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Author Jill Dawson talks about her book based on the Lord Lucan affair

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The disappearance of Lord Lucan after his children’s nanny was discovered murdered has inspired decades of sensational headlines - but the focus of media fascination has firmly been on him.

Jill Dawson, (8156074)
Jill Dawson, (8156074)

Author Jill Dawson found herself drawn to untold story of the victim, Sandra Rivett, and of why Lady Lucan’s account of events on that night in November 1974 was disbelieved by so many.

Lucan’s wife had narrowly escaped with her life after stumbling upon the murder scene and the attacker then tried to strangle her. She always claimed the man who attacked her was her husband, Lord Lucan. In the face of endless speculation and doubt, Lady Lucan never changed her story

Now Jill Dawson has written The Language of Birds, a novel inspired by the case but with the names and some details changed. The book is dedicated to Sandra. Jill will be discussing the novel at Cambridge Literary Festival.

Jill explained why she wanted to look at the case again: “When I began writing the book Veronica Lucan was still alive. She died in 2017 and I suppose I was thinking about her account of things and why that wasn’t believed. It seemed to me very plausible to me - I never felt it didn't ring true and, after her death, a book she had been working on was published. It was the same account she gave in 1974, so she never varied it.”

She began to wonder whether a similar crime happening now would receive the same response. “I think into the light of me too I was asking why wasn’t that believed. Why did people come up with all these theories that it was someone else than him and why was the interest always about him? I felt that she had suffered a great deal because she was attacked as well.”

The Language of Birds (8156076)
The Language of Birds (8156076)

Taking the events of that fateful night as a springboard, Jill decided she wanted to examine the women’s stories further. But rather than writing a non-fiction book about the case she changed the names of the people involved and use it for the inspiration of her new novel, The Language of Birds and it begins in the fens rather than in London.

“It is set here in the fens and tells the story of the two nannies who went down to London

“It is very much about the lives of Mandy and Rosemary, two young women from round here who go and work in London in the 70s. They work for aristocratic families and it is something of a culture shock because they are girls from rural backgrounds and it is the 70s in London, so things are opening up for young women and it is looking at what is possible for girls in that era and what was still difficult. And sadly since one of them comes to a tragic end I think it is really clear what I think was still difficult.”

Having spent time as an au pair herself to a family in London in the 1980s, Jill says she felt an affinity with her character Mandy, who is loosely based on Lucan’s victim Sandra Rivett.

“What would young men want if they went to London like that? Work, love, sex romance, affairs, fun and a career. I'm trying to say that’s all Rosemary and Mandy hoped for as well. It is kind of exploring that and what their lives were like. I really hope it is not a cautionary tale in any way

"I was an au pair as a young woman aged 18 and I went down to London from my village in Yorkshire in the 80s, but it was a bit of a culture shock even then. I was working for quite a bohemian family - I remember they had their supper at 9 o'clock and I was starving. It's those kinds of things are really interesting, and it is quite a common way for a girl to leave home because if you work as a nanny and you look after children it's assumed that girls are good at that, also you get a home, which is why I did it .

My mum lives in Ely now and I don’t want to be rude but at 18 I was chomping at the bit to leave home and begin a life as i thought of it. I have definitely drawn on that feeling. Not least the absolute thrill of it. I lived in London for a long time about 18 years and really loved it lived in east London and hackney quite a rough end and a tough area but I loved the feeling of independence and autonomy and actually this ability you have in a city where everyone doesn’t know you. It is very different if you have grown up in small villages to experience that freedom and that is probably what I loved most.

“Taking an au pair job seemed like a great idea at the time because of the fact that the job involved a flat.”

She is not allowed to disclose who the family were, only that they were ‘poets and dancers’ but she’s at pains to say that her own experience was wonderful and not like that on Mandy or Rosemary.

Meanwhile Lady Morvern is the novel’s equivalent to Lady Lucan. Jill imagines her as a lonely figure who wasn’t expected to work because of her class.

“So when her marriage ended she really had no role and even looking after her children was considered not to be her job,” says Jill.

“So there was nothing for her to do and I think that she quietly suffered and just retreated into a very strange life. The novel ends before you see the rest of her life. But the freedoms available to Mandy and Rosemary, at least the freedom to work, were not open to her. There’s something interesting in the role that work might have in freeing autonomy.”

In the face of endless speculation and doubt, Lady Lucan never changed her story. She became estranged from her children and wider family and died in November 2017, having published her own account of the violence in her marriage and her regrets that the young Sandra Rivett, a 'kind girl' was in the end the victim in this tragic story.

The book doesn’t particularly fall into the genre of crime fiction, explains Jill. “It is more like what happens if you are a nanny and you go and work in a very intimate setting in the home of a family where there is going on because it seems to me that girls are vulnerable in that position.”

The other thing she hopes readers will take from the book is that victims have a story and the most interesting person is not always the murderer.

“I think victims generally are overlooked and the role that women often play in crime dramas is of the corpse. I didn't want that to be the case, this book is about Mandy and Rosemary’s lives, they are very much alive.

Jill Dawson is talking about The Language of Birds on April 7 at 4pm as part of Cambridge Literary Festival. Box office 01223 357851 or cambridgeliteraryfestival.com

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