Valentine Joe: telling the story of the short life of a real person
Published on: 21 July 2014 Author: Rebecca Stevens
Author Rebecca Stevens tells us about the difficulties and pressures around writing real life characters and how to do it well and avoid being sued.
Recently, Scarlett Johansson won a defamation case against the French writer Gregoire Delacourt whose latest novel features a character who is a lookalike of the American actress.
This got me thinking.
My book, Valentine Joe, is based around the few facts that are known about the short life of a real person. Valentine Joe Strudwick was one of the youngest soldiers known to have been killed in action in World War I. He was born on Valentine's Day, 1900, in Dorking. He left school at 13 and worked with his uncle in a coal yard. Then, when war broke out in 1914, Joe joined up. After a few weeks' training, he was sent overseas where his two best friends were killed and he was gassed. When he'd recovered after a few months in England, he went back to the Front where, on 14 January 1916, exactly one month before his 16th birthday, he was killed.
So. Did I have the right to use Joe and the events of his tragically short life for the purposes of my book? I don't know.
Joe's story began for me a few years ago when my uncle died and I was given a tatty cardboard folder that had been in his house for decades. It smelled of dust and mildew and contained hundreds of sheets of thin yellowish paper closely covered with writing in the purpley-black ink used in typewriters a hundred years ago. They were letters, written by my grandfather, Fred, to his parents when he was away during World War I.
Like Joe, Fred was one of the many boys who lied about their age in order to join up. He was 16 (the official age was 18, 19 to be sent overseas). Along with his best friend, Fraser, Fred left a comfortable middle-class home in South London to join the Seaforth Highlanders. From their training base in the Highlands of Scotland, Fred sent his funny, cheerful, warm letters, full of news about the food and his fellow recruits, assuring his mother he wasn't going to start smoking or drinking and expressing his excitement at being issued with a kilt as part of his uniform.
My grandfather was lucky. After six months he caught pneumonia (probably from marching around in the snow wearing his beloved kilt). An army doctor realised he was underage and sent him home to London. Fred waited until he was 18 and then joined the newly formed Royal Flying Corps (later the RAF). And he carried on writing those letters home, describing his flying missions, his experiences in France and in Germany after the Armistice as part of the army of occupation.
Lying in bed with Spanish Flu and drinking the hot milk his French landlady brought him even though he hated it, because he didn't want to hurt her feelings...
I'm really glad my grandfather wrote those letters and that someone (I like to think it was his poor, worried mum, but I don't know) typed them out and preserved them so carefully. Not just because they're a great read, but because they were the reason I got interested in the underage soldiers of World War I and found out about Valentine Joe Strudwick.
When I found out about Joe, I knew I wanted to tell his story, but I was worried. Although I managed to contact one of his relatives who gave me her blessing (and I've subsequently met another), it still felt wrong, disrespectful somehow, to put myself in his shoes, imagine his experiences from his point of view. So I decided to tell his story through the eyes of a character who was entirely invented, someone I felt closer to. Rose is a 14 year old girl from the present day, who goes to Ypres with her granddad. She's moved to tears and anger by the sight of Joe's grave and that night, when she goes off for a walk on her own in the rebuilt city of Ypres, the past starts to reassert itself...
I wanted to use the little that's know about the real Valentine Joe Strudwick to show how the past informs the present and how we can all help to make the unbearable bearable for each other during the worst of times.
I also wanted to tell a love story. Because that's important too. And, like Rose, I have always had a soft spot for cheeky, charming, reckless boys like Valentine Joe.
And unlike Scarlett Johansson, he's not around to sue me. But I do like to think that if he was, he wouldn't want to...