Jane Johnson Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Jane Johnson
Photograph © Charlotte Murphy

Jane Johnson

An interview with Jane Johnson

An essay by Jane Johnson about her discovery of a surprising secret in her own family.

I was forty-four years old before I discovered my mother's long-hidden secret. I needed my birth certificate because I was getting married, not in the UK, but in Morocco, to a Berber man I had met and fallen in love with there while researching my first historical novel, THE TENTH GIFT, and where the local bureaucracy demanded a mountain of paperwork. I had to provide a copy of my passport, my medical records, my police report (thankfully blank), a declaration of my 'celibacy' – to prove I was single and available for marriage – and my birth certificate. I don't think I'd ever seen the latter, and when the certified copy arrived from the General Records Office and I examined it, I thought they had made an error. Not only was the certificate dated 1966, but the surnames of my parents were both listed as 'Johnson'. Whereas, I knew my mother's maiden name was proper Cornish.

Before taking up the error with the authorities, I called my mother: a relative rarity. We had never shared a close relationship and had been estranged for several years earlier in our lives. My mother was what one might call 'a difficult woman'; I probably inherited from her my love of a good argument, my determination and the toughness to stand my own ground.

"Mum," I said, after we'd exchanged the standard pleasantries. "I was just sent a copy of my birth certificate and there are a couple of anomalies on it. I wondered why."

There was a distinctly icy silence at the other end of the line. I repeated my questions. "You'd better come up and see me then," she said.

A couple of weeks later I drove the 250 miles from Cornwall to visit her. We sat in chintz-covered armchairs, regarding one another warily over tea served in chipped porcelain cups, and she told me her story, occasionally tearing up.

She had met my father in the early 1950s when she had returned to Cornwall from her wartime service in the City of London. She was in her late twenties; he was nearing 40. "He was very handsome, in his uniform," she said. He was an officer in the Royal Observer Corps, having transferred into a civil defence unit after being invalided out of the RAF. He had spent much of the war training young pilots (often Polish) to fly fighter jets – Spitfires and Hurricanes. He had a swagger, and a roguish charm and had asked her out repeatedly, she said; had waited for her outside the bank, pulled up on the kerb in his convertible sports car, and "wouldn't take no for an answer".

"So he won you over, then?" I teased. "But I don't understand why it has Johnson down on my birth certificate as your maiden name."

Mum looked away. "I took his name by deed poll," she said quietly. "You couldn't live together in those days without being married." She paused. "Let alone have a baby."

I let this sink in for a moment. "You mean, I was born out of wedlock?" Such a strange, old-fashioned term.

Mum patted her hair, her cheek nervously, took a sip from her now-cold tea. "Yes," she whispered at last. "His divorce hadn't come through." She shot a look at me – guilty, a little cowed.

I was a little shocked – not by the morality of it, for it seemed a perfectly human situation, one any of us might find ourselves in, swept away by emotion and desire; but because my mother had been a moral tyrant to me when I was growing up, constantly on my case – no short skirts, no heels, no make-up, no discos, no boyfriends; constant lectures on proper behaviour. I had lived like a nun till I fled Cornwall for. You react oddly when you're shocked: I burst out laughing, perversely delighted by the moral reversal.

That night, uncomfortable on the lumpy mattress in my mother's tiny box room, I could not sleep for turning the idea over and over in my head. For years in the eyes of society I had been illegitimate, a bastard. Though it seems absurd now, when a small majority of births are outside actual marriage, in 1960 it was a terribly shameful situation for a young woman to find herself in – single and pregnant with a married man's child. In those days, women were frequently forced to give up their babies to adoption, or to seek backstreet abortions (since the Abortion Act did not become law in the UK till 1968). It occurred to me that given her age when I was born, my mother's affair with my father had lasted several years; and that she was 34, and as she would often say to me 'old enough to know better' in terms of contraception. I could not help but wonder if my mother had got pregnant on purpose to secure my father; or if I had been an accident.

In the morning I asked her this question. She gave me one of her gimlet looks and I knew that she wasn't going to answer. "Did you know he was married when you started seeing him?"

"Not at the start."

"And then?"

"He got posted to Northern Ireland: he wrote me from there. A parcel arrived for me, wrapped in layers of brown paper. On the first layer he had written 'Darling, make sure you're on your own when you read this'. On the second, 'Please sit down before reading this.' On the next, 'This is going to come as a shock'. On the final layer he had written, 'I'm so sorry.'" And then came the letter at the heart of the parcel: he confessed that he had married someone else: a shotgun marriage.

This was more dramatic than I'd been expecting. "Then what happened?"

"I went out to Northern Ireland to get him back."

She had unburdened herself to her parents, telling them that she loved my father so much that she could not do without him, and they generously offered to remortgage their house in order to release enough funds to set the couple up in business. Armed with this plan, my mother had travelled to Northern Ireland alone, tracked my father down and made this proposition. And so they had fled back to England together to set up in business running a little general store in a village where no one knew them. And she took his name by deed poll. When his divorce was finally granted, they had married, and registered my birth. Which was why the date on my certificate did not tally with my actual birthday. To the extent that for around 6 years I had not officially existed.

I could not help but feel a certain admiration for my mother's spirit and determination in going to such lengths to get her man; but I also wondered about what had happened to that poor abandoned woman, left pregnant in Northern Ireland. And I wondered about the nature of a love so obsessive that it would ruthlessly trample everything in its path, including my grandparents' financial security. My parents certainly had a stormy relationship: my earliest memories are of their furious arguments and extravagant making up, a turbulent tide of emotion that swept everything else aside, a tide in which as their daughter I had to learn to sink or swim. Was it the war that drove them to such extremes, or simply the dangerous chemistry of their relationship?

My mother passed away just as I started writing THE SEA GATE, and the novel is a kind of tribute to her, and to her generation, who lived through so much.

In the years around the war, there was certainly sufficient social confusion to mask any number of such scandals and anomalies. The war itself generated an apocalyptic, end-of-the-world atmosphere: people took their pleasures where and while they could, because they might imminently die; a sort of wild moral chaos reigned beneath the social surface, and that wildness continued into the post-war years. There were many unwed mothers, babies raised by aunts and grandmothers who pretended to be their mothers; bigamies and unofficial adoptions. I suspect if many of us score the surface of our genealogy deeply enough, family secrets like this would well up through the cut and spill out into the world.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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