Maisie Dobbs. Critical Analysis
The novel Maisie Dobbs was written by Jacqueline Winspear, and it tells the story of a young woman named Maisie Dobbs, as she lived during pre- and post-war time. It depicts the events and the lives of people that lived during the First World War. The author of the novel, Jacqueline Winspear, was born and raised in England. As she pursued her higher education at the University of London’s Institute of Education, she worked in the general and academic publishing, and marketing communications in the United Kingdom. Jacqueline Winspear migrated to the United States and, while working in business sphere, she embarked on writing. She is a contributor to journals covering international education. Born and raised in England, Winspear was horrified by what happened during and after World War I as millions of men were killed or severely wounded. The First World War poets such as the Wilfred Owen inspired her to write a novel. She was particularly interested in the lives of women that were involved in war-related activities during this period. The post-war period led to huge social changes, with women who had lost their loved ones in war and found ways to live their lives. For example, her protagonist Maisie started her life afresh, as she started a new business of private investigation in Fitzroy Square, where she advanced her career as a detective. This paper provides a critical analysis of the novel Maisie Dobbs, the themes and the effects of the war on the soldiers and the society.
The Plot of the Novel
Maisie Dobbs started working as a domestic worker for the Compton family since the age of 13, and opened her own detective company nineteen years later. The novel is set in England and France between the 1910s and 1920s, revealing the struggles and the devastating loss of those who suffered in World War I. It recreates England in the early decades of the XX century drawing up notes from the experiences of the main character’s family. For example, the novel is dedicated to the memory of Jacqueline Winspear’s grandfather who suffered severe leg injuries at the Battle of the Somme. The novel is a third-person narration, with the author bringing out the historical context that surrounded her characters and the effects that the First World War had on them. The story is about a young girl who, after her mother died, had to work hard to receive education to move from the world of poverty to a comfortable life, which, though, was completely changed by the war. The author gives insights into the pre-war period and the civilian life before, during, and after the Great War. The emphasis is put on the experiences of people of different genders and social backgrounds and the long-term consequences resulted from the devastating First World War. In addition, the novel focuses on the effects World War I had on the soldiers that returned from war, and the consequential effects on the lives of the people they loved. The author explains the psychological damage caused by the injuries and the reactions of the society reminding them of the war they left behind.
The Analysis of the Main Character
Maisie hailed from a humble background, and, after the death of her mother, sold fruit and vegetables to London households. She was forced by her family circumstances to start working as a housemaid at an early age. Her employer, Rowan, noticed her intelligence and took care of her education. Although she went to the university, the Great War thwarted her ambitions, and she was forced to flee to France where she worked as a nurse before she returned to England to start her career as a private investigator. Although her first case seemed to be a simple investigation, it turned out to be something bigger than she had expected when she discovered that there was some relationship between the case and war veterans. As a detective, she managed to show her intelligence and investigative skills as she was a sharp and ambitious lady (Winspear 109). Maisie’s use of psychology and other techniques such as yoga seem ahead of her time. Although her cases seem to be usual for a detective novel, like a young girl accused of murder, or a runway heiress, to portray the underlying emotions of post-war shock, the author also has Maisie Dobbs to deal with drug addicts, spiritualists claiming to be in contact with the dead, and even disabled veterans.
At the same time, despite the portrayal of Maisie as a heroine at the beginning of the novel, there is some artificiality in her character. For instance, as she worked on her cases, she constantly remembered the words of her mentor Dr. Blanche leading the reader to Maisie’s mind. This had negative effects on her character as it made her look like a marionette with someone else holding the strings and controlling her actions. Her investigative methods felt like introduction. Maisie was described in the novel as a slender woman with a remarkable smooth voice. Although she was assumed to belong to a higher social class, she interacted with people of all social classes. For example, in the beginning of the novel she revealed her greatest strength which was the way she made people of any class feel comfortable around her:
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Jack expected the woman to pass him by, so he stamped his feet in a vain attempt to banish the sharp needles of cold creeping up through his hobnailed boots. He fanned a half dozen copies of the Daily Express over one arm, anticipating a taxi-cab screeching to a halt and a hand reaching out with the requisite coins. She smiled, and as she took the paper from him before turning to walk away, she replied, “Not half. It’s brass monkey weather; better get yourself a nice cuppa before too long.” (Winspear 47).
Throughout the novel, Maisie listened to her inner voice, which she learnt from Khan, a Buddhist monk, who additionally taught her the art of meditation. She was taught that silencing of one’s mind was important to listening to one’s inner voice. Therefore, while handling her detective cases, she sought for solutions through combination of common sense and intuition.
The Major Themes
The prevailing theme in this novel is the theme describing the effects of the Great War. The period after the First World War was the time marked with social turmoil with arrising issues of labor, social class and colonialism (Korte 79). People were also transformed as the soldiers coming back from the war had to deal with their return from battle to their families who did not understand them anymore. Her experience in the First World War played an important role as her character as a nurse in France during the war established her connection with the war. For example, she takes off her shoes, rubs her feet and realizes that her feet were cold, wet and filthy with the blood of France: “Feet that hadn’t felt warm in twelve years, since 1917 (Winspear 7).
Her work as a nurse also influenced her later life. Once she was summoned by Scotland Yard to talk to a girl suspected of a murder refusing to talk to anyone within the police department. Dobbs came and washed dirt off the girl’s feet, just as she used to do to the wounded soldiers in the war and the girl began to talk to her. Dr. Blanche’s words of wisdom taught Maisie to be judicious about using her body to comfort another person. As well as she managed to gain trust of the young girl, she was able to gain trust of many others who saw her caring. Like many other women, she lost the man she was in love with in the war, and even though there were men who wished to date her, she refused and remained a spinster. Maisie could not feel the same way as she felt for her lover Simon Lynch, and although he did not die physically in the war, his brain was injured badly, making him spend the rest of his days in a convalescent home outside London.
Several gender-related and social changes occurred during this period. Before the war, women lived very restricted lives and had very few rights. Women who were not married had low social status as they were treated as those who had failed to perform their duties as wives and mothers. The war gave women an opportunity to prove themselves, which led to great changes within female population. Winspear in her novel is trying to recreate the events of this period, captured by the life of Maisie Dobbs in connection with the Great War. Winspear does what other classical novels did not do by daring to introduce a well-educated and attractive single woman as the main character (Mattisson 2015).
In contrast to many writers, Maisie Dobbs mysteries give a historical account of the interwar period in Britain, which is different from other writers that try to produce a fiction story distracting the reader from the true impacts of war (Moritz 92). She vividly explains the situation faced by wounded soldiers maintaining that the majority of them had gone to war expecting to come back as heroes only to end up as cripples or with altered personalities:
“Shame, isn’t it? That we only like our heroes out in the street when they are looking their best and their uniforms are ‘spit and polished,’ and not when they’re showing us the wounds they suffered on our behalf.” (Winspear 59).
The novel does not only educate the reader about the war but also explains the political and social situation in England during the 1930s. One of the most contributory factors is the level of unemployment that occurred as a consequence of Great Depression, which grew daily.
Maisie’s assistant, Billy Beale, considers himself lucky to have a job as many of other people were unemployed. Billy lived in poor conditions with his family in a small house in the East End London with another family of four. The description of their living environment that has neither water nor electricity gives a clear picture of the state of life and poverty (Winspear 137). When his daughter got sick with diphtheria, they did not have money to take her to hospital which resulted in the death of the young girl. Jacqueline Winspear bases her stories on pieces of literature rather than just fiction unlike other classical writers. She clearly describes the role of women in bringing change to the society. The novel is thus focused on giving the modern reader a factual account of the historical period after the First World War.
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Throughout the novel, the author managed to achieve the objective of laying the historical groundwork for her story without boring the reader with unnecessary details. The setting of the story is poetic in the way how the author pushes on with her lead character Maisie till the last book. The historic setting of the novel brings out the real horrors of war and its effects. This novel was nominated for the Agatha and Edgar awards because of the wonderful plot that drives the crime story with a large amount of mystery. It is not the general battles that compel her to keep writing about this turbulent era, but what happens to ordinary people’s lives when faced with extraordinary circumstances. The resultant wounds are buried within them and motivate them to do the unbelievable. The First World War plays a big in the book as the author focuses on the events that occurred prior to the war, and the way lives were changed by it.