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This reading group guide forBand of Angelsincludes discussion questions and a Q&A with author Julia Gregson. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Questions for Discussion
1. While on the drove Catherine thinks to herself, “life, for all its brutality, was a journey, an adventure” (page 92). Discuss how this reflects the overall theme of the novel.
2. Catherine has a multitude of men in her life. In what ways do her interactions with men help to shape her journey?
3. Throughout the novel heartache, loss, and disappointment often propel Catherine into action. Talk about those pivotal moments in the book. How do they help Catherine learn about the world?
4. Deio’s mother Meg describes him as “not bred for captivity,” (page 45) and his feelings for Catherine vacillate between his desire for her and his desire for freedom. How does this reflect some of the conflict between Catherine and Deio?
5. Deio seems both attracted to Catherine and repulsed by her while on the drove. What does this reveal about his attraction to her? About his personality?
6. During her interview with Lady Bracebridge, Catherine is irritated by the line of questioning and says to herself: “she wants a band of angels, not nurses” (page 191). How does this particular scene illustrate the class roles of the time period? What were some of the markers of class? How are people treated differently because of their class status?
7. Discuss the variety of women in Catherine’s life. What kinds of reactions does she have to them? How do these women impact the woman Catherine wants to become? How do they help her learn about herself?
8. Describe the experience of “droving.” What are the sights and smells the author provides? How does it begin to prepare Catherine for what’s ahead?
9. In leaving her home, Catherine leaves the comforts she’s accustomed to. While at Scutari her living quarters are often filthy and the food and water rations limited. What other physical discomforts has Catherine had to face? How do her experiences reflect the brutality of war?
10. The hospital is described as “a large and icy pond where soon all the faults and the weaknesses would join up with one almighty crack and drag them all under.” (pages 300–301) The author creates dramatic images of wounded soldiers, poorly stocked and staffed medical wards, and common illnesses and treatments. How do the hospital scenes both further the plot and affect the character’s state of mind?
11. Catherine’s sexual naiveté leaves her in a state of constant confusion. Through her friendships, particularly with Barnsie, Lizzie, and Miss Davis, she comes to some understanding of the nature of romantic relationships and sex. What does this say about the responsibility of women to each other in that particular time? What does the novel say about the role of female friendships?
12. Compare and contrast Deio’s and Dr. Cavendish’s possessiveness over Catherine. Both are intense, yet very different. How does the narrative describe the depth of feeling—both negative and positive—each of them has towards her?
13. “Learning to think for yourself is one of the most important things in life, even if you think wrongly sometimes,” (page 297) says Lizzie to Catherine. The narrator affirms that “freedom was dangerous.” In what ways are the ideas of freedom and independence in constant conflict?
14. Dr. Cavendish is callous and harmful and yet ultimately a necessary component for both Deio and Catherine. How is his character both a negative and positive force in her life?
A Conversation with Julia Gregson
Your last novel, East of Sun, took readers through India. What prompted you to tackle the Crimean War and the world’s introduction to modern nursing?
In 2005, I went on a long-distance horse ride across Wales, along the drover’s routes and the foothills of the Snowdon Mountains. On my way home, I stopped at a place called Pumpsaint in mid-Wales where I saw, outside a tiny church, a plaque commemorating a woman called Jane Evans. She’d run away with the Welsh cattle drovers in 1853 in order to nurse with Florence Nightingale. I was completely intrigued. What bravery! What madness! What kind of woman would do this? At first, I thought I might try and write a biography of her, but could find almost nothing on her. Attempts to find firsthand accounts from other nurses in the Crimean War drew a blank—most of them were illiterate. I decided to write my first novel.
Elizabeth Herbert has a very minor role in the novel, yet the scene with her husband Samuel is poignant because of the way she manipulates his ego to acquire a task. Do you think women still have the task of managing male egos to achieve what they want?
I think many women learn, almost instinctively, to manage and massage the male ego in order to get what they want; but it’s dangerous to generalize about this. My daughter and her friends are far more straightforward in their approach. They have grown up with a greater sense of entitlement, because, generally speaking, they are better educated and more confident than women of say, my mother’s or Catherine Carreg’s generation.
As written in the novel, and in historical records, Florence Nightingale seemed particularly sexless. Do you think that’s attributed to her success? Does her lack of patience for women make her less of a feminist icon?
Florence Nightingale was an aristocratic, beautiful woman, who had love affairs and a marriage proposal before she dedicated herself to nursing. As a reformer, she used her considerable feminine wiles to get what she wanted from the politicians in power; at the same time she was incredibly tough with the nurses. I see no paradox here. Many of these women were rough and undisciplined; they had a poor reputation as slatterns and drunks. This was the first time in English history that nurses had been asked officially to go to war with men. Their behavior had to be seen to be beyond reproach.
The idea of the physical journey, moving from place to place, is a common narrative thread for you. What intrigues you about that element of the coming-of-age tale?
One half of my family has stayed put in the island of Jersey in the Channel Islands: a warm, closely knit, old-fashioned, extended family strongly rooted in one place. The other side of my family are globe spinners. They’ve traveled, endlessly between England, Canada, America, and Australia. They’ve taken weird and wonderful jobs en route, lived apart from their families for years. The contrast interests me. What is lost? What is gained? What is learned by leaving home?
You often contrast the dangers of freedom and the desire for independence with the securities of convention. Catherine seems to struggle with these two concepts. While writing, were you conscious of those elements? Do you think this is still a common conflict for women?
I recognize in myself a split: I like frightening myself, I like feeling free, I also like home and hearth and family. I wasn’t particularly conscious of these conflicting desires while I was writing the book, because they are part of me.
You include detailed descriptions of the drove, horses, the war conditions, and nineteenth-century medical facilities. How long did the research take? Did you get your information from primary sources? From books? The internet?
The research took the best part of a year. One of the best bits was actually riding along the old drovers’ routes on a retired show jumper called Fred who seemed to love it, too. I also went to Turkey and then Scutari, to check out the hospital, now a military barracks. Amazingly, there is still a room in the nurse’s tower that must have been Florence Nightingale’s office. There was a dusty chaise longue still there and her desk. It was almost exactly as I’d imagined it. I also read as many histories and personal letters and accounts of military hospitals as I could. I hardly used the Internet at all.
Were you able to include everything you learned about nineteenth-century medical treatment?
No, sadly! Very tempting because it was riveting and often thrillingly gory to read, but I didn’t want to overload the book with medical details.
The nature of Catherine’s childhood—the lack of parenting from her mother, the rides with Deio—seem to aggravate her desire to take the expected position of wife and mother. Is that the juxtaposition readers are meant to take from the book? Does Catherine’s childhood plant the seed for her journey?
One of the greatest traumas of Catherine’s childhood was that she felt she had let her mother down when she was dying in childbirth because she was too squeamish and too ignorant. This made her long to grow up, to be better educated, less useless. Her other strong impulse was to be Deio’s mate, and these twin desires caused, for years, a split in her.
Like Catherine, you live in Wales. How much of the setting is based on the area you live in?
Wales is a beautiful part of the United Kingdom, very wild in its center with lots of rivers and mountains and wide green tracks where the drovers once rode. I live in an old farmhouse that’s been on this site in one form or another since the fifteenth century. From my window, I can see two huge pine trees, a traditional sign for the drovers that they could bring their animals here. So, yes, I’m hugely influenced by where I live.
Are you working on anything new? Any particular time period?
My new book, Jasmine Nights, is set in the Middle East during the war. I went to Cairo a couple of months ago to do some research.
There are many variations of the Water Horse legend. How did you come to the legend of the Water Horse? And which one did you have in mind?
The Water Horse, sometimes called the kelpie, is a supernatural creature that appears in Celtic folklore and was thought to inhabit the rivers and lochs and seas of Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. In some versions, the Water Horse is a terrifying all-consuming creature that rises out of the sea, which wants nothing more than to drown you. In others he is a more benign presence who will let you ride him and share his powers. In some versions of the legend he is a handsome young man who wants to lure a woman into his trap.
Also, the Scottish version of the legend seems like a metaphor for Deio and Catherine’s relationship. Towards the end of the book they seem to settle in a comfortable acceptance of each other. Have they in essence tamed each other?
In my book, I saw the Water Horse as a creature on which Catherine and Deio could project the wildness, the terror, the longing for mastery of youth. It was only after I’d finished the book that I read that in the Scottish version of the legend the Water Horse rises out of the water seeking a wife. I loved that and would have used it had I known about it earlier!
Was in difficult to plot a romance in the face of war and maintain those elements throughout the writing process?
I was aware that Catherine and Deio’s overwhelming need to see each other again might feel selfish in the face of all the catastrophes that were going on around them. However, the truth, uncomfortable or not, is that war is a great aphrodisiac: it intensifies desire, it makes people understand what really matters to them. I held fast to this idea.
Julia Gregson has worked as a journalist and foreign correspondent in the UK, Australia, and the US. She is the author of East of the Sun, which was a major bestseller in the UK and won the Romantic Novel of the Year Prize and the Le Prince Maurice Prize there, and Monsoon Summer. Her short stories have been published in collections and magazines and read on the radio. She lives in Monmouthshire, Wales.