Q & A on Fred & Edie

1. Your evocation of post-war London and the suburbs is very subtle but also quite vivid. Apart from the extracts from the newspapers of the time, and the help you received from Daphne Feldt about Ilford, did you do a lot of research?

I did tons of research! It gets quite addictive. Magazines, books, letters and newspapers from the time are the best for capturing atmosphere; I loved the ads for girdles and hair-curlers and the letters from “aggrieved of Ilford” in the local paper. Edie’s letters give me the strongest sense of her voice and the box file at Kew Public Record office was an eery experience: opening it up, with faded ribbons around maps and documents, and the dust floating off. But I also went to Shanklin and to the places where they would have met in Ilford and London and found that museums such as Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood (where the descriptions of Punch and Judy came from) were fantastically rich resources.

2. In the novel’s afterword and throughout her prison letters, there are numerous references made to Edie’s apparent pregnancy. If she were pregnant, of course, she would never have received the death penalty. Do you think she was pregnant and if so, does this mean that the prison authorities turned a blind eye to and actually concealed news of her condition so that she would be hanged?

I do believe she was pregnant. People have said to me, how could she not have known? But we don’t know that she didn’t know. It’s true that she didn’t mention it when asked in court but she was drugged up to the eyeballs and extremely frightened and didn’t understand the significance of the coded question she was asked immediately after the death sentence was passed: is there any reason why this sentence may not be passed? There was a rumour almost immediately after her death that she miscarried at the hanging and that her dress and underwear had been burned to hide the evidence from her family when they came to see the body. Margery Fry – who campaigned against the death penalty – seems to have been concerned about this and wrote a letter to the Home Office about it. I think the real facts could come out in later years when her file is re-opened.

3.The case obviously generated huge amounts of interest, not just of the prurient kind, but also from sympathetic and concerned individuals. Do you think that ‘the people’ didn’t want Edie to hang but that the govenment desired otherwise?

No, oddly the sympathy seemed very much directed at Freddy. Odd when you think that he did actually commit the murder – a pretty horrendous stabbing – whereas Edith clearly didn’t. The petition signed by nearly a million people was to reprieve Freddy, not Edith. There was quite a strong mass feeling against Edith, part of a general post-war anxiety and fear of the New Woman which she represented (mentioned in a lot of the papers of the time, this New Woman smoked and bobbed her hair and danced the foxtrot and was much fretted over) and due partly to her flippant remarks about trying to lose a husband in a society which had just lost thousands of husbands in the Great War and was still in mourning and shock.

4. Do you think that this decision was based on the fact that Edie was a romantically-inclined woman, unfaithful to her husband and seemingly lacking in remorse for her infidelity and that such behaviour was simply intolerable to the government (ie. Men interested in preserving the status quo and suppressing female independence)?

Yes, a great deal of disapproval seem sot have been directed at Edie for just about everything she represented and not just by the government but by the media and many others in influential positions. I read books about the case from the 1930s onwards and each decade seemed to stamp its own particular interpretation on her case. I think mine was a definite twenty-first century bent and today we would be far more sympathetic to the fact that her husband was violent towards her and (as her sister mentions in a late interview, years after the trial), an alcoholic. These days too of course, it would be far easier for her to divorce him. Although adultery obviously went on back then, the outrafge people felt about it is hard for us to imagine. What do we think of women who read ‘romantic books’?- that surely has a class resonance (think of Mills and Boon) and I believe we’re just as sniffy now as then.

5. Do you think Edie’s economic superiority and consequent level of independence actually jeopardised her position, serving to enflame the disapproval of the authorities?

Edie earned more than both Freddy and her husband and was proud of the fact. She loved her job and it clearly gave her a lot of independence. Again this was part of the threatening figure of the New Woman which she represented. I read many letters in the newspapers with titles like Should Women Work? In the main, in the 1920s people believed they shouldn’t, claiming that they would be taking away jobs from men who had returned from the war.

6. Freddy‘s incredulous and somewhat scathing dismissal of Percy’s admission that he hadn’t served in the Great War is very effective. Was this true and, if so, do you think it was the origin of their mutual emnity and Edie’s attraction to Freddy, who, after all had run away to sea as a boy?

It is true that Percy didn’t serve and managed to wriggle out of it by exaggerating his heart condition; smoking tons of cigarettes to give himself a bad cough fro the medical exam needed. When I read this, knowing that Freddy’s own father had died in the war, I tried to imagine how angry this would make Freddy, or any young man who had lost his father and probably many friends and who had wanted to fight himself but was too young. I suppose I took this as a starting point and then used it to imagine my way into Freddy’s character. I don’t have much evidence for it as a source of emnity but it seems likely enough.

7. With his mean temper, drunkenness and rather clumsy, selfish love-making, Percy is a far from sympathetic character. As husbands of the time (or any time!) Went, was he actually that bad?

I wouldn’t have wanted to be married to him. His ‘selfish love making’ reads more like rape when you read Edie’s letters. Freddy found Percy’s treatment of Edie intolerable and was on record as saying that he treated her lower than a dog. But it doesn’t mean Percy deserved to die. I wanted to make the point at the end that after all, it was Freddy who stabbed Percy and who was rightly found guilty of the crime.

8. This may sound absurd but in some ways the novel bears a curious resemblance to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s TheGreat Gatsby. The period is the same, they are both based (more or less) on real events and real characters, both set in a city and its suburbs, and both tell a tale of obsessive, adulterous love and its tragic consequences. Do you see any similarities or is this just the foolish notion of someone who reads too much?

I’m very flattered by the comparison. Of course this was a very British kind of suburbia and it was the beginning of a great love affair with the cinema which has probably Americanised our culture to an enormous degree. But the main difference would be that of the effect of the war on Britain would be far more immediate and raw.

9. Do you think that Fred and Edie would have received the same kind of justice if their crime (and their affair) had taken place say, after the Second World War? Their treatment, or rather Edie’s, seemed very much a product of its time.

I read a book about Edie by Lewis Broad – ‘The Innocence of Edith Thompson’, written in the 1950s. Her innocence was something many were convinced of almost immediately after her death, so possibly she wouldn’t have been found guilty of the crime if it had happened just after the Second World War. You’re probably right – something about the times she found herself in. The divorce laws had altered by then too, so women could have divorced their husbands. Then again, if you look at the case of Ruth Ellis you can see that a certain kind of social climbing, sexy woman still met with a huge amount of public disapproval.

10. Fred & Edie is now a film. Do you see your career moving in that direction? What are your plans for the future?

Yes, I’m writing screenplays now as well as a new novel. I have tons of ideas but with a new baby of eight months and a twelve year old and a part-time fellowship life’s a bit hectic at the moment. Ask me in a year!