In 1920, seventeen-year-old Maddie Bright gratefully accepts a job as a serving girl on the royal tour of Australia by Edward, Prince of Wales. Maddie’s talents soon earn her the respect of Helen Burns, the prince’s vivacious press secretary, and Rupert Waters, his most loyal man, and Maddie is in awe of Edward himself, the ‘people’s’ prince.
What starts as a desire to help her family, devastated by the recent war, becomes for Maddie a chance to work on something that matters. When the unthinkable happens, it is swift and life changing.
Decades later, Maddie Bright is living in a ramshackle house in Paddington, Brisbane. She has Ed, her drunken and devoted neighbour, to talk to, the television news to shout at, and door-knocker religions to join. But when London journalist Victoria Byrd gets the sniff of a story that might lead to the true identity of a famously reclusive writer, Maddie’s version of her own story may change.
1920, 1981 and 1997: the strands twist across the seas and over two continents, to build a compelling story of love and fame, motherhood and friendship. The True Story of Maddie Bright is set at key moments in the lives of two of the most loved and hated figures of the 20th century. In Maddie Bright, a reader will find a friend, and by novel’s close, that friend’s true and moving story.
The true story of the true story
When he was Prince of Wales, in 1920, Edward, the one who later abdicated the British throne, visited Australia to thank the people for their support in the Great War. He had a train crash. It was outside Manjimup in Western Australia, and the royal train derailed. Three carriages went over, including the prince’s. Edward, then only twenty-six, is said to have emerged from the wreckage and said, ‘Finally! Something that wasn’t on the blasted schedule.’
I read about Edward’s train crash over ten years ago and I remember thinking it would make a great scene in a novel. While later he fell from grace, as the young prince, Edward was immensely popular. He was beautiful, youthful and personable, eschewing the formality of royal protocol and affecting those he met in a way that was eerily similar to Diana sixty years later. People thought he would be a great King, different from his father George V, who loved pomp and ceremony.
I didn’t have a plan when I wrote The True Story of Maddie Bright. I knew one or two things. The train would crash. The tour would follow Edward’s itinerary—Melbourne to Sydney to Albany by ship, train from there to Perth—and the events of the tour would follow the history, of course, but Helen and Rupert, the novel within the novel penned by a reclusive author, and even Victoria and her personal and professional dilemmas, all emerged in the writing.
Swimming Home had started me thinking about celebrity and fame and what we do especially to women and girls. At some stage, Harper Lee’s lawyer announced the reclusive writer had a new book after many years, and I had taken that in. And I had noticed that as the twentieth anniversary of her death approached, we had soured towards Diana, Princess of Wales, once again, blaming her for the way the press hounded her. At any rate, what happened to Diana was happening all over again in its own way with the next generation of women who married into the royal family.
And there are lost babies. Of course there are.
I was fortunate to work with an enormously professional team at the publishing house Allen and Unwin led by Annette Barlow who took my first draft and created something beautiful for readers. Publishing is a small industry nowadays and Annette and the team—production editor Christa Munns, copyeditor Ali Lavau, proofreader Aziza Kuypers and an army of sales, marketing, design and publicity professionals — put as much care into the books they produce as they did twenty years ago when I started. This in itself is extraordinary given how much the reading world has shrunk.
Now that the book is about to be published, I can see more or less what it’s about: women’s lives across the sweep of history, lost babies, lost mothers, celebrity and fame, a reclusive novelist, true stories and fake news, and two of the twentieth century’s most fascinating figures. And to see it realised, I worked with a professional team who care as much as I do. No wonder The True Story of Maddie Bright was the best fun I’ve had writing a novel.
Maddie, Helen and Victoria
The True Story of Maddie Bright draws its strength from its three fictional women, all of whom are trying in their own way to recapture lost selves.
There is Maddie herself, seventeen in 1920, part of the generation that came of age in the tragic aftermath of the Great War, over-responsible, hardworking and emerging from terrible loss and sadness to try to find light after darkness. Maddie hitches her star to Edward and his young team who look like bringing about real change. Then there’s Maddie’s friend and mentor Helen Burns, who at thirty in 1920 was part of the generation that contributed to the war effort, trying to recapture her lost idealism. Helen had worked as an ambulance driver at Royaumont Hospital in France, the setting many readers will remember from In Falling Snow, when something tragic happened. We can see the long view of Helen’s and especially Maddie’s lives because Maddie is telling her story from many years later. It’s 1981 and Diana Spencer is about to marry Prince Charles.
The third character is Victoria Byrd, a journalist who in 1997 is trying to navigate changes in her profession and her personal life. She lost her mother when she was a child and now she has lost any sense of purpose in what she’s writing. Diana has died, and, recently engaged to a Hollywood film star and getting a taste of what Diana’s life was like, Victoria worries her own writing contributed in some way to the awful tragedy.
This likely won’t surprise women in any generation, but Victoria faces the same challenges as Maddie and Helen—work, life, children, balance, fear of attack—albeit in a different frock. Maddie’s life is marked by loss, and Helen too has been shaped by loss, and by events largely outside her control. Victoria, whose story is still unfolding, has an opportunity to do things differently. I did wonder for a while whether she would.
The foundling wheel
The True Story of Maddie Bright starts with a scene where a woman leaves a baby in a foundling wheel and the baby perishes overnight in unseasonably cold weather. It’s a chapter from a novel within my novel, written by one of the characters in my novel .
No one who knows me well in real life asks why there are lost babies in The True Story of Maddie Bright. No one who’s read the book that was published before this one, For a Girl, would ask either. In Maddie’s Bright’s true story, I have even managed to make comedy of what I know to be profound grief, with the well-known trope of a lost baby a thing a publisher keeps talking about that no one else understands. Achieving humour in this most terrible of life experiences is a feat. The loss of a child is not the first place you go for a laugh. I think even my editors worried I was going too far.
I lost a baby to adoption nearly four decades ago, and The True Story of Maddie Bright is stronger for my experience which has been like a sea coming to shore, a constant softening of the landscape of my life involving a lot of salt water that still springs from my eyes almost daily. The book is dedicated to a little boy who didn’t get to live his life and the little boy’s sister who was born the day the final proofs for Maddie Bright arrived in my postbox. For the parents of Bluey Joshua and Olive Rose, I know the journey of child loss is vast. It’s the loss that has defined my adult life. And yet, and it’s a biggie, mine has been a happy and fulfilled life. Perhaps more so.
The True Story of Maddie Bright opens with a Japanese proverb. ‘My barn having burned to the ground, I can now see the moon.’ It is an unthinkably hard journey to contemplate, the loss of a child, and here is the moon.
I started reading about Diana’s life because I was interested in fame and celebrity and what we do particularly to women. My last novel, Swimming Home, is about swimmers, who don’t immediately come to mind when you’re thinking of celebrity or fame, but these were the extraordinary young women who first swam the English Channel in the 1920s and they wore tightfitting swimsuits at a time when decorum prevented newspapers from publishing lascivious photographs—there were no page three girls in those days. The newspapers discovered they could get away with publishing photographs of these young women in their swimsuits because they were athletes. The newspaper owners sold many more copies, but for the women, some as young as fifteen, celebrity changed their lives and not for the better.
So, Diana, the most famous woman of the twentieth century; how did she fare? She and I are the same age and so I grew up watching the romance with Prince Charles, the marriage, the births of their children, all in the public domain. Looking back now— and of course we have video footage and photographs of every moment of her adult life—at the age of fifty-eight, an age Diana never reached, I watch her at nineteen and see how very young she was, negotiating a world as old and wily as news itself.
I didn’t intend to write about Diana in The True Story of Maddie Bright and in truth in the novel, she is not a character except in the minds of others, which is a bit like her real life unfolded; none of us knew her and yet we all did. The fact of her engagement bothers my lovely character Maddie Bright who is old and cantankerous at the novel’s opening. Maddie was just a girl herself in 1920 when another member of the royal family, Edward, visited Australia as Prince of Wales. It is during Edward’s visit that the novel mostly takes place.
In that odd way that creative work sometimes mirrors research rather than the other way around, I recently discovered that Diana’s life was affected by a lost child, which is a major theme for Maddie, Helen and Victoria in Maddie Bright’s true story. Diana’s mother Frances had a son, born on 12 January 1960, sixteen months before Diana, who only lived for a matter of hours.
Diana’s parents had split when Diana was six, her father gaining custody of the children in an acrimonious court case in which Frances’s own mother sided against her with Diana’s father. Frances would cry every time she left the children, Diana said. I’d hazard a guess that the earlier loss of a child contributed to what happened subsequently in the family.
And then, if a sad life could be made sadder, Frances was asked to lose a second child in her lifetime. ‘I’ve cried in public only once since Diana died,’ she told a journalist. ‘I know it doesn’t matter, but I always felt if I started I might never stop.’
When I wrote the scene where my journalist Victoria Byrd watches Diana’s coffin escorted from the hospital in Paris to the aeroplane to take her home for the last time, I found myself in tears, in tears whenever I read the scene back. Unlike Diana’s mother, I have tried, in response to the loss of a child, to cry whenever tears want to rest on my face in recent years. Still, she was entirely right. If you do this, it doesn’t matter, but the tears might never stop.
When I wrote In Falling Snow, my first historical novel based on real events, I was quite exercised by my duty of care to history, as I saw it. I felt it was only right that if I were going to include real people from history as characters, I should reflect who they really were. Grace Paley (I think) said that any story told twice is fiction, and Margaret Atwood tells us that we novelists have no duty of care to history. We make up plausible whoppers and our only job is that they are plausible. Atwood developed her own ethics around historical fact to write Alias Grace, and I did the same for In Falling Snow. In writing about real people from history, I try to find the sense of them, either from their own words, or their actions, what’s been written about them, and I work from there to build a character. This was the principle I continued for The True Story of Maddie Bright.
In 1996 a marketing consultant named Rupert Godfrey was visiting a friend and stamp collector in France who’d bought a suitcase full of letters in Canada in the 1950s in case there were any good stamps. Godfrey started reading the letters themselves, written in 1918 from a British soldier in Italy named David to his lover. Godfrey had recently been reading a biography of Edward VIII and he quickly realised these were no ordinary love letters. They were penned by Edward himself to his then lover Freda Dudley Ward. Edward bought a ranch in Canada and the letters must have made their way with him on one of his trips. They date from 1918 during the war until 1921, covering his war service and his trips abroad to Canada and Australia.
The letters have been published, and they give a unique insight into the private self of Edward. It is cringe-worthy to read such deeply private writing and it paints a picture of immense sadness and a life consumed by what is missing within. Edward hates his life, his father and most of all his destiny. He talks in baby talk to his lover. He is self-absorbed and totally obsessed with returning home to Freda. He says shocking things about the people he meets.
We don’t have Freda’s replies so we don’t know if she too wrote in baby talk or her feelings other than through him. But as I read over this young man’s letters I began to understand what motivated him and how very lost he was in life.
Given what we now know about child development, growing up in the British royal family in the early twentieth century wouldn’t, strictly speaking, find itself anywhere near Melanie Klein’s ‘good-enough’ mothering. Edward’s mother, Mary of Teck, was aloof and distant from her children who were raised by a series of nannies. His father George V was enraged by Edward’s every failure. You can’t help but think childhood probably helped Edward on a journey that made him deeply flawed and damaged person who caused harm to others.
My Edward in The True Story of Maddie Bright is likely just one version of Edward, surely the most complex and damaged and fascinating royal family member of the twentieth century before Diana joined them. In fact, Edward and Diana are eerily similar. If you look at the two of them long enough, they even come to look alike, their great beauty, their charisma and charm, and the woundedness that meant they appeared to understand the wounds of others. They were immensely popular, loved by the people and hated within the family.
The True Story of Maddie Bright wouldn’t be as good if weren’t for Maddie but it needed Edward too. I am glad I could at least try to understand him before I made him be himself, or the self I created, in the story, and I am glad I found some kindness for the person he was, or the child he grew from who lived in the world.