Friday, 2 June 2017

The Wild Air by Rebecca Mascull

In Edwardian England, aeroplanes are a new, magical invention, while female pilots are rare indeed. 

At the launch of The Wild Air in May, Rebecca Mascull spoke about the early female pioneers who risked their lives and how much we owe them. She told of how she sat in one of the Edwardian planes that looked so fragile she worried that her shaking with cold and fear would damaged it. 

When shy Della Dobbs meets her mother's aunt, her life changes forever. Great Auntie Betty, ‘the Broughton disgrace’ who married a ‘common fisherman’, has come home from Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, across whose windswept dunes the Wright Brothers tested their historic flying machines. On the first night home, Betty discovers Della has inherited the family talent for fixing things.

A window opened in Della's mind, a dozen windows flung open. All this time, she'd crept through her life shamed by her uselessness. And now, to discover she had had a talent, born in her, handed down like a precious heirloom. She could be special. She could shine.

Puck, Della’s brother, gets pneumonia and Della is packed off to stay with Aunt Betty. Almost immediately they start to make kites and take them to Cleethorpes beach where they learn about the mechanics of flying. Della develops a burning ambition to fly and Betty is determined to help her.

But when Aunt Betty wants to take Della to see a ‘lady flyer’, Della’s father absolutely forbids it and she finds herself having to lie for the first, but not last, time to her family.

Once at Burton-upon-Trent, Della not only meets Hélène Dutrieu, a ‘lady flyer’ nicknamed Girl Hawk, 
but also gets to fly with her. It's reported that Dutrieu caused a minor scandal when it was revealed she did not wear a ‘corset’ while flying, 

Get me back down on the ground and I’ll never do anything so bloody foolish again…Closing her eyes, she couldn’t escape the wind and feel of speed all around her when her mind suddenly spoke to her…Open your eyes. Look around… Fear had dissolved, replace by wonder. There were so many things she could see from the air that she couldn’t have imagined on the ground. The serpentine pattern of tractor tracks in fields. Sheep like polka dots. Lakes as small as silver puddles that glittered like brooches…

Hélène Dutrieu - Girl Hawk
This was a time where women did not wear trousers, though Girl Hawk did and had made a specially designed flying suit.

Della soars, and so too does the reader’s heart. But when the car breaks down on the way home from Burton on Trent, she and her aunt are stranded and they have to find a hotel to spend the night in. The following day, Della will have to tell her formidable father the truth of why she did not come home when she was meant to. Della of course deals with her father in her quiet, competent and determined way, the same way she will go on to disregard the taunts of men in the schools of flying.

With World War One looming, the reader will visit the airfields of Britain and Europe, the horrors of the First World War, and experience the bureaucracy and stupidity of rules and regulations.

The fictional quiet Della has a strength and determination that matches the real-life amazing exploits and braveness of the first female aviatrixes. Mascull’s research is meticulous, some of which she explains at the end of the novel. 

History, historical fiction and romance, the novel encompasses all three. Mascull travels back in time and writes her version of clever women’s lives by paying great attention to detail. We see the prejudice and misogyny that they had to deal with on a daily basis if they dared to leave the home, be different and insist on experiencing and claiming what was then a man’s world.

If you were poor and a woman, you were seen as a different species. I questioned, suppose you had a good idea, how would people hear that? Statues throughout history are rarely to women. My books are like a statue to those people.” Rebecca Mascull, Launch of The Wild Air, Saturday May 6th, Waterstones – Piccadilly.

Thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for the review copy.

You can follow Rebecca on Twitter: @rebeccamascall


At the launch, Rebecca mentioned Rob Millinship who helped with the research and apparently took one and half years to get her to go up in a light aircraft Cessna plane. Read about that here.

And for those of you interested in visiting Shuttleworth where Rebecca spent some of her research time, see here.

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