Who were the Surplus Girls? 

The Great War wiped out a generation of young men and left behind a generation of young women who faced a life without the probability of marriage, at a time when any girl left on the shelf rapidly became an old maid and no working woman could hope to earn what could be earned by a man, even by a man doing the same job. These were the ‘surplus girls’ – young women who had grown up assuming they would get married, but whose dreams and assumptions were dashed by the War; young women who, unexpectedly and without preparation, faced a lifetime of work and spinsterhood.


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How the Hesketh Sisters Arrived in the 1920s... Via the 1800s, 1930s, 1910s and 1940s

Prudence and Patience Hesketh had been imaginary companions of mine for a long time. They first popped into my head in 1990 or ’91. In those days, they were the middle-aged spinster daughters of an impoverished country rector in Victorian times. I ended up not writing that particular book, but the Hesketh sisters hung around in my mind and a couple of years later I wrote the first version of what20 years later – became The Poor Relation.


In its first incarnation, The Poor Relation was set in the 1930s and Prudence and Patience were middle-aged spinster sisters with a very much younger half-sister, who was the heroine. Incidentally, if you have read The Poor Relation, the hero was Eleanor’s grown-up son. The trouble with that 1930s book was that I knew so much about the characters’ lives before the story started and it was all relevant to the plot… so I wrote another book, telling the tale of the previous generation – though I set it in Edwardian times rather than going back into the 19th century. At this point, the story began to look a bit more like the eventual The Poor Relation.


In this version, Prudence and Patience, for once, weren’t middle-aged but were youngsters. Although the book was fine in many ways, it wasn’t right, so I wrote another version, still in Edwardian times, but with Prudence now aged 23, but it wasn’t until 23-year-old Prudence Hesketh morphed into 23-year-old Mary Maitland that everything finally fell into place and The Poor Relation was written.


What next for the Hesketh sisters? Well, they went back to being middle-aged spinster sisters, only this time in the 1940s…. and there they stayed until The Surplus Girls came along and took them into the 1920s, and finally I had found the right book for them.


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"The premise of this series brilliant."


I love this quote from Frost Magazine about the series. So let's talk about the premise.


The Surplus Girls series explores the predicament faced by many young women in the aftermath of the Great War. They had grown up expected by society to marry and become housewives and mothers. Then came the war – and a generation of young men perished. Many women lost their sweethearts or fiancés while others, without knowing it, lost the men they would have married had they ever had the chance to meet. This meant that many girls now faced a future in which they would have to provide for themselves, while being regarded as ‘on the shelf’ or ‘old maids’.


The world of work offered women far fewer opportunities than came the way of men. The wide variety of jobs that women had done very capably during the war when the men were away fighting seemed to be conventiently forgotten once the war ended. Moreover, a woman doing the same job as a man would typically earn one third less. This was considered normal – natural, even. The better salaries were given to the breadwinners, which meant the men, even at a time when there were many war widows supporting their families.


It was legal to refuse to employ a woman simply because she was a woman and it was considered patriotic to employ a former soldier even if a female candidate would have been more suited to the job. During an interview, an unmarried woman could expect to be grilled about her marriage prospects, because should she marry, the expectation would be that she would leave in order to be a housewife. In plenty of jobs, marriage automatically meant dismissal. In the nursing and teaching professions, which have always been female-dominated, it was required that women should leave work when they got married.


In The Surplus Girls series, I have explored various jobs that would have been open to girls and women in the early 1920s. Each book has a different heroine whom the story centres around, but one of the things that links the books together is that each heroine attends a business school to learn secretarial skills.


I loved delving into the social history of the time and seeking out suitable roles for my characters – ‘suitable’ meaning appropriate to the time, not necessarily the right job for the character personally – as Nancy finds out to her cost in Christmas with the Surplus Girls. In the fourth book, New Beginnings for the Surplus Girls, Jess makes a particularly interesting heroine, as she sees herself as a career woman, not an unfortunate surplus girl. She dreams of creating a successful working life for herself but has to cope with all the disadvantages that women faced at the time.

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Never Say "Never!" With Research


Years ago, back in 1995, I read a book of oral history about living in the UK in the 1920s and '30s. A detail that sprang out at me immediately was recounted by a lady whose family started out in a house that was lit by oil-lamps. In those days, it was normal practice to prepare the bedtime oil-lamps in the kitchen, take them upstairs to bed and then bring them down again the next morning. The family then moved into a house that had - wonder of wonders! - electricity. At that point, they gave up their bedside oil-lamps for little electric lamps.... and brought them downstairs every morning, put them tidily away, and took them up to bed again the next night. Because that's what you do with your bedside lamps - right?


I loved that little detail because it said so much. I knew I was going to use it in one of my books.


This is why, whe we first meet Patience, at the beginning of Chapter 4 of The Surplus Girls, she is bringing her bedside lamp downstairs:


"Patience padded downstairs, carrying her bedside lamp, its flex neatly coiled. At the foot of the stairs, she passed the ornately carved monk's bench and opened the cupboard under the stairs to place the lamp on the shelf."


Later in the book, the Miss Heskeths are asked by a younger character why they do this.


I came across that detail way back in 1995 and it didn't get used until The Surplus Girls, which was written in 2019 and published in 2020.


All research gets used sooner or later - even if it has to wait for a quarter of a century!