Historical fiction set in Germany before the war – clever and atmospheric

The Winter Garden by Jane Thynne is the second in a series set in Germany before WW2. I review the first in the series here. These are historical novels featuring Clara Vine, an English actress whose mother is German and whose father is a Nazi-supporter and minor aristocrat. Clara becomes involved with British Intelligence and finds herself providing information from the Nazi leaders’ wives with whom she spends time.

Historical novels were not in my reading diet for many years and I blame this mostly on Philippa Gregory and her Tudor novels. The author is wildly popular and her novels are highly regarded but I found that they romanticised events that my study of the period meant that I regarded differently. I have since learned that the best historical fiction for me is that which doesn’t have as its main characters real people from the time in which it id set. In Jane Thynne’s books Clara and her contacts at MI5 are imaginary and the Nazi wives are real. The author also provides a handy note at the end of each book about what is historical and what is embroidery. I would emphasise that this is the type of writing which best suits me and that doesn’t mean that everyone has the same limitations – I am glad that I have now found the sort of historical novels that suit me because it has enriched my reading diet.

In this book Clara is making a film which involves some of the regime’s greatest flyers and she becomes privy to the Nazi’s plans for aerial surveillance of Britain in the event of a war. She is suspected by the German authorities of passing information to the British and sees the inside of an interrogation cell which frightens her. Her adopted son becomes avidly interested in the Hitler Youth activities. She visits Munich to try and find an artist friend. She tries to balance her career with her intelligence gathering and to allay the suspicions of the Germans. Then two of the famous Mitford sisters come to Berlin and endanger her position.

Along with Clara’s story is that of her friend, the American journalist, Mary. Mary becomes fascinated with the Nazi Bride Schools where women who are to marry senior SS officers and similar men are trained for the role. One of the prospective brides has been murdered and Mary is trying to find out what happened whilst generating good stories for her newspaper and avoiding being deported (again).

There are lots of different story strands going on with a background atmosphere of rising fear and tension as the Nazis increase their campaigns against Jews and those who don’t agree with them. Clara hates the regime but has a Jewish grandmother, a fact which is not generally known, and feels that she needs to play her part to oppose those who would discriminate, and worse. You feel her fear all the time.

I like how the author introduces us to less well known parts of the Nazi story and descriptions of what it is like to live in Germany at this time. I also like the way that we learn about the Nazi wives and their lives (I have a factual book about these women and their experiences somewhere on my Kindle which I must dig out and read). I thought that the background and atmosphere were excellently portrayed. It all felt historically accurate and certainly wasn’t romanticised. I shall continue to read further in this series.

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