Title: Eleanor’s Secret
Author: Caroline Beecham
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Allen and Unwin
Published: 1st May 2018
Synopsis: An engrossing wartime mystery of past deceptions, family secrets and long-lasting love…
When art school graduate, Eleanor Roy, is recruited by the War Artists Advisory Committee, she comes one step closer to realising her dream of becoming one of the few female war artists. But breaking into the art establishment proves difficult until Eleanor meets painter, Jack Valante, only to be separated by his sudden posting overseas.
Although reluctant to leave her family at home, Kathryn can’t refuse her grandmother Eleanor’s request to travel to London to help her return a precious painting to its artist. But when the search uncovers a long-held family secret, Kathryn has to make a choice to return home or risk her family’s future, as Eleanor shows her that safeguarding the future is sometimes worth more than protecting the past.
Kathryn’s journey takes her back to Eleanor’s life as a young woman as she uncovers Jack’s missing war diaries and uses new technology to try and solve the puzzle of the missing artist, confronted by Jack’s record of war compared to the depiction of terrors of the present day.
But when it becomes evident that Jack’s nephew is trying to stop her finding him, and her concern for Christopher’s care of Oliver deepens, she has to decide whether to return home or risk the dangers to carry on.
Eleanor’s Secret is at once a surprising mystery and compelling love story.
Having just graduated art school Eleanor Roy is recruited to the WAAC – the War Artists Advisory Committee – to do her part for the war effort during the 1940s. To her, this is a stepping stone to becoming a female war artist, in a time when women were often relegated to domestic jobs or working at home. For Eleanor though, breaking through tradition into a world her parents and family didn’t want her to go into, this is her chance. Seconded to a series of administrative meetings for the council, Eleanor encounters Jack Valante, a war artist, and SOE officer, whose friendship encourages her to paint her war, and to try and submit them to the WAAC, and other exhibitions. But she is a woman, and Jack comes up with a plan to get her art shown, and a relationship forms – and then falls away as he is sent overseas to serve. Almost seventy years later in 2010, Eleanor’s granddaughter, Kathryn, has returned to England to help her grandmother uncover the secret of a painting and where Jack is. She takes it as a welcome break from the family problems that plague her back home with her husband, Chris, though being apart from son Oliver, is testing. But what Kathryn will discover is more than a missing painting – she will discover a secret that Eleanor has been holding onto for many years.
Lately, I have been reading a lot of World War Two based historical fiction, covering the Holocaust, the ghettos and the home front in England. Each story is a mere drop in the ocean of the experiences of these six years, on all sides, and for all those affected. There are still many stories to discover and be told. One of my favourite themes has been the role of women in the war on the home front, and their stories. So, I was quite delighted to receive Eleanor’s Secret by Caroline Beecham, having previously read Maggie’s Kitchen two years ago. Like in Maggie’s Kitchen, the protagonist inEleanor’s Secret is also seeking to do something for the war effort and break out of the confines of what is expected of her gender. Instead, she strives to become an artist in her own right, and tries to gain the attention of a colleague, Aubrey, whom she hopes will help her exhibit her paintings. Through Eleanor, the home front of destroyed buildings in London and the East End is shown, though nobody wishes to accept them as hers, though she tries to make them see she is just as capable. Caroline Beecham’s characters – especially the female ones – find a way to step out of the norm whilst maintaining a facade in public that allows them to find a way to go against what is expected of them.
The impacts of the war that Eleanor captured in the novel – destroyed homes, families with nothing, picking through the ruins for something to hold onto, to sell for food, and the orphans, with nobody but the people running the orphanage and Eleanor’s art lessons to lift their spirits – are not the images of war that the WAAC wanted. It was Eleanor’s determination to capture these scenes that I found the most powerful, because it was her world, the world she lived in and passed by every day, rather than the battle fields of Europe that felt so distant to many, and though those events still affected people back home, what those left behind experienced also needed to be captured in paints.
The love story between Jack and Eleanor is woven in nicely, and I enjoyed that they each grew as characters and developed in their own way, with their own secrets that were woven throughout and took time to come out, ensuring that the mysteries of art and Jack, and Eleanor’s own secrets were not so easily revealed. Going back and forth between 1942 and 2010 was effective – it allowed for the mystery to develop, and for the reader to discover what was happening at the same time as Kathryn. Family and friends were also important in this novel, and the effects of what Jack and Eleanor did and had to do came through. Eleanor’s sister Cecily, a nurse, was an important character – acting as Eleanor’s confidant and secret keeper. This was an important relationship too as it showed that sibling and familial love during times of war was just as important, if not more so, to get people through hard times and challenges that came their way, that they needed help to face.
Overall, a good novel, with a fascinating historical backdrop. Prior to reading this novel, I did not know much about the WAAC or war artists, and I found it really interesting, and the way that reporting and creation of art was done back then, sometimes months after a battle, compared to today when images appear instantly, or within hours or days of something happening in current conflicts. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, reading it in about three sittings. The mystery of the paintings, the art and Eleanor’s determination to become more than an assistant were what caught my attention the most, and the love story with Jack was a nice bonus.