by Gabriele Ottaviani
Jill Dawson is the author of The language of birds: we interview her for you, and we’re so grateful.
Why did you write this novel?
British people are very familiar with this story. We know that Lord Lucan – a glamorous aristocratic figure – was found guilty at an inquest of bludgeoning the nanny to death in 1974 after attacking his wife, who escaped and raised the alarm. But we know so little of the victim: 29 year old Sandra Rivett, described as the ‘lovely young nanny’ and found dead in the basement of the home of the Lucans in Belgravia, London. I wanted to redress this balance and put the victim at the centre of the story. But, as Sandra was a real person with family and two sons, I also (paradoxically) wanted to protect her – hence my decision to change names and some details and call her Mandy River.
What does history mean to you?
A fabulously difficult question! I studied history (rather than literature) I think it is always about returning to original sources and documents and contemporaneous material and having a spirit of enquiry rather than certainty.
What does memory mean to you?
Memory is ever changing, often overlaid with subsequent new creations, and can deceive us. Perhaps it is mixture of creation and desire mixed in with real truth.
What does silence mean to you?
As a novelist I am interested in telling a story that has not been heard or properly listened to. Telling a difficult or unpalatable or surprising story, perhaps. Such as the story of the male violence that permeates our culture. That we all know – 97 percent of violence is perpetrated by men – but seem often to ignore. In the Uk two women a week are killed by partners and husbands. (I don’t know what the statistic is in Italy for domestic violence). Silence or things that seem unspeakable have been opened up by the recent Me Too moment. Lady Lucan’s story of what happened that November night in 1974 remained consistent for all these years (she died in 2017) but people were still keen to disbelieve her and sometimes convinced that her husband was innocent.
How has crime evolved over time and history and what is the connection with society’s changes?
I think there is a perception that the world has become a more dangerous and scary place but in fact statistically speaking this is not true. Murders in Britain have remained at quite a steady number for fifty years. Most are detected. Most are done by men. There has never been a mass shooter in Britain or America who is a woman acting alone. But in film or popular fiction those facts might be presented very differently, to give a skewed picture.
If a society is very closed-minded and hypocritical is it a more criminal society?
That is a good question! But I do not know the answer.
How has the social perception of violence changed in history (did you write a novel like Fred and Edie, that it would be wonderful to be able to read also in Italian)?
I would love Fred and Edie to be available in Italy. That is a very well known case here from the 1920s. A true story of a glamorous beautiful 28 year old woman accused of taking a 19 year old lover and murdering her husband. She was hanged for her crime. But did she do it? Or was she judged particularly harshly because she was a woman, aspirational, childless, independent and earning more money than her husband? Was she particularly provoking because in 1923 people in Britain really wanted women to return to their unthreatening pre-war position in society?
Crimes also seem to have more charm in the 1920s: why?
Indeed the 1920s was a fascinating era. Post war – glamour, ‘flappers’, women who smoked cigarettes, bobbed their hair, wanted more freedoms…a very turbulent time. A changing sensibility. Perfect material for novelists.
You could be, I believe, really defined as a crime historian: what interests you most about criminal behavior?
Criminal behaviour: why cross a line? What makes someone act outside of their society’s norms and rules? Endlessly fascinating.
You are also responsible for a magnificent portrait of Patricia Highsmith, what was she like?
Thank you! Patricia Highsmith! What a strange woman. But of course I had some affection and sympathy for her. Her talent for solitude. Her shyness. She was monstrous in some ways but also courageous about her sexuality and struggling with a traumatic early life, and highly individual. Therefore never less than fascinating.