‘It is a curse to be born a girl…’ Joanna Nadin explores this in A Calamity of Mannerings as she brings readers to the diary of Panth, a girl growing up in the 1920s who has to navigate 1. poverty, 2. lack of experience with the opposite sex, and 3. multiple sisters and an opinionated grandmother. We are honoured to have Joanna here to chat about her hilarious yet heartwarming coming-of-age story.
Why did you decide to tell this story in a diary format?
There is something incredibly addictive about reading diaries – both in the sense of getting to peek into something private, and in the fact that entries tend to be short, so it’s easy to say, “Oh, just one more!” before bedtime. And writing it worked like that too – I was never facing writing a 3,000-word chapter, which can be daunting. Rather, I got to write it in delicious snippets, which at the time (it was written during lockdown 1 in 2020) felt necessary to me.
A Calamity of Mannerings remind us of Little Women. How would you match the Mannering sisters to the March sisters?
That’s fascinating, although (*sounds confession klaxon*) I have never read Little Women! What I did read (and actually wrote an updated YA version of) was Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen. And it’s the sisters in this book who have their equivalents in A Calamity of Mannerings, so Aster is very much sensible Elinor, Panther is impulsive Marianne, and Marigold is Margaret.
The title is very clever. Without spoiling others, can you chat with us about any collective nouns that you find fascinating?
I love collective nouns. My favourite is ‘a siege of herons’, and if you’ve ever seen a group of them stalking across the field – slowly and menacingly – it very much looks like a siege. I also love ‘a business of flies’, as it’s so misplaced; flies never look organised or business-like.
Under the humour, you tackled many difficult topics. Was it difficult to ensure the themes and messages explored here are suitable for the YA audience?
It actually was. I originally wrote this with an adult audience in mind, so had to think hard about what I could keep in for YA. While none of the themes or messages have changed, I definitely pulled back a little on some of the more graphic description. Like the late, great Marcus Sedgewick, I don’t believe there is any subject that is out of bounds for YA, it’s a question of how you do it.
This book is set in the 1920s. Why did you decide to choose this setting?
Writing in lockdown felt almost impossible, when I wasn’t sure the world would exist at the end of it, at least in the version we had known, so I needed a place and time to escape to, and the 1920s for me felt suitably a) distant b) glamorous and c) relevant – with similar issues to those we were experiencing in terms of a pandemic, and women’s rights. It also crucially was the point at which the law of entail (which dictated that only men could inherit) changed.
You made each detail of the period shine through elegantly. Did you learn anything new during the research process for this book?
One of the joys of writing historical fiction is all the incredible facts you get to learn (I was a geek at school and remain a geek). My favourite is that club owners had to keep an old sausage on the tables, because alcohol could only be served with food. Of course, Panth’s friend Margot comes a cropper after eating one of the sausages when the Button is raided.
And finally, ‘it is a curse to be born a girl’. Panth thought this in the 1920s. How much do you think it’s still true nowadays?
While I think we still have huge disparities to address, and it is still, in many places and ways, dangerous and difficult to be a woman or girl, the short answer is no. It isn’t a curse to be born any gender (unless it’s one you don’t identify with). I celebrate my womanhood, and hope the book and Panth do the same.