Author Q&A:
Claire McGlasson

The Misadventures of Margaret Finch

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Margaret Finch has just begun work in a position that relies on her discretion and powers of observation – documenting the behaviour of working class holiday makers in Blackpool in the interwar period. Harold Davidson, the disgraced Rector of Stiffkey, is the subject of a national scandal and has also arrived in the seaside town to win over the masses by appearing in its famous sideshows. Is Davidson a maligned hero or an exploiter of the vulnerable? Margaret is determined to find out but the pursuit of truth leads her down a dangerous path where her biggest obstacle might just be herself. 

You write: “This town knows what it is, and so does everyone who comes to holiday here… it gives people what they want… it’s unapologetic in its reality.” Does this remain true of Blackpool and what’s your connection to the town?
There’s a black and white photograph I keep beside me on my desk – Dorothy and Harold Darbyshire, walking arm in arm along a pier, their feet perfectly in step. It was taken long before they became my grandparents, on one of their many trips to Blackpool. They travelled not 30 miles from their home to return every year for a holiday. I think of their loyalty to that place much like I remember their marriage.

Though the town gradually lost the glitz and glamour of its heyday, they always saw in it (and in each other) the magic of their first impressions. My mother remembers being taken to see the sideshows (including the Headless Woman, who makes an appearance in The Misadventures of Margaret Finch) and I have fond memories of day trips with my extended family. Even today there’s something exciting yet comforting about a trip to the seaside.

Tell us about Harold Davidson and why you were drawn to his story.
Davidson was the rector of Stiffkey in Norfolk, defrocked by the Church of England for improper conduct. He appeared in sideshows in Blackpool in the late 1930s to protest his innocence. In the best historical fiction, the past holds a mirror up to the present. In Davidson’s story I saw echoes of the #MeToo movement and what we might imagine to be the modern cult of celebrity. He was painted by some as a saint, and by others as a sinner, but the novel explores the grey area in between: the gap between how a character sees the world and how the world sees them. I hope readers will make up their own minds about whether (and of what) he was guilty.

Margaret’s observation skills are sharp, making her excellent at her job. Why is she taken in by Harold Davidson?
Margaret is intelligent but not astute, well educated but far from worldly-wise, all of which make her a fantastic character to write. In an uncertain world, she craves order. Social interaction has never come easily – she struggles to understand why people often don’t say what they mean, or mean what they say – so she studies situations, gathers data, searches for facts in the hope that she can find answers. But when it comes to the contradictions of human behaviour, she discovers that we can’t be neatly classified.

What’s the significance of setting the novel in 1938?
The interwar era fascinates me. My debut novel, The Rapture, was set just after the end of the First World War; The Misadventures of Margaret Finch is set just before the beginning of the Second.

Still recovering from the the “war to end all wars” just a generation before, the prospect of another conflict was becoming increasingly likely, but the country was still desperately clinging to the hope that it could be avoided. Everything must have felt heightened. But, in my research, I got the sense that people were turning away from the inevitability of what was to come. Knowing what we now know, it’s fascinating that Hitler’s rise to power was being kept off the front pages by the scandal of a rector from rural Norfolk. Our own experience of collective fear during Covid might give us some idea of how it felt to be living in such uncertain times. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that I wrote Margaret Finch during lockdown.

For the purposes of the novel you change the timeline of some events, including the life of Harold Davidson who died a year before the novel is set. How much of a responsibility does historical fiction have to stay true to the facts?
I like to be honest with readers so included an author’s note explaining my inspirations and deviations from the research I’ve done. This book is based on two real-life situations which came to life, for me, when I considered what may have happened if they had collided. As a journalist, as well as a fiction writer, I find it important to research the details carefully before I choose where to take any leap of imaginative faith. For The Rapture, I was given access to a huge archive of letters and diary entries of its members of a religious cult in 1920s Bedford. For The Misadventures of Margaret Finch, I read observations gathered by undercover researchers sent to Blackpool undercover to spy on working class holidaymakers.

As readers we want to be immersed in the past. We want authenticity in details such as setting, fashion and food. But I believe that condensing or expanding reality can tell a more compelling story, and explore a greater truth. Though fact is often stranger than fiction, it’s through the filter of human experience that we understand the generations who’ve come before us. We’re interested not only in the “what happened?” but the “how might that have felt?” Dates may be changed, or some characters invented, but for me it’s important that the story remains true to my overall impressions of the history I have read.

Margaret is recording for the Mass Observation Project but she comes to question the ethics of it. Do you see similarities between the project in Blackpool and the kind of journalistic reporting it is often subjected to now, sometimes dubbed poverty porn?
Yes, just as our obsession with fame and celebrity is nothing new, I think it’s true that things we hoped we’d consigned to the past, are still rife. In my research of Mass Observation, I came across a quote from one of the founders of the project, an anthropologist who said he had “studied the cannibals of Borneo” and now wanted to study the “cannibals of England”. It was shocking to read such blatant demonisation of working class people but even today, voyeuristic reporting still serves to “other” deprived communities, and support a narrative which dismisses real problems and opinions. Poverty is often portrayed as ignorance. It’s one of the reasons I wrote this novel.

Tell us about your research into the Mass Observation archives and some of your most exciting findings.
It was a writer’s dream! A vast collection of observations, first person accounts and diaries, the archives give an insight not only into the people being observed, but those doing the watching. One of my favourite discoveries was the use of spy cameras to take photographs (a fact which made it into the novel). And I didn’t need to imagine the artefacts in the project’s headquarters, because they were described in detail. I really enjoy weaving in real-life details, such as the observations gathered by the researchers in places like pubs: what people were drinking, saying, singing. The biggest problem was tearing myself away from the source material to sit down and write the book.

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