Claire McGlasson chats the Mass Observation archive The Misadventures of Margaret Finch
The Misadventures of Margaret Finch sends readers to Blackpool in 1938
The Misadventures of Margaret Finch sends readers to Blackpool in 1938, where Margaret Finch – a rather demure young woman – has just begun work as a research assistant for the Mass Observation project, a position that relies on her discretion and powers of observation. Then, her path is crossed by the disgraced Harold Davidson, who is the subject of a national scandal. Margaret is determined to discover the truth behind the headlines: is Davidson a maligned hero or an exploiter of the vulnerable? The Misadventures of Margaret Finch is packed with many great details about Blackpool and about holidaymakers in 1938 that it is as if you were there with Margaret Finch. We had the honour of chatting with Claire McGlasson on her latest novel:
Love this so much. First of all, the Blackpool setting is so perfect. Was it easy to choose Blackpool as the setup?
Yes, the story chose it for me! It’s a place where I discovered two eccentric chapters of British history happened in the late 1930s. In The Misadventures of Margaret Finch, I imagine them colliding. The novel grew from the seed of that idea. Blackpool does have as a much more personal connection for me too though. I was born in Wigan and my grandparents travelled the 30 miles up the M6 to holiday there every year; taking their children and grandchildren. I’ve dedicated the book to them and several members of my family make cameo appearances!
Margaret Finch was there to help out in the “Mass Observation” research project. Can you please tell us more about this project? Was it common to get recruited for this sort of project back then?
Mass Observation was a real sociological study that I hadn’t heard of before I began research on the sideshows of Blackpool. One of its founders, anthropologist Tom Harrisson, said he had “studied the cannibals of Borneo” and wanted to study the “cannibals of Britain”. Posh folk from London went undercover in the North West of England to find out how the “lower orders” lived, scrutinising everything from drinking habits to moral beliefs. With hindsight, we can see it in the context of what was to come; the country was on the brink of another world war, and intelligence gathering would become key to military strategy. But, even as an archive in its own right, I think it tells us just as much about who was doing the watching as it does about who was being watched.
Margaret was the perfect candidate for this job as she could easily blend in. What do you want to say to readers who struggle to see this as a strength of women, but rather as a weakness that we are unnoteworthy?
Margaret lacks belief in herself; she would rather study other people’s lives than truly engage in her own. As it says in the novel, as a female in that time, she is “not above suspicion, rather beneath it” and this means she can go to places the male researchers can’t. More generally, I’d say being female brings conflicting extremes: unwanted attention at times, the experience of being overlooked and underestimated at others. The lack of the former makes Margaret feel that she is defective somehow, because a woman’s worth seems to be defined by men’s opinions of her.
'No one could be more surprised than she to discover that, in both appearance and character, she is perfect for this mission.'
Feast your eyes on the cover of @ClaireMcGlasson's new novel, The Misadventures of Margaret Finch, coming this April 👀https://t.co/s2Q2Rs5b8n pic.twitter.com/gYYVRoQF5J
— Faber Books (@FaberBooks) January 24, 2023
And of course, in 1938 women had a lower status, and a more difficult life. There was a scene where Margaret was disappointed in herself for not stopping to calculate the risks, and throughout the book, Margaret Finch often apologised. Was it difficult to write about in her perspective?
No, and I think that might be because I spend an awful lot of time finding a character and understanding them before I write a single word. I know it’s time to start when I can hear their voice in my head – the difficult part can be continuing to tune into it when there’s so much other noise in life. In Margaret’s case, I don’t think an awful lot has changed when it comes to the expectation that women police their own choices to avoid danger. Intellectually I believe that I shouldn’t have to, but subconsciously I’ve absorbed those ideas. I suppose the difference is that, unlike Margaret, I don’t usually feel the need to apologise out loud.
And there were many things that made Blackpool have such a great impact in this story, e.g. people paying money they couldn’t afford to see those ‘believe it or not wonders’ in Blackpool. Such an interesting observation! When did you first realise this?
To begin with, Margaret makes judgements about the people she is watching. She may be well-meaning but she assumes she knows best about how they should be living their lives, and dismisses their choices as ignorant. I hoped readers might question whether her opinions are motivated by genuine care for people’s finances, or by distaste for the “common” ways the holidaymakers choose to enjoy themselves. And as the novel goes on, Margaret begins to question this herself.
And are there any other observations about holidaymakers that you didn’t put in the book but can share with us?
The Mass Observation archive is a writer’s dream! There is so much that didn’t make it onto the page. Things like a study of beach behaviour – how long (on average) fathers spent playing with their children compared to mothers. There was a great deal of data gathered about alcohol consumption and pub etiquette but I tried not to get too bogged down in the findings; it was the undercover gathering of observations which I found much more curious and interesting.
There were many other details that enhanced the story, such as the material of the bathing suits, and the style of dress. Please tell us more about the research you did to perfect this historical setting and which of these little details did you love researching the most about?
An awful lot of the detail came from stories in my own family’s history. My mum had mentioned years ago that her mother had hand-knitted her bathing suit and that is sagged when it got wet. She also remembered being taken to see The Headless Woman as a child – a sideshow which makes it into the novel. The majority of my research came from archives in Blackpool’s Central Library which keeps everything from newspapers to maps; theatre programmes to tourist guides. I find newspaper adverts for clothing are a great source when it comes to dressing characters.