Pamela Hart is the author of The Soldier’s Wife, The War Bride and A Letter From Italy (reviewed here), as well as the author of children’s fiction, epic fantasy, crime fiction and children’s poetry under the name Pamela Freeman. You can find out more about her other books here. She has a Doctor of Creative Arts in Writing from the University of Technology, Sydney, and teaches writing (face-to-face and online) at the Australian Writers’ Centre.
Why Italy? Why a war correspondent?
Three, almost four years ago, while I was doing some research for The Soldier’s Wife, I stumbled across the Page for Women in The Sydney Morning Herald of 1916. Foolishly, I didn’t note which issue it was. A Wednesday, certainly, because the Women’s Page, as it was colloquially known, was always on Wednesday, usually on Page 5.
I wish I had noted it, as the editorial on this page impressed me a great deal. It was passionately feminist, promoting the needs of women workers (who at the time were replacing the men who had gone to the front in all kinds of jobs, and universally being paid less than the men they had replaced).
I have looked at a lot of Women’s Pages from WWI since then, and over and over again I’ve read articles which felt so modern that – unfortunately – they could be picked up and put down in a contemporary newspaper opinion column with just a little updating of style. For example:
‘The girl of the future “must” be able to earn enough to support herself. The meaning of a business or vocation will be brought home to every girl just as it always has been to every boy’ (19th January, 1916).
Or, in an article about the need for girls to have allowances in order to teach them about money management:
‘Girls cannot help notice the difference made between them and their brothers – even when the first pocket money of a few pence is given in the very early days, the boy usually gets double what his sister does, though she is probably contributing more to the comfort of the home at that time than he is.’ (12th January, 1916).
Most of these editorials weren’t signed, or if they were, it was by pseudonyms like ‘Justice’. But, in the course of other research, I found out that the writer was most likely Louise Mack (aka Mrs Creed), a novelist, journalist and memoirist who was quite famous in her day as the war correspondent who had reported from behind enemy lines when the Germans invaded Belgium in 1914 – and at this time, the editor of the Page for Women. (She wrote a book about her time as a war correspondent: A Woman’s Experiences in the Great War and you can find it here, for free.)
So when my publisher and I met to talk about my next book, and she suggested, ‘We should go more international, not just stay in Sydney,’ Louise Mack and her war experience were at the front of my mind.
‘How about a woman war correspondent?’ I asked.
Just over a year later, and A Letter from Italy is out. It’s set in Italy, in Brindisi and, later, Venice.
Why there? Because one of the things I like to do with my historical novels is show aspects of history – especially of World War I – which haven’t been part of the public discussion. And the story we are told about WWI in Australia is almost exclusively about the Army. But we had the Royal Australian Navy, and they did a lot of wonderful work during that war. So I went looking for a Navy story. A friend pointed me to the face that Australia had sent a flotilla to Italy to help with the Otranto Barrage – that was the blockade of the Adriatic Sea which stopped Austrian U-boats from getting out to the Mediterranean Sea and attacking the shipping convoys which were so important to the war effort.
‘Italy?’ my publisher said. ‘Perfect!’
My enthusiasm increased greatly when I discovered that the main U-boat threat at this time was…. Lt Von Trapp – yes, he of The Sound of Music! I vowed I had to get him into the story! (Submarine commanders aren’t called captain, by the way, but he was in charage of the U-boat.) And I really wanted to introduce readers to the dashing Italian hero Luigi Rizzo … who unfortunately was desperately in love with his very new wife at that time, so I couldn’t use him as a potential love interest – but she turned out to be a hero as well, so I put them both in!
And, of course, I had to create my heroine, Rebecca Quinn. For those of you who have read The War Bride, Rebecca is the lawyer Valentine Quinn’s daughter-in-law. Yes, she is married, but to a man who is not nearly as perfect as she thinks he is … in contrast, of course, to the Italian-American photographer she comes to work with, Allessandro Panucci, he of the melting brown eyes and the almost-beautiful hands …
For more information about A Letter from Italy and my other books, have a look at my website and sign up for my newsletter for a free short story featuring characters from The War Bride.