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Maisie Dobbs & Birds of a Feather – volumes 1 and 2 in the series

Last fall after the death of my mother-in-law we prepared her home for sale and cleared out her bookshelves – each of us taking something to read, the rest donated to the library. I chose a series of books she’d been reading since they were first was published in 2003 – the Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear. Each time a new book in the series was published I gave it to my mother-in-law, so I thought I’d read them myself, thinking of her, and how much she enjoyed them.

The first in the series, titled Maisie Dobbs introduces us to a young woman who has recently established her own investigation agency. Maisie’s parents were a working class couple living in Lambeth, south of the Thames. A rather trendy area now but a neighbourhood decidedly not trendy when I lived there for a summer after high school, and even less so in the early 1900’s when Maisie Dobbs lived there. After the death of her mother Maisie went into service, working for Lord Julian and Lady Rowan Compton. Maisie’s life at Compton Manor is very much the upstairs downstairs world we know so well from watching Downton Abbey – I felt as if the writers of the television series must have read Maisie Dobbs themselves.

Lady Rowan discovers her maid reading in the library late one night and realizes that this is a young woman with great intelligence and an even greater desire to learn. Lady Rowan is determined to provide her protégé with an education and Maisie is accepted into Girton College Cambridge. When the First World War begins Maisie is one of many young women who feel the need to contribute to the war effort. She becomes a nurse, working in France with dreadfully wounded soldiers in very difficult conditions. Returning home at the end of the war, Maisie completes her education and after studying with psychologist Dr. Maurice Blanche establishes her own practice in London.   

After reading the first four books in the series, I have to say that they are not too exacting – very much TV reading – but they do pass the time in an enjoyable way. Often read by little old ladies (people buy them for their mothers) I admit that I am myself becoming an old lady, and reading a book that is simply restful is sometimes just fine.

There are things I like about these books and this character – the time period just after the first world war, with the effects of the war still very much part of British life, the landscape as Maisie dashes about in her little MG – the clothes, the office in Bloomsbury, the secondary characters. What I am not so crazy about is Maisie’s “shivers” of dread that predict the next dreadful occurrence – she’s a little “holier than thou” at times but of course it is all just part of the creation of a unique fictional character. Having now read the first four in the series I have seen the character mature and some of the things that irritated me at the beginning are less obvious now. These are comfortable novels, with an independent female protagonist, a little love interest, and interesting investigations. The first book in the series takes place in 1929 with much of the novel filling in the past and Maisie’s experience before and during the First World War. As the series continues time moves forward, the fourth in the series The Messenger of Truth, takes place in the early 1930s as the political influence of Oswald Mosley in England and Adolph Hitler in Germany begins.

The tenth in the series, A Dangerous Place, will be published in May, and all the little old ladies who enjoy reading this sort of mystery are eagerly waiting.

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