Widowland: A Novel
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An alternative history with a strong feminist twist, perfect for fans of Robert Harris’s Fatherland, Christina Dalcher’s Vox, and the dystopian novels of Margaret Atwood
To control the past, they edited history. To control the future, they edited literature.
London, 1953, Coronation year—but not the Coronation of Elizabeth II.Thirteen years have passed since a Grand Alliance between Great Britain and Germany was formalized. George VI and his family have been murdered, and Edward VIII rules as King. Yet, in practice, all power is vested in Alfred Rosenberg, Britain’s Protector. The role and status of women is Rosenberg’s particular interest.
Rose Ransom belongs to the elite caste of women and works at the Ministry of Culture, rewriting literature to correct the views of the past. But now she has been given a special task.
Outbreaks of insurgency have been seen across the country: graffiti daubed on public buildings. Disturbingly, the graffiti is made up of lines from forbidden works, subversive words from the voices of women. Suspicion has fallen on Widowland, the run-down slums where childless women over fifty have been banished. These women are known to be mutinous, for they have nothing to lose.
Before the Leader arrives for the Coronation ceremony of King Edward and Queen Wallis, Rose must infiltrate Widowland, find the source of this rebellion, and ensure that it is quashed.
Release date: August 9, 2022
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
Print pages: 376
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Widowland: A Novel
C. J. Carey
Monday, April 12, 1953
A biting east wind lifted the flags on the government buildings in a listless parody of celebration. All the way from Trafalgar Square and down Whitehall, they rippled and stirred, turning the dingy ministerial blocks into a river of arterial red. The splash of scarlet sat savagely on London’s watercolor cityscape: on the dirt-darkened Victorian facades and dappled stone of Horse Guards, the russet Tudor buildings and ruddy-bricked reaches of Holborn, and around the Temple’s closeted, medieval squares. It was a sharp, commanding shout of color that smothered the city’s ancient grays and browns and obliterated its subtleties of ochre and rose.
The big day was approaching, and there seemed no end to the festivities. All along the Thames, decorations were being hung. Bunting was entwined between the plane trees, and ribbons twisted through the Victorian wrought iron railings of the Embankment. The House of Commons itself was decked out like a dowager queen in a flutter of pennants and flags.
Every shop window had posted its picture of the King and Queen, tastefully framed, and every taxi that passed up Whitehall had a patriotic streamer dancing on its prow.
Flags were nothing new in the Protectorate. When the Anglo-Saxon Alliance was first formed, its emblem—a black A on a red background—was emblazoned on every building. No sooner were they run up the poles, however, than the flags were vandalized, ripped to ribbons and left in puddles in the street. Disrespecting or damaging the flag was swiftly made an act of treason, punishable by death, and the order came down that people found guilty of tampering should be hanged from the same flagpole that they had attacked—a deterrent that was as grisly as it was ineffective. After the first shock, Londoners took as much notice of the bodies suspended above them as their forebears had taken of the heads that used to be stuck on spikes on London Bridge.
But that was then.
A lot can change in thirteen years.
It had been threatening a downpour all day. The chill in the air and the absence of anything cheerful to look at meant people shrouded their faces with scarves and huddled in their coats, keeping their eyes down, skirting the craters in the potholed roads. March winds and April showers bring forth May flowers. Wasn’t that how the saying went? Judging by the regular deluges that had drenched the past few weeks, April was certainly shaping up to be a traditional English spring. At least (as some older people thought) there was something traditional about it.
High above Whitehall, in a block that had once been the War Office, Rose Ransom stared down at the tops of the buses and the heads of the pedestrians below. She was a solemn-looking woman of twenty-nine. Her eyes were dreamy and her face, poised above the typewriter, was pensive, as though she were seeking inspiration for the page she was composing, though nothing could be further from the truth. Rose was fortunate enough to possess the kind of physiognomy that gave nothing away. It was an untroubled demeanor, not so much beautiful as enigmatic, a perfect oval framed by neat dark blond hair and grave eyes of indeterminate blue, like a lake that reflects back precisely the color of the sky. From her mother, she had inherited a smooth, unlined complexion that meant she could pass for a decade younger, and from her father an air of unreadable composure that belied whatever turmoil stirred within.
“Come and see this, Rosie! It’s amazing!”
Rose turned. Across the office, a commotion was going on, and Helena Bishop, a lively blond, was predictably at the center of it. Any event was enough to distract most office workers, but that day’s novelty was exceptional. A pair of technicians had wheeled in a squat box of wooden veneer encasing a bulbous fisheye of screen with two dials set beneath. Once a technician had plugged in the set and switched it on, the glass spattered with static before brightening to a monochrome glow. A murmur of excitement went up as every worker abandoned their desk and crowded around, nudging and jostling to get a better view of the tiny screen.
Like most people in the English territories, they had never seen a television close up before and were eager to get a good look.
At first it was nothing more than a snowstorm, but after warming up, a picture emerged, sliding upwards in horizontal lines until someone twiddled the tuning button and it shuddered to a stop.
“Would you look at that!”
The entire office was transfixed. The murky image resolved into a man in evening dress, reading aloud with patrician jollity.
“Anticipation is mounting in London as the first crowds begin to line the coronation route. Early birds are pitching their tents to ensure they get the best view of the royal couple as they make their way from the Abbey.”
All across the nation, the same scene was being played out. The coronation of Edward VIII and Queen Wallis was scheduled for May 2, and the government had announced that every citizen in the land would have access to a television to watch it. To that end, thousands of sets had been installed: in workplaces, factories, and public houses. In schools, offices, and shops. For the first time in thirteen years, every adult and child had been given a day off to see the royal couple crowned. There was more than a fortnight until the big day, but excitement was already at a fever pitch.
“Come on, Rosie!”
Rose grinned across at Helena with appropriate enthusiasm and shook her head. In a split-second calculation, she judged it safer to linger at her desk rather than join her colleagues across the room. She bent over the typewriter and pretended to write.
Television was nothing exciting to Rose. Unlike the others, she had seen plenty of TV sets close up, due to her friendship with the assistant culture minister, Martin Kreuz. Friendship with Martin meant not only television shows but entry to special access exhibitions and theatrical premieres. Art exhibitions at the top galleries. VIP parties and meals out. Martin Kreuz may have been Rose’s superior and twenty years her senior, but he was a cultured man and endlessly generous in sharing the benefits of his position with her. There were numerous advantages to knowing him.
And the disadvantages? She tried not to think about them.
Her gaze drifted restlessly back through the barred and smeared windows to the street outside. The Chamber of Culture itself was a monstrosity, scabrous with soot and girdled with an iron fence laced with barbed wire, but a few meters along from the ministry, the Palladian columns of the Banqueting House retained something of their original dignity. This was the place where, as every schoolchild knew, three hundred years previously, Charles I had been beheaded. The famous occasion when the English killed their king was on every school curriculum, and the place was constantly beset by throngs of kids milling around as their teachers held forth, chatting among themselves and pricking up their ears for details of the beheading.
Some of the nation’s more recent rulers, King George VI, his queen, Elizabeth, their two daughters, and a rabble of minor royals had been accorded far less ceremony in their demise. But as far as Rose was aware, no child learned their fate in school.
Most people had no idea what had become of them. Or cared.
It was Protector Rosenberg who featured in the history lessons now. The Leader’s oldest friend, who had been with him in the beer halls and marched alongside him in the earliest days of the movement. The man dubbed the Leader’s Delegate for Spiritual and Ideological Training, who had guided and shaped the development of the Party, its philosophy and its ideals. The thinker who embodied the Party’s connection to the past and the future. Rosenberg was a visionary, and when the Leader made him Protector, he had resolved that his dream of a perfect society would find its ultimate expression in England.
Now, more than a decade later, Rosenberg’s vision was complete. A whole generation who had never known anything but the Alliance was growing up. German came as easily as English to their lips. As Martin was so used to explaining, the Alliance was the perfect fruition of the history of the Anglo-Saxon peoples. In a way, he liked to say, it was the “end of history.” The ultimate “special relationship.” Two peoples who had once been a single race had come together again in a seamless join.
As neatly as if King Charles’s head was restored to his body.
Not that anyone cared about history. The only thing that mattered was that order was restored, and whatever people thought of that order, it meant that life ran smoothly. Food appeared on the table, and the buses and trams arrived on time. The blossom on the horse chestnuts in Green Park turned up as punctually as ever and birds still sang each spring.
“I see the march of technology leaves you unmoved.”
The sardonic voice emerged from Oliver Ellis, who occupied the desk next to Rose. He had a dark, unruly shock of hair, a brooding demeanor to match, and a wit that was acid enough to eat through shrapnel. Generally, Rose appreciated Oliver’s barbs; they were mostly aimed at hapless colleagues or at diktats of more than usual idiocy from the culture minister’s office. But sometimes, she guessed, she must be the target of his humor too.
That was how men like Oliver worked.
He stood up, adjusted his horn-rimmed spectacles, and frowned. “Aren’t you coming to look at our marvel?”
“I’ve seen a television already,” she replied coolly, adjusting the paper in her typewriter.
“Of course you have. I forgot. Friends in high places.”
He followed her gaze out the window, where it was raining harder and pedestrians were raising their umbrellas against the sky, as though seeking protection from something fiercer than an English spring.
“God forbid it rains on the big day.”
“There ought to be a law against it,” said Rose.
“Probably is.” Oliver unhooked his jacket from his chair and pulled it on. “Alliance regulation number 8,651. Prohibition of Precipitation on coronation.”
She smiled. “SS Stipulations on Sunshine Standards.”
“Rain Restrictions Regarding Royalty,” he countered.
She couldn’t stop herself laughing. Oliver was good with words. But they all were.
That was why they were here.
Oliver had been an undergraduate at Cambridge before the war, and when the fighting began, he was given a desk job in the old dispensation that meant he missed any action and survived to serve the new regime. Men of Oliver’s type were unusual. Many males between seventeen and thirty-five who hadn’t died resisting the Alliance had been sent to work abroad, causing a notable gender imbalance in England.
The country now had two women for every man.
Perhaps this was why, as the Leader put it, “Women are the most important citizens in this land.” And lest anyone forget, his comment was carved into the pediment of a vast bronze statue erected on the northern end of Westminster Bridge.
It was an impressive installation. Where once the chariot of Boudicca had stood, now the Valkyrie figure of the Leader’s niece Geli was planted, heavy thighs draped in a classical toga, head encircled with a laurel crown, staring broodily out at the muddy waters of the Thames. Just as France had its Madeleine—a representation of perfect womanhood—England had her Geli. Geli was young, intelligent, talented, and beautiful. She symbolized everything that was fine about femininity. She was the apogee of womanhood. In essence, she embodied the spirit of England.
Just a shame the woman had never set eyes on the place.
“You don’t want to miss this, Rose!”
Helena’s excitement was contagious. All around her, more Culture Ministry staff were emerging from their offices and cubicles—her friends in the Film Division, girls from the Astrology Office, young men from Advertising in their braces and red ties, Press Department staffers, a gaggle of people from Broadcasting, even some stragglers from Theater and Art, who were relegated to a couple of back offices on one of the building’s lower floors.
Rose was about to give in and join them when from across the office, she became aware of a Leni bustling toward her desk with an air of self-importance. She was a dumpy, matronly figure, steel hair gripped into a bun and an upper lip disfigured by a badly mended cleft palate. She wore no makeup—she wouldn’t dare—but her cheeks were flushed with a bright disc of pink, and her eyes glinted in the fleshy folds of her face. Encased in thick wool stockings and a pewter-gray suit in the kind of crusty, hard-wearing tweed favored by her type, she might have been a crab, scuttling toward her prey, carrying a clipboard pincer-style. Generally Lenis believed themselves to be the essential cogs of any factory or workplace, and no matter how low level their actual function, they regarded themselves as the glue that kept the economy running. They were probably right. There was plenty of drudge work in the current administration, and it required an army of women to carry it out.
This woman, Sheila, had a desk right outside the minister’s office and believed she knew everything that was going on in the ministry. She smiled blandly as she sighted Rose, certain that the message she was conveying would bring a shiver down anyone’s spine.
Rose steeled herself, summoned an expression of polite inquiry, and refused to turn a hair.
“Ah, Miss Ransom. An important memo for you.” Sheila detached a piece of paper from the clipboard and floated it onto Rose’s desk. “The minister wants to see you. He’s away at the moment, but he’s back on Friday. You’ll report to him first thing.”
She leaned closer, bringing a waft of unwashed clothes and cheap perfume.
“Little word of advice. Be punctual. In fact, I recommend you arrive ten minutes early. The minister despises bad time keepers. He takes a very dim view. And no one likes to see him angry.”
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