A year-long diary set in LONDON
Novel set in Paris (“French was the language of the hat trade”)
5th August 2015
The Milliner’s Secret by Natalie Meg Evans, historical novel set in PARIS, leading up to and during WW2.
Cora is a Bermondsey girl through and through, with a dad who, at the drop of a hat (no pun intended) would beat seven bells out of her (in other words, thrash her to within an inch of her life). She works in a lowly position at milliners Pettrew and Lofthouse.
Through her work she wins a ticket to attend Epsom Downs Races and duly takes her friend Donal. A bit of betting and socialising make it an enjoyable day out until she meets Dietrich in the company of Ottilia, and somehow there is a spark. Before long she is at the station fulfilling a long held dream of travelling to Paris, now with him, with no prospect of a job other than the patronage of the rather handsome German man. Cora does not “wait for life to unfold…she rides after it, like a gaucho roping a steer“. And that is certainly how the spirited heroine negotiates her way in the new city as war unfurls.
However, she soon finds herself on the verge of destitution because Dietrich has disappeared and she needs to work fast to keep her head above water. She thus assumes the persona of Coralie de Lirac – of course, she has knowledge of French through her Belgian father. Various encounters later she is running her own hat shop whilst war is escalating and soon she is in a new relationship with Ramon Cazaubon. Pregnancy ensues to complicate her life and little Noëlle arrives. As she actively engages in the Resistance during the war years, whilst keeping her hat business afloat, Coralie is definitely “a working class girl who dares to reach for the stars“! Wheels within wheels, people of all nationalities populate the storyline and those who have disappeared soon reappear. But who can Coralie trust?
Paris remains unscathed in the early years but the inevitable hardships of the time descend. The Germans take up residence in The Crillon at the heart of the city; and is that a Swastika atop the Eiffel Tower?
It is clear that Natalie has done a lot of research and has taken a great deal of care to set the developing storyline against a backdrop of monumental unfolding history. Enjoy!
Tina for the TripFiction Team
We pose questions for Natalie and she shares some of favourite personal photos:
TF: You have set the book largely in war time Paris. I am struck how you have interwoven real events into your narrative to give a sense of authenticity. How did you go about your researches?
NME: You are right that the novel’s framework is historical reality. With subjects as important and sensitive as war and occupation, you want to get facts right. There’s a payoff in that real events provide a sweep to the drama that you could not make up. For example, when my heroine Coralie visits the Paris Expo in 1937, the world’s fair on the banks of the Seine, she sees the looming German pavilion. Draped in swastika flags, a vast bronze eagle perched on top, it warns of malignant domination to come. She doesn’t know this, but I do. As the writer, I have the benefit of seeing through her eyes and my own. The conflict between history and a character’s hopes and perceptions creates tension.
I research from books, though the internet is invaluable for fact-checking. I researched the day the Germans entered Paris (June 14th 1940) from four different writers’ perspectives. I learned how it felt, how it sounded. The small details of invasion, such as the plumes of frightened birds suddenly taking off from the trees. But when I needed to know how the German armies massed for the advance, how many French casualties there were, I turned to the internet where facts are plainly spelled out.
Type in something like ‘Photos of Paris in 1939’ and up spring photographs, postcards and personal letters which would be far beyond the scope of a normal writer to research or collect. I built my images of the 1937 Expo from online pictures as there is actually very little written about it, but thousands of images.
TF: All life seemed to pass through Paris in this novel. Which characters did you particularly enjoy researching and writing?
NME: I welcomed Una Kilpin back with open arms, though she quickly informed me she was now ‘Una McBride’ having ditched her meany husband, Gregory! Una developed new depths in this novel. From the contemptible, spoiled woman in The Dress Thief, Una shows great courage and loyalty in The Milliner’s Secret. I loved researching my men too – Ramon, irascible but ultimately brave, with his Resistance links. Donal who grows in stature within the novel and of course Dietrich von Elbing. Dietrich required the most research with his complex life and his secrets. I won’t reveal more, but those reading the novel will understand that for him, I read and researched one of the most compelling, and harrowing, stories in history.
TF: At the end of the book you give a little insight into the process of hat making, how did you yourself learn about the creative process and what drew you to research this fabulous skill?
NME: It was on a wave of optimism that I set this book in the world of hats, having absolutely no experience of millinery. I knew hat blocks existed but no idea how they applied to hat-making. So, I read books, ordering some obsolete titles through Abe Books. These gave step by step lessons in the arts of millinery, describing the materials used in traditional ladies’ millinery. Esparterie, crinoline ribbon, buckram, mull, tarlatan. Shellac for stiffening, millinery wire, grosgrain ribbon for sizing bands. I pulled on my experience in textiles and dressmaking, so these words were not mysterious to me, though the techniques did sometimes require looking up online. Some of ‘how to make a hat’ came from actually doing it myself. I did a couple of millinery courses and I attempted to steam a hat into shape at home. I don’t have a proper block (they are very expensive) so I used a saucepan, a kettle and a piece of thick felt. The end result would be best donated to one of our local scarecrows, but I learned how felt moulds to shape when steamed, and how it fits to a form. How it then keeps its form and can be trimmed. And, its odour. In The Milliner’s Secret, I refer to the hat factory having a trademark smell of resin and wet dog. I also talked to people involved in millinery, asking them about their workshop experience. I read up too on the lives of the great milliners (Caroline Reboux, Suzanne Talbot, Rose Valois, Lilly Daché).
TF: If you could choose any hat by any designer, what might that be?
NME: I did a short course with Judy Bentinck and hope one day to go to her for a bespoke hat. Her designs are exquisite. They have an airy elegance and exemplify the secret of millinery, which is the fusion of craft and art. If I could have a ride on a time machine, I’d go back to New York in the 1920s and call on Lilly Daché when she had a small shop, before she hit it big. Lilly pioneered the technique of fitting hats to clients’ heads, shaping fabric in her hands. In The Milliner’s Secret, Violaine Beaumont astonishes the heroine of the novel, Coralie de Lirac, by doing something similar and transforming her clients’ looks as they sit before the mirror.
TF: Any top tips for modern day Paris?
NME: My top tip is to go there! Nobody needs to be reminded that springtime in Paris is the freshest, prettiest season, but autumn is also a wonderful time, with the trees turning gold. My last trip was in February which was surprisingly warm and blue-skied, apart from one day of rain.
Another tip is to walk, if you can. Buses and the metro are great, but invest in comfortable shoes and do as much as you can on foot so that you can see what a uniquely designed this is. The detail of Paris is stunning. Every street, every alleyway, has something to admire. Visit less touristy places if you don’t like queuing. Paris has become the world’s No. 1 destination and the lines in front of places like Notre Dame can seem endless. Do go to l’Ecurie, Paris 5, Rue Laplace, famous for its aïoli, and eat downstairs in the 10th century vaults (mind your head on the stone arches. Not suitable for disabled people, but upstairs is also nice.) Say hello to the patroness, Miny.
Please DON’T attach a lovers’ padlock to any of the bridges. They are causing damage and are being removed at great cost to Paris. If you’re in love, stroll along the Seine’s wharves at sunset and watch how the rays move across water, across stone, lancing through leaves and bouncing off ironwork. They don’t call it the City of Light for nothing.
TF: I note that green features a lot on your covers. Is that your choice and is it a favourite colour? How much input do you personally have into the covers of your books?
NME: I love my covers and green has always been my favourite colour being both relaxing and spiritual. I didn’t have any hand in designing – that’s the marketing role of my publisher. They send me their design long before they’re set in print, and if I had objections I’m sure they’d listen. I’ve loved all their ideas and trust them to know what suits the book.
TF: With your writing, where do you go from here? How important will location be?
NME: Location is the unifying character in all my books. For the next sweeping historical, I am going to London. Post war, when the city is waking up from its Blitz battering and struggling to regain its colour and optimism. Specifically, the theatre district and Soho. I’m looking forward to researching, because both these areas changed out of recognition in the 1960s and then once again in the building boom of the 1980s. Soho in 1946 was a hive of nationalities, of journalists, writers, artists and those living on the edge of society.
TF: What are your top must visit countries and why?
NME: I have always wanted to visit Iceland to stare into a volcano and ride an Icelandic pony across the open vista. The ancient Viking settlements and the museums of Reykjavic are a must-see. My ancestry on my father’s side is North Yorkshire, and when I look at photographs of his craggy face, I’m sure there’s some Norse in the mix! After seeing Iceland, I’d like to nip across to Norway and Finland, and to see the northern lights. I’m happiest in crisp, cool climates and as you may have guessed, I love clear light. Living as I do on the east coast of England, it’s not all that difficult to head to Scandinavia. I just need to pack the woolly jumpers and hop on a ferry at Harwich or Felixstowe.
Check out our post Paris Ponderings where we offer our personal tips for a visit to Paris (and pose a question about white vans which still needs to be answered!); and our post TOP TIPS for Paris from readers…