Fields of Grace is an absorbing novel, epic in its ability to build a compelling story around a leading character, and transport her life through years of adventure, drama and relationships, and arrive at a point on the final day of her life with profound secrets to reveal. Wendy Waters writes with such glorious purpose, she builds a story born from her love of theatre, music and literature, and delivered through her beautifully lyrical writing. She reminds me of the Robert Frost quote, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.” The passion in the story is told with such reverent love for the theatre, which prides itself on being a unique community keeping the outside world at the stage door. That’s not to say this is an obsequious account of theatre life that avows integrity and hugely talented actors, agents and producers. In fact, we are treated to the spectrum of machinations that we would expect from an environment where position feeds ego, popularity, envy and money, and also the creative, passionate and emotional side with an affinity towards colleagues.
In the world of the theatre, where everything has its moment and change is inevitable, as one play and cast gives way to the next, the precarious nature of love and relationships is explored with a wonderful quality of observational insight. The array of characters is used brilliantly to provide the depth and variation that relationships embrace, from deeply emotional to frivolous, from genuine love to fleeting infatuation, and from unrequited love to feu sacré (sacred fire – the fire that burns for one true mate).
Grace Fieldergill (pseudonym Grace Fielding) comes from a farm in Devon, she is a Cimbri – a person who believes in Druid lore and in certain lights she can see lost spirits. With a youthful exuberance of becoming a theatre star, she settles in Wyncote House, London, in Miss Dixon’s boarding home for young women, although the rule is already broken for the ageing Major. Georgina, Penelope, Julie and Grace become family, protective of each other, and supportive in times of need. Grace secures a position in John Gielgud’s theatre company as an understudy to Peggy Ashcroft. Grace’s moment comes when Peggy doesn’t make the show one evening and Grace grasps her understudy opportunity and is recognised for her natural talent by England’s leading agent, John Hopkins-Reimer. So beguiled was John that he offers her the chance to become the most popular and famous female actress around. The relationship between Grace and John is fascinating and speaks about love at so many levels.
With an opportunity for John to showcase Grace in more modern productions of plays, he plans a theatrical tour of France and Germany, being strategic with the World’s attention on Berlin for the 1936 Olympics. Although rumours about Germany’s treatment of Jews were starting to make the press and be discussed in many circles of power and influence. The artistic ambition mixed with personal threat finds a wonderful balance in Wendy’s writing and how the change of pace for Grace and Europe continues to grow in the tumultuous period leading up to the Second World War. The attention on them in Berlin was unfortunately not only for artistic reasons.
The narrative is told with an authentic tone that brings Grace’s world to life with the adventure facing her and the stark changes in Europe. Wendy Waters creates an outstanding story that touches on many levels of drama and intrigue. It is fascinating to meet household acting stars such as John Gielgud, Peggy Ashcroft, Alec Guinness, Laurence Olivier, Noel Coward etc. early in their careers, and an amusing moment where they say goodbye to David Niven as he takes the risk of heading to Hollywood to act in the movies. A decision they all think will backfire and have him back in London seeking work in the theatre again. I would highly recommend this book that crosses many genres including historical fiction, literary fiction, romance, and a touch of magical realism.