I’ve talked a lot on social media about the Dior gowns that form a big part of the story in The Paris Secret. But there’s another really important side of the book: a group of female pilots who were some of the bravest women working for the war effort in England during the 1940s.
Imagine being asked to fly an open-cockpit aeroplane (that means there is no cockpit; you’re totally exposed to all the elements) for four hours to Scotland in winter in minus thirty degrees wind-chill. I don’t know that I would survive such a trip. But the pilots in The Paris Secret survived thousands of flights just like that, as well as many other, even more dangerous, activities.
When I was researching my previous book, The French Photographer, I found a brief mention in a book I was reading of the Air Transport Auxiliary. This was a civilian flying organisation set up by the War Ministry in the UK to ferry RAF planes from maintenance units and factories to RAF bases. And as there weren’t enough male pilots – flying was a very new pursuit at the time – some women worked for the Air Transport Auxiliary, or ATA.
Female Aviators Branded Disgusting, Contemptible Show-Offs
I knew immediately that I wanted to write about the women of the ATA because, once again, here was a story of women doing something extraordinary for that time in history – most women didn’t even have a driver’s license during the 1940s – and who fought against stiff opposition from the male establishment to be able to do their job.
This is an extract from a letter written by a man to Aeroplane magazine in late 1939, soon after it was revealed that eight women had been employed to fly planes for the ATA:
“I think the whole affair of engaging women pilots to fly aeroplanes when there are so many men fully qualified to do the work is disgusting! They are contemptible show-offs.”
And another letter:
“The trouble is that women insist on wanting to do jobs which they are quite incapable of doing. The menace is the woman who thinks she ought to be flying a high-speed bomber when she really has not the intelligence to scrub the floor properly.”
Let’s bear in mind that the female pilots selected for the ATA each had more than one thousand hours flying experience. They were more capable of flying planes than many male pilots and, given that they were simply trying to help their country by delivering much-needed plates to a desperate RAF, it’s hard to see how their actions could be called disgusting or contemptible. I’ll leave it to you to imagine what Skye, the main character in The Paris Secret, has to say about those letters.
Risking Their Lives for the War Effort
The fact was: those women were risking their lives for their jobs.
They flew using only a compass to guide them and with the assistance of the old Roman roads, and the railway tracks as their journey-markers. That was all. They had no navigation instruments whatsoever. They had no radio to call in if they lost their way while following a railroad, or if their plane experienced mechanical problems.
Because they needed to remain in sight of the ground in order to know where in England they were at any one time, they were told only to fly if the cloud base was eight hundred feet or higher. But is English weather predictable? No.
So many of these courageous female pilots set out on what appeared to be a fine day. Then the weather changed en-route and they would be stuck in the midst of a thick layer of clouds with no way of knowing where they were. They died crashing into hills they couldn’t see, or they died as they flew on, hoping for the cloud to clear, but eventually running out of fuel and falling into the sea. Sometimes, they were even shot at by the Luftwaffe.
Fighting Prejudice and Danger
Let’s return to those sub-zero flights to Scotland for a minute. When the women landed in Scotland, their bodies were so frozen that they couldn’t get out of the plane. They had to be lifted out by male engineers, which must have been mortifying. Of course, the RAF tried to use that as evidence the women couldn’t do jobs, despite the fact that no one, not even a man, could stand up after enduring such a flight and in such conditions.
The women of the ATA could do their jobs and they did them well. They were incredibly brave and they fought continually against both prejudice and danger to help the Allies win the war. I’m so sad that they’re honoured with a small and insignificant statue in a town where they once ruled the skies.
I hope you enjoy finding out more about Skye and her fellow female aviatrixes in The Paris Secret – and finding out how on earth I connected a collection of Dior gowns to a group of female pilots!
The Paris Secret
A wardrobe of Dior gowns, a secret kept for sixty-five years, and the three women bound forever by war… from the New York Times bestselling author of THE FRENCH PHOTOGRAPHER.
England, 1939 Talented pilot Skye Penrose joins the British war effort where she encounters her estranged sister, Liberty, and childhood soulmate Nicholas Crawford, now engaged to enigmatic Frenchwoman Margaux Jourdan.
Paris, 1947 Designer Christian Dior unveils his extravagant first collection to a world weary of war and grief. He names his debut fragrance, Miss Dior, in tribute to his sister, Catherine, who worked for the French Resistance.
Present day Australian fashion conservator Kat Jourdan discovers a secret wardrobe filled with priceless Dior gowns in her grandmother’s vacant cottage. As she delves into the mystery, Kat begins to doubt everything she thought she knew about her beloved grandmother.
An unspeakable betrayal will entwine all of their fates.
THE PARIS SECRET is an unforgettable story about the lengths people go to protect one another, and a love that, despite everything, lasts a lifetime.
Published by Hachette Australia
Released 31st March 2020
About the Author:
Natasha Lester worked as a marketing executive before returning to university to study creative writing. She completed a Master of Creative Arts as well as her first novel, What Is Left Over, After, which won the T.A.G. Hungerford Award for Fiction. Her second novel, If I Should Lose You, was published in 2012, followed by A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald in 2016, Her Mother’s Secret in 2017 and the Top 10 Australian and international bestsellers The Paris Seamstress in 2018 and The French Photographer in 2019. The Age described Natasha as ‘a remarkable Australian talent’ and her work has been published in numerous anthologies and journals.
In her spare time Natasha loves to teach writing, is a sought after public speaker and can often be found playing dress-ups with her three children. She lives in Perth. For all the latest news from Natasha, visit www.natashalester.com.au, follow her on Twitter @Natasha_Lester, or Instagram (natashalesterauthor), or join the readers who have become Natasha’s friend on Facebook.
*All photos provided by the author*