Jane Davis, a prize-winning author, is about to publish her ninth title, At the Stroke of Nine O’Clock. The novel is inspired by Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in the UK.
Jane is a writer friend, but she’s also one of my favourite authors, so I’m delighted that she agreed to tell you and me a little about what inspired her latest novel!
“Platinum blonde ex-model shoots racing-boy lover”
In 2018 I read three biographies back to back. Each book was about a woman who had lived through the 1950s. The subjects came from very different backgrounds, but all three had a connection with Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Great Britain.
My fascination with Ruth Ellis stems from my teens, when I first saw the same photographs that graced the front pages of the newspapers the day production resumed in 1955 after a month-long strike. Fleet Street had a four-million-pound loss to recoup. They needed eye-catching headlines and imagery to fight back with, and Ruth was nothing short of sensational. ‘Platinum blonde ex-model shoots racing-boy lover.’ By the end of the day, in every pub and Lyon’s Corner House, around every dinner table, on front doorsteps and over garden fences, the talk was of one subject and one subject only.
The reason for my initial fascination with Ruth Ellis is almost as complicated as she herself was. It’s difficult to accuse those who paid £30 for a seat in the Old Bailey’s public gallery for treating the personal tragedy as entertainment, without acknowledging at least something of the same ugly motivation. But there’s more to it than that.
I turned to my bookshelves for a yellowed paperback that has been in my possession for over thirty years. Ruth Ellis: A Case of Diminished Responsibility? I’d forgotten that the book begins with a foreword by co-authors Laurence Marks and Tony Van Den Bergh in which they reveal how, during their research, they both discovered that they had various links to players in the story of Ruth Ellis, if not Ellis herself.
One of David Blakely’s other lovers. The partner of a psychiatrist who had treated Ruth Ellis. The brother of the manageress of the Steering Wheel club who had thrown Blakely and Ellis out for having a drunken fight on the premises just days before the shooting. The Catholic priest who, while serving as a prison chaplain sat on the Home Office committee tasked with deciding if Ellis was fit to hang. The list went on. But even those who had never met Ellis had an opinion about her, and all were affected by her demise, if only because it helped to bring about a change in the law.
1950’s Dual Standards
That Ruth led a blighted and messy life is apparent. In post-war Britain, dual standards were the order of the day. Not only were property and titles inherited by men, but women were punished for daring to step outside the restricted confines dictated by society. Sex outside marriage, divorce, and children born outside wedlock were huge taboos, but behind closed doors, there’s no doubt that these things – together with domestic abuse and more – were happening.
Work-wise, few options were available to women. Having risen to the challenge of the running industry and keeping the economy afloat once again during the Second World War, they were expected to hand their jobs back to returning men. And from this black and white palette of post-war austerity stepped Ruth Ellis, then a young single mother, who had occasional work as a photographer’s model and a walk-on part as a bathing beauty in the Diana Dors film, Lady Godiva Rides Again. Later she would dare to leave a violent husband, but instead of hiding away (as all battered women should), she would pick herself up, dust herself down, and become the youngest manager of a private members’ club in the West End. Ruth Ellis wasn’t only the jealous neurotic woman portrayed in the film Dance with a Stranger. She was also gutsy and ambitious, but that side of her doesn’t make headlines. It wouldn’t sell.
Fiction Not Fact
The recent past is tricky. To me, it would have felt strange, possibly even disrespectful, to put words into the mouth of someone who still has living relatives. If facts are what readers are looking for, there are several excellent accounts of Ruth Ellis’s life to choose from. Besides, what I wanted to show was how women of Ruth’s day reacted to her fate. And so I took my lead for my main characters from the biographies I had read, making each as different in terms of class and background as I could.
My character whose trajectory most closely follows Ruth’s is seventeen-year-old Caroline Wilby. Like most working-class daughters, she’s expected to help support her family and for her, this means leaving the family and everything she knows behind. Alone in a strange city, she must grab any opportunity that comes her way, even if that means putting herself in danger. She is our direct route into the world of afternoon drinking clubs, where hostesses must rely on powers of persuasion and feminine wiles to part male customers from their money.
Then we have star of the silver screen Ursula Delancy, who we meet when she’s just been abandoned by the man she left her husband for. Already hounded by the press, it won’t be long before she’s making headlines for all the wrong reasons. Like Ruth, is pre-judged by those who think they know her because they’ve read about her in the press. And, like Ruth, Ursula appreciates all too keenly that it’s impossible to tell your side of a story without hurting those you love.
Making up the trio is Patrice Hawtree. Once the most photographed debutante of her generation, she is now childless and trapped in a loveless marriage, and her plans to secure the future of her ancient family home are about to be jeopardised by her husband’s gambling addiction.
I allow my characters to experience some of what Ruth went through, so that when they learn of her fate, each will be in a position to say, ‘There but for the grace of God…’
Hailed by The Bookseller as ‘One to Watch’, Jane Davis is the author of nine novels.
Jane spent her twenties and the first part of her thirties chasing promotions at work, but when she achieved what she’d set out to do, she discovered that it wasn’t what she wanted after all. It was then that she turned to writing.
Her debut, Half-truths & White Lies, won the Daily Mail First Novel Award 2008. Her 2015 novel, An Unknown Woman, was Writing Magazine’s Self-published Book of the Year 2016 and was shortlisted for two further awards. In 2019, her novel Smash all the Windows won the Selfies (best independently-published work of fiction) award at London Book Fair.
Jane lives in Carshalton, Surrey with her Formula 1 obsessed, star-gazing, beer-brewing partner, surrounded by growing piles of paperbacks, CDs and general chaos. When she isn’t writing, you may spot her disappearing up a mountain with a camera in hand. Her favourite description of fiction is ‘made-up truth’.
At the Stroke of Nine O’Clock is out 13 July 2020. If you pre-order it today, you can get it for just £1.99/$1.99. The price goes up to £4.99 upon publication.
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