Jacqueline Winspear, author of Maisie Dobbs Mystery Series and memoir This Time Next Year We’ll Be Laughing

by Nancy Schoerke

Can you tell a book by its cover?

There’s nothing quite like browsing books at the library and the only cost is one’s time. Is it the book title or the cover art that beckons?

I was about to leave the library when the cover of a new mystery book on display caught my eye: It featured a young woman in a simple skirt and blouse, with a leather shoulder bag, and a simple brimmed hat to shade her eyes as she looked skyward to scan the airplanes overhead. To her right appears the Rock of Gibraltar. The title, A Dangerous Place, by Jacqueline Winspear, led me to open the book. I turned to the first page. I can usually tell if I want to read a book just by reading the first paragraph and, if I’m inclined to continue, I’ll take the book home with me. 

This is a story about a woman who suffered profound personal tragedies. It is the Spring 1937. Maisie Dobbs has been away from England for four years and is not ready to return, although her step-mother reminds her that her father isn’t getting any younger. Others, too, caution her about the dangers that await a women alone in Gibraltar.

“The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.”

Maisie Dobbs

I was not familiar with the author, but after I read the book, #11 in the Maisie Dobbs mystery series, I was hooked. (See list of Maisie Dobbs mysteries in order).

The series begins before the Great War when13-year-old Maisie’s mother has died. Her father, Franky, a costermonger in London, delivers produce to a prominent family in Belgravia. Lady Rowan recognizes the small family’s plight and offers Maisie the position of maid in their mansion. 

Late one night  Lady Rowan discovers Maisie reading in the library. She realizes that the child is intelligent, very curious, and enjoys reading. She makes arrangements for Maisie to be evaluated by their trusted family friend, Dr. Maurice Blanche, in order to advance her education. The doctor becomes Maisie’s mentor and eventually her education prepares her for a career as a psychologist and private investigator. 

Even more remarkable is the fact that the idea for the series came to Jacqueline Winspear one day when she was stuck in traffic. That must have been some traffic jam!

Jacqueline Winspear’s Memoir

I had read almost every book in the series, including a one-off book to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the 1914-1918 War: The Care and Management of Lies, a novel of the Great War.This is a beautifully written moving story that touches on suffragism, peace activism, and psychological abuse of troops.

In 2020 I was delighted to see an ad for the author’s memoir, This Time Next Year We’ll be Laughing. What a great title! I was especially interested because several years ago our branch offered a memoir workshop led by branch member Ellen Berkeley. Some who attended wanted to continue and in time Scribble Sisters grew out of that workshop.

I looked forward to reading Winspear’s memoir with the charming cover photo of her as a small child. To my delight I received a cassette of the memoir narrated by Jacqueline herself. Soon it became apparent why her books include so many personal accounts of life in wartime as her parents, both sets of grandparents, aunts and uncles had all been impacted by their wartime experiences. 

Her parents grew up in East London and married in 1949 at age 22. They left London and took up life in the County of Kent, where Jacqueline and her brother John were born and grew up.

From the time Jaqueline was a very young child, her mother, Joyce, a talented teller of stories, had shared with her daughter many  of her own wartime experiences, including that of being evacuated at age 12 with two of her sisters. Joyce was the fifth of ten children in her family that included seven girls and three boys.

Jacqueline’s dad, Albert, had also grown up in East London with his parents and one brother, but their home had not been so boisterous because his dad had suffered from shell shock at the Somme during the Great War and he could not tolerate any loud noise. Albert, too liked the quiet of the land in Kent. Jacqueline’s relationship with her father was very special. He taught both of his children about nature, the plants, trees, and animals and how to appreciate the wonders of nature.

Even when Jacqueline was a young child, her mother expected a lot of her. They did not have any of the modern conveniences that we have enjoyed on this side of the pond. Both parents worked very hard to make ends meet. They had an old iron coal stove that had to be cleaned every week and that was one of Jacqueline’s jobs. When her younger brother was born, her mother charged her with much of the responsibility for his care. They did not have an indoor bathroom until about 1969, when Jacqueline was about 14. 

There are many things about Jacqueline’s  journey that I found remarkable. By the time she was six years old she knew she wanted to be a writer.

When she was growing up she had an abundance of dreams and never lost sight of them. Relationships with family and friends have always been essential to her and I think it’s reflected in the characters she creates in her stories. 

She no longer lives in England where she grew up and was educated. In 1990 she moved to California where she resides in the San Francisco Bay area and enjoys riding her horse. Another childhood dream realized. 

When I finished listening to her memoir I realized that I know more about her family than my own. I enjoyed hearing her speak candidly about her experiences growing up and the many interesting people she encountered along her path.

Editor’s Note: A new novel by Winspear, The White Lady, will be released in March, 2023.  It features a new hero and possibly a new series.