As she’s a writer I much admire, I was intrigued to learn that Jane was writing a book which featured the death penalty and the last woman hanged in Britain, entitled At the Stroke of Nine O’Clock. This is because I recently completed a novella An Empty Vessel in which my character is found guilty of murder and sentenced to hang. So I invited Jane over for a virtual chat.
What drew you to set a novel against the backdrop of Ruth Ellis and her death sentence?
A lifetime’s fascination with a seemingly unknowable character. I can still remember when I first saw her photographs – the same photographs that were splashed across the front pages of the first newspapers that spewed from the presses when production resumed in 1955 after a month-long strike. With a four-million-pound loss to recoup, the papers needed something sensational to fight back with. ‘Platinum blonde ex-model shoots racing-boy lover’ was newspaper gold.
The reason for my initial fascination is almost as complicated as Ruth herself was. It is difficult to accuse those who paid £30 for a seat in the Old Bailey’s public gallery of treating personal tragedy as entertainment, without acknowledging something of the same motivation. It’s a subject that make you face the possibility that there may be something ugly in you.
One of my research tomes, other than my mother’s diaries, when writing An Empty Vessel was Dominic Sandbrook’s Never Had It So Good. His perspective went into the detail of life for a British housewife as well as politics, history and social change. Where did you dig up so much detail on the three different lives?
My first source of inspiration was – as it so often has been – an episode of the arts series Imagine, this time about Ingrid Bergman called In Her Own Words, which aired over the winter of 2017. Fascinated by this complicated woman who dared step outside the confines dictated by society, I then ordered a biography and her autobiography (now out of print, but copies available second-hand). And there it was: mention of Ruth Ellis.
I re-read the books that I already owned about Ellis and then selected a biography and the autobiography of a certain notorious duchess whose name appeared on the membership list for the Little Club, which Ellis managed.
There is no shortage of source material about Ellis. Her case was referred back to the Court of Appeal as recently as 2003, and the judges concluded that she had been tried in accordance with the law as it stood at that time. Then in 2007 came Muriel Jakubait’s revealing Ruth Ellis: My Sister’s Secret Life which proposed a conspiracy theory but revealed truths that, in my opinion, are far more likely to provide an explanation for why a seemingly ambitious young woman might turn killer. A recent documentary suggested that new facts had come to light, but there were no new facts, only those that Ellis herself had asked her lawyers to suppress.
Also enormously helpful was one of my go to books, Our Hidden Lives, which is a compilation of ordinary people’s diary entries as part of the Mass Observation Project, the brainchild of anthropologist, Tom Harrisson. Harrisson had studied cannibals in the South Pacific but when he returned to Great Britain he decided that the people who lived in his hometown were no less intriguing. He also felt very strongly that the British government failed to understand the most basic attitudes, desires and fears of those they served. This volume, spanning 1945 to 1948, is a fantastic resource for writers because it details everything from the ongoing impact of rationing, the price of groceries, what people saw at the theatre or the cinema, which exhibitions they attended, the language they used, but also what they thought about the things they heard on the news and how they expressed those attitudes when the fear of being censored was removed.
One theme we share is judgement of women. Only when the book was done did I understand what I wanted to say. I have the sense you are the opposite.
I certainly picked up from An Empty Vessel that one facet of that judgement came from women’s appearance. I particularly admired how you framed that judgement. Nancy is about as far removed as it was possible to get from Ellis, whose peroxide blonde hair earned her heckles of ‘Common tart’ as she walked into court number one at the Old Bailey. There was almost a sense of, ‘You can’t win at this game.’
But it isn’t true that I knew what I wanted to say. I explore my feelings on any subject through the process of writing, and in this case, I lived and breathed my characters’ thoughts for two and a half years.
When Ingrid Bergman abandoned her husband and young daughter to live with the film director, Roberto Rossellini, she was seen as a threat to American womanhood. The House Un-American Activities Committee denounced her, and there was immense pressure to ban her work. But what really seemed to rile the public was that Ingrid Bergman was a fresh-faced beauty who rarely wore make-up. She didn’t look the way an adulteress was supposed to look.
If we’re talking about judgement in terms of Ellis’s trial, we have to question why she was so harshly treated. Not the sentence itself, because the death penalty was the prescribed sentence for murder. The fact is that it was rare for a woman to hang. Most had their sentences commuted. At that’s exactly what happened in the case of Sarah Lloyd, who was sentenced to hang the same month as Ellis.
Mrs Lloyd was convicted of beating her 86-year-old neighbour to death with a spade. Prior to the beating, Mrs Lloyd poured a pan of boiling carrots and onions over her neighbour. We have to ask ourselves why the Secretary of State saw fit to grant a reprieve for Mrs Lloyd and not for Mrs Ellis. Was Ruth’s crime worse than Sarah Lloyd’s? Or was Ruth Ellis made an example of? It really does seem that she was punished because she refused to conform to what society considered to be acceptable female behaviour. But we also have to bear in that Ruth Ellis said repeatedly that she didn’t want to live.
Of course, Nancy in An Empty Vessel was seen as uncooperative and labelled ‘a closed book’ because she simply couldn’t give them the answers they wanted to hear. I get the impression that she was someone who had never found life particularly fair, and perhaps didn’t expect a fair trial.
True. Nancy doesn’t know the right words and the establishment didn’t know how to treat someone who won’t fit the system. My story was about an entirely fictional character whereas you base much of yours on real figures. How far dare you fill in the gaps between the facts?
My actress character Ursula isn’t Ingrid Bergman – although when looking for a point at which we should meet her (and at which she might be her most vulnerable) I couldn’t resist borrowing the moment when Ursula discovers that the man she left her husband for has now left her. In fact, when this happened to Ingrid Bergman, it seemed to come as a relief. Rossellini was quite an obsessive character, threatening to kill himself if she left him. The other thing I took from Bergman was that she fought back against the idea that she was public property. Bergman was far stronger than Ursula – at least the version of Ursula that we meet.
Similarly Patrice, my duchess character, is not the Duchess of Argyll. What I needed from the Duchess of Argyll was information about coming out parties, meeting the queen and how households were run. (Although, there, Diana Athill was also of great assistance.) I needed a character from the upper classes to show how differently a duchess is treated from, say, the hostess of a drinking club. Patrice is able to walk into a police station with a lie and be believed, simply because no one would dare challenge a duchess.
Any my working class character, Caroline is not Ruth Ellis, although her story follows Ellis’s the most closely.
As for filling in the gaps, the rule I set myself was that I could only allow my characters to have the facts – if they can be called that – that members of the public would have known about Ruth Ellis. The difficulty was that very few of my beta readers knew who Ruth Ellis was, and what passed for facts didn’t paint a picture of a character who seemed to deserve their sympathy. And so I added some chapter’s from Ruth’s perspective, which was actually something I had really wanted to avoid doing.
But in creating any fictional characters, if they’re to be believable, any writer has to make sure that they are of their time, their background, their class. Were there any rules that you set yourself?
To be true to voice (which indicates social class and background) but to avoid stereotypes. Everyone is trying to ‘better’ themselves and fit in to whatever stratum they can achieve. I sympathised with everyone’s point of view, even those I disliked.
One of the themes that we both employed is that of memory loss. It isn’t something that features in the Ruth Ellis story. During the writing of my novel, I was caring for my dad who had dementia, and so memory loss was very much on my mind. I’m wondering why you chose to use it.
Memory loss is significant because when you lose a parent, you lose some memories. Some of An Empty Vessel is built around stories my mother and grandmother told me of their histories. My grandfather was a groom and my grandmother a maid in a wealthy household – I know – too Jane Austen for words. But Nancy’s ‘gap’ is something we now would understand as trauma or PTSD. In those days, she was nothing more than a difficult woman. You use a very similar device with Patrice.
I got the real impression with Nancy in An Empty Vessel that she was as indifferent to her fate as Ruth Ellis is said to have been. She had led a difficult life, and she was not unhappy for it to be at an end.
Not indifferent, actually relieved to go. This is why I think readers could interpret the end in two ways. Taken as pure fiction, Nancy gets what she wants. On the other hand, readers who know British history could place the story in context and knowing the name of the last woman hanged, might see a darker ending. If Nancy had a last-minute reprieve, for her that would be a tragedy.
We come at the subject of the death penalty from different angles. In At the Stroke of Nine O’Clock, it’s a moment in time with three women’s lives converge. In An Empty Vessel it’s one woman’s life story, which ends tragically. At the end of your book I felt a sense of hope and transformation.
It’s a sobering note to end on. Ellis also wrote that she didn’t want to live.
That said, I’m surprised that you felt hope at the end of my book. I was truly shocked to learn that the last hanging in Great Britain took place only two years before I was born. This was the world we inherited. My aim was to create a sense of, ‘there but for the grace of God go I.’ One of the truly horrific things about the death sentence is that it condemned not only the person who’d been found guilty, but all those they love. The footnotes to Ruth’s story make dismal reading. Abuse was shouted at her sister Muriel and at Muriel’s children. Her younger sister’s health declined and she died shortly after Ruth’s death. Her ex-husband killed himself three years later. Her son killed himself in the 80’s. The list goes on and on.
Yes, it does feel alarmingly close. That the tragedy continued to echo through her family is heartbreaking. Talking of male characters, one thing I enjoyed is how you managed a sense of balance, neither all bad or all good.
Save for the John Haighs and the John Christies of this world, few people are either all good or all bad. Most of us are just trying to get by, men are no different from women in that respect. But in the 1950s, men had many advantages that women didn’t.
Good point and one I consider when looking at such scandals as the Profumo Affair. Another theme I took from your novel is that if you don’t ask, they won’t tell. This applies to witnesses, Marcus and even the lawyer, Kenyon. Is this a point you want to highlight, lying/deception by omission or am I reading too much into it?
Again, I think you’re giving me far too much credit. One of the things I spent a lot of time thinking about was justice, both with a small j and a large J. Justice with a small j is something we have a very strong sense of when we’re children. I use the phrase ‘It’s not fair’ in the book because it’s something I remember saying, just as I remember the response: ‘Life isn’t fair.’ It’s a reply that a child wants to challenge.
The world I grew up in was closer to Ruth Ellis’s world than the world as it is today. Punishment at school was mainly physical (although words could be equally humiliating). Perhaps having a blackboard rubber thrown at you, or being hit on the head with a Bible, or being sent to the headmaster. My partner and I come from different ends of the country but we can both recall that, if someone ‘told tales’ on someone else, the guilty person would be punished, but then the person who had told tales received the exact same punishment. There was absolutely no point in complaining about your lot. What tended to happen is that you accepted punishments for things you hadn’t done on the basis that, at some point in time, someone else would take the punishment you deserved. And when you went home to your parents, who you felt would understand, and said that you’d been punished, you were usually punished some more, just in case the teachers hadn’t done it thoroughly enough.
But, despite this, I still held onto the idea that things would be different in a court of law. Everyone is entitled to a fair trial, that’s what we’re told. The reality seems to be that the courtroom is a cross between a theatre and a circus. Clever speeches are carefully rehearsed. Ideas are planted and if no one contradicts them (and sometimes even if they do) they take hold. And witnesses may have information that has a strong bearing on the case but if they aren’t asked a relevant question they must keep it to themselves.
Some of your previous books explore figures less famous/notorious than Ruth Ellis, and this is true of At the Stroke of Nine O’Clock. Is your curiosity based on the ripple effect, how an incident resonates ruining a community and/society?
Cause and effect is what interests me. I think I’m probably guilty of looking for logic in life when there is none. That said, just thinking about my answer to the previous question, it’s easy to see how we all silently agree to a set of unwritten rules. In other words, we become complicit in a system. I can’t remember who it was who said that the most dangerous sentence is, ‘We’ve always done it this way’, but that was the answer we children were fed time and time again, and there was no one to hear your appeal. I do think that thinks have changed now – thank goodness. Children do feel that they can confide in adults and can have some confidence that they will be heard.
Thank you, Jane, for an intriguing and articulate background to a book I will be pressing in everyone’s hands. I just wish Mum was still around to read it.
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Hailed by The Bookseller as ‘One to Watch’, Jane Davis is the author of nine thought-provoking novels. Jane spent her twenties and the first part of her thirties chasing promotions at work, but when she achieved what she’d set out to do, she discovered that it wasn’t what she wanted after all.
It was then that she turned to writing. Her debut, Half-truths & White Lies, won the Daily Mail First Novel Award 2008. Of her subsequent three novels, Compulsion Reads wrote, ‘Davis is a phenomenal writer, whose ability to create well-rounded characters that are easy to relate to feels effortless’.
Her 2015 novel, An Unknown Woman, was Writing Magazine’s Self-published Book of the Year 2016 and has been shortlisted for two further awards. Smash all the Windows was the inaugural winner of the Selfies (best independently-published work of fiction) award 2019.
Jane lives in Carshalton, Surrey with her Formula 1 obsessed, star-gazing, beer-brewing partner, surrounded by growing piles of paperbacks, CDs and general chaos. When she isn’t writing, you may spot her disappearing up a mountain with a camera in hand.
Her favourite description of fiction is ‘made-up truth’.