This reading group guide for The Jewel Box includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Anna Davis. 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. Introduction
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1927: This year, London girls are wearing their hair and dresses shorter than ever, copying the Hollywood flapper look. They want the life that goes with it, too—dancing the Charleston all night, having romances with dashing young men. It’s the dream. A life just a little bit wild.
In her weekly newspaper column, Diamond Sharp gives her readers a taste of that little bit of wild. She dances at the newest clubs, throws back the best martinis, and flirts with London’s most eligible bachelors . . . all in the name of research. What her readers don’t know is that Diamond, the woman with the sharpest bob in town, isn’t all sparkle and shine. Her real name is Grace Rutherford; her real job is that of a lowly advertising copywriter; and her real life is spent supporting two widows, her mother and sister. Questions for Discussion
1. “And at the heart of this ever-changing city, there is a fundamental core of values which remain unchanged, and which must remain so” (page 7). What were the values of this time, and how were they changing? How was this change reflected in London’s society?
2. “The bobbed hair . . . it’s symbolic” (page 40). What does the bob symbolize in The Jewel Box
? How do you think men viewed this hairstyle? Do you think the bob is still a powerful statement today?
3. Did you like the book-within-a-book plot? What is the significance of O’Connell’s title, The Vision
? What do you imagine the cover for this fictional book looked like?
4. Competition is a large theme in this novel. Who are the players, what are they competing for, and does anyone win?
5. Compare and contrast the two men who made these statements: “You’re beautiful girls, and you’re so alive and so different—and each of you is more special, more valuable, for the existence of the other one” (page 49). “You’re like a couple of gems in a jewel box, you two” (page 280). How does the title of this novel pertain to not just one woman but to all women of that time?
6. Do you believe O’Connell when he says: “I like the not knowing. I like life to be unpredictable” (page 91)? Does Grace share that sentiment? Do you think they are similar or complete opposites?
7. Analyze Grace’s dream: “Grace was dreaming about Margaret the typist, her coiled black hair transformed into a snake. John Cramer was in the dream, too, playing a wooden flute, and the hair snake uncoiled and reared up to its hypnotic tune” (page 140). How is this dream meaningful? Where else do dreams appear in The Jewel Box
? Why do you think the author used dreams in such a manner?
8. “You couldn’t actually say what you most wanted in bed, but you could use a form of subtle insinuation to make the man think it was he who’d wanted it and initiated it” (page 151). Do you consider Grace to be a feminist? Why or why not? Are there other characters in The Jewel Box
whom you would describe as feminists?
9. “She didn’t know how to explain why she had suddenly taken to writing frequently to her sister’s husband. It seemed such an odd thing to be doing. And the longer it went on, the less easy it was to speak of, particularly as George was keeping quiet, too” (page 168). What do you think of Grace’s relationship with her brother -in- law? Do you think he is her true love? Or do you think Grace is guilty of only wanting what she cannot have?
10. “They’d both have been fine if it wasn’t for that girl”(page 237). How do you see Eva—as a predator, destroying the lives of everyone who loved her; as a confused, mentally ill woman; as a woman who was simply living, and loving, like a man might do; or some other way?
11. “There are thousands and thousands of women across the country whose voices are simply not heard when it counts most” (page 256). What does Catherine’s history as a suffragette add to The Jewel Box
? What other elements of Catherine’s past are revealed? How do these secrets affect Grace?
12. What do you make of O’Connell’s “message from a toiling scribe to his Muse” (page 306)? Did you think it was respectful or glib? What do you think the future holds for him? Will Diamond/Grace be a character in his next novel? Enhance Your Book Club
Sparkle like a Diamond
: In the style of Diamond Sharp, write a one-page review of your favorite restaurant, bar, or club and share it with your book club members.Wig out
: Have everyone wear a bobbed wig. (Any male members? Have them wear a 1920s-inspired hat.)Cheers!
: Serve cocktails highlighted in the book (gin fizzes, Singapore slings, martinis, and champagne) and make a toast to women—those who fought for our right to vote, to work, and to play!
A Conversation with Anna DavisQ. Your last novel, The Shoe Queen, was also set in the 1920s. Why did you stay with this time period for The Jewel Box?
A. It’s a time period that I loved reading about and researching. I wrote The Shoe Queen
, but I wasn’t done with the twenties. It’s often described as the first “truly modern” decade, and I was very interested in the idea of all that change and how it affects society. London (my home) was the world’s biggest city in those days. It was a vibrant and buzzing place; the world’s nerve center to a great extent. And yet London was and is a city steeped in history and long ingrained in tradition. I enjoyed reading about and thinking about that conflict between old and new values, and how the conflict is played out in individual lives. I also adore the fashion, the art, and the wild stories of the ultimate-party decade. The First World War was firmly behind them, but the Great Depression of the 1930s was just about to appear over the horizon; and beyond that, the Second World War. Those flappers were dancing the Charleston on the edge of the abyss, really. The Roaring Twenties is a decade with many parallels to our own. Q. Why did you have Charles Lindbergh flying in the background of this novel instead of Amelia Earhart?
A. I think the story could have worked very well with Amelia Earhart’s transatlantic flight appearing in place of Lindbergh’s. But Earhart flew across the Atlantic in 1928, and I wanted to set my story in 1927. This may seem like an odd quibble, but in order to have the story working properly with its setting, I had to think very carefully about what was going on in the world I was writing about, and particularly the London I was writing about. I gave considerations to quite a few years in the 1920s and weighed up a number of issues. I wanted this story to take place in summer so I could feature those long balmy evenings and hot romantic summer days that we have in London at that time of year. So, for example, the summer of 1926 wouldn’t have been good for my purposes because there was a General Strike in May that brought London to a standstill for ten days, and I didn’t want this to take over my novel. I also couldn’t use the summer of 1928 because the Equal Franchise Act was passed in May 1928, giving the vote to all women over twenty-one in Britain. If women under thirty had the vote in my novel, all the tension and energy of Grace’s conflict with her mother, and to an extent her conflict within herself, would have just bled away. Q. How did you come up with the scene with the psychic in the library? Have you been to séances before?
A. I’ve never been to a séance, but they were very popular at that time. Quite a few of the key characters in my story are dead, and I liked the idea of Grace and O’Connell going along to an event like this in search of a bit of fun, and actually coming away feeling rather troubled. It’s not so much that either one is haunted by spirits from the “other side” but rather by their own dark memories and past actions. It also gave me the opportunity to give Grace and the reader an early hint about what might have happened to Eva. Q. “Perhaps, Grace realized, somewhat randomly, it was the very fear of finding that she herself was the bright-but plain type that had always driven her to shun that kind of girl and to strive so hard with her appearance, her persona . . .” (page 268). This is an interesting epiphany. Have you met many women who fit this description?
A. I think it fits many women—particularly young women and girls—and I suspect I’m not entirely innocent of it myself. We want to be glamorous and to appear to others to be glamorous. But we have a sneaking suspicion that we’re actually not, and that we’re aboutto be found out. We steer away from people who appear drab because we see ourselves reflected, and we fear exposure by association. Grace is rather insecure behind her Diamond persona, and this is exemplified in her attitude to Margaret. She can’t see beyond the fact that Margaret is a “lowly” typist and wears thick glasses. Margaret appears to Grace as bright but ordinary, and this is how Grace sees herself (shown when she frets about O’Connell finding out her true identity). Ultimately, she comes to know Margaret and to value her, and I’d like to think she may have learned something about herself from this experience. Q. Have you ever written under a pseudonym? If so, what was that experience like for you?
A. Yes, about five years ago, when I had a regular column in a British national newspaper. I was writing the story of a fictional teenager, in weekly installments, told in the first person voice of the teenager. The column was published under the character’s name, Jane Lockett. It was comical, and a lot of fun to write. But I have to confess, I felt frustrated that people didn’t know I was the author behind it. I like to see my real name on books and articles, even though the name itself is not a particularly striking one! Q. Diamond Sharp could be the 1920s version of Carrie Bradshaw. Did shows/novels like Sex and the City spark your imagination to go back in time and find such independent women at a time when their independence was new?
A. I loved Sex and the City
(the TV show, that is. I haven’t read the novel), particularly the friendships between the main characters. I can’t think of many shows/novels in which close female friendships are drawn so sharply. I wasn’t consciously aware of it as an influence on this book, but I guess everything we read and watch and enjoy finds its place in our imaginations. And in my case that includes everything from Sex and the City
to the novels of Edith Wharton and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Q. “People don’t have to stay in one place all their lives, do they?” (page 333). What role does travel play in your life as a writer?
A. At the moment, not much of a role at all. I have two small children and money is tight! We go on holiday once a year, usually to France. And once in a blue moon I grab a much-treasured weekend away with family or friends. One of the good things about living in Europe is that you can get to other countries very quickly. I used to travel more before I had kids, and hope I will again someday. Q. Siblings play an important role in this book. How has your family influenced your fiction?
A. I’ve never written anything that is based directly on my family, but I suppose they’re in there somewhere. I have a brother who’s very important to me. Our parents died young and this brought us siblings closer together. We became a little family unit. But now I’m a mother and wife myself. I suppose, like Grace, I’m not a stranger to responsibility. I had to grow up and be independent of parental support younger than most of my friends. Q. With two of your novels set in the 1920s, you obviously have a love of history. Is there a subject that would inspire you to write a nonfiction book?
A. At this time, I don’t feel inspired to write nonfiction. But I’d like to think it’s something I could move on to if ever the right subject does come along. I think the challenges would be very different. The skills required of a writer of nonfiction are quite different. When it comes down to it, I like making stuff up. Q. Have you written anything contemporarily? If so, how is the experience of writing in a historical era different? Is it more freeing, more limiting, or both?
A. My first three novels were set in the here and now. There’s a kind of exoticism about historical settings. As you do your research, you can feel as though you’re discovering other worlds in which everything is more vivid, more romantic, more dangerous. And yet, so much is the same. People are essentially the same, with many of the same priorities, preoccupations, and problems. In some ways it’s easier to set novels contemporarily. You can have a character get into a taxi without having to check whether it would be horse-drawn or motorized. You can have someone order a cocktail without needing to find out whether it had yet been invented. But you can get things wrong in a contemporary novel just as easily as in a historical one. And both historical and contemporary novels depend on convincing characters, good plotting, and strong writing. There’s more to a novel than its historical setting.