C.J. Carey’s debut novel Widowland joins the lengthy ranks of alternate history books, in this case re-imagining where Britain signed an alliance with Nazi Germany in 1940. The story takes place in 1953, in the weeks running up to the coronation of Edward VIII and his queen Wallis. Since the Alliance, in effect all power actually resides in Alfred Rosenberg, Britain’s Protector.
In this new world, women are allocated specific castes. ‘When all the boxes were ticked, the women were assigned the classification… This label would determine every aspect of their life, from where they should live, to what clothes they would wear, what entertainment they could enjoy and how many calories they could consume.’ (p20)
The elite women were popularly called Gelis; Klaras were fertile women who had produced four or more children; Lenis were professional women, such as office workers. Paulas were carers, teachers and nurses; Magdas were lowly shop and factory employees, while Gretls did domestic work. Tight at the bottom came Friedas – essentially cemetery women – ‘widows and spinsters over fifty who had no children, no reproductive purpose and who did not serve a man.’ (p20)
Rose Ransom is among the elite, a Geli, working at the Ministry of Culture, rewriting classics of English literature to correct the views expressed in these old novels. ‘They had an office for everything and there was no reason why literature should no be processed and cultivated and bureaucratized as much as steel or cardboard or coal.’ (p141)
Inevitably, reading the forbidden texts in order to prune them has its effect: ‘she found she could not get the writers’ voices out of her head.’ (p206) – which is why despots always desire to control writing in their world.
As she’s an expert in these old tomes, she is called upon to investigate outbreaks of insurgency: graffiti has been daubed on public buildings in the form of extracts from forbidden works, notably words by female novelists. Suspicion has fallen on Widowland, the run-down slum in Oxford where childless women over fifty have been banished. Rose is tasked with rooting out the source of this rebellion before the Leader, Hitler, arrives in England for the Coronation.
Some quotations are from Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women, others from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and even Jane Austen.
Carey has captured the flavour of the early 1950s as well as the machinations of the Third Reich with many telling details. She also imbues the story with wit and humour as well as menace and suspense. She has an easy but often haunting style, too: ‘A hawthorn in full bloom had scattered its blossom like blown snow across her path and its musty odour evoked a sudden evanescent transport of memory…’ (p158)
‘Short of being German, Helena had been gifted with all the blessings the gods could bestow, chief among them a sense of the ridiculous – a vital attribute in Government service.’ (p16)
‘Alfred Rosenberg was sixty, but looked a decade more. With his sickly complexion, perpetual scowl and deep-set dark eyes, the Protector was more mortician than politician.’ (p34)
Hymns were still sung in community centres, though the words had been changed: ‘The Magda in her kitchen/ The Gretl at the grate/The Leader made them lowly/And ordered their estate.’ (p154)
A German policeman Bruno Schumacher is wonderfully described: ‘… he had a five o’clock shadow that looked like it had no regard for punctuality.’ (p171)
To compound Rose’s situation, she is conducting an illicit affair with Martin, a powerful Nazi commander, which adds suspense to the brew.
In many ways this novel offers a few chilling insights into the ongoing culture wars and the cancellation mentality, among them digs at the purveyors of the Woke religion: ‘Don’t presume to speculate on other cultures. “Cultural Misappropriation” it was called…’ (p195) In addition it seems likely that the repercussions of Covid-19 and subsequent Lockdowns and Government rulings inspired aspects of the novel: ‘Self-censorship was always more effective than any other kind. Why police people when you can scare them into policing themselves?’ (p315)
The subjugation of women depicted here has faint echoes of The Handmaid’s Tale (Attwood, 1985), but without the religious overtones. Some other alternate history books are Bring the Jubilee (Moore, 1955), The Man in the High Castle (Dick, 1962), Pavane (Roberts, 1968), Dominion (Sansom, 2012), A Piece of Resistance (Egleton, 1970), Collaborator (Davies, 2003), Fatherland (Harris, 1992), When the Kissing had to Stop (Fitzgibbon, 1960), SSGB (Deighton, 1978), The Leader (Walters, 2003) and Romanitas (McDougall, 2005). Widowland is a welcome addition to an impressive list.
C.J. Carey is the pen-name of novelist Jane Thynne; she is the widow of author Philip Kerr. This is her first novel using this pseudonym.
I thought the cover was garish; however, the author liked it immensely, so who am I to judge?
‘If that’s not nerve-wracking enough’. (p17) Wrack is seaweed. It should be ‘nerve-racking’. Nerves on the rack, in effect.