Author Jenny Holmes’ recent books have been inspired by her Yorkshire roots, but her latest novel is very close to home. Yvette Huddleston reports.
In her long and successful career, Ilkley-based author Jenny Holmes has written more than 150 books for adults, children and teenagers across a variety of different genres.
Over the past couple of years she has been writing Yorkshire-set historical fiction for women, partly inspired by her mother’s family who lived in Beckwithshaw near Harrogate. The previous novels in the series – The Mill Girls of Albion Lane, The Shop Girls of Chapel Street, The Midwives of Raglan Road and The Telephone Girls – were all set in and around Bradford in the 1930s, but her latest book moves into the 1940s and is most closely associated with the real-life experiences of a member of Holmes’ family.
The Land Girls at Christmas, published by Corgi last month, takes place in the run-up to Christmas 1941 and is based on her mother Barbara’s time working for the Women’s Land Army during the Second World War. Sadly, Barbara died in 2008 but she had spoken to her daughter over the years about her wartime service. “It is bittersweet that the book has come out now because my mother would have loved to see it,” says Holmes. “The time was never right but I had been doing a lot of urban-based fiction for women and I had a hankering to go rural so I thought my next one will be about the Land Girls. All the memories came flooding back of stuff my mum had told me – and her sisters, they were all such a mine of information about what they did during the war.”
The setting she says is a thinly disguised version of Beckwithshaw where their father was the blacksmith, publican and postman. One of the main characters in the book is Grace who works on the local farms as part of the Land Army and then goes home to help her father out in the village pub, just as Holmes’ mother did – and she says there are other similarities. “Grace has the same self-contained, sensible, steady character that my mother had.” Apart from the obvious family connection and anecdotal information, Holmes also did specific research on the Land Girls including reading Vita Sackville-West’s book The Women’s Land Army which was originally published in 1944. “That was really useful,” says Holmes. “I think it is so important to be accurate.”
A group of Italian prisoners of war also feature in the book, which arose out of her mother’s and aunts’ stories about the PoWs in Otley during the war. “You get inspiration and very important plot hooks from tales that were told,” she says. “I think that helps create a feeling of authenticity.”
There is a large cast of characters in the book – in addition to the Land Girls, there are the villagers, the farmers, the aforementioned Italian PoWs, plus British and Canadian soliders stationed nearby. “With that many characters you have to pick up at least three main plotlines. It is a bit like knitting and you can’t drop a stitch,” says Holmes, laughing. “The main narrative thread though is about female friendship and the way in which the women support one another.”
Holmes is very prolific – it took her six months to write the book and she is already working on the follow-up which will be out next year, also about the Land Girls, this time set during the summer months. “It will be picking up on some of the characters from this book and also introducing new ones,” she says.
The Land Girls at Christmas by Jenny Holmes is published by Corgi, £6.99.
The Land Girls at Christmas by Jenny Holmes
published by transworld, £6.99
For her latest book in a series of historical novels set in Yorkshire, Holmes celebrates the work of the Women’s Land Army and the vital contribution they made on the Home Front during the Second World War.
Inspired by her own mother’s own wartime service in the Land Army, it follows the experiences of a group of ten young women who take on arduous physical work on a number of Yorkshire farms.
They come from a variety of different backgrounds – including mill worker, shorthand typist, hairdresser and bank clerk – and each have to adapt to their new circumstances, rising to the challenge with grit and determination. But that doesn’t mean they don’t also like to have fun. There is some nice romantic interest woven into the storyline and, as the novel is set in the run up to Christmas 1941, it also features preparations for a festive show. While the novel doesn’t gloss over the hardship that the women have to endure, it is as much about the special bond that develops between them and is, more than anything, a celebration of female friendship.
Holmes handles her huge cast of characters and several narrative threads with consummate skill and the period setting feels very authentic.
It makes for a warmly evocative and satisfying festive read.