters!
4. The Wild Rose is the third book in your Rose series. How much of this book did you have planned out when you first started writing the Rose series? Are there still parts of the story that you want to explore, or do you feel you’ve gotten the whole story out on paper?
I had nothing planned out. The Tea Rose, the first book in the trilogy, was the first novel I’d ever written. It took ten years to write and rewrite (and rewrite!) and sell it, and I could never really think beyond it until I actually was beyond it. After the dust settled a bit, I started to wonder about Fiona’s brothers, and what their lives might be like. And so the next two installments of the trilogy were born. One thing I’ve learned along the way is not to make pronouncements or predictions. There may be more parts of this saga to explore, there may not . . . who knows? It all comes down to the characters. If they start talking to me again, I’ll be there to listen.
5. Now that the Rose series is done, what are you working on next? Do you want to write another sweeping, epic novel, or are you hoping to focus on smaller projects?
You’re giving me way too much credit by assuming I have such detailed plans in place! It’s not so much about what I want to do, or intend to do, as it is about being grabbed and beguiled and compelled by some event, or place, or person, and being overwhelmed by the emotion of it, and then finding a way to put that emotion on paper. I don’t really find my ideas. They find me.
The Winter Rose
Spanning three continents and crossing all corners of London society in the early twentieth century, The Winter Rose is the story of female physician India Selwyn Jones, and how her world is upended when she crosses paths, and falls in love, with notorious gangster Sid Malone. Exploring many potent themes—such as the role of women in the 1900s, the harmful effects of secret-keeping, and what happens when love crosses the social strata—The Winter Rose is a terrific choice for book groups, and the below questions are designed to aid discussion of this sweeping, multilayered novel.
1. The Winter Rose is filled with vivid descriptions of England in the early twentieth century. Which images or scenes stood out for you?
2. Family, and familial duty, is at the center of the book. Talk about the important, and sometimes detrimental, role that family plays in the lives of the main characters.
3. Before you started reading The Winter Rose, what did you know about 1900s London? What are some of the things you’ve learned? Could you have lived in that time?
4. Discuss the role of women in the book. How were they treated? Which of the female characters would you describe as a feminist?
5. Discuss Sid Malone—was he a Robin Hood, or the devil incarnate? Did you agree with Ella’s exhortation on page 172, “Let a bad man do a good deed?” Did you like Sid? Why or why not?
6. What was your opinion of Freddie Lytton? Did you suspect his duplicity? Do you think India was aware of his bad intentions? If not, why do you think she didn’t know what he was up to?
7. What was at the heart of India and Sid’s attraction to one another? Did you expect them to reunite at the book’s end?
8. In Chapter 28, India says to Sid, “It’s such a hard world. Such an ugly world. Sometimes it seems like a fool’s errand to try and change it for the better” (page 237). Why does she—and Joe, Fiona, and Sid—try so hard to better the world they live in when change is so difficult to effect?
9. “‘Bury the past,’ he said aloud, as he left Fiona’s study, never realizing, never suspecting, that the past might well bury him,” (page 33). How did the past come back to haunt Joe?
10. “[India had] known her only twenty-four hours, but she already felt close to her,” (page 81). Talk about the friendship between India and Ella Moskowitz. Why did they become so close? What (or who) did Ella represent to India?
11. Of all the twists and turns of plot in The Winter Rose, which one caught you most by surprise? Why?
12. What does the book’s title mean? What is the significance of a rose in winter?
A Conversation with Jennifer Donnelly
1. India Selwyn Jones is what we in the twenty-first century would consider a feminist—did you set out to create such a strong female character, or did she evolve that way as you wrote the book?
I don’t really set out to create my characters. They come to me fully formed. India was upright, impatient, compassionate, smart, and difficult from the day I met her. What did evolve, however, was her understanding of human foibles—in others and in herself. Experience works on her in The Winter Rose, as it does on all of us—hardening some things in the soul, and softening others.
2. You include so many interesting backdrops and back stories in the novel—medicine in the early twentieth century, the social ills of early 1900s London, farming life in colonial Africa. How did you choose these locales and situations? How much research did you have to complete?
These occupations and locales evolved from the characters—who they are and what they do, and also from their place in time. They also evolved from my insatiable curiosity about the world and all the people in it. To be truthful, I’m a terrible nosybody. I want to know all about everything and everybody. I want to know how women delivered babies without epidurals. How a woman found the courage to pursue a medical degree when the whole world said she oughtn’t to. What Kenya looked like in the early 1900s. And Point Reyes, too. That’s why writing a book like The Winter Rose is the best job I can imagine because it allows me to be so many different people, and pursue so many different interests.
3. The book is almost epic in its scope and length—what was the writing process like for you? How long did it take you to finish writing?
I’m all about the epic. I like big, fat books with lots of stuff in them—love stories, murders, politics, labour strikes, gorgeous dresses, and pots of tea. I’m a more-is-more, whole-hog kind of girl. It took me three years to write The Winter Rose. The writing process was difficult, full of rewrites and more rewrites, because writing is hard for me. Creating something out of nothing is hard. But for all my whining, there’s nothing I’d rather be doing.
4. The Jewish population that existed during the time period that The Winter Rose is set in is not well known. What inspired you to create Ella Moskowitz and her family?
The Jewish population of East London is well-known to me. I’ve loved and studied this part of the world for a long time, and one cannot understand East London—its vitality, its toughness, and its resilience—without understanding its Jewish immigrants and the countless contributions they made to East London’s culture, language, politics, and heritage. To me, Ella and her family personify the qualities—the courage and fortitude and faith—it took to leave the country that had been their home, and then not only survive, but thrive in an entirely new place.
5. Who is your favorite character in the book?
There’s no possible way I can choose just one. I identify strongly with India. Out of all the characters I’ve created, I think she’s the most like me—a pain in the neck. Well-meaning, but still a pain in the neck. I love Sid, of course. And Fiona and Joe and their family. And I’m terribly intrigued by Willa Alden. So much so in fact, that I’m very much wondering how things will turn out for her, and I think I might just have to sit down and spend a bit of time with her, and see if she’ll let me tell her story, too.