THE CHILBURY LADIES’ CHOIR

Jennifer Ryan

Through letters and journals, The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir unfolds the struggles, affairs, deceptions, and triumphs of a village choir during World War II.

As England becomes enmeshed in the early days of World War II and the men are away fighting, the women of Chilbury village forge an uncommon bond. They defy the Vicar’s stuffy edict to close the choir and instead “carry on singing,” resurrecting themselves as the Chilbury Ladies’ Choir. We come to know the home-front struggles of five unforgettable choir members: a timid widow devastated when her only son goes to fight;

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Through letters and journals, The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir unfolds the struggles, affairs, deceptions, and triumphs of a village choir during World War II.

As England becomes enmeshed in the early days of World War II and the men are away fighting, the women of Chilbury village forge an uncommon bond. They defy the Vicar’s stuffy edict to close the choir and instead “carry on singing,” resurrecting themselves as the Chilbury Ladies’ Choir. We come to know the home-front struggles of five unforgettable choir members: a timid widow devastated when her only son goes to fight; the older daughter of a local scion drawn to a mysterious artist; her younger sister pining over an impossible crush; a Jewish refugee from Czechoslovakia hiding a family secret; and a conniving midwife plotting to outrun her seedy past.

An enchanting ensemble story that shuttles from village intrigue to romance to the heartbreaking matters of life and death, Jennifer Ryan’s debut novel thrillingly illuminates the true strength of the women on the home front in a village of indomitable spirit.

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  • Broadway Books
  • Paperback
  • September 2017
  • 416 Pages
  • 9781101906774

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$16.00

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About Jennifer Ryan

Jennifer Ryan lives in the Washington, DC area with her husband and two children. Originally from Kent and then London, she was previously a nonfiction book editor.

Praise

“There’s so much happening in Chilbury: intrigue, romance and an unforgettable cast of characters who aren’t always as they appear. The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir is a charming slice of English wartime life that warms the soul like a hot toddy.” —Martha Hall Kelly, New York Times bestselling author of Lilac Girls

“Lyrical, poetic, emotional, funny, endearing, surprising – it is a masterpiece.” —Veronica Henry, author of An Eligible Bachelor

The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir sinks you deep inside the rich, intricate atmosphere of an English village in the middle of war, when quiet lives are upended and secrets unravel. With her unforgettable characters and vivid narrative, Jennifer Ryan creates the kind of wartime novel that plays out over the intimate territory of the human heart—full of soul, full of hope. You’ll be thinking about this book long after the last page turns.”—Beatriz Williams, New York Times bestselling author of A Hundred Summers and The Secret Life of Violet Grant

Discussion Questions

1. What is the main theme of the book? Which of the characters is most changed through the course of the book?

2. Which character do you like most? Why? Which character do you dislike most? Why?

3. Which character do you most relate to? Why?

4. What was the funniest moment of the book? Why do you think it was funny?

5. Do you think that Mrs. Tilling made the right choice to help Carrington, even though it would have been illegal for her not to have handed him over to the police? A great deal has happened since the Second World War in this regard. What does that say about the society and culture in which we live?

6. In what way does Venetia alter through the course of the book? What are the biggest moments of change for her?

7. Why doesn’t Mrs. Tilling hand Miss Paltry over to the police? Why is she being nice to her?

8. What does it say about the way her character has changed over the course of the book? Would you have handed her in?

9. Are there any recurrent symbols throughout the book? Why do you think they were chosen?

10. Are there any allusions to other books hidden throughout? What are they, and why are they relevant?

11. Did you feel for Venetia’s dilemma after Slater left? In what ways would her choice have been easier today? Why do you think that is?

12. Tragically, we already know what will probably happen to Silvie’s parents, even though none of the characters does at this point. How does that affect you when reading the book?

13. What impact did the war have on women, work, and society? How do you think women’s equality has progressed since the Second World War?

14. And now, a show of hands: Did you shed a few tears while reading The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir? Be honest now, there are some sad and very moving parts. Which did you find most heartrending, and why?

Interviews

A CONVERSATION WITH JENNIFER RYAN

The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir is your debut novel. Can you tell us a bit about your inspiration and how it came to be?

When I was growing up, I had two grandmothers: one was Shakespeare Granny, who liked to dissect tragedies, and the other was Party Granny, who loved nothing better than a good knees up with a Pink Gin. Party Granny was always telling thrilling and often racy tales of her war years in Kent, and it was these stories that formed the backdrop for Chilbury. I wanted to bring the feeling of the era to life. Women of all ages faced tragedy and hardship, but they also had opportunities for work, and new personal freedoms with fathers, husbands, and sons away at the front.

There was a shift in cultural gender norms brought about by the needs of the war; women suddenly found jobs opening up for them in the country’s hour of need. Plus, there was that heady notion that each day might be your last, so you need to make the most of it. Sexual norms relaxed as people made the best of things while they could. Premarital sex, extramarital affairs, sexually transmitted diseases, and unwanted pregnancies were rife. Who knew what would happen tomorrow, so why hold back? Party Granny was also in a choir, and she told hilarious stories about how bad they were, losing a carol competition because they had colds and blocked-up noses and instead of singing “Ding Dong Merrily on High,” it came out as “Dig Dog Merrily on High.” She told us how choir competitions were popular during the war to “keep up spirits.” And so the beginning of The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir evolved.

The women of Chilbury are each very different and unique in their own ways. How did you go about writing for an ensemble cast and developing each distinct voice?

The very first character was Mrs. Tilling, the middle-aged widow whose only son goes to war. As a mother myself, I wanted to investigate how she must have felt as he walked down the front path. How difficult it must have been to watch him go when he might not make it home. Mrs. Tilling’s character is at the heart of the book, demonstrating how women of the era had been brought up to be quiet and submissive, and the war gave them a chance to speak their own minds. The choir in many ways is a metaphor for the women finding their voices.

The other women and girls were created around her, forming a group of different ages, social classes, and personalities in order to fully flesh out how they responded to the war. Venetia, the beauty of the village, is based on my grandmother’s friend Letty, who took full advantage of the relaxed morals of the era, always playing the boys off against each other and landing herself in trouble. You know there’s mischief when Venetia’s around!

Silvie, the ten-year-old Jewish evacuee from Prague, is based on the children rescued by Nicholas Winton, a British banker, during 1938 and 1939. A friend had told him about the plight of the Jews in Prague, and he organized a way to bring Jewish children to the UK to be looked after by British families until the end of the war. He saved 669 lives in all, many of their parents, sadly, perishing in the Holocaust.

Do you have a favorite character?

My favorite character has to be Miss Paltry, the scheming yet incompetent midwife who agrees to swap the Brigadier’s baby girl with a boy so that he can inherit the family fortune. She came directly from a short story I wrote about a decade ago, where she played a similar role. Her rambunctious humor and her way of describing the village women are hysterical, saying of Mrs. Tilling, “she is so excruciatingly well-meaning, it makes me want to plunge her face into a barrel of ale to perk her up a bit.” She has a flair for metaphor, and I loved creating phrases like, “The day was cold as a slap round the face with a fresh-caught cod.”

Do you see any of yourself in your characters?

The character who I feel closest to would probably be Kitty, the thirteen-year-old daughter of the tyrannical Brigadier. I think I was a little like her when I was that age, and it was easy for me to access how she might think or feel about any given situation. I had a lot of fun with her, as she just says whatever she thinks, even if it’s self-absorbed, whimsical, or outrageous. And, of course, she is terribly wrong about so many things. She steps out of traditional narrative to write her diary with side headings and her wonderful lists, such as a list of the colors she associates with each person in the village, or what she thinks happens to people when they die. Many readers’ favorite part of the book is when she spies on her sister seducing a handsome young man, and her take on it is hilarious. Such a fun character to write.

Music is a major component of the novel. Why did you choose to unite the women through the formation of a choir?

It happened very quickly and organically. I began writing the first few journal entries of Mrs. Tilling, during which she became upset about the choir closing down. It was as if she, as a woman, was not worthy to be heard. It summed up everything she’d been thinking: that she’d always been told to smile and keep her opinions to herself, when deep down inside she was desperate to speak her mind. Why couldn’t the women’s voices be heard? The choir quickly gained pace with the arrival of Prim, and soon it became the central premise of the book, its soul.

As an enthusiastic choir member, I know too well that wonderful feeling of camaraderie that happens when singing together: it’s as if the world suddenly lights up around you with an almost transcendent well-being. A few years ago, I edited a book by renowned cellist David Teie about how music affects the emotions, and so I know how music has that emotional pull. It was a joy to re-create those moments when music can truly change a person’s world.

By profession, you’re a nonfiction book editor. What inspired you to turn to writing fiction?

I loved editing nonfiction, especially narrative nonfiction and memoirs. One day about five years ago, as I was rewriting the stark and beautiful memoir of a statesman in Afghanistan, I suddenly knew that I had more in me: more metaphor, more intrigue, more inspiration for life. It was time that I wrote a book rather than simply editing them. Immediately, as if the thought had already been there in my subconscious, I knew exactly what I would write about: women in the Second World War. For many years I’ve had a passion for reading memoirs from the war, and along with my grandmother’s stories, these formed the backdrop to my longing to uncover women’s changing lives throughout the war. To bring their stories back to life.

What do you hope readers of The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir will take away from their reading of the novel?

The message that I want readers to take away with them is that we, too, can find the strength to challenge the status quo and change the way we respond to things that come at us, wherever we are in our lives. Sometimes it’s our own patterns of behavior and beliefs that are holding us back, and fear of moving away from the safety of the norm. We need to free the spirit; find the strength, resolve, and courage to take on the world and make it a better place.

A good friend of mine was diagnosed with cancer a few years ago, and thankfully has made it through. But since that first phone call, the way she saw her life changed. Instead of seeing a thousand tomorrows, she suddenly became struck how little she’d paid attention to it. How very precious life is. We need to actively choose how we want to live rather than just let it wash over us. The war, the deaths, the fear, forced the Chilbury ladies to look at their own lives in such a way. It made them live life for the day, to dance and sing and fall in love. But it also changed their way of thinking about who was in charge of their lives, and they made the decision to follow their own paths.

Essay

THE INSPIRATION BEHIND THE CHILBURY LADIES’ CHOIR

by Jennifer Ryan

When I was growing up I had two grandmothers, one was Shakespeare Granny, who was an expert on the tragedies, and the other was Party Granny, who loved nothing better than a good knees-up with a Pink Gin. Party Granny was always telling thrilling and often racy tales of her war years in Kent, and it was these stories that formed the backdrop for Chilbury. I wanted to bring the feeling of the era to life. Women of all ages faced tragedy and hardship, but they also had opportunities for work and new personal freedoms with fathers, husbands, and sons away at the front.

There was a shift in cultural gender norms brought about by the needs of the war; women suddenly found jobs opening up for them in the country’s hour of need. Plus, there was that heady notion that each day might be your last, so you need to make the most of it. Sexual norms relaxed as people made the best of things while they could. Premarital sex, extramarital affairs, sexually transmitted diseases, and unwanted pregnancies were rife. Who knew what would happen tomorrow, so why hold back?

Party Granny was also in a choir, and she told hilarious stories about how bad they were, losing a carol competition because they had colds and blocked-up noses and instead of singing “Ding Dong Merrily on High” it came out as “Dig Dog Merrily on High.” She told us how choir competitions were popular during the war to “keep up spirits.” Another time, one of the altos was hurt in an air raid and they went to the hospital to cheer her up with a few songs, hamming up their bad singing to make her laugh. It was so successful that the nurses took them around every ward to cheer up the whole hospital. She’d fall about laughing as she told her stories, her eyes gleaming with the memories.
My fascination with the era continued, leading me to read memoirs and diaries of women and children of the time. There’s something heartwarming about the way everyone pulled together to win the war, putting aside their differences to fight the common enemy, no matter what it took. And so, when I started to think about writing a book, the seeds of The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir had already begun to grow.

A SUMMER IN KENT

Chilbury is based on a beautiful old village in Kent, Chilham, where I once spent a glorious summer in my youth. A castle and a manor house sit prominently on the square, with beautiful Tudor tea shops around the tumbledown churchyard. My days consisted of picnics in meadows of wildflowers, or long rambles through the woodland speckled with sparkling sunlight. In the evenings, we heard the echoing hoot of barn owls as we sought a fireside nook in the White Horse pub. I stayed in an old oast house on a nearby farm, which might have been Dawkins Farm, complete with barns, stables, and even some beehives. It was the perfect picturesque haven to let the drama unfold.